I was a thirty-four-year-old woman with no job and nowhere to live. I was a nice person I think, but I was on the heavy side, didn't have good looks going for me, and was in the midst of regretting my entire life.
I'd only been homeless for about three hours. Before that, I'd been the classic, stereotypical, long-time shut-in who wasn't doing anything with her life. And then, all of a sudden, my parents died. Being the shut-in that I was, I obviously didn't attend the funeral, or the family gathering thereafter.
It was quite the scene when they kicked me out of the house over it.
My brash behavior around the house hadn't won anyone over. I was the sort of person who'd bang on the walls and floors to get people's attention without leaving my room.
On the day of the funeral, I was playing dating sims. Right in the middle of confessing to my virtual husband, my brothers and sisters barged into my room in their mourning garb and delivered their letter formally disowning me. When I ignored it, my younger brother smashed my computer—which I valued more than myself—with a wooden bat. Meanwhile, my older brother, the one with a black belt in karate, stormed over in a blind rage and beat the crap out of me.
I just let it happen, sobbing uselessly all the while, hoping that would be the end of it. But my siblings forced me out of the house with nothing but the clothes on my back. I had no choice but to wander around town, nursing the throbbing pain in my side. It felt like I had a broken rib.
The biting words they hurled at me as I left our house would ring in my ears for the rest of my life. The things they said cut me to my very core. I was completely, totally heartbroken.
What the hell had I even done wrong? All I did was skip out on our parents' funeral so I could woo the man of my dreams.
So, what in the world was I supposed to do now?
I knew the answer: look for a part- or full-time job, find myself a place to live, and buy some food. The question was how? I had no idea how to even begin looking for a job.
Well, okay, I knew the basics. The first place I should check out was an employment agency—except I seriously had been a complete shut-in for over ten years, so I had no idea where any of those were. Also, I remembered hearing that those agencies only handled the introductions to job opportunities. You'd then have to take your résumé to the place with the job on offer and sit for an interview.
And here I was, wearing a sweatshirt caked in a mixture of sweat, grime, and my own blood. I was in no state for an interview. No one was going to hire some weirdo who showed up looking like I did. Oh, I'd make an impression, for sure, but I'd never land the job.
Moreover, I didn't know where they even sold résumé paper. At a stationery shop? The convenience store? There were convenience stores within walking distance, but I didn't have any money.
But what if I could take care of all that? With some luck, I could borrow some money from a loan company or something, buy myself some new clothes, and then purchase some résumé paper and something to write with.
Then I remembered: You can't fill out a résumé if you don't have an address or anywhere to live.
I was hosed. I finally realized that, despite having come this far, my life was completely ruined.
It started to rain. "Ugh," I grumbled.
Summer was over, bringing with it the autumn chill. My worn-out, years-old sweatshirt soaked up the cold rain, mercilessly robbing my body of precious heat.
"If only I could go back and do it all over again," I muttered, the words slipping unbidden from my mouth.
I hadn't always been a garbage excuse for a human being. I was born to a well-off family, the fourth of five children, with two older brothers, an older sister, and a younger brother. Back in elementary school, everyone always praised me for being smart for my age. I didn't have a knack for academics, but I was good at video games and had an athletic bent. I got along with folks. I was the heart of my class.
In junior high, I joined the computer club, pored over magazines, and saved up my allowance to build my very own PC. My family, who didn't know the first thing about computers, barely gave it a second thought.
It wasn't until high school—well, the last year of junior high, I suppose—that my life got all messed up. I spent so much time fixated on my computer that I neglected my studies. In hindsight, that was probably what led to everything else.
I didn't think I needed to study in order to have a future. I thought it was pointless. As a result, I wound up going to what was widely considered the worst high school in the prefecture, where the lowest of the delinquents went.
But even then, I figured I'd be fine. I could do anything I set my mind to, after all. I wasn't in the same league as the rest of these idiots.
Or so I thought.
There was an incident from back then that I still remembered. I was in line to buy lunch from the school store when someone cut in front of me. Being the morally upstanding young woman I was, I gave him a piece of my mind, getting all up in his face, striking an awkward, humorless, and self-conscious pose.
But as my luck would have it, this guy wasn't just an upperclassman, but one of the real nasty ones, vying to be the school's top dog. He and his buddies pounded my face swollen and puffy, then hung me from the school gate, buck naked, practically crucified for all to see.
To delinquents like them, gender meant nothing. They were as ruthless with me as they would have been with any boy.
They took a ton of pictures, which they circulated throughout the school like it was some simple prank. My social standing among my classmates plummeted to rock bottom overnight.
I stopped going to school for over a month, holing up in my room instead. My father and older brothers saw the state I was in and told me to keep my chin up and not to give up and other patronizing things like that. I ignored it all.
It wasn't my fault. Who could bring themselves to go to school under circumstances like mine? Nobody, that's who. So, no matter what anyone said, I remained steadfastly holed up. All of the other kids in my class had seen those pictures and were laughing at me.
I was sure of it.
I didn't leave the house, but with my computer and my internet connection, I was still able to kill plenty of time. I developed an interest in all sorts of things thanks to the internet, and I did all sorts of things as well. I constructed plastic model kits, tried my hand at painting figurines, and started my own blog. My mother would give me as much money as I could cajole out of her, almost like she was supporting me in all this.
Despite that, I gave up on all of these hobbies within a year. Anytime I saw someone who was better at something than me, I'd lose all motivation. To an outsider, it probably looked like I was just playing around and having fun. In reality, I was locked inside my shell with nothing else to do during my time alone.
No. In retrospect, that was just another excuse. I probably would have been better off deciding I wanted to be a manga artist and posting a silly little web comic online, or deciding I wanted to be a light novel author and serializing stories, or something like that. There were plenty of people in circumstances like mine who did that sort of thing.
Those were the people I made fun of.
"This stuff is crap," I'd snort derisively upon viewing their creations, acting like it was my place to be a critic when I hadn't done anything myself.
I wanted to go back to school—ideally to grade school, or maybe junior high. Hell, even going back a year or two would be fine. If I had a little more time, I'd be able to do something. I might have half-assed everything I'd ever done, but I could pick up where I'd left off. If I really applied myself, I could be a pro at something, even if I didn't wind up the best at it.
I sighed. Why hadn't I ever bothered to achieve anything before now?
I'd had time. Even if that time was all spent shut in my room in front of the computer, there was plenty I could have done. Again, even if I wasn't the best, I would have accomplished something by being halfway decent and applying myself.
Like manga or writing. Maybe video games or programming. Whichever the case, with the proper effort, I could have gotten results, and from there, I could have made money and—
No. It didn't matter now. I hadn't made the effort. Even if I could go back to the past, I'd only trip up again, stopped in my tracks by some similar obstacle. I hadn't made it through things that normal people managed to breeze through without thinking, and that's why I was where I was now.
Suddenly, amidst the downpour, I heard people arguing. "Hm?" I muttered. Was someone having a fight? That wasn't good. I didn't want to get involved with that sort of thing. Even as I was thinking that, however, my feet kept carrying me in that direction.
"Look, you're the one who—"
"No, you're the one who—"
What I saw when I rounded the corner were three high schoolers in the midst of what was clearly a lovers' quarrel. There were two boys and a girl, dressed in their school uniforms. The scene was almost like a battlefield, with one of the boys, an especially tall fellow, in a verbal spat with the girl. The other boy had interposed himself between the two in an attempt to placate them, but his pleas were completely ignored.
Yeah, I'd been in situations like that myself.
This sight brought back older memories. Back in junior high, I had one childhood friend who was real cute. And when I say cute, I mean like fourth- or fifth-cutest guy in the class. He was on the track team. Of every ten girls he passed by on the street, at least two or three would turn to look back at him. Also, there was this one anime I was super into at the time, so I thought boys on the track team thing was cute.
He lived nearby, so we were in the same class for a lot of grade school and junior high. All the way up to junior high, we often walked home together. We had plenty of chances to talk, but wound up arguing a lot. I did some regrettable things.
Come to think of it, I heard rumors he'd gotten married about seven years ago. And by "rumors," I mean overhearing my siblings talking in the living room.
We certainly didn't have a bad relationship. We'd known each other since we were little, so we were able to talk to each other pretty openly. I don't think he ever had a thing for me, but if I'd studied harder and gotten into the same high school he did, or if I'd joined the track team and gotten admission that way, it might have sent the right signals. Then, if I'd told him how I felt, maybe we might have wound up dating.
Anyway, we'd get into fights on the way home, just like these three kids here. Or, if things went well, we'd hook up and do naughty things in some abandoned classroom after school.
(Shit, this sounds like the plot of some adult dating sim I must've played.)
And then, I noticed something: There was a truck speeding right toward the group of three students. The driver was slumped over, asleep at the wheel.
The kids hadn't noticed yet.
"Ah, h-hey, look...look out!" I shouted—or tried to, anyway. I'd barely spoken aloud in over a decade, and my already-weak vocal cords had further tightened due to the pain in my ribs and the chill of the rain. All I could muster was a pathetic, wavering squeak that was lost in the din of the downpour.
I knew I had to help them; at the same time, I didn't know how. I knew that if I didn't save them, five minutes later I'd wind up regretting it. Like, I was pretty sure seeing three teenagers splattered into paste by a truck moving at terrific speeds was something I'd regret.
Better to save them. I had to do something.
In all likelihood, I'd end up dead on the side of the road, but I figured that, if nothing else, having a bit of solace wouldn't be so bad. I didn't want to spend my final moments mired in regret.
I staggered as I started to run. Ten-plus years of barely moving made my legs slow to respond. For the first time in my life, I wished I'd exercised more. My busted ribs sent a startling jolt of pain through me, threatening to bring me to a halt. For the first time in my life, I also wished I'd gotten more calcium.
Even so, I ran. I was capable of running.
The boy who'd been yelling noticed the truck approaching and drew the girl close to him. The other boy had looked away and hadn't spotted the truck yet. I grabbed him by the collar and yanked him behind me with all my might, then pushed him out of the vehicle's path.
Good. Now that left the other two.
At that very instant, I saw the truck right before me. I'd simply tried to pull the first boy to safety, but instead, I'd bodily switched places with him, putting me in harm's way. But that was unavoidable, and had nothing to do with the fact that I weighed over a hundred kilos; running at full speed, I'd simply stumbled a bit too far.
The instant before the truck made contact, a light blossomed behind me. Was I about to see my life flash before my eyes, like people said? It only lasted a moment, so I couldn't tell. It was all so fast.
Maybe that's what happens when your life is hollow and half-lived.
I was struck by a truck more than fifty times my weight and thrown against a concrete wall.
"Hurgh!" The air was forced from my lungs, which were still spasming for oxygen in the wake of running flat out.
I couldn't speak, but I wasn't dead. My ample fat must have saved me.
Except the truck was still moving. It pinned me against the concrete, crushing me like a tomato.
When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was dazzling light. It grew to encompass my entire field of vision, and I squinted in discomfort.
Once my vision adjusted, I became aware of the blonde young lady gazing at me. She was a beautiful woman, worthy if being a model or actress. But it's weird, I don't think seem to recognize her.
Who is she? I thought.
By her side was a handsome young man of roughly the same age, his hair brown, his awkward smile directed at me. He looked strong and proud, with impressive muscles. His hair must have been dyed that color. It was a very fetching shade of brown.
Brown-haired and stubborn-looking? I ought to have reacted negatively the instant I saw this big oaf, he reminded me too much of those high school bullies—but to my surprise, there was no feeling of ill will.
The woman looked at me with a warm smile and spoke. Her words were oddly indistinct and difficult to make out, however. Was she even speaking Japanese?
The man said something in reply, his face losing some of its tension. I likewise had no idea what he said.
A third unintelligible voice joined the conversation, but I couldn't see who was speaking. I tried getting up to figure out where I was and to ask these people who they were. And let me tell you, I may have been a shut-in, but that didn't mean I didn't know how to talk to people. But somehow, all I could muster was this:
Nothing but garbled whining and moaning.
And I couldn't move my body. I mean, I could sort of move my fingertips and my arms, but I couldn't sit up.
The brown-haired man said something else, then suddenly leaned down and picked me up. This was absurd! I weighed over a hundred kilos. How could he lift me that easily? Maybe I'd lost some weight after being stuck in a coma for a few weeks?
That was a pretty nasty accident I'd been in, after all. There was a good chance I hadn't come out of it with all of my limbs. For the rest of the day, I dwelled on a single thought:
My life is going to be a living hell!
Let's jump ahead a month.
Apparently, I'd been reborn. The reality of my situation had finally set in: I was a baby.
I was finally able to confirm that after being picked up and having my head cradled so I could see my own body. But why did I still have all of my memories of my prior life? Not that I was complaining, exactly, but who would imagine someone being reborn with all their memories—to say nothing of that wild delusion actually being true?
The two people I first saw when I came to must have been my parents. If I had to guess, I'd say they were in their early twenties. Clearly younger than I'd been in my past life, at any rate. My thirty-four-year-old self would have written them off as kids.
I was jealous that they'd gotten to make a baby at that age when I never even found love.
Early on, I'd realized that I wasn't in Japan; the language was different, and my parents didn't sport Japanese facial features. They also wore what appeared to be some form of old-timey clothing. I didn't see anything that resembled home appliances; a woman in a maid outfit came by and cleaned with a rag. The furniture, eating utensils, and the like were all crudely fashioned from wood. Wherever this was, it didn't seem like it was a developed nation.
We didn't even have electric lighting, only candles and oil lamps. Perhaps my parents were so poor that they couldn't afford to pay the electric bill.
But how likely was that, really? Seeing as they had a maid, I figured that they must have money, but maybe the maid was my father's sister, or my mother's. That wouldn't be too odd. She'd at least help out with the housekeeping, right?
I had wished that I could go back and do everything over again, but being born to a family that was too poor to pay for utilities wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind.
If a god really does exist, why would you reincarnate me into this life!?
Another half a year went by.
After six months of listening to my parents conversing, I'd begun to pick up some of the language. My English grades had never been great, but I guess it's true what they say about how sticking solely to your native tongue makes it harder to advance in your studies. Or maybe, given that I had a new body, my brain was better suited to learning this time? I felt like I had an unusual knack for remembering things, perhaps because I was still so young.
Around this time, I started learning to crawl as well. Being able to move was a marvelous thing. I'd never been so grateful to have control of my own body.
"As soon as you take your eyes off her, she slips off somewhere," my mother said.
"Hey, so long as she's good and healthy," my father replied, watching me as I crawled around. "I was worried back when she was born and she never cried."
"She doesn't cry now, either, does she?"
I wasn't exactly the age to whine because I was hungry. The times I let the wailing out were when I tried, and invariably failed, to stop myself from soiling my pants.
Even though I could only crawl, I learned a lot from being able to move around. The first thing I learned was that this was definitely the home of a rich family. The house was a wooden, two-story structure with over five separate rooms, and we had the one maid on staff. At first, I'd assumed she was my aunt or something, but given her deferential attitude toward my mother and father, I doubted she was family.
Our house was located in the countryside. Outside the windows stretched a peaceful, pastoral landscape. There were few other houses, just two or three nestled amidst the wheat fields on any given side. We really were out in the sticks. I couldn't see any telephone poles or streetlights. There might not even be a power station nearby. I'd heard that in some countries they ran power cables underground, but if that were the case here, it was strange that our house didn't have electricity.
This place was way too pastoral. It grated on me, since I was used to the comforts of modern civilization. Here I was, having been reborn, practically dying to get my hands on a computer.
I felt a sort of comfort from my games and novels, they let me escape from my worries and experience a different life. Having gone so long without them would make some old anxieties bubble up every now and again.
Old addictions die hard.
But everything changed early one afternoon.
As the things I could actually do were pretty limited, I decided I'd look at the scenery around me. I clambered onto a chair as I usually did in order to get a peek out through the window, and then my eyes went wide.
My father was in our yard, swinging a sword around. What in the world was he doing? He was old enough to know better than that. Was this the kind of person my dad was? Some sort of fantasy nerd?
Uh-oh. In my daze of astonishment, I started slipping from the chair.
My underdeveloped hands grabbed the chair, but couldn't support my weight—not with how top-heavy my head made me—and I fell.
I hit the floor with a thud and immediately heard a cry of alarm. I saw my mother drop the load of laundry she was carrying, her face going pale as she brought her hand to her mouth.
"Rudi! Are you all right?!" She rushed to my side and picked me up. As she met my gaze, her expression slackened with relief, and she stroked my head. "Aw, you're fine, see?"
Easy there, lady, I thought. Careful with my head. I just whacked that thing.
Given how panicked she'd looked, I must have had a pretty nasty fall. I mean, I did land right on my head. Maybe I was going to be permanently stupid. Not that that would be any change from the usual me.
My head was throbbing. I tried to reach for the chair, but couldn't muster the energy. My mother didn't seem so nervous now, though, so I probably wasn't bleeding or anything. Just a bump or something, in all likelihood.
She peered carefully at my head. The look on her face suggested that, injury or not, she was taking this pretty seriously. Finally, she rested her hand atop my head.
"Just to be on the safe side..." she began. "Let this divine power be as satisfying nourishment, giving one who has lost their strength the strength to rise again—Healing!"
What the heck? Was that this country's version of kissing the boo-boo to make it all better? Or was she another fantasy nerd like my sword-swinging father? Was this a case of the Fighter marrying the Cleric?
But as I thought that, my mother's hand shone with a dim light, and the pain in my head was instantly gone.
"There we go," she said. "All better! You know, Mommy used to be a pretty famous adventurer." Her voice rang with pride and she pulled me into a tight hug.
My mind reeled in confusion, various terms whirling through my mind: sword, fighter, adventurer, healing, incantation, cleric...
Seriously—what just happened?
My father, having heard my mother's earlier scream, poked his head through the window. "What's the matter?" he asked. He was sweating, probably from swinging that sword of his around.
"Honey, you have to be more attentive," my mother chided. "Rudi managed to climb up onto the chair. She could have been seriously hurt."
My father seemed much more composed. "Hey, kids will be kids. She's got a lot of energy, isn't that a good thing."
Typical father, not being too concerned with injuries.
This sort of back-and-forth was pretty common with my parents. But this time, my mother wasn't simply backing down, probably because of how I'd hit my head.
"Honey, she isn't even a year old yet. Would it kill you to show some more concern?"
"It's like I said: falling and stumbling and getting bumps and bruises is how kids grow up to be tough. She's got to be strong enough to scare off any boys who try to sweep her off her feet, not that they could even get close so long as I'm around! " He let out a loud laugh as he brought a fist to his chest. "Besides, if she does get hurt, you can just heal her!"
"I'm just worried that she might get hurt so badly that I can't heal her."
"She'll be fine," my father assured her.
My mother clutched me more tightly, her face going red.
"You were worried early on about how she wouldn't cry. If she's a little scamp like this, then she'll be fine," my father continued, and then he leaned in to give my mother a kiss.
All right, you two. Get a room, will ya?
After that, my parents took me into the other room to put me to bed, then headed upstairs for some personal time. Moments like these really made me envious, depressed even. In my previous life I never found love outside my room, there was nobody who cared about me the way my parents care about one another. I guess there was life outside the internet.
In the wake of all that, I paid extra-close attention to the conversations my parents had with one another and the help. In so doing, I noticed them using a lot of words I wasn't familiar with. Most of these were the names of countries and regions and territories—all clearly proper nouns that I'd never heard before.
I didn't want to jump to conclusions, but by this point, that could only mean one thing: I wasn't on Earth anymore; I was in a different world.
A world of swords and sorcery.
And it occurred to me: if I lived in this world, I could do all those things, too. After all, this was a place of high fantasy, one that didn't obey the same rules of common sense as my past life. I could live as a typical person, doing the typical things for this world. Where I stumbled, I would get back up, dust myself off, and forge onward.
My former self had died full of regret, died feeling frustrated at how she'd never accomplished anything. But now I knew all of my missteps. With all the knowledge and experience from my past life, I could finally do it.
I could finally live life right.
Lilia used to be a royal handmaiden for the Asura Palace harem. In addition to her usual duties as a lady-in-waiting, the role also called for her to act as a guardswoman. She'd been expected to take up arms and come to her master's defense should the need arise. She was devoted to her duties, and carried out her job as handmaiden without flaw or fail.
When it came to her role as a fighter, however, her skill with a sword was merely adequate at best. As a result, Lilia found herself wholly outmatched when an assassin struck at the newborn princess, her opponent's dagger catching her in the leg. The blade had been coated with poison, the sort meant to kill even a member of the royal family, a troublesome toxin that could not be cured by purifying magic.
Thanks to the wound being promptly tended to by Healing magic, and a doctor's attempts at neutralizing the poison, Lilia had managed to survive, but there were lingering aftereffects. They didn't pose an impediment to her daily life, but she could no longer run at any real speed, her gait reduced to a clumsy stagger.
Lilia's life as a warrior had come to an end. The palace promptly discharged her from her position. Lilia understood why perfectly well. It only made sense to lose a job she was no longer able to perform. Although this left her unable to pay even her basic living expenses, given her position in the court, she considered herself lucky not to have been executed in secret. And so, Lilia left the capital.
The mastermind behind the princess's assassination attempt was still to be found. As someone familiar with the palace harem's inner workings, Lilia was well aware that she was a likely target. Or perhaps—had the palace set her free to lure out whoever was behind this plot?
When she'd been brought into the court, she'd been curious why they'd taken on a lowborn woman such as herself. Perhaps they wanted to hire a simple maid who could easily be disposed of.
Whatever the case, for her own safety, Lilia needed to get as far away from the capital as she could. Regardless of whether the palace really was using her as bait, she no longer had any standing orders, no longer had anything holding her back.
She no longer felt any sense of obligation to her old life.
After taking a series of stagecoaches, Lilia arrived at the Fittoa Region, a vast agricultural area on the borders of the kingdom. Apart from the Citadel of Roa, the city where the local lord resided, the region was little more than a grand expanse of wheat fields.
It was here that Lilia decided she'd look for work.
With her leg impaired, a career in fighting was now off the table. She could conceivably still teach swordsmanship, but she preferred to find work as an attendant—mainly because it paid much better. Here on the outskirts of the kingdom, there were plenty of people who could wield a blade and teach others how to do the same. There were far fewer people who were fully trained royal maids, capable of overseeing the running of an entire household. Even if the pay was lower than she hoped, money was still money.
Being hired as a handmaiden by the lord of Fittoa, or even the high-ranking nobles who served him, was a dicey prospect. The people in those circles had a pipeline right back to the capital. If they found out she was a former handmaiden who'd attended the royal harem, she stood a good chance of being caught up in someone else's political machinations. Lilia wanted no part of that. She'd already had one brush with death, and that was enough for her.
No offense to the princess, but Lilia was going to do what she wanted, someplace far away from the war of succession.
The issue was that less-wealthy families couldn't afford to retain her services. Finding a place that was both safe and still paid decently proved rather difficult.
After a month of wandering about Fittoa, Lilia finally came across a job posting that caught her eye. A low-ranking knight in Buena Village was looking for a housekeeper. The posting specified that they were looking for someone with experience in raising children, who could also act as midwife.
Buena Village was a small hamlet on the far edge of the Fittoa Region. It was out in the middle of nowhere, even by middle-of-nowhere standards. The location was inconvenient, but otherwise, it was everything Lilia had been looking for. Her employer being a knight, even a low-ranking one, was another unexpected boon.
It was the employer's name, though, that really got her attention. It was one that Lilia recognized: Paul Greyrat.
Paul was another student of Lilia's former master. One day, back when she had been studying swordsmanship, the lazy, no-good son of a noble family had turned up at the training hall. Evidently, he'd been disowned by his father in the wake of a fight and would be studying the sword while sleeping at the hall.
Paul had also studied swordsmanship at home, so despite having practiced a different style, it wasn't long before his abilities surpassed Lilia's. She was less than amused by that, but in retrospect, she'd never had a knack for it in the first place.
Paul, on the other hand, positively radiated talent. One day, however, he abruptly left the training hall after causing some kind of big stir for reasons unknown to Lilia. He left with one final declaration: "I'm going to become an adventurer."
The man was like a hurricane.
It had been seven years since Lilia had last seen Paul. And not only had he become a knight since then, but now he was also married? Lilia could scarcely believe it. She didn't know what ups and downs he had been through, but if he was still the man she remembered, then he wasn't a bad fellow at all. If he knew she was in trouble, he'd probably help her out.
And if he didn't... well, she'd just have to dredge up some stuff from the past. She had several stories up her sleeve to use as bargaining chips if she needed to. Having done that bit of mercenary calculus in her mind, Lilia headed for Buena Village.
Paul welcomed Lilia with open arms. His wife, Zenith, was due soon, and the couple was quite frazzled. Lilia had the essential technical know-how from seeing to the birth and rearing of the princess; plus, she was a familiar face that one of them could vouch for. The family was happy to have her aboard.
Also, the pay was better than Lilia had been hoping for. To her, it was like a dream come true.
And then the child was born.
The birth itself was problem-free, with everything proceeding as it should according to Lilia's training. Even at the junctures where one could typically expect complications, everything went smoothly.
But once she was born, the child did not cry. Lilia broke into a cold sweat. The infant's face was expressionless, her nose and mouth having expelled amniotic fluid, and she made no sound. For a moment, she looked like she might have been stillborn. But when Lilia reached out, she could feel the baby's warm pulse and the movements of her breathing.
Still, she did not cry. Lilia remembered something she'd heard from one of the handmaidens who'd taught her: Children who didn't cry at birth tended to have a host of abnormalities.
At that very instant, however, her thoughts were interrupted.
The baby turned her face toward Lilia, her expression slack, burbling random sounds. Relief washed over Lilia.
She didn't quite know why, but it seemed like things were going to be okay.
The child was given the name Rudeia, and what an unsettling child she was. She never cried, and never made a fuss. It might just have been that she was physically frail, but that notion was soon proven false. As soon as Rudeia learned to crawl, she began to make her way anywhere and everywhere around the house—the kitchen, the back door, the supply shed, the cleaning closet, the fireplace, and so on. Sometimes, somehow, she even made her way to the second floor. As soon as anyone took their eyes off her, she was gone.
Regardless, she would inevitably be found within the house. For some reason, Rudeia never ventured outside. She'd look out the windows, but perhaps she was still too scared to leave the house.
Lilia wasn't sure when she developed an instinctual fear of the child. Was it around then, with her slipping away whenever unobserved, always needing to be tracked down?
Rudeia was always smiling. Whether she was in the kitchen staring at vegetables, or at the flickering of a candle in its holder, she was always burbling under her breath.
The child had a grin that gave Lilia an unsettling feeling. It was the kind of smile that made it look like Rudeia, a mere infant, was smarter than she appeared.
What happened when Lilia picked Rudeia up was particularly odd. Her face would contort into a grimace, it was almost as if the baby was embarrassed at being carried around.
She would make the same face whenever she needed to be breast fed or have her diaper changed.
She would always have a look of relief on her face when placed back down on the ground.
It was enough to send a chill down Lilia's spine; she almost wanted to hurl the girl to the floor in reflex. The child showed absolutely no signs of being a normal baby. This child was, quite simply, creepy...
And this was an infant. Nothing could be more unsettling.
She could only wonder why this child was so strange. Was she possessed by something malevolent? Had some curse been laid upon her? When she considered those possibilities, Lilia knew she couldn't stand idly by.
She rushed to the store, spending a small sum on what she needed. Then, when the Greyrats were asleep, and without asking Paul for his permission, she performed a traditional charm of banishment from her homeland.
When Lilia picked Rudeia up the next day, she was certain: It hadn't worked. The baby still had the same unsettling aura.
Zenith herself had often said things like, "When that girl's feeding she's often reluctant to latch onto my breast, I hope she isn't sick."
She was completely unperturbed by the whole thing! Even Paul didn't give off vibes like his daughter did.
Lilia had once heard a story in the palace harem. Back when the Asuran prince was still a baby, he'd crawl all around the harem grounds, night after night. It turns out he was possessed by a demon. Not knowing this, one of the attendants picked him up, and he pulled out a knife he'd hidden being his back and killed her by stabbing her in the heart.
It was a frightful story. And Rudeia was just like that. Lilia had no doubts: This was another case of demonic possession. Oh, the girl was calm and placid now, but once the demon within her awoke, she'd make her way through the house while the family was asleep and kill them all one by one.
Lilia had been far, far too hasty. She never should have taken this job. At some point, she knew, she was going to be attacked.
She was, after all, the type to take superstitions quite seriously.
And so, Lilia lived in fear for the first year or so.
At some point, however, Rudeia's ever-unpredictable behavior changed. Instead of disappearing and reappearing at random, she stayed holed up in Paul's study in one corner of the second floor. Well, perhaps "study" was a generous word for a simple room that housed a few books.
Rudeia would shut herself in there and not come out. One day, Lilia took a quick peek and there she was, staring fixedly at a book and muttering to herself. What she was saying didn't sound like words. Not words from the common language on the Central Continent, at least.
Besides, she was too young to be talking already, and certainly nobody had taught her to read. Which meant the girl was just looking at the books—not reading them—while making random sounds.
For it to be anything else would just be weird.
Even so, Rudeia sounded like she was speaking with an actual, meaningful cadence for some reason, and it looked like she understood the content of the book she was looking at. Yikes, that's weird, Lilia thought as she watched secretively through the crack in the door.
And yet, she strangely felt none of her usual revulsion toward her. Ever since the girl had taken to hiding away in the study, her hard-to-define, unsettling oddness had abated a fair bit. Rudeia would occasionally laugh or smile, but it was in a cute baby-like fashion, Lilia didn't get chills whenever she held her anymore.
Why had she been so unsettled by this baby, anyway? In recent days, she'd gotten a sense of earnestness and diligence from her that she was loath to interfere with. Lilia spoke with Zenith about it, and she'd apparently gotten the same impression. From that point on, Lilia figured, it was best to leave the girl be.
It was an odd feeling. Leaving an infant alone wasn't something responsible adults did. But now, intelligence glimmered in Rudeia's eyes, in contrast to mere months ago. And there was the gleam of a resolute will to go with that intellectual brightness.
What should they do? Nothing in Lilia's meager experience had given her the tools to make a good decision. There's no one right way to raise a child, she'd been told. Had that been from one of the older royal handmaidens? Or perhaps her mother? At least there was nothing too off or unsettling about the girl now, nothing to fear.
In the end, Lilia decided to leave her well enough alone. Any interference might cause the girl to revert to the way she'd been before.
It had been roughly two years since I'd been reincarnated.
Recently I have noticed that my legs had developed quite a bit.
It had been a normal morning when I decided that today would be the day. I was going to try walking!
I had been trying in the recent days beforehand and felt my legs had finally grown strong enough.
I waited until I was alone, giving the empty room a quick glance, before balancing myself against a chair. Using all of my might, I released my hold of the chair and focused my attention on holding myself up. I wobbled a little, but remained steady.
I smirked, so far so good.
Very carefully I raised my right foot and lifted it off the floor. Before I could lose my balance and fall, I slammed my foot down in front of me.
I was still standing. My first step, it made me beam with pride at myself. People always go on about how amazing it is when their child takes their first steps. I never understood the excitement before, but right now I think I could relate to their feelings of excitement.
After waiting for so long walking seemed like a miracle!
I readied myself to take a second step when a squeal of excitement caught me off guard, nearly knocking me off balance.
I glanced up to see my mother and grimaced, this is exactly what I was trying to avoid. Call me selfish but I didn't exactly want an audience for this event.
Not like I had the ability to protest.
Before I knew it Zenith had half her body out the window calling to my father.
Within a matter of seconds the front door was wrenched open and heavy boots slamming on the wooden floor sounded as he made his way through the house. Paul burst into the room leaving a muddy trail of footprints behind him. Normally my Zenith would scold him for bringing any dirt into the house, but it seemed neither of them cared at the moment.
They positioned themselves across the room from me, holding out their arms and making those ridiculous cooing sounds that adults often make at babies.
I could feel my cheeks heating up with embarrassment. I hated being the center of attention, and this moment was no exception.
I could put the event on hold for today and try again later when I'm alone. It wouldn't be too hard, I could just let myself fall to the floor and crawl away. But, looking at the faces of my parents I started to feel a bit guilt. Please dont look at me like that!
Paul was beaming with pride, and Zenith looked like she was ready to cry from happiness.
Sighing internally, I smiled. Fine, I'll do this for you two.
Focusing back on the task at hand I puffed out my cheeks in concentration. I lifted my left leg and repeated the same process that I had done before and unsteadily slammed it down in front of me.
I successfully took my second step, then my third and my fourth.
Getting ahead of myself with excitement I rushed a little too quickly to take my fifth step, but lost my balance and stumbled.
But I never hit the floor.
Before I could fall strong hands wrapped around my body and I was swept into my father's arms as he hugged me close, his stubble scratching my face. Zenith came up as well and wrapped her arms around me and Pauls as the two of them showered me with praise.
It felt odd, this warmth, this love. How long had it been since I felt love from my family? Did they ever love me?
No, I've got it all wrong haven't I. My family did love me. I separated myself from my family in my previous life, they tried to give me love but I pushed them away.
Why did I do that? Why did I neglect something like this?
It was nice, maybe I could even get used to my new family and accept their love. I smiled and laughed along with them as we stood there like an actual family.
This day truly was an accomplishment.
But I also had another accomplishment as well, I was finally able to speak this world's language.
Having decided to give my life an honest shot this time, I first needed to make a plan.
What had I lacked in my previous life? Study, exercise, and technique, that's what!
As a baby, however, there wasn't much I could do.
Figuring that exercise was something that could wait, I began learning to read books around the house. The study of language is a crucial thing; almost one hundred percent of Japanese people are literate in their own language, but many of them neglect their study of English or hesitate to interact with people when abroad, so much so that the ability to speak a foreign language is a valued skill. With that in mind, I decided to make this world's writing system my first subject.
There were only five books in our house. I didn't know if that was because books were expensive in this world or because Paul and Zenith weren't big readers. Probably it was some combination of both. As someone who used to own a collection of several thousand books—even if they were all light novels—the situation was tough to come to grips with.
Still, even five books was enough material to learn how to read. The language of this world was close to Japanese, so I was able to pick it up quickly enough. The written characters were completely different, but the grammar was close to what I was familiar with, which thankfully meant I mostly needed to learn vocabulary, a good chunk of which I'd already been exposed to. My father would read to me, which allowed me to readily pick up words. My new self being better at learning things probably had something to do with it, too.
Once I could read, I found the contents of our books pretty interesting. I'd never had fun studying at any point in my life before, but after some thought, I realized it wasn't that different from hunting down new information about online games. And that wasn't so bad.
Anyway, I wondered if my father knew that his infant daughter understood the things she was reading. I mean, I was cool with it and all, but I figured a normal kid my age would throw a temper tantrum or something.
These were the five books in our house:
Wandering the World, a reference guide to the various countries of the world and their unique characteristics.
The Ecology and Weaknesses of Fittoan Monsters, which detailed the various monstrous creatures of the Fittoa Region, where they lived, and how to deal with them.
A Textbook of Magic, a wizard's manual of attack spells, ranging from the Beginner to Advanced levels.
The Legend of Perugius, a fairytale about a summoner named Perugius and his companions, who battle a demon and save the world in a classic good-versus-evil epic.
The Three Swordsmen and the Labyrinth, a tale of action and adventure where three master swordsmen of different styles meet and head into the depths of the titular labyrinth.
Those last two were essentially fantasy novels, but the other three made for good study. It was A Textbook of Magic that particularly drew my attention. As someone who came from a world without magic, the chance to read actual documentation on it was very relevant to my interests. Seeing it for the first time filled me with such excitement. Reading the book taught me some of the fundamentals.
First, magic came in three types: Attack magic, to do battle against others; Healing magic, to treat the wounds of others; and Summoning magic, to call things forth. And that was it. There seemed to be lots of other things you could do with magic, but according to the textbook, magic was something birthed and developed in battle, and therefore not used much outside of combat or hunting.
Second, you needed magical power in order to use magic—meaning, anyone could use magic so long as they had magical power. There were chiefly two ways of doing this: using one's innate magical power or drawing on the magical power imbued in an object. Either would suffice. There weren't specific examples, but I got the impression that people who did the former were like their own power generators, whereas the second type had to use batteries.
In days of yore, the book said, people had largely used the power within their own bodies for magic. But as research on magic progressed, things got more and more complex. Accordingly, expendable sources of magical energy were developed at an explosive rate. People with strong magical reserves had been able to make do, but those who had little power couldn't cast even basic spells, and so the old magical masters developed ways to draw power from things other than themselves and channel that into magic.
Third, there were two ways of performing magic: incantation and magic circles. This didn't need too much explanation: It simply referred to reciting words or inscribing mystic patterns to cast a spell, respectively. In the old days, magic circles were the chief source of magical power, but in modern times, incantations were far more commonplace. In older times, even the shortest magical incantations took one or two minutes—not exactly something you could use in the heat of battle. But once you'd inscribed a magic circle, you could use it over and over again.
Incantations started becoming the norm when one magician succeeded at greatly shortening them. The simplest such incantations were reduced to around five seconds, and consequently became the only way people utilized Attack magic. For the more complex rituals involved in Summoning magic, where greater efficiency wasn't attainable, magic circles remained the primary means.
Fourth, the amount of magical power someone had was pretty much determined at birth. In your typical RPG, you gain more MP as you level up, but things didn't work that way in this world. Almost everyone was stuck where they were.
Almost everyone, which implied that some people changed over time. I wondered which group I'd fall into.
The book also said that one's level of magical power was inherited. I knew my mother was able to use Healing magic, so maybe it was all right to have some expectations for myself. Still, I was uneasy. Even if my parents excelled at this sort of thing, I wasn't sure my own genes would be up to the task.
For the time being, I decided to try my hand at the simplest magic I could. The textbook included both incantations and magic circle spells. Since the former was now mainstream, and I had nothing to draw a magic circle with, I opted to start by studying the incantations. As I understood it, as the scope of a spell got larger, the invocations involved got longer, until you eventually needed to use a magic circle in concert. But if I was starting out with simpler things, I ought to be fine.
The most proficient of wizards, the book said, could cast spells without incanting anything at all—or drastically shorten the incanting time at the very least. I wasn't sure why training allowed people to circumvent the incantation, though. After all, the amount of someone's magical power didn't change; there was no leveling up and no corresponding increase to maximum MP. Maybe with training, the amount of MP spent on the spell decreased? But spending less MP wouldn't make the process less involved, would it?
Well, anyway. Whatever the case, I just needed to give it a shot.
With A Textbook of Magic in my left hand, I held out my right and began to recite the words.
"Let the vast and blessed waters converge where thou wilt and issue forth a single pure stream thereof—
I felt a sensation like blood pooling in my right hand, and then, as if that blood had extruded through my palm, a sphere of water about the size of my fist manifested itself.
"Gah!" I yelped at the strange feeling, and a moment later, the ball of water fell and splattered onto the floor.
I looked down at the puddle of water on the floor, well that's depressing. The old me would have given up right away, but not the new me. Rudi Greyrat wasn't a quitter like my old self!
Puffing up my cheeks with determination I continued.
It looked like concentration was required in order to maintain a spell.
I could feel the blood welling in my hand once more. That's it. There we go. Yeah, this feels right. Once again, I held out my right hand, forming an image in my head as I recalled how things had gone the last time. I wasn't sure how much magical power I had, but I figured that I couldn't just keep using it over and over.
My plan was to practice one thing at a time until I could pull it off. I would form the image in my mind and play it out, over and over, and try to enact it upon reality. If I tripped up, I would call that image back to mind until I had it perfectly emblazoned within my head.
This was the same way I'd practiced combos in fighting games, back in my previous life. Thanks to that, I almost never screwed up a combo during a real match. Hopefully that meant my training methodology would be sound here, too.
I drew a deep breath. My blood coursed through my body, from my toes to the top of my head, collecting in my right hand, filling it with power. Then, I felt that power pop into being before my palm. Now, bit by bit, so very, very carefully, my thoughts fell in line with the beating of my heart.
Waterball, ball of water, water, waaaaaaater..
I buckled down, and set my mind to it: water, water water waterwaterwater—
"Hah!" I cried out in pure reflex as my hand shot out before me, fingers spread.
In that instant, the ball of water came into being.
In my moment of shock, the ball of water plopped to the floor.
"Wait." I hadn't shouted an incantation, had I? But then... why? All I'd done was put myself into the same mental space as the last time I'd tried the spell. Did the incantation not matter much when reproducing the flow of magical power?
Was using magic without chanting really that easy? That had to be a high-level skill, right? "If it's that easy, what's the point of the incantation at all?" I mused aloud. Here I was, a complete beginner, and I'd successfully pulled off a spell without any words at all. I'd simply focused the magical energy of my body in the front of my mind and then willed it to take shape.
That's all it was. Which implied that the incantation wasn't really necessary after all. Anyone could do what I'd just done.
Hmm. Perhaps the incantation was an activation trigger for the spell, where uttering the words would create the effect without having to focus on the energy coursing through your body. That had to be what it was. Sort of like the difference between manual and automatic transmissions in a car, where you could still take manual control if you really wanted to.
"Using an incantation allows magical effects to trigger automatically."
This had some huge advantages. First, it made for easy teaching. Rather than needing a convoluted explanation about feeling the blood coursing through your veins converging and all that, casting a spell by chanting words was both easier to explain and easier to understand. And then, as one's studies progressed, the idea of the incantation being an indispensable part of the process would naturally take root.
The second advantage was that incantations were easy to use. Attack magic, by its very nature, was something that needed to be done in the heat of battle. It was a lot faster to rattle off a chant than it was to close your eyes and stand there humming as you tried to concentrate. Also, in the heat of the moment, it was far easier to blurt something out than it was to go through a series of minute gestures.
"But maybe some people do find the first option easier..."
I flipped through the book, but there was nothing about casting spells without incantation. That was odd. What I'd just done hadn't been all that difficult.
Maybe I had some kind of special talent, but I doubted it was something that others weren't able to tap into at all, I reasoned. A magician typically used incantations from when they were a beginner to when they became a master. After casting thousands or even tens of thousands of spells, the body grew accustomed to the incanting; even if they did try to cast a spell wordlessly, they wouldn't know how. Therefore, it wasn't something that was ordinarily done, and hence the book said nothing of it.
"Yeah, that does make sense!"
After all, I was hardly ordinary myself. That was cool, right?
Oh, now I sure was interested!
Okay, okay. No getting ahead of myself. I needed to calm down and keep my cool. My past self had gotten all caught up in this feeling, too, and we know how she turned out: someone who puffed herself up because she was better with computers than the average person, then got way too cocky and failed hard at life.
I needed to keep a level head. Restrain myself. The important thing here was not to think of myself as being better than other people. I was just a beginner. A n00b. I was like a novice bowler who just happened to land a strike on my first toss through dumb luck. Beginner's luck—that's all it was. I needed to buckle down and focus on studying instead of mistaking this for some sort of innate knack.
All right. I had it: I'd first attempt a spell by chanting the incantation, then practice single-mindedly by mimicking how it felt without using the incantation.
"Okay, let's try this again," I said, smirking as I held my right hand out in front of me. My arm felt vaguely heavy, and my shoulder like I had something big weighing it down. This was exhaustion. Had I been concentrating too hard?
No, that couldn't be right. I was a (self-styled) low-end MMO master who could go without sleep for six days when grinding. No way had this paltry mental exertion drained me that much.
"Am I out of MP, then?" What the heck? If someone's magical power was determined at birth, did that mean I only had enough MP to cast two Waterball spells? That seemed way too low. Or maybe since this was my first time, I just had less magical power to work with? No, that didn't make sense.
I tried once more, just to make sure, and I wound up passing out.
"Honestly, Rudi," my mother said, "when you get tired, you need to go to the toilet first and then get to bed."
I woke to find I'd fallen asleep with the book in hand, and wet myself in the meantime. Dammit. I couldn't believe I'd wet myself at my age. That was humiliating. Dammit. How could I—
Wait. I was only two years old, right? Wetting myself was still forgivable at that age, yeah?
So, it seemed my magical power had been too low after all. That deflated my mood some. Still, even if all I could muster was two Waterballs, what mattered was how I used them, I supposed. Maybe I should concentrate on conjuring them more quickly?
The next day, I still felt fine after conjuring my fourth Waterball. It was after the fifth that I started to feel tired.
"What the hell?"
Given my experience the day before, I knew that casting another would cause me to black out, so I decided to stop.
And then it hit me: That put my limit at six Waterballs—twice what I'd managed yesterday. I stared into the bucket that held five spells' worth of water and wondered why I'd been able to do twice as much as the day before. Had I been more tired because it was my first time? Had the spells consumed more MP because it was my first time casting them?
I'd cast all my spells today without incantations, so I doubted it had anything to do with that. I had no idea. Perhaps my abilities would grow further the next day.
The following day, my Waterball count increased significantly. Now I was up to eleven.
What was the deal? It felt like the more I used the spell, the more I was able to use it. If I was right, I would be able to pull off twenty-one the next day.
The day after that, just to be on the safe side, I only cast five before calling it a day.
The day after that, though, I managed twenty-six. It looked like I was right—using the spell more frequently did allow me to cast it more.
I'd been lied to! What was all that stuff about a person's magical reserves being set at birth? People were just assigning limitations to talent when it didn't have any. How dare adults tell children where their limits were?!
"Guess I can't take what this book says at face value, then," I muttered. The stuff written in the book seemed to take the perspective that there were limits on what a person could achieve.
Or maybe it was talking about how things worked after training one's skills? Perhaps the book was saying that there was an upper limit on magical power that no further amount of effort and training could get you past.
No. It was still too soon to come to that conclusion. For now, that would just be a hypothesis. Maybe it was like... maybe someone's power increased as they grew up, or something. And using magic during childhood might rapidly cause that upper limit to increase. Which meant I alone had a special quality that—no. I'd already said I wouldn't consider myself special.
In my former world, they said that exercising while you were growing let your abilities develop more rapidly; conversely, after you were done growing, improvement only went so far even with intense effort. We might be talking about magic in this world, but the realities of how the human body worked couldn't be that different. The principle was still the same.
Which meant there was only one thing for me to do: continue honing my skills as best I could while I was still growing up.
The next day, I decided that I would continue to push my magic to its limits daily, which increased how much I could use it. As I could recreate the right feeling, casting a spell without an incantation was easy enough. I hoped to master the Beginner spells for each branch of magic before long.
By "Beginner spells," I meant the most basic spells that could be used for offense. This included spells like Waterball and Fireball, as well as other even more entry-level spells.
Spells were broken up into seven levels of difficulty: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Saintly, Kingly, Imperial, and Divine. Typically, magicians with training could use the Advanced spells from the discipline of magic they focused on, but could only use Beginner or Intermediate spells from the other schools. Once someone was able to cast spells of a rank higher than Advanced, they were acknowledged as a Fire Saint or Water Saint or whatever, depending on their chosen branch.
Saintly magic. I kinda hoped to be that good someday. My magic textbook, however, only included fire, water, wind, and earth spells up to the Advanced level. Where was I ever going to learn Saintly magic, then?
No—I shouldn't dwell on that so much, I decided. In an RPG, if you start out by fighting all of the strongest monsters first, odds are it's just going to be frustrating. You need to start with the low-level stuff, like slimes.
Although I personally never managed to complete anything in some games, even when I did start with slimes.
The Beginner-level water spells listed in the tome were as follows:
Waterball: hurls a spherical projectile of water.
Water Shield: causes a spout of water to erupt from the ground, forming a wall.
Water Arrow: launches a bolt of water roughly twenty centimeters long at a target.
Ice Smash: strikes an opponent with a mound of ice.
Ice Blade: creates a sword made out of ice.
These were all Beginner spells, but the amount of magical power they required was very different, taking somewhere roughly between twice and twenty times as much as the basic Waterball spell. For my fundamentals, I stuck to water magic; if I tried fire magic, I might accidentally burn the house down.
Speaking of fire magic, the amount of magical energy you put into a spell affected the temperature of the results, so it stood to reason that Advanced ice spells worked the same way. But despite the fact that the book claimed both Waterball and Water Arrow were supposed to fly through the air, I wasn't able to get them to do that for some reason. I wasn't sure why. Was I getting some part of the spell wrong? I couldn't really tell.
A Textbook of Magic did say something about the size and speed of spells. Maybe, after conjuring my projectile, I needed to imbue it with additional magical energy in order to control its movement?
I decided to give it a try.
"Huh?" I murmured as my sphere of water grew larger. "Whoa!" And then: Splash!
I'd dropped it on the floor again.
After that, I experimented with making the Waterball bigger and smaller. I tried creating two Waterballs at once, then attempted to change their sizes separately.
I discovered a few things, but still didn't manage to make any of my spells fly.
Fire and wind spells remained floating in the air, since they weren't subject to gravity, but they fizzled out and disappeared after a while. I tried using the wind to move the hovering orbs of flame, but I got the impression something wasn't right with that.
Two months later, thanks to a mistake in my studies, I managed to get a Waterball to fly. As a result, it finally became clear why incantations were a key part of the process.
All incantations followed a similar process: spell genesis, size determination, speed determination, and then activation. The caster was the one who regulated those two intermediary steps before completing the spell.
First, the caster called forth the shape of the spell they wished to use. Next, there was a window of time where they could add additional magical power to impact its size. Third, after the size had been determined, there was another window for the caster to adjust the spell's velocity. Finally, the caster released the finished spell from their hand.
That was how it worked...or at least how I understood it, anyway. The trick was to add magical power in two discrete stages after the initial casting. There was an order to it. Unless you did something to adjust the spell's size, you couldn't move on to adjusting its speed. It made sense that if you tried to change the spell's speed first, you'd only make it bigger and nothing more.
In that vein, when using a spell without incanting, the caster had to hold that entire process in their head. That sounded like an inconvenience, but it did shorten the time it took to infuse the spell with the power to affect its shape and speed. This allowed for a spell to be pulled off a few seconds quicker.
I was also able to tweak the process of creating the initial spell. For instance, this wasn't listed in the book, but it was possible to freeze a Waterball and turn it into an Iceball, and that sort of thing.
Lots of things could work; it all just depended on what ideas came to mind. This was starting to get fun!
Still, fundamentals were important. I needed to build up my magical potential before I started experimenting.
So, yeah, now I had two items on my training regimen: increasing my magical reserves and making silent spellcasting second nature. Setting goals that were too grand upfront would only lead to disappointment. The trick was to start small.
Okay then. It was time to buckle down and do it. Every day from that point on, I practiced my Beginner-level spells until I was on the verge of passing out from exhaustion.
I turned three years old.
I'd recently finally learned my parents' names. My father was Paul Greyrat. My mother was Zenith Greyrat. And my name was Rudeia Greyrat, the firstborn daughter of the Greyrat family.
My parents didn't refer to each other by their first names, and they called me "Rudi" for short, so it took some time to learn what all of our actual, formal names were.
"My, Rudi really does love that book, doesn't she?" Zenith said with a smile as I puttered about with A Textbook of Magic in hand, as I usually did.
My parents didn't seem bothered by the way I always lugged the book around. Even when I was eating, I'd keep it tucked under my arm. I did, however, make a point never to read it in front of them-not because I wanted to keep my talents a secret, but simply because I wasn't sure what this world's views on magic were. Back in my old world, for instance, witch hunts had been a thing-you know, where they'd burn suspected magicians alive for heresy.
Of course, considering that my magic textbook was something of a practical guide, magic probably wasn't considered heresy in this world, but that didn't mean people might not still take a dim view of it. Maybe magic was something you only did when you were grown. If nothing else, magicians risked blacking out if they used it too much; people might think it could stunt a child's growth.
With all that in mind, I decided to keep my magical aptitude a secret from my family. As it was, I'd had to practice casting spells out the window, so there was a chance I'd be found out anyway. I didn't have much choice in that, though. Not if I wanted to test how quickly I could launch my spells.
Our maid (whose name was Lilia, apparently) would occasionally give me stern looks, but my parents remained as blasé as ever, so I was pretty sure I was safe. If people tried to stop me, I wouldn't fight it, but I didn't want to squander my childhood while I still had it. I needed to flex my talents now, before they set and became too rigid. Now was the time for me to make the most of things.
Then, one afternoon, my secret magic training came to an end.
My magical reserves had grown a decent amount, so I went through the incantation for an Intermediate-level spell rather casually. The Water Cannon: Size 1, Speed 0. I figured that, as usual, the water would pool into my bucket. Maybe it would flow over, but surely not by too much.
So, I cast the spell...and launched forth an impressive amount of water that blasted a massive hole in the wall. I stood there, dumbstruck, watching as water dripped from the wooden edges of that hole. I was too flummoxed to think of what to do. Given the size of the hole, people would know it had been made by magical means.
There was nothing I could do to change that now.
I always had been quick to give up.
Paul was the first to rush into the room. "What happened?" he cried out. "Whoa!" His jaw dropped at the hole in the wall. "What the hell? Wait-Rudi! Are you okay?"
He quickly knelt down to check my body for any injuries.
Paul was a good guy. It was obvious that I was the one who'd done this, but all he cared about was that I was all right. He went on his guard, carefully checking the surroundings. "Was there a monster?" he muttered under his breath. "No, not around these parts..."
"Oh, goodness," said Zenith as she came into the room. She was always a lot calmer than my dad. She looked first at the shattered wall, then at the pool of water on the floor. "Huh?" Her gaze shot to my magic textbook and fixed on the page it was opened to.
My mother looked back and forth between me and the book, then crouched in front of me. She looked me in the eye, her mouth curled into a warm smile.
The smile didn't reach her eyes, though. It was pretty scary.
I wanted to look away, but I tried as hard as I could to keep my gaze locked with Zenith's. If I'd learned anything from my time as a jobless freeloader, it was that getting petulant and defiant when you'd done something bad only made the situation worse. So I wasn't going to take my eyes off hers, no matter what. Right now, I needed to show sincerity. And the simplest way to do that was to make eye contact-at least you would look sincere, regardless of how you felt.
"Rudi, did you speak some of the words from that book out loud?" Zenith asked.
"I'm sorry," I replied with a tiny nod. A straightforward apology was best when you'd done something wrong. I was the only one who could have done this, so lying about it would only damage my parents' trust in me.
Back in my old life, I told casual lie after casual lie until no one trusted me. I wasn't going to make that mistake again.
"Sorry?" Paul asked. "That was an Intermediate-level sp-"
"Oh, honey, did you hear that?!" Zenith interrupted, practically squeaking. "Oh, I just knew our daughter was a genius!" She balled her hands into tiny fists and hopped around in ecstasy before pulling me into a tight hug as if I were a doll.
Excuse me, can't breathe here!
Well, she sure was in a good mood. I guess that meant the apology was accepted?
Zenith was clearly thrilled by this development, but Paul still appeared at a loss. "Wait, hold on," he said, looking at me. "We haven't even taught you how to read yet or-"
"We'll have to hire a tutor for her right away! Oh, she's going to grow up to be an amazing magician, I just know it!"
Zenith's reaction to my ability to use magic was one of barely contained glee. Evidently, my fears that children mustn't use magic were unfounded.
Meanwhile, Lilia had casually and wordlessly begun to clean up. Either she already knew I could use magic, or she'd had her suspicions. Since this ability didn't appear to be so bad, it seemed she hadn't cared that much. Or maybe she just wanted to see my parents happy.
"Honey, let's head into Roa tomorrow and post a job for a tutor!" Zenith said. "We need to make sure Rudi can hone her talents!"
Zenith was over the moon, rambling on and on about how her daughter was a genius for suddenly demonstrating a knack for magic. I couldn't tell whether she was just being a proud mother or if being able to use an Intermediate-level spell was considered that impressive. It had to be the former, right? She hadn't seen me practicing any of my magic, so her saying that she "just knew" I was a genius meant she'd already decided that for herself, without any basis.
No, that wasn't exactly true. She clearly had some kind of intuition. I did talk to myself a lot. Even when I was reading, I'd mutter words or phrases that I liked aloud. Ever since I came to this world, I'd been subvocalizing things while reading; at first it was all in Japanese, but after picking up the local tongue, I subconsciously started using that instead. When Zenith heard me utter words, she would pipe up to explain what they meant. This was also how I learned a lot of this world's proper nouns, but that's not really relevant here.
Nobody had said anything as I went about teaching myself this world's language. Nobody taught me the words I was reading, either. From my parents' perspective, they were seeing their child read when she hadn't been taught, as well as speaking the contents of books aloud. Of course they'd think I was a genius.
I mean, if it were my kid, that's what I'd think.
That's how it went in my past life, after my younger brother was born. He was faster to grow up-faster in picking things up compared to me or my older brothers, including speaking and walking. My parents were the sort of easygoing folks who'd cheekily say, "Oh, I wonder if he's a genius," even when it was nothing that impressive.
I had to keep in mind that, while I might have been a jobless high-school dropout, I also had the mental age of a person in her mid-thirties. I could do this!
"Honey, we have to get her a home tutor!" Zenith said. "I'm sure we'll be able to find a great magic instructor in Roa!"
Apparently, parents were the same no matter where you were: Anytime a kid shows some inkling of special talent, it's straight to making sure they get the proper, special education for their gifts. In my old life, my parents heaped praise on my younger brother for being such a genius and gave him a whole bunch of stuff to learn.
Paul was less enthusiastic about Zenith's suggestion to find me a home tutor for magic.
"Hold up, now. Didn't you promise that we'd raise our first child to be a knight?"
So, the second child would be a magician, and the first would be a knight? They must have agreed to that before I was born.
"But she can already use Intermediate magic at her age!" Zenith rebutted. "With the right training, she'd be an amazing magician!"
"A promise is a promise, though!"
"Don't you talk to me about promises! You break promises all the time!"
"We're not talking about me right now!"
And so my parents got into a bit of a spat, while Lilia continued calmly going about her duties.
The argument dragged on for a bit, until, as Lilia finished cleaning up, she said with a sigh, "What if she studies magic in the morning and practices swordsmanship in the afternoons?"
That suggestion put the argument to rest, and my silly parents decided on their kid's studies without bothering to take her feelings into account.
Well, no big deal. I did promise to give it my all in this new life, after all.
And so it was decided that a home tutor should be hired for me.
I gathered that the position of personal instructor to a young noble was a well-paying one. Paul was one of the few knights in the area, which made him a fairly low-ranking noble himself, so I wondered whether he could offer competitive pay. We were out in the sticks on the far border of the kingdom, though, and out on the frontier, high-level talent (especially for something like a magician) was in short supply. If we put in a request to something like a Mages' Guild or Adventurers' Guild, would anyone even respond?
My parents also seemed worried by that prospect, but they apparently found someone promptly, because my lessons were going to start the next day.
And since there was no inn in our village, my teacher would be living with us.
My parents were fairly certain that my teacher would be some retired adventurer. Young people wouldn't come all this way to the boonies, and there was no shortage of jobs for royal magicians back in the capital. As I understood it, in this world, only Advanced-level magicians taught the arcane arts. So, whoever we got would at least be an Intermediate- or Advanced-level adventurer, possibly higher.
In my mind's eye, I pictured a middle-aged or elderly fellow with many years of diligent study under his belt, complete with the long beard that was requisite for such wizards.
"I'm Rox. It's a pleasure to meet you."
My expectations were quite off the mark. The person who showed up was a young boy, maybe of junior-high age.
He was clad in brown, wizardly robes, his long blue hair styled into braids, his posture prim and proper. His white skin looked untouched by the sun, and his eyes were somewhat sleepy. His expression didn't exactly radiate sociability, and despite his lack of glasses, he looked like the sort of boy who liked to hole up in a library with his nose in a book.
In one hand, he carried a bag, and in the other, he held a staff befitting a magician. The family came to greet him together, my mother carrying me in her arms.
My parents looked him over, at a total loss for words. No wonder, really. This couldn't have been what they were expecting at all. When hiring someone to be a home tutor, you'd figure you'd get someone a bit further on in years. And instead, here was this little thing.
With all the video games I'd played, the idea of a cute magician wasn't terribly unusual to me.
His girlish appearance. Scornful eyes. Socially awkward. That right there was the trifecta of your standard magician.
"Oh, uh, are-are you the home tutor?" Zenith finally asked.
"Aren't you a little, uh..." Paul managed.
My parents were fumbling with their words, so I decided to be direct and finish my father's sentence.
"Hey, you're sure one to talk," Rox snapped back with puffed out cheeks.
He sure seemed to be touchy about the subject.
Rox let out a sigh. "So, where's this student of mine?" He asked, looking around.
"Oh, that would be our girl right here," Zenith replied, bouncing me slightly in her arms.
I gave Rox a cheeky wave. Guess he wasn't expecting me as much as I wasn't expecting him. His eyes went wide, and he sighed once more.
"Ugh, this happens sometimes," he muttered under his breath. "Kid shows signs of growing up a little fast and the damn parents get it into their heads that she's got a special talent."
Hey! I heard that, Rox!
I mean, I totally agreed with him, but still.
"You say something?" Paul asked.
"Oh, nothing," he replied. "I'm just not sure that your daughter would be able to understand the principles of magic."
"Oh, don't you worry," Zenith said, brimming with motherly pride. "Our little Rudi here is brilliant!"
Yet again, Rox sighed. "All right, then. I suppose I'll just have to do what I can." he sounded like he'd already decided it was futile.
And so, that was the first day of taking classes with Rox in the morning and practicing swordsmanship with Paul in the afternoon.
"Okay, so this magic textbook here... Actually, before we get to that, how about we see how much magic you can use, Rudi?"
Rox had taken me into the yard for our first lesson. I gathered that magic was something typically practiced outside. Heck, I'd already learned firsthand what could happen when you let loose with magic inside the house. People don't want to go around blowing holes in walls or anything.
"First, I'll demonstrate. Let the vast and blessed waters converge where thou wilt and issue forth a single pure stream thereof-Waterball!" As Rox chanted his incantation, an orb of water about the size of a basketball formed in his palm. Then, he hurtled it at high speed at one of the trees in our yard.
The Waterball snapped the tree in half as if it were a mere twig and drenched the fence behind it. That must've been a Size 3, Speed 4, if I had to guess.
"Well?" Rox asked. "What do you think?"
Rox flipped his hair over his shoulder with a smug look on his face.
The little brat was trying to show me up! Kids sure do love being jerks by showing off their skills to those younger than them just as a way to say "see, I'm better than you."
I would know because I used to do the same with my younger brother. I could draw a little well so when he young I would purposely draw something that looked amazing next to his scribbles. I would have the same smug expression that Rox has right now as my brother would gawk at how amazing an artist I was.
Being in this position now makes me realize just how annoying it is.
Children need to be put in their place, it's not kind to treat your juniors like this. Maybe I'll make him panic just a little.
"My mom has always loved that tree and spends a lot of time caring for it, so I think she's gonna be pretty angry."
"Without a doubt."
One time, when Paul was swinging his sword around, he'd accidentally lopped off one of the tree's branches, but Zenith hadn't been very mad about it.
"Oh, that's not good," Rox stammered, rushing over to the tree in the panic. "I have to do something about this."
With a grunt, he hefted the fallen trunk back into place. Then, red in the face and straining with exertion, he began to chant.
"Nngh... Let this divine power be as satisfying nourishment, giving one who has lost their strength the strength to rise again-Healing!"
Slowly and surely, the trunk of the tree worked its way back into its original position. Okay, credit where credit is due: That was pretty amazing. "Whew!" Rox breathed.
"You can use Healing magic, too, Sir?!"
"Hm? Oh, yes. Anything up through Intermediate-level spells."
"Oh, wow! That's amazing!"
"Oh, not at all! With the proper training, anyone could do this." Rox's tone was somewhat curt, but the corners of his mouth softened, and his nose wiggled proudly.
Yeah, he was happy, all right. All it took was laying on some praise. Man, he was easy to please.
"All right, Rudi. You give it a try."
"Okay!" I held out my hand and-
Crap. It had been nearly a year since I'd performed Waterball by using the incantation, and I couldn't remember how it went. Rox had just said it, though. Hmm. Let's see...
"Um, how does it go again?"
"Let the vast and blessed waters converge where thou wilt and issue forth a single pure stream thereof," Rox said matter-of-factly. He apparently figured this was well within my capabilities.
He'd said it so matter-of-factly, though, that I couldn't remember it after hearing it just the once.
"Let the vast and blessed waters..." I began, before failing to recall the rest, so I cut the incantation short. I conjured a ball of water just a little smaller and a just a little slower than Rox had; after all, if I outdid him, he might get all pouty.
Hey, I like to be nice to younger kids.
The basketball-sized Waterball struck its mark with a splash, the tree creaking and cracking as it fell over. Rox fixed his gaze on this sight, his expression stiffening.
"You cut your incantation off, didn't you?" he asked.
"Yeah." Uh-oh. Was I in trouble?
That's right: The magic textbook didn't say anything about casting spells without incantations. I'd done it as if it wasn't a big deal, but maybe this was some cultural taboo? Or maybe he was angry that I'd pulled off something that should have required a lot more training? Hopefully, he'd just admonish me for being sloppy with my chanting or something.
"Do you usually cut your incantations short like that?" he asked.
I wasn't sure how to answer that, and after some wavering, decided to be honest. "I usually, uh...don't use them at all." After all, I was going to be studying under him, so he'd figure it out eventually.
"Not at all?!" Rox's eyes were wide with shock and disbelief as he looked down at me. He quickly regained his composure, however. "Ah, yes, now I get it. That makes sense. Are you feeling tired right now, then?"
"A little, but I'm all right."
"I see. Well, the size and force of your Waterball was just fine."
Finally, Rox cracked a smile-a real one. And then he muttered to himself. "Maybe it is worth training this kid."
Again, I can still hear you.
"Okay, let's move on to the next spell," Rox said excitedly, flipping through the magic book some more.
"Aaaahh!" From behind us, a scream split the air. Zenith had come outside to see how things were doing. She dropped the beverage-laden tray she'd been carrying and brought both hands to her mouth as she looked over at the mangled, toppled tree. Sadness filled her face.
A moment later, that sadness was replaced with livid anger. She stomped over to Rox, getting right in his face. "Mr. Rox, honestly! Could you please not use my trees for experimentation?"
"Hey! Rudi's the one who did it!"
"If Rudi did it, it was because you let her!"
The whites of Rox's eyes grew, his body tensing as if a thunderclap had just gone off. Then he hung his head. Hey, that's what you get for trying to shift the blame onto a three-year-old.
"No, you're absolutely right," he murmured.
"Please see to it that this doesn't happen again, young man!"
"It won't, ma'am. I'm so sorry."
Zenith went over to the tree and restored it to its former beauty with her Healing magic before heading back into the house.
"Well, I sure messed this up pretty quickly," Rox mused.
"Heh. I'm guessing I'll be let go tomorrow." He sat down on the ground, drawing little circles in the dirt.
Wow. He really could not take even the slightest punishment, could he? I stood next to him and patted him on the shoulder, but said nothing.
I wasn't sure what to do after patting him on the shoulder. I hadn't really struck up a conversation with anyone in close to twenty years, so I couldn't find the words to comfort him. I honestly didn't know what the right thing to say in this sort of situation was.
No. I just needed to calm down and think. What would the protagonist of a novel say to comfort someone at a time like this?
Okay. I was pretty sure it would go something like this. "You didn't fail here, Sir."
"You just earned some more experience, that's all."
Rox was taken aback. "Yes, you're...you're right. Thank you."
"Uh-huh. So, could you please continue with our lesson?"
And so, right from day one, I formed a little bond with Rox.
Afternoons were spent practicing swordsmanship with Paul.
We didn't have a wooden practice sword suitable for a toddler of my stature, so our focus was on physical training: running, push-ups, sit-ups, that sort of thing. According to Paul, getting my body used to moving was the first priority. On the days he was too busy to train with me, he told me to keep up with my fundamentals.
Guess dads are like that in every world. I just had to grin and bear it.
A young child doesn't have the stamina to spend an entire afternoon exercising, so we'd finish up around mid-afternoon. That being the case, I decided to spend my time between then and dinner working on spells.
Adjusting the size of a spell increased the amount of magical power needed to fuel it. There was the default amount of power a spell took to cast if you put no conscious effort into it when the incantation finished, and making a spell larger than that consumed an accordingly greater amount of magical power. Sort of like the law of conservation of mass.
Curiously, however, making a spell smaller also consumed more magical power. I wasn't quite sure of the principle at work there, but creating a ball of water the size of a fist took less magical energy than creating one the size of a raindrop. It was weird.
I asked Rox about that, but he just said, "Yeah, that's how it goes."
Apparently, that hadn't been explained yet.
I didn't know the mechanisms by which magic worked, but through practice, getting a handle on the methods wasn't so bad. My magical reserves had grown to the point that I wouldn't burn through them unless I cast large spells. If my goal had been simply to use up my magical power, then I could've just keep unleashing the strongest spells I had until I was drained.
After a while, though, I wanted to move on to actual applications of magic, so I decided to focus on practicing more precise spellcrafting. I wanted to make my effects smaller, narrower in scope, more complex: for instance, creating sculptures out of ice, making my fingertip glow with fire to write on planks of wood, taking dirt from the backyard and separating it into its constituent components, locking and unlocking doors, and so on.
Reshaping something that was already hardy and solid was obviously more difficult. Working to reshape metal, for instance, cost more magical power. Working your magic on something smaller, on something more intricate, or attempting to work with both speed and precision at once expended vastly more power as well. The concentration and effort it took felt like trying to throw a fastball and thread the eye of a needle at the same time.
I also experimented with using spells from different magical branches at the same time. This took more than three times the magical expenditure than using two spells of the same branch did. In other words, trying to be quick and precise with two spells of differing schools simultaneously was a great way to blow through all your magical reserves at once.
My training went on like this, day after day, until I reached a point where I couldn't see the bottom of where my reserves tapped out even after spending more than half the day using magic. I got the sense that I'd built them up to sufficient levels. Especially for a slacker like I used to be, I thought.
But I was quick to caution myself. The body goes soft when one slacks off from their physical training. For all I knew, magic could be the same, and now that I'd built up my reserves, I wanted to keep training to make sure they stayed that way.
One afternoon when I was finished training with Paul I took a little walk around the yard. Sitting underneath a tree was Rox, his hands busy constructing something.
I wandered over to him to see what he was up to.
"Watcha doing?" I asked, my sudden interruption startling the poor blue haired boy.
I laughed and plopped myself down on the grass next to him, shiftiomy eyes to the object in his hands.
Unfortunately, Rox pushed his hands down into his robe in order to hide the object.
"I'm not doing anything" he lied.
I frowned, he truly was a horrible liar. But I wasn't expecting to see Rox this flustered, clearly he was embarrassed about whatever he was doing.
"Come on, just show me, I promise I won't laugh," I pleaded.
And I wouldn't. Laughing at someone over something they've worked hard on would just make me a jerk. I'm sure there were plenty of people in my old life who would have laughed at me over my hobbies. There's no way I would do that to Rox!
Rox nervously glanced at his hands as his cheeks grew pink in embarrassment.
"Promise you won't laugh," he mumbled while avoiding eye contact.
I swore on my life that I wouldn't say anything and gave Rox a big reassuring smile to prove it.
After a bit of persuasion Rox slowly uncupped his hands. There in the centre of his palms was a small crocheted flower.
"I know, things like this aren't very masculine, but-"
"It's so cute!" I cried before Rox could finish his sentence.
I reached forward and touched the soft fabric. The flower was so pretty and it was a beautiful blue colour.
Rox was taken aback by my reaction.
"You really think so?"
"Yeah!" I flashed him a big smile.
To put it lightly, my parents didn't exactly have the best taste in fashion. Although I'm not one to talk since I was the same in my previous life.
But I've always wished I could wear cute things like this, I've just never thought that I was cute enough to wear them. I was always worried that things like this were wasted on me, cute things should be worn by cute girls.
So as a result I wore whatever was comfortable and didn't take care of my appearance.
Rox held the small flower in his hands, lightly brushing his thumbs over it. Maybe it was my imagination but was that a slight smile poking at the corners of his lips?
Without a word he took something else out of the pocket of his robe and began sewing it into the back of the flower.
I watched him curiously and before I knew it Rox lifted his arms up and gripped my head, bringing his face up close to mine.
A blush crepped up on my cheeks with his face so close to mine. He smelled a little sweet he smelled like Rox.
I squeezed my eyes shut, just what was he doing. Don't tell me I m about to lose my first kiss!
But before anything could happen, Rox attached something to the side of my bangs and let go of my head.
I opened my eyes again and moved my hand up to touch my hair. There holding my bangs up was the small crocheted flower, now made into a hair clip.
"I don't have any use for it, so I might as well give it to you," Rox stated before picking up a book and beginning to read.
I smiled as the blush on my checks grew and I stroked the hairclip one more. This was the first time someone other than a family member has given me a gift. And not only that but this present was from Rox.
I leapt forward and gave Rox a big hug.
"Thank you Mr. Rox, I'll cherish it forever!"
Rox didn't say anything back but I could sense a rare smile forming on his face.
I've never thought highly of my appearance, but for the first time in over thirty years I felt a little cute.
Four months later, I was able to cast Intermediate-level spells. At that point, Rox began to give me classroom-style lessons in the evenings.
He was a good teacher. He was fussy about sticking to a particular curriculum, but he'd also ramp up the content of our lessons based on how well I understood things. He was good at intuitively responding to his student. He had a book that acted as a supplement to Textbook, from which he'd ask me questions. If I got one right, we'd move on to the next one, and if I didn't know something, he'd very politely explain it to me.
It might not sound like much, but I could feel my world opening up.
In my old life, our family hired a personal tutor when my older brother was taking his entrance exams. One time, on a whim, I listened in on one of their classes, but it didn't seem like it was anything different from what was taught at school. By comparison, Rox's lessons were much easier to understand and a lot more fun. His teaching style resonated with me, and got quick results.
Of course, it didn't hurt that my teacher was a pretty cute boy. That was kind of an awesome situation.
"Mr. Rox, how come there are only spells for things to be used in combat?" I asked abruptly.
"Oh, well, that's not really the case, actually," Rox replied. "Let's see. What's the best way to explain it? Okay, first off, it's said that magic was originally created by the High Elves."
Whoa, elves?! Aha! So they do exist!
I could picture them, with their blond hair and greenish garb, bows strapped across their backs,the men and women alike sporting beautiful facial features.
Based on the ideographic characters used to write the word for "elf," it seemed they had long ears.
"Mr. Rox, what are elves?" I asked.
"Allow me to explain. Elves are a race of people who currently live in the northern part of the Millis Continent."
According to Rox, long before even the Great Human-Demon War, when the world was engulfed in the unceasing spiral of battle and chaos, the High Elves, in order to fight their enemies, entreated with the spirits of the forests to control the wind and the earth. And thus, the first magic spells were born.
"Wow, so there's an entire history to this and everything?" I asked.
"Of course there is!" Rox huffed, rebuking me with a nod. "Modern magic takes its form from humans mimicking the spells the elves used in battle and reworking them. Humans are good at that sort of thing, after all."
"Why, yes. It's nearly always humans who push for innovation. There are only combat spells because people have mostly only used magic in battle; for anything else, you can use something close at hand instead of relying on magic," Rox explained.
"Something close at hand? What do you mean?"
"Well, for instance, if you need a light source, you can just use a candle or a lantern, right?"
Ah, I got it. So, we were in that kind of setting, where tools and devices were simpler to use than magic. That made enough sense.
Granted, silent casting would be easier still.
"Moreover," Rox continued, "not all magic is used for battle. For instance, Summoning magic lets you call forth powerful fiends or spirits."
"Summoning magic! Do you think you'd be able to teach me that soon?"
"I'm afraid not. I can't use it myself," Rox replied. "But to get back to my earlier point, magical implements also exist."
Magical implements? I was pretty sure I had an idea of what he meant, but that was still a little vague.
"Could you explain those?" I asked.
"Magical implements are devices that have special magical effects. They've got a magic circle inscribed somewhere within them, so even if someone isn't a magician, they can still make use of them. Some of them utilize vast amounts of magical power, though."
Okay, so that was pretty much in line with what I'd been imagining. Still, it was too bad about Rox not being able to use Summoning magic. I understood the principles of Attack magic and Healing magic well enough, but I didn't know how Summoning magic actually worked.
But hey, I'd been introduced to some new terms I hadn't heard before: Great Human-Demon War, fiends, spirits. I understood them well enough on the surface, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to ask more.
"Mr. Rox, what's the difference between a fiend and a monster?"
"Fiends and monsters aren't terribly different from one another."
He explained that monsters were the result of sudden mutations in normal animals. If they were lucky enough to grow in numbers, establish themselves as a new species, and develop intellect over the generations, they became fiends. But apparently, many creatures that possessed intelligence but still attacked humans were referred to as monsters; there were also cases of fiends growing more savage and brutal over the generations, reverting back into monsters.
So, there wasn't a wholly concrete delineation between the two. In general, though, monsters attacked humans and fiends did not.
"So then, demons are just more evolved version of fiends?" I asked.
"No, demons are completely different. The name 'demon' comes from a time long ago when the races of men and demons battled one another."
"Is that the Great Human-Demon War you mentioned earlier?"
"That's right," Rox said. "The first conflict happened around seven thousand years ago."
"Wow, that's so long ago it's almost dizzying to think about." This world evidently had quite a long history.
"Oh, it's not all that long ago. Humans and demons were still at war with one another as recently as four hundred years ago. It started seven thousand years ago, and the two sides have been in conflict off and on ever since."
Four hundred years sounded pretty long ago as is, but seven thousand years of ongoing fighting? Humans and demons must really not get along.
"Ah, okay, I get it," I said. "So then, what are demons?"
"Well, it's a little hard to actually define," Rox said. The simplest way to put it, according to him, was that "demons" included whoever fought on the demons' side in the most recent conflict. But this, too, had its exceptions.
"I'm a demon myself, actually," he said.
"Oh. You-you are?"
I had a demon for a home tutor. Which I supposed meant that there wasn't any conflict going on right now. Giving peace a chance really was the way to go, huh?
"That's right," Rox said. "More formally put, I'm one of the Migurd, from the Biegoya Region of the Demon Continent. You must have noticed your parents' surprise when they first saw me, right, Rudi?"
"I figured that was because you're little."
"I am not little," Rox huffed. That was clearly a sore spot with him.
"They were surprised by the color of my hair."
"Your hair?" I thought it was a very pretty shade of blue, personally.
"They say that, for the demonic races, the closer our hair is to green, the more savage we tend to be. Depending on the lighting, my hair can look pretty green, too."
Green, huh? Was that this world's danger color, then?
Rox's hair was a striking sky-blue color, and he twirled a finger in his bangs as he explained himself. His mannerisms were adorable.
Back in Japan, blue hair was the sort of thing I'd associate with punks. When I saw people like that, I always thought it was unusual-but there was nothing unusual or off-putting about Rox's blue locks. If anything, I thought his slightly sleepy-looking eyes helped complete the picture.
"I think your hair is pretty," I said.
"Oh, thank you very much. But that's the sort of thing you should say to a boy you like after you've grown up."
I didn't miss my opening. "But I like you, Rox!"
I couldn't help it; he seemed so down about himself. I know firsthand what it feels like to dislike your appearance I spent years grimacing at my reflection in my previous life. If I could make Rox feel just a little bit better about himself, then that's what I'm going to do!
"I see. Well, in another ten or fifteen years, if your feelings haven't changed, please feel free to tell me that again."
He'd pretty cleanly rebuffed me, but I still caught the happy look that crossed his face.
His look made me smile back at him, a big beaming smile. We both laughed a little.
"To get back to the subject at hand," Rox said composing himself, "the idea that more brightly colored hair signifies danger is nothing but a superstition."
"Oh. It is?" Now I felt silly for having taken the whole "danger color" thing seriously.
"Yes. During the war four hundred years ago, the Superd, a green-haired demonic race from the Babynos Region, went on a brutal rampage. That's where the association comes from; the color of someone's hair doesn't actually have anything to do with that."
"A brutal rampage, you said?"
"Indeed. After only a decade and change of war, they became feared by friend and foe alike, becoming as violent as they were despised. They were so dangerous that, after the war, persecution drove them almost completely from the Demon Continent."
Their own allies pushed them away after the war? Wow. "People really hate them that much?" I asked.
"What did they do that was so bad?"
"Well, I can only tell you what I've heard. Things like attacking allied demon settlements and slaughtering the women and children, or wiping out all of their foes on the battlefield and then turning to do the same to their allies. When I was a kid, I'd hear stories like that all the time. 'Don't stay up too late, or the Superd will come and eat you!' That sort of thing."
It almost sounded like he was talking about the boogeyman under your bed from my old world.
Rox continued. "The Migurd and Superd peoples are closely related, and I've heard we used to get treated much the same as they were." He paused to make sure she had my attention. "I imagine your parents will probably tell you something like this soon enough, but if you ever see someone with emerald-green hair and what looks like a red jewel set in their forehead, make sure you don't go anywhere near them. And if interacting with one is unavoidable, whatever you do, make sure you don't make them mad."
Emerald-green hair and a red jewel in the forehead? He must have been describing the Superd to me. "What'll happen if I make them mad?"
"You might get your entire family killed."
"You said emerald green, with a red jewel in their forehead, right?"
"That's right. The thing on their forehead is their third eye, which allows them to see the flow of magic."
"It sounds like they stand out and are pretty easy to recognize, at least," I said.
"That's right. If you ever see one, just act casual, like you've got something else to do, and get out of there. If you bolt all of a sudden, you might provoke them."
Spotting some punk and making a run for it just invited the chase, huh? Yeah, I had some experience with that. "So, if I do have to talk to one, just speak very politely and I should be okay?"
"As long as you don't say anything blatantly degrading, then there ought to be no problem; however, there are many differences in what's commonly accepted in human culture versus demon culture, so you might not know what words will trigger an outburst. It's safest to avoid being obliquely sarcastic and that sort of thing."
Hmm. These guys must have some incredible tempers. Rox had said they'd been victims of oppression, but it sounded like these fears had some basis. I mean, if their anger was scary enough to warn other people to stay away from them-yikes.
If I got killed, I doubt I'd be lucky enough to get a third shot at life, so I figured it was best to do everything I could to steer clear. These Superd were really bad news.
Roughly another year went by. My magic lessons were proceeding nicely. I could now use Advanced-level spells from all different branches of magic.
All without using incantations, too, of course.
Compared to ordinary training, Advanced magic was like picking one's nose. By which I mean there were a lot of ranged attacks and they felt pretty awkward to use. Like, what was I going to do with the ability to make it rain over a wide area?
But then I remembered how, after a prolonged drought, Rox had made it rain over the wheat fields, to the great joy of the villagers. I'd been at home at the time, so this was all stuff I'd heard from Paul.
Evidently, Rox had handled multiple requests from the townsfolk and had been solving their problems. I could almost hear it now:
"I was tilling the soil and struck a big rock buried in the ground! Help me, Rox!"
"Just leave it to me!"
"Whoa! What kinda magic is that?"
"I used water magic to dampen the soil around the rock and then used it in concert with earth magic to change it into mud!"
"Wow, that's amazing! The rock is just sinking away!"
I was guessing that was (probably) how it went.
"I knew you were the sort of person who liked helping people, Mr. Rox!" I said.
"It's not exactly that. I'm doing this to earn money on the side."
"You get paid for doing stuff like that?"
My first instinct was to write him off as greedy, but the townspeople seemed to accept his terms. They'd never had anyone who could do that sort of thing for them before, and they deeply appreciated Rox for it. I guessed this was what they called give and take.
I'd been thinking about this the wrong way. The idea of helping someone out of a bind without asking for anything in return was a very Japanese one. It was normal to get compensated for that sort of thing. It just made sense.
Granted, being the shut-in I was in my past life, not only did I not help anyone else out of a bad situation, I was the bad situation for the rest of my family.
One day, out of the blue, I decided to ask Rox, "Would it be better if I called you 'Master' instead of just 'Mr or Sir'?"
Rox scrunched up his face awkwardly.
"No, probably best not to. I'm sure you'll easily surpass me soon enough."
I had enough talent to be better than Rox? It was enough to make me blush.
"After all, it'd be weird to call someone whose powers were inferior to yours 'Master,'" Rox added.
"I don't think it's that weird."
"Well, it'd be weird for me. I'd never outlive the shame of having someone who's clearly better than me referring to me as 'Master.'"
Ah. Was that what this was all about, then? "Are you saying that because you got stronger than your own master, Mr. Rox?"
"Listen, Rudi: A master is someone who says they have nothing else they can teach you, but still butts in with their advice on each and every thing you do."
"You wouldn't do that, though, Mr. Rox."
"Even if you did, I'd be honored." Rox always looked pretty satisfied with himself whenever he advised me on things; I probably had quite the grin on my own face when plying him with compliments.
"Oh, no. If I became that resentful of my own student's talents, there's no telling what I might blurt out."
"Like what sorta things?"
"Stuff like how I'm just a filthy demon, or how you're just some country hick."
Wow, did Rox seriously just say that to me? I felt sort of bad for him. Being discriminated against wasn't great, after all. But I guess that's what you get when there's a hierarchy to your relationship with someone.
"It'll be fine," I said. "Just act like you're better than me!"
"I'm not going to act all haughty and superior just because I'm older! I'm just not comfortable having a master-pupil relationship with such an imbalance of talent!"
He shot me down real quick; it looked like my bond with my master had taken a turn for the worse. In my mind, I decided that I'd still think of him as my master regardless. After all, he was a boy who still had some traces of youth and could properly teach me whatever I couldn't learn by reading.
I was now five. We had a small party to celebrate my birthday.
Birthdays weren't a yearly celebration in these lands. At ages five, ten, and fifteen, it was customary for one's family to give gifts. You were considered an adult at fifteen, so that made a lot of sense.
On that day my parents led me downstairs while blindfolded. When they removed it I was met with the sight of the entire family and a table full of food
Everyone clapped as they congratulated me.
Everything shocked me, in a good way of course!
The thought that they threw me a party warmed my heart, when was the last time I even celebrated my birthday? In my past life I used to demand presents from my parents, mostly anime games or figurines since as a NEET I couldn't afford them myself.
But we never celebrated my birthday, I just took my presents and retreated to my room.
This is what a birthday should be like.
I almost felt like crying from love and happiness as my parents pulled me into a tight embrace. I'm so glad I was born again just to experience this love.
With tears in my eyes, I thanked everyone from the bottom of my heart.
Paul gifted me with a pair of swords for my birthday. One was a real sword, too long and heavy for a five-year-old to wield; the other was a short practice sword. The real sword had been properly tempered and bore a fine edge. It definitely wasn't something suitable for a little kid.
"Rudi, a woman must always carry a sword within her heart. In order to protect yourself from men who want your body..."
My father started a long, rambling stream of advice, and I just smiled and nodded. His spiel had a friendly and energetic air to it, but in the end, even Zenith chided him for going on too long. Admonished, he smiled and wrapped up with, "Just remember to keep it put away when you don't need it."
The man clearly wanted me to have the self-awareness and preparation to be able to carry a sword around.
Zenith gave me a book. "Because you love books so much," she said, as she handed it to me.
It was a botanical encyclopedia.
"Oh, wow," I whispered instinctively.
Books in this world were quite expensive. They had the means to make paper, but didn't yet have printing, so everything had to be handwritten.
The encyclopedia was a thick volume, complete with helpful illustrations and easy-to-understand descriptions. I could only imagine how much it must have cost.
"Thank you, Mother. I wanted something just like this!"
With that, Zenith drew me into a tight hug.
Rox gifted me with a rod. It was a stick, roughly thirty centimeters long, set with a small red stone at the tip.
"I crafted it yesterday," Rox said.
"It completely slipped my mind, since you've been using magic this whole time. A master is supposed to create a rod or wand for a pupil who can use elementary magic. My apologies for forgetting."
I gently took the wand out from the box, scared I might break it.
As much as he didn't like being called "Master," Rox sure seemed reluctant to buck the traditions of the role.
"Thank you, Master," I said. "I'll take good care of it."
Rox grimaced at the title.
The following day, I began actual training in swordsmanship. The focus was on practice swings and fundamental forms.
We had a wooden practice dummy in our yard that I used to practice my forms and my strikes. My father helped me with my footwork, my balance, and the like. It felt really good, getting into the actual meat and potatoes of learning the sword.
Skill with a sword was a crucial thing in this world. Even the heroes who appeared in books mostly wielded swords. Sometimes they used axes or hammers, but they were in a distinct minority. No one used spears, because the despised Superds made use of tridents; it was commonly thought that the spear was a weapon of evil. When a spear appeared in a story, it was usually wielded by the wickedest of villains, the kind who would devour friend and foe alike, who would slaughter indiscriminately.
Given that background, the art of the blade was far more advanced in this world than it was in my old one. A master swordsman could cleave a boulder in a single stroke, or unleash a flash of the blade to strike a distant foe.
Paul had enough skill to accomplish the first one. I wanted to know the principles behind it, so he demonstrated it several times while praising and encouraging me. He probably felt pretty good having his young, advanced-magic-using daughter clapping and cheering for him.
Still, no matter how many times he showed me the trick, I couldn't tell how he did it. So I asked for an explanation.
"Take a step forward, like hngh, and then fwam!"
"No, you dolt! That was a step forward like hmph, and then a wham! I said hngh and then fwam! Stay lighter on your feet!"
And so it went.
This was just conjecture on my part, but it seemed to me that, in this world, magic was woven into the art of swordsmanship. It was visibly different from the flashy magical effects created by spellcraft, and instead worked by improving one's physical prowess and strengthening the metal of the sword itself. How else would it be possible to move at such blinding speeds or slice a huge rock in two?
Paul wasn't using magic consciously. That was why he couldn't explain how he did what he did. It meant that once I was able to reproduce what he did, I'd be able to use magic to give myself a physical boost.
I had to stick with it.
In this world, there were three primary schools of swordsmanship.
First was Sword God Style. This style maintained that the best defense was a good offense and focused on high-speed moves with the goal of striking one's opponent first—ideally finishing the fight with a single blow. If the opponent was still standing, the practitioner would continue to strike and feint back until they were victorious.
Second was Water God Style, the polar opposite of Sword God: It was a defensive form, focused on warding off strikes and then countering. Its core tenet was one of nonaggressive defense, which didn't allow the practitioner many openings for attack, but a true master would be able to unleash a counterstrike to any attack coming their way—and I do mean any attack, including projectiles and magical attacks. Given its focus on protection, this was the sword style of choice for royal guards and nobles.
Last was North God Style. This was less a sword form than a general battle strategy. It didn't focus on specific moves, but allowed the user to adapt to different situations on the fly. According to Paul, this approach involved a lot of cheap tricks and clever ploys, but mastering the style yielded truly fantastical results. The sense I got was of a sword-wielding version of Jackie Chan. Because this style taught one to treat injuries and allowed for fighting even with imperfect posture, it was the favored school for mercenaries and adventurers.
Together, these were known as the Three Great Styles, and each had adherents the world over. It was said that a swordsman who wanted to push their skill to the ultimate limit would knock on the door of each school and continue training until they were dead—though few people actually did this. The "quick" way to attain martial strength was to pick one of these styles to train in until proficient.
In reality, while Paul chiefly practiced Sword God Style, there was a smattering of Water God and North God elements included as well. It seemed that most people didn't head out into the world deciding to exclusively adhere to one style or another.
As with magic, swordsmanship was broken into the following levels of skill: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Saintly, Kingly, Imperial, and Divine. The "God" part of each style's name came from the epithets given to the founders of its school; the first swordsman of the Water God School, for example, was able to use Divine-level water spells. Having a Divine rank in both sword expertise and magical competence made for an obscenely powerful warrior.
Also, it was typical when referring to swordsmen to address them as "Water God" or "Water Saint" or whatever their level of proficiency was. For magicians, it was tradition to add "level" to that descriptor. Rox, for example, was a "Water Saint-level Magician."
Paul decided that I would learn both the Sword God Style and Water God Style: the former to get a good handle on offense and the latter for defense.
"But Father," I asked, "based on what you've told me, it sounds like North God Style is the most balanced of the three."
"Don't be ridiculous. It's not even a style—it's just using a sword to fight with, really."
"Oh, I see." North God Style was clearly the odd one out of the Three Great Styles. Either that, or Paul just wasn't fond of it personally. Though he was rather good at the style for someone who didn't like it.
"You've got a knack for magic, Rudi, but it doesn't hurt to learn the sword as well. You want to be a magician who can fend off an attack from someone who can use Sword God Style."
"So, you're saying I'd be, like, a mage knight?"
"Hm? No, a mage knight is a swordsman who can also use magic. You're the opposite of that."
I wasn't sure what the difference was, really. Whether you started as a warrior who picked up magic or as a magician who did it the other way 'round, a mage knight still knew how to use both, right? At any rate, if I worked on my swordsmanship, I could adapt it to my use of magic.
The issue was that Paul couldn't teach me how to magically boost my physical prowess because he wasn't consciously aware of how he did it. I either needed to acquire the ability myself or attain it via the right physical training. I needed to figure out the principle at work.
For a moment, Paul was lost in thought, an uneasy expression on his face. "You don't like swordsmanship, do you?" he finally asked.
Was he saying that just because I had an aptitude for magic? He must have been worried that I didn't want to train in the sword. Don't get me wrong: I had no problem practicing how to use a sword. I just preferred time alone with Rox studying magic over getting dirty and sweaty in the yard.
I was an indoors sort of person.
But hey, personal preferences couldn't get in the way of things. I'd decided to put my best effort into my second shot at life, and that meant trying my best at magic and the sword alike.
"No," I said, "I want to be as good at swordsmanship as I am at magic."
Paul flushed with pride and nodded happily as he brought his wooden practice sword to bear. "All right, then. Let's get to it. Come at me!"
He was a simple man.
Swords and sorcery. I wasn't sure which I'd ultimately come to rely on. Honestly, I'd be cool with it either way. But it was also my duty to establish a good bond with my parents while I was young.
"All right, Father!" I called out.
In my past life, I'd been a burden to my parents till the day they died. If I'd been nicer to them, maybe my siblings wouldn't have kicked me out of the house.
I needed to be better to my parents this time around.
While I was taking my first steps in sword training, my magical studies were taking on a more technical and practical bent.
"What would happen if you cast Waterfall, Heat Island, and Icicle Field in that order?" Rox asked.
"You'd create mist."
"Correct. And how would you go about clearing up that mist?"
"Umm...cast Heat Island again and heat up the ground?"
"Exactly. Now, please demonstrate, if you would."
By using spells from different schools in succession, it was possible to create other phenomena. This was known as Combined Magic. A Textbook of Magic included a spell for making rain, but had nothing about creating mist. Therefore, magicians had to use spells from multiple schools in sequence. This allowed for the reproduction of various natural phenomena.
This was a world without microscopes. They probably hadn't discovered all of the principles that governed the natural world. Combined Magic contained all the creative genius of the great wizards of old.
Well, I didn't need to bother with that kind of nonsense. If I wanted to create a cloud, I'd just use a spell that made rain fall and cast it as close to the ground as possible. The idea of intentionally creating a natural phenomenon was simple enough to understand. With a little outside-the-box thinking, you could do all sorts of things.
For me, personally, that was a bit easier said than done.
"Magic can do anything, right?" I asked Rox.
"It can't do anything," Rox admonished. "You mustn't rely on it too much. Just keep a cool, level head and hone your abilities to do what you're able, and what you should."
Despite his words, my head was filled with images of unimaginable fantasy things.
"Moreover, if you go around proclaiming how you can do anything, you're going to get hit with something you can't."
"Are you speaking from experience, Mr. Rox?"
"I am, yes."
Well, this was a lesson I needed to take to heart, then. I didn't want problems I couldn't deal with getting dropped in my lap.
"Do magicians get hit with a lot of problems in their line of work?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. There aren't that many users of Advanced magic around, after all."
They said that maybe only one in twenty people could learn to fight. And to find a magician among them had the same twenty-to-one odds. So, four-hundred-to-one odds of finding a capable magician, then.
Magicians themselves weren't particularly rare, though.
"Only one in a hundred magicians are able to properly learn the art and graduate from magic school, becoming Advanced-level magicians," Rox said.
That meant that Advanced-level magicians were a one-in-forty-thousand deal. If we included Beginner and Intermediate spells in the mix, the number of things Combined Magic could do increased dramatically—which in turn made it so popular. To be a magic tutor around these parts, one needed to be at the Advanced level or higher. Steep requirements, but they yielded powerful results.
"So, there are magic schools?" I asked.
"Yes. There are magic schools all over the place in the major kingdoms."
I'd assumed as much, but still—magic school? Huh. Should I give that a try? Move on to my school arc?
"Though the largest," Rox continued, "is the Ranoa University of Magic."
Whoa, they even had universities for that sort of thing?
"Is this university different from the other magic schools?" I asked.
"They have excellent facilities and a faculty to match. You'd have access to more modern and advanced courses there than at other schools, I'd imagine."
"Did you go to the University of Magic, too, Mr. Rox?"
"I did. Magic schools have very strict rules and regulations, so the University of Magic was the only school I could get into."
It sounded like these other Ranoan magic schools would allow a child of noble birth like myself to attend, but could deny entry on the basis of someone not being human. Discrimination against demons was lessening in modern days, but strong prejudices still lingered.
"The Ranoa University of Magic doesn't lean on any strange regulations or misplaced pride. As long as you adhere to proper theory, they won't kick you out for being on the eccentric side, and they accept students of all different races. The different races even carry out individual research on their own particular kind of spellcraft. If you're interested in taking your magical education further, Rudi, I can highly recommend the University of Magic."
Way to talk up his own alma mater. I was getting ahead of myself anyway. If I enrolled in university at age five, I'd probably get the crap bullied out of me.
"I think it's a little early to make that sort of decision," I murmured.
"Indeed. You could also go along with Sir Paul's hopes that you become a swordsman or a knight. And there are people who've attained the title of knight who have also attended the University of Magic. Don't think your choice is an exclusive one between swords or sorcery. You could always become a mage knight or something, after all."
Well then. It sounded like Rox felt the opposite of Paul and worried that I didn't like magic enough. Lately, my magical reserves had been increasing, and I'd come to understand much of the theory behind the art. As a result, I was frequently restless and distracted during our classes. And besides, I'd been forced to take classes at age three. He probably figured I'd grown sick of it over the last two years.
Paul saw in me a talent for magic; Rox saw in me a passion for the sword. With these differing ideas, they were pointing me toward a middle path.
"We're talking about stuff well into the future, right?" I said.
"For you, Rudi, yes." Rox flashed a forlorn smile. "Pretty soon, however, I'll run out of things I can teach you. Your graduation is coming up very soon, so this sort of conversation isn't too premature."
I had not left home since I'd come to this world. After a point, that became intentional on my part.
I was afraid.
When I stepped into the yard and looked at the world beyond, memories came flooding back to me: memories of that day. The ache in my side. The chill of the rain. Regret. Despair. The pain of being hit by that truck.
It was as vivid as if it had been yesterday. My legs trembled.
I was able to look out the window. I was able to step into our yard. But I could not bring myself to go farther. And I knew why.
This serene pastoral landscape that stretched out before me could turn into hell in an instant. As peaceful as the scenery looked, it would never accept me.
In my past life, while sitting around the house, frustrated and fed up, I'd fantasize about Japan suddenly getting caught up in a war. And then some hot guy showing up one day needing my help to save the world. I knew that if that happened, I'd rise to the challenge.
That fantasy was my escape from reality. I'd dreamt it so many times. In those dreams, I wasn't larger than life or anything—just a normal girl. Just a normal girl, doing normal things, living a normal life for herself.
But then, I'd wake up from that dream. I feared that if I took one step away from my home now, I'd wake up from this dream, too. I'd wake up, and find myself right back in that moment of crushing despair, battered by the waves of my many regrets.
No. This was no dream. It felt far too real. Maybe if you'd told me it was a VRMMORPG, but—no. This is reality, I told myself. I knew it was. Reality, and not a dream.
And yet, I still couldn't bring myself to take that one step away from home.
No matter how I tried to reassure myself, no matter how much I promised myself aloud, my body would not obey.
I wanted to cry.
The graduation ceremony was to take place outside the village, Rox informed me.
I protested meekly. "Outside?"
"Yes, just outside the village. I've already got the horse prepared."
"Can't we do it inside the house?"
"No, we can't."
"We can't, huh?" I was at a loss.
Intellectually, I knew that someday I'd need to venture into the world beyond. My body refused to comply, though. It still remembered too much from before.
It remembered my old life. Getting beaten up by punks. Being laughed at uproariously. Experiencing tremendous heartbreak. Having no choice but to become a shut-in.
"Why, what's the matter?" Rox asked.
"Um, well, it's just... there might be monsters or something out there."
"Oh, we certainly won't run into any of them around these parts, long as we don't get too close to the forests. Even if we do, they'll be weak enough that I can take care of them. Heck, you could probably handle them yourself."
Rox frowned dubiously at all my hemming and hawing about not wanting to leave.
"Ah, that's right, I remember hearing that... You've never left home, have you, Rudi?"
"Is it because you're afraid of the horse?"
"N-no, I'm...not that scared of horses." I actually really liked horses.
"Hehe. Ah, so that's all it is," Rox said. "Sometimes I guess you do act your own age."
He totally had the wrong idea, but I couldn't tell him I was afraid of leaving the house. That'd be even more humiliating than saying I was afraid of horses. And I still had my sense of pride—my minuscule, out-of-touch-with-reality sense of pride.
Really, all I wanted was to not have a guy as amazing as him make fun of me.
I still didn't move. "Guess I don't have any other choice, then," Rox said.
With that, he picked me up and slung me right over his shoulder.
"Bwuh?!" I balked.
"Once you get on the horse, your fears will all go away, I promise."
I didn't struggle. Part of me was conflicted about what was happening, but another part of me felt like I should just accept being bodily whisked away.
Rox hoisted me atop the horse and clambered up behind me. He took the reins, tugged at them, and the horse cantered off, leaving the house behind.
This was the first time I'd gone farther than my own yard. Rox slowly guided us through the village. From time to time, villagers would shoot sharp, unabashed stares in my direction.
Oh, please, no, I thought. Those looks were as scary as ever—especially that glint of sneering superiority I knew too well. Surely they wouldn't come up and address me with a snide, condescending tone...right? They didn't even know me. How could they? The only people who knew me in this entire world were the ones in that tiny little house.
So why were they looking at me? Quit staring at me, I grumbled inwardly. Get back to work.
But—no. It wasn't me they were staring at.
It was Rox.
And some of the townsfolk, I noticed, were bowing to him. And then it hit me: Rox had made a name for himself in the village, even with the sizeable prejudice against demons in this kingdom. And we were out in the countryside, so those attitudes were even more pronounced. In the span of two years, Rox had become someone that people here were willing to bow to.
With that realization, I sensed the trustworthy presence Rox had become. He knew the way, and clearly knew the people we were passing by. If anyone did try saying something to me, I was sure he'd step in.
Man, how does such a young looking boy become someone of such high esteem? The tension ebbed from my body at that thought.
"Caravaggio's in a good mood," Rox said. "He seems happy to have you riding him, Rudi."
Caravaggio was the horse's name. I had no idea how to read a horse's mood, though.
"Oh, okay," I said vaguely, resting against Rox, his soft chest pressing against the back of my head. It felt nice. Muscles are nice and all too, but they aren't soft like Rox.
Just what had I been so afraid of? Why would anyone in this quiet village want to mock me for anything?
Rox's voice broke me out of my head space. "Are you still afraid?"
I shook my head. The looks from the villagers no longer frightened me at all. "No, I'm okay."
"See? What did I tell you?"
I looked up to stare at Rox's face, his smile dissolving all of my worries. Being with Rox made me feel so comfortable and safe, easing my anxieties.
Now that I'd found some composure, I could fully take in of my surroundings. Fields spread out as far as I could see, with houses dotted here and there. It definitely had the feel of a farming village.
Much farther in the distance were quite a few more houses. If they'd been more closely packed together, I'd think it was a town. All it needed was a windmill for it to look like Switzerland or something.
Actually, didn't they have water mills, too?
Now that I'd relaxed, I noticed how quiet things were. Things were never this quiet when Rox and I were together. But then, we'd never really been alone like this together, either. The silence wasn't bad, really; it was just a tad awkward.
So, I decided to break it. "Rox, what do they harvest from these fields?"
"It's mostly Asuran wheat, which is used to make bread. Probably some Vatirus flowers and some vegetables as well. In the capital, Vatirus flowers are processed into perfume. The rest is the sort of stuff you're used to seeing on your table at meals."
"Oh, yeah, I see some peppers! You can't eat those, can you, Rox?"
"It's not that I can't eat them, I'm just not terribly fond of them."
I continued asking questions like that. Today, Rox said, would be my final exam—which would mean the end of his role as my tutor. And knowing how impatient Rox could be, he might leave my home as early as tomorrow. If that was the case, today was our last chance to spend time together. I figured I should talk to him while I still could.
The thought of Rox leaving made my heart ache, I didn't want him to go. I've come to greatly enjoy his company, I may have even formed a slight crush on him, not like I would ever admit to it.
Sadly, I couldn't find the right topic of conversation, so I ended up just asking more questions about my village.
According to Rox, we lived in Buena Village, which was located in the Fittoa Region, in the northeastern part of the Asura Kingdom. At present, there were over thirty households here, working the farmland. My father, Paul, was a knight who had been deployed to the village. His job was to watch over the townsfolk to ensure they were carrying out their work properly, adjudicate any disputes, and protect the village from monster attacks. In short, he was basically a publicly sanctioned bodyguard.
That being said, the young men in the village also took turns guarding it, so Paul spent most of his afternoons at home after he made his morning rounds. Ours was a pretty peaceful village, leaving him with little work to do.
As Rox filled me in on these details, the wheat fields grew scant. I stopped asking him questions, and the silence resumed for a while. The rest of our journey would take roughly another hour.
Soon, the fields of wheat were completely gone, leaving us to travel through empty grassland.
We continued our way across the plains, bound for the flat horizon.
No—faintly, in the distance, I could see mountains. If nothing else, this was something you couldn't see in Japan. It reminded me of a picture of the Mongolian steppes in a geography textbook or something.
"Right here should do nicely," Rox said, bringing the horse to a stop next to a solitary tree. He dismounted and tied the reins to the tree.
Then, he picked me up and helped me down, putting us face to face.
"I'm going to cast the Water Saint-level attack spell Cumulonimbus," he said. "It creates thunder, and causes torrential rain to come down in a large area."
"Please follow what I do and attempt to cast the spell yourself."
I was going to be using Water Saint-level magic. Now I got it: This was my final examination. Rox was going to use the most powerful spell he had in his repertoire, and if I was able to use it as well, that would mean he'd taught me all he could.
"For demonstration purposes, I'm going to dismiss the spell after a minute. If you can keep the rain falling for...at least one hour, let's say, I'll consider that a pass."
"Did we come out here where there aren't any people because this involves secret teachings?" I asked.
"No, we came here because the spell might hurt people or cause damage to the crops."
Wow. Rain so powerful it could damage crops? This sounded incredible.
"Now then." Rox raised both his hands skyward. "Oh, spirits of the magnificent waters, I beseech the Prince of Thunder! Grant me my wish, bless me with thy savagery, and reveal to this insignificant servant a glimpse of thy power! Let fear strike the heart of man as thy divine hammer strikes its anvil and cover the land with water! Come, oh rain, and wash everything away in thy flood of destruction—Cumulonimbus!"
He chanted steadily, slowly, and purposefully. It took him just over a minute to complete his incantation.
A moment later, our surroundings grew dark. For several seconds, there was nothing—then, a pelting rain began to fall. A terrific wind roared, accompanied by black clouds that flickered with lightning. Amidst the pouring sheets of rain, the sky began to rumble, and purple light shot through the clouds. With each new flash, the lightning increased in power. It was almost as if the light itself was taking on a palpable weight, growing with a swell and ready to come right—
The lightning struck the tree next to us. My eardrums rang, and my vision went painfully white.
Rox let out a yelp of alarm at the near miss. A mere moment later, the clouds scattered, the rain and thunder promptly letting up. "Oh, no," Rox muttered as he rushed over to the tree, his face pale.
When my vision returned, I saw that the horse had collapsed, smoke rising from its body. Rox set his hands on the horse's body and quickly began to chant. "Oh, goddess of motherly affection, close up this one's wounds and restore the vigor to his body—X-Healing!"
Rox's chant had been flustered, but before long, the horse came to. It couldn't have been that close to death, then: An Intermediate-level Healing spell like that couldn't restore the dead to life.
The horse looked alarmed, and sweat had beaded on Rox's forehead. "Whew! That was a close one!"
Yeah, I'd say it was a close one, all right. That was my family's only horse! Paul dutifully tended to it every day and would occasionally take it out on long rides, a bright smile on his face. It didn't have a particularly strong pedigree or anything, but Paul and that horse had been through a lot over the years. It wasn't a stretch to say that, after Zenith, Paul loved that horse more than anything. That's how important it was.
Of course, having spent the last two years living with us, Rox was well aware of that, too. I'd seen him more than once with his face entranced as he spied on Paul and the horse, only to then shrink away.
"Could we, ah, could we please keep this a secret?" Rox said, tears in his eyes.
He was a klutz. Near misses and scrapes like this were a common occurrence with him. Still, he gave things his all. I knew he stayed up late every night to plan lessons for me, and I knew that he tried his hardest to put on an air of dignity so people wouldn't write him off for his age.
I liked that about him.
"You don't need to worry," I said. "I won't tell my father."
His lip quivered. "Please don't."
Despite being on the edge of tears, Rox quickly shook his head, slapped his own cheeks, and regained his composure. "All right, Rudi. Go ahead and give it a try. I'll be sure to keep Caravaggio safe."
The horse still looked frightened, ready to bolt at any moment, but Rox stepped in front of him, blocking his path with his tiny body. He certainly couldn't physically overpower a horse, but bit by bit, the nervous creature grew more docile. Rox held his position and muttered an incantation under his breath.
Both of them were engulfed by a wall of earth, which proceeded to grow into an earthen dome not unlike an igloo. This was the Advanced-level earth spell Earth Fortress. That ought to suffice to keep them safe from the thunderstorm.
All right. It was my time to do this. I was gonna be so amazing that it'd blow Rox's mind.
How did the incantation go again? Ah, yes. "Oh, spirits of the magnificent waters, I beseech the Prince of Thunder! Grant me my wish, bless me with thy savagery, and reveal to this insignificant servant a glimpse of thy power! Let fear strike the heart of man as thy divine hammer strikes its anvil and cover the land with water! Come, oh rain, and wash everything away in thy flood of destruction—Cumulonimbus!"
I got the words out in a single breath, and the clouds began to billow and swell.
Now I understood the nature of the Cumulonimbus spell: In addition to conjuring clouds overhead, you simultaneously had to handle a complex series of motions to turn them into thunderclouds—or something to that effect. You had to continually funnel magic into the spell or the clouds would stop moving and dissipate. Leaving the magic aside, it was going to suck having to stand here with both hands raised for over an hour.
Wait, no. Hold on. Magicians were creative. They wouldn't need to hold a pose like this for an hour to pull things off. I had to remember: This was a test. I wasn't supposed to stand still for an hour; after creating the clouds, I needed to use some form of Combined Magic to keep the spell maintained.
This was the moment of truth. I needed to call upon all I'd learned. "Okay, I think I remember seeing this on TV once. So, when clouds are still in the process of forming..."
Some of the clouds Rox had created earlier still lingered. If I remembered right, I could conjure a horizontal whirlwind of air and warm the air beneath it to create an updraft. And then, if I cooled the air above the updraft, it would pick up speed and...
In doing all that, I wound up burning through half my magical reserves. I'd done what I could, though. Now I just had to see if it would last an hour. Satisfied, I headed back to the dome Rox had created, rain pouring down on me as thunder rumbled in the skies above.
Rox sat against one side of the dome, the horse's reins clutched in his hands.
Upon seeing me, he gave a little nod. "This dome will disappear in about an hour," he said, "so we'll be fine, assuming it doesn't go away before then."
"Don't worry. Caravaggio will be fine."
"Well, if everything's 'okay' then get back out there. You need to control those thunderclouds for an hour, remember."
Huh? "Control them?"
"Hmm? Well, yes. What's so strange about that?" Rox asked.
"Just... I need to control them?"
"Of course. This is a Water Saint-level magic spell, and if you don't keep your spell fueled with magic, your clouds are going to dissipate."
"But I already took steps to make sure they wouldn't," I said.
"Huh? Oh!" Rox began rushing out of the dome as if he'd suddenly realized something. At this, the dome began to crumble.
Hey now, remember to control your magic or you'll bury the horse alive.
"Whoops!" Rox hurriedly regained control of his spell, then stepped outside. He looked into the sky, astonished.
"I see! You created a diagonal whirlwind in order to push the clouds up!" The cumulonimbus clouds I'd created were still growing, seemingly without limit.
Not bad, if I said so myself.
A long time ago, I'd caught some TV special that went into the science behind supercell formation. I didn't remember the exact details, but I'd retained a vague visual impression of the process. Going off that, I'd managed to create something similar enough.
"Rudi," Rox said, "you pass."
"Huh? But it hasn't been an hour yet."
"There's no need. If you can do that, you're more than competent enough," he replied. "Now then, can you make it go away?"
"Er, sure. It'll take a little while, though." I cooled the ground over a wide area, then warmed the air above in order to create a downward current, ultimately using some wind magic to scatter the clouds.
Once I was done, Rox and I stood there, the two of us drenched to the bone.
"Congratulations," Rox said. "You are now a Water Saint."
He looked stunning, his hand brushing aside his wet bangs, an all-too-rare grin on his face.
I hadn't achieved anything in my past life. But I'd done something now. As soon as I realized that, a curious sensation welled up from within me. And I knew what it was.
A sense of accomplishment.
For the first time since coming to this world, I felt like I'd truly taken my first step.
The following day, Rox stood in the entryway to our house in his traveling gear, the spitting image of the person who had arrived two years prior. My mother and father didn't look much different, either. About the only thing that had changed was that I was taller.
"Rox," Zenith said, "you're more than welcome to stay. I still have plenty of recipes that I want you to try."
Paul followed up. "Right. Your role as a home tutor may have come to an end, but we're in your debt for your help with the drought last year. I'm sure the villagers would be happy to have you stick around."
Here were my parents, trying to keep Rox from leaving. Unbeknownst to me, they'd apparently become good friends. Which made sense; his afternoons had been a huge swath of free time, and I guess he'd spent it broadening his social circle. He wasn't just a love interest in a video game, whose circumstances only changed when the main character did something.
"I appreciate the offer, but I'm afraid I can't accept," Rox replied. "Teaching your daughter has made me realize how powerless I truly am, so I'm going to head out and travel the world for a while to hone my magic."
He had to be a little shocked that I'd reached the same rank as him. And he'd said previously that having a pupil who exceeded his skills made him uncomfortable.
"I see," said Paul. "I suppose it is what it is. I'm sorry that our daughter caused you to lose confidence in yourself."
Hey! You didn't have to put it like that, Dad!
"Oh, no," Rox said. "I'm grateful to be shown how conceited I've been."
"I'd hardly call you conceited when you're able to use Water Saint-level magic," Paul countered.
"Even if I couldn't, your daughter's ingenuity has shown me that I can be capable of even stronger magic."
With a small grimace, Rox put his hand on my head. "Rudi, I wanted to do my best for you, but I didn't have what it takes to teach you."
"That isn't true. You taught me all sorts of things, Mr. Rox."
"I'm happy to hear that," Rox said. "Oh, and that reminds me!" He reached into the folds of his robe, fumbled around, and pulled out a pendant strung with a leather cord. It was made of a metal that shone with a green luster, fashioned in the shape of three interlocking spears. "This is to commemorate your graduation. I didn't have much time to prepare it, but hopefully this will suffice."
"What is it?"
"It's a Migurd amulet. If you happen to run into any demons who give you a hard time, show them this and mention my name, and they should ease up on you a bit... probably."
"I'll be sure to take good care of it."
"Remember, it's not a guarantee. Don't be overconfident."
Then, at the very, very end, Rox flashed a little smile, and departed.
Before I knew it, I was crying.
He really had given me so much: wisdom, experience, technique... If I'd never met him, I'd probably still be doing what I was before, fumbling my way through with A Textbook of Magic in one hand.
More than anything, though, he took me outside.
He took me outside. That was it. Such a simple thing. It was Rox who'd done that for me. And that meant something. Rox, who'd come to this village not even two years ago. Rox, who looked like someone who'd never get along well with strangers. Rox, a demon whom the villagers should have considered beneath their notice.
Not Paul. Not Zenith. Rox was the one who took me to the outside world, and that meant something.
I say that he took me to the outside world, when really, all he did was take me across town. Still, the prospect of leaving home had definitely been a traumatic one for me, and he'd cured me of that—just by taking me through the village. That had been enough to lift my spirits. He hadn't been trying to rehabilitate me, but I'd still had a breakthrough because of him.
Yesterday, after we'd gotten back home, soaking wet, I'd turned to look at the front gate and taken just one step beyond it. And right there was the ground. Just the ground, and nothing more. My anxieties had left me.
Now, I was capable of walking outside on my own.
He'd managed to do something for me that no one else ever had, not even my parents or siblings from my past life. He was the one who'd done it for me. I'd been given not irresponsible words, but a responsible sense of courage.
That hadn't been his aim: I knew that. He'd done it for himself, and I knew that, too. But I respected him. Young as he was, I respected him.
I promised myself I wouldn't look away until Rox disappeared from view. In my hands, I clutched the wand and the pendant he'd given me. I still had all the things he'd taught me.
No matter how much time passes, I will never forget you Rox!
I decided to try going outside. After all, Rox had shown me I could do that, and I wasn't going to let that go to waste.
"Father," I said, my botanical encyclopedia in one hand, "can I go and play outside?"
Children my age were prone to wandering as soon as you took your eyes off of them. Even if I stayed in the general neighborhood, I didn't want to worry my parents by slipping away without saying anything.
"Hmm? Play outside? Not just out in the yard, I take it?"
"Oh. Well, sure. Of course you can." Paul gave his permission readily enough. "Come to think of it, we haven't given you much free time. Here we are, taking up all your time teaching you swordsmanship and spellcraft, but it's important for children to play, too."
"I really appreciate that I've got such good teachers."
I thought of Paul as a strict father who was worried too much about his kid's education, but his line of thinking was actually pretty flexible. I'd half-expected a demand to spend all day working on my swordsmanship. It was almost a letdown.
Paul was a man of intuition. "But, hmm... you really want to go out? I used to think you were such a frail kid, but I guess time does fly, huh?"
"You thought I was frail?" This was news to me. I hadn't ever been sick or anything.
"Because of how you never used to cry."
"Oh. All right. But if I'm all right now, then it's no problem, yeah? I've grown up to be a healthy and charming girl! Seeeeee?" I pulled my cheeks and made a funny face.
Paul frowned. "It's the ways in which you aren't childish that worry me more."
"Am I not turning out to be the firstborn daughter you wanted me to be?"
"No, it's not that."
"Given the look of disappointment on your face, would it be better to say that you're hoping I become a more fitting heir to the Greyrat family?" I posited.
"I'm not proud of it, but when I was your age, your old man was a total brat who was always chasing after girls."
"You were a skirt-chaser?" So, they had those in this world, too, huh?
And wait—did he just call himself a brat?
"If you really want to be a part of the Greyrat family, go out there and practice your sword skills," he said.
"Understood," I said jokingly. "Then I'll be heading off into the village to beat up some big, strong men."
"Hey now. You need to be nice to people . And don't go around bragging just because you can use powerful magic. I'd you have any pride, don't get strong just to brag about it."
That was actually good advice. Man, I wish my brothers from my past life could have heard that.
But Paul was right; power wielded for its own sake was meaningless. And even I was able to understand that, given the terms he'd put it in.
But I wanted to tease him a little, payback for him trying to sound all cool right now.
"I understand, Father; power should be reserved for when you can make guys see how cool and strong you look."
"That's, uh, not exactly what I meant... Wait you're not planning on bringing home any boys are you!" Paul's hand moved to clutch the hilt of his sword.
Scary. I'll keep this in mind whenever I want to bring my first boyfriend home. But does Paul really think that someone at my age would be bringing home a boyfriend?
"I'm just joking," I said. "It's for protecting the weak, right?"
With that conversation concluded, I tucked my botanical encyclopedia back under one arm, slung the wand I'd received from Rox at my hip, and headed out.
Before I got far, though, I stopped and turned, remembering one last thing. "Oh, by the way, Father, I think I'll probably go out like this on occasion, but I promise I'll always tell someone at home first, and I won't neglect my daily magic and sword studies either. And I promise to be home before the sun goes down and it gets dark, and I won't go anywhere dangerous." I wanted to leave him with some reassurance, after all.
"Ah, yeah. Sure." For some reason, Paul sounded a little out of it. Look, if you're giving me permission, just say so.
"Okay then," I said. "I'm off."
"Come back safe."
And then, I left home.
Several days went by. I wasn't afraid of the outside world anymore. Things were going pretty well. I was even able to exchange greetings with passersby without mumbling my way through.
People knew about me—that I was the daughter of Paul and Zenith, and Rox's disciple. When I ran into people for the first time, I'd greet them properly and introduce myself. People I was meeting again got a "good day." Everyone greeted me back, bright smiles on their faces. It had been a long time since I'd felt so open and carefree.
Paul and Rox's combined relative fame was more than half of what helped me feel so comfortable. The rest was all thanks to what Rox had done for me. Which meant, I guess, that Rox was to thank for the bulk of it.
I'd have to take very good care of the treasures I've received from him.
My main goal in going outside was to go exploring on my own two feet and get the lay of the land. If I knew my way around, then I wouldn't get lost if I ever got kicked out of my house.
At the same time, I also wanted to carry out some botanical investigations. I had my encyclopedia, after all, so I wanted to make sure I could tell which plants were edible and which weren't, which could be used as medicine and which were poisonous. That way, if I ever got kicked out of my house, I wouldn't need to worry about where I'd get food from.
Rox had only taught me the basics, but by my understanding, our village grew wheat, vegetables, and the fragrant ingredients of perfumes. The Vatirus flower, used in those perfumes, was very similar to lavender: pale purple and edible.
With a visually striking specimen like that as my test case, I started using the botanical encyclopedia to cross-reference whichever plants caught my eye.
As it turned out, however, the village wasn't very large, and we didn't have particularly notable flora. After a few days of basically nothing, I expanded my search radius and made my way closer to the forest. There were a lot more plants there, after all.
"If I remember right, magic builds up more readily in forests, which makes them more dangerous."
More dangerous because higher concentrations of magic meant a higher likelihood of monsters coming into being, the energies causing sudden mutations in otherwise benign creatures. What I didn't know was why magic accumulated more easily there.
In addition to monsters being fairly rare in these parts, we also had regular monster hunts, making things even safer. A monster hunt was exactly what it sounded like: Once a month, a group of young men, made up of knights, hunters, and the local militia, would head into the woods and clear some monsters out.
Apparently, though, monsters that were quite dreadful could suddenly turn up in the depths of the forest. Maybe part of why I'd learned magic was to do battle against such things. But I was a former shut-in who couldn't even handle schoolyard scuffles. I couldn't afford to be arrogant. I had no actual combat experience, and if I screwed up in the heat of the moment, it'd be a total disaster. I'd seen far too many people get killed doing that sort of thing—well, in manga, anyway.
But I wasn't the hot-blooded type. As far as I was concerned, combat was something to be avoided as best as possible. If I ran into a monster, I'd run back home and let Paul know.
Yeah, that was a good plan.
With that in mind, I made my way up a small hill. At the top stood a lone tree, the largest one around. A high vantage point like this would be perfect for confirming the layout of my village. Also, this being the biggest tree in the area, I wanted to see what type it was.
And that's when I heard them.
"We don't need no demons in our village!"
At the sound of that voice, painful memories came flooding back. I remembered my time in high school, and what had led to my becoming a shut-in.
These voices reminded me so very much of the voices that had called me by terrible nicknames. These were the voices of someone who used the numbers on their side to torment somebody beneath them.
"Get the hell out of here!"
"Ha, nice! Direct hit, man!"
I saw a field, muddy from the other day's rain. Three boys with their bodies all caked in mud were hurling mud at another boy who was walking along.
"Ten points if you can nail her in the head!"
"I got her! Didja see that?! Right in the head!"
This wasn't good this was classic bullying right here. These kids thought this other kid wasn't good enough for them, so they could do whatever the hell they wanted. If they'd gotten their hands on an air gun, they would have turned it on this kid and opened fire. The directions always said not to point those things at people and shoot, but boys like these didn't see their targets as people. They were abhorrent.
Their target could have quickly shuffled on her way, but for some reason, she was dawdling. I looked more closely and saw that she had something like a basket clutched to her chest, which she hunched over to keep its contents safe from the balls of mud being hurled her way. It was keeping her from getting away from the bullies' onslaught.
"Hey, she's got something!"
"Is that her demon treasure?!"
"I bet it's something she stole!"
"If you can bullseye that, it's worth a hundred points!"
"Let's get that treasure!"
I broke into a run, heading for the boy. Along the way, I used my magic to form a ball of mud, and the instant I was in firing range, I hurled it with all my might.
"What the hell?!" I hit the kid who looked like their leader, a conspicuously large fellow, right in the face. "Gah, it got in my eyes!"
His buddies all turned their attention to me at once.
"Who the heck're you?"
"This ain't got nothing to do with you! Stay out of it!"
"What are you, an ally of the demons or something?"
Guess people like this were the same in every world. "I'm no ally to the demons," I said. "I'm an ally to the weak." I gave them a haughty sneer.
The boys took one look at me before bursting out laughing.
"Go away," the leader sneered, "little girls should stick to playing with dolls and stay out of our business. Don't want to get your dress all dirty."
The broke out laughing again as if what the leader said was the most hilarious thing in the world.
Sometimes I really question a child's sense of humour, there was nothing funny about what he just said.
Growing annoyed with the boys I hurled another shot of mud at them, this time purposely missing as the mud flew past dangerously close to hitting the leader's face. This shut them up immediately.
The other boys steeled themselves, drawing themselves up. "Don't you try to act tough!" one of them snapped.
"Hey, she's that one knight's kid! Girls shouldn't be trying to pick a fight."
"Hah! She's just a baby!"
Uh-oh. They'd figured out who I was.
"You sure the daughter of a knight should be doing this sort of thing, huh?"
"See, I told ya that knight was on the demons' side!"
"C'mon, let's get the others!"
"Hey, guys! We've got some weirdo here!"
Crap. These kids were calling for their friends!
But no one showed up.
I could feel the anxiety beginning to well up inside of me, of course I didn't let it show to the little brats.
My legs were locked in place. Sure, there were three of them, but it felt so pathetic, freezing up at having kids shout at me. Was mine just destined to be the saga of a bullied shut-in?
"Y-you shut up!" I bit back. "Ganging up on a kid three-to-one—you guys are the worst!"
Their faces screwed up in confusion. Ugh. Dammit. "Hey, you're the one who's shouting now, you dumbass!" one of them blurted.
I was pissed off, so I hurled another mudball their way. I missed.
Probably not my best idea. I think before they were holding back because I'm a girl, but that last shit just crossed the line.
"You little brat! You want to get beat up!"
"Where the heck is she getting the mud from?!"
"It doesn't matter! Just throw it back!"
What I'd dished out was being returned threefold, but thanks to the footwork Paul had taught me, as well as a bit of magic, I was able to dodge the volley rather gracefully.
After dodging the first couple of shots, I realized that these boys weren't any sort of threat.
I started to make a game out of it, purposely dodging the mud with style while making faces to annoy the boys even more.
"Hey! Knock it off!"
"Yeah, you're not supposed to dodge!"
Heheheh. Hey, if you can't hit me, that's your problem, fellas!
The three boys continued to throw balls of mud my way for a while longer, but when it became apparent they weren't going to hit me, they threw up their hands as if they'd suddenly found something better to do.
"Aw, this is boring!"
"Yeah, let's go."
"And we're gonna let everyone know the knight's kid is a demon-lover!"
They tried to make it sound like they hadn't lost—that they'd just decided to stop. With that, the little punks headed off for the other end of the field.
I'd done it! For the very first time in my life, I'd beaten the bullies! In my past life I use to dream of fantasies where I would put my bullies in their place, reclaiming my dignity and gaining friendships.
These kids didn't compare to my bullies at all, yet somehow by warding them off and saving the kid on the ground, I felt like I was able to accomplish that dream.
Whew. Arguments like that really weren't my strong suit after all. I'm glad things hadn't become physical. What would my parents say if I came home with a black eye? Paul would definitely force me to tell him who hurt me and he would beat them up himself, regardless of how young they are.
For now, I needed to check on the kid they'd been throwing mud at. I turned to her and asked,
"Hey, are you all right? Are your things okay?"
The girl was so pretty it was hard to think we were around the same age. She had rather long eyelashes for someone so young, with a dainty little nose, thin lips, and a somewhat pointed jawline. Her skin was porcelain white, and her features combined to give her the look of a startled rabbit, in addition to a sense of unspeakable beauty.
Man, if only my parents had been the prettier sort. Maybe I'd have a face like that.
No that's not true, Paul wasn't bad-looking. And Zenith was gorgeous. Which meant my face was fine. Certainly compared to my face in my past life, all flabby and marked with pimples. So, yeah, I was pretty good-looking. Yeah I'll go with that.
The girl turned her timid gaze back to me. "Y-yeah, I'm...I'm okay."
She made me want to protect and care for her, as if she were some small animal.
Her clothes were filthy, and mud clung to half of her face. The top of her head was basically a uniform brown. It bordered on miraculous that she'd managed to keep her basket safe.
There was only one thing for me to do. "Here, why don't you set that down over there and kneel by the irrigation ditch," I said.
"Huh? Whuh?" The girl blinked in confusion even though she began to do as I said. Guess she was the sort of kid who did what she was told without asking questions. If she were the defiant sort, she would have fought back against those bullies earlier.
She crawled over to the irrigation ditch, hunched on all fours as she peered into the water.
"Here," I said. "Close your eyes."
I used some fire magic to heat the water to an appropriate temperature: neither too hot nor too cold, but a nice, warm forty degrees Celsius. I then took some of it and doused the girl's head.
I grabbed her collar as she squirmed and tried to get away, and proceeded to wash away the mud. She struggled at first, but as she got used to the water's temperature, she started to calm down. As for her clothes, those would have to be laundered at home.
"All right, that should about do it," I said. With the mud out of the way, I used fire magic to create hot wind, like an air dryer, then took a handkerchief to carefully wipe the rest of the girl's face.
In doing so, I could finally see her pointed, elf-like ears, as well as the emerald green hair she sported. I immediately remembered something Rox had told me.
"If you ever see someone with emerald-green hair, make sure you don't go anywhere near them."
Hm? Wait, hold on. That wasn't quite right. I think it was...
"If you ever see someone with emerald-green hair and what looks like a red jewel set in their forehead, make sure you don't go anywhere near them."
Yeah, that was it! I'd forgotten the bit about the red jewel. This kid's forehead, however, was nothing but a smooth and pretty white.
Whew. I was safe. She wasn't one of those nasty Superds.
The girl's words of gratitude snapped me back into the moment. Dang. She was kinda giving me the tingles there.
I decided to give her some advice. "Listen, if you just roll over for people like that, they're never going to leave you alone, you know."
"I can't beat those guys..."
"You need to want to fight back; that's the key."
"But they've always got bigger kids with them. And I don't want to get hurt..."
Ah, so that was it. If she fought back, those kids would call for their friends, and they'd give her a thorough beating. No matter what world you lived in, that was a thing. Rox had put in a lot of effort, so the grown-ups seemed to have accepted demons, but not the children. Kids could be so cruel.
This right here wasn't too far from outright bigotry. "You must have it rough, getting bullied just because the color of your hair makes you look like a Superd."
"You're...not bothered by it?"
"My teacher was a demon. What race do you belong to?" I asked. Rox had told me that the Migurd and Superd were closely related. Maybe her race was, too.
But the girl just shook her head. "I don't know."
She didn't know? At her age? That was odd. "Well, what race is your father?"
"He's a half-elf. His other half is human, he said."
"And your mother?"
"She's human, but she also has some beastman blood in there, too."
The child of a half-elf and a quarter-beastman? Did that explain her hair, then?
Tears welled up in the girl's eyes. "And so they—m-my dad, he...he tells me I'm not a demon, b-but...my hair isn't the same color as his or my mom's..."
She started to sob, and I reached over to reassuringly pat her head. If her hair color didn't match either of her parents' though, that was a big deal. The possibility that her mother had had an affair occurred to me. "Is your hair color the only thing that's different?"
"My...my ears are longer than my dad's, too."
"I see." A demon race that had long ears and green hair sounded plausible enough. I mean, I didn't want to pry too hard into the affairs of a stranger's home life, but I'd been a bullied child myself, so I wanted to do something for her. Also, I just felt so bad for her, being bullied just for having green hair.
Some of the bullying I'd experienced had been a result of stupid things I'd done. But not this kid. No amount of effort on her part could change how she'd been born. She'd been destined from birth to have mudballs pelted at her on the roadside just because her hair was a bit green. Ugh. Just thinking of it was enough to piss me off again.
"Does your dad treat you nicely?" I asked.
"Yeah. He's scary when he's mad, but he doesn't get mad if I behave."
"And what about your mom?"
Hmm. Her tone of voice indicated that she was telling the truth. Then again, I couldn't really know for sure without seeing for myself.
I was worried about this little girl even though I had only just met her.
"All right," I said. "Let's go, shall we?"
"Wherever it is you're going." Hey, stick with a kid, and her parents are bound to show up. That's, like, a law of nature.
"Wh-why are you coming with me?"
"Well, those guys from before might come back. I'll drive 'em off. Are you on your way home? Or are you taking that basket someplace?"
"I'm, ah, delivering m-my dad's lunch..."
Her father was a half-elf, yeah? When elves turned up in stories, they were a long-lived and isolationist people with haughty dispositions who looked down on other races. They were skilled with the bow and also with magic. Water and wind magic were their forte. Oh, and they had long ears, of course.
Rox had said, "That's largely accurate, though they aren't particularly isolationist."
Were the majority of elven men and women super-gorgeous in this world, too? No, no. Thinking of elves as all being super-gorgeous was a crass Japanese preconception. The elves in Western games had faces that were too angular and pointed and didn't look particularly gorgeous at all. Guess Japanese otaku and foreign normies had different sensibilities.
In the case of this girl here, though, it was a given that her parents were attractive.
"So, um...why...why are you...protecting me?" she asked haltingly, her mannerisms evoking more of that protective instinct in me.
"My father told me that I should be an ally to the weak."
"But...the other kids might exclude you because of it..."
Maybe so. It was a common story: getting bullied for helping out a victim of bullying.
I gave her a big smile to show I held no ill will towards her.
"If that happens, I'll just play with you," I said. "As of today, we're friends."
Our chips were in the same pile now. The chain of bullying grew when the person being helped turned on their helper instead of being grateful and repaying that kindness. Granted, the reason for this kid being victimized was rooted in something deeper than that, so I doubted she'd flip and side with the bullies.
"Oh, are you usually too busy helping out around the house?" I asked.
"N-no, not really..." She mustered a timid expression and a shake of the head.
"Oh, that's right. I haven't gotten your name yet. I'm Rudeia."
"I...I'm Sylphy—" Her voice was so quiet that it was hard to make out the name. Sylphy, huh?
"That's a nice name. Just like a spirit of the wind."
At that, Sylphy's face turned red, and she smiled brightly.
Sylphy slipped her hand into mine just as little kids do, and she skipped along happily beside me.
It was at that moment when it occurred to me that I had just made my first friend. I wasn't intending to make a friend today but somehow it just sort of happened.
My first friend, both in this life and my last.
In my previous life I was so secluded in my room that I didn't have any friends, and my online friends could hardly count.
Even in this life I haven't had any friends. Rox was the only person outside of my family that I was close to, and maybe I could consider him a friend, but first andhe was my mentor.
The word brought a smile to my face as I gripped Sylphy's hand back.
Sylphy and I walked hand in hand down the road laughing and sharing stories with one another.
Sylphy's father was a very attractive man. He had pointed ears and blond hair that almost glittered, and he was slender without lacking muscle definition. Certainly, he lived up to the name of half-elf, having inherited the best parts of both elf and human.
He stood guard at a watchtower on the edge of the forest, a bow in one hand. "Father," Sylphy called. "I've brought your lunch."
"Ah, thank you, Phy, as always. Did you get bullied again today?"
"I'm okay. Someone helped me out."
Sylphy turned to look my way, and I bowed slightly. "Nice to meet you," I said. "I'm Rudeia Greyrat."
"Greyrat? As in Paul Greyrat?"
"Yes, sir. He's my father."
"Ah, yes, I've heard of you! My, what a polite girl you are. Oh, you'll have to forgive me. I'm Laws. I typically hunt in these forests."
Based on what I'd heard, this watchtower was set up as a lookout post to keep monsters from making it out of the forest, and was staffed by men from the village around the clock. Naturally, Paul was on the roster as well, which explained why Laws knew him. I'm sure they'd talked to one another about their respective children.
"I know how my kid must look, but it's just something from further back in our ancestry," Laws said. "I do hope you'll be friends with each other."
"Of course, sir. And even if Sylphy was a Superd, it wouldn't change my attitude one bit. I stake my father's honor on it."
Laws let out a sound of astonishment. "Those are impressive words for a girl your age," he said. "I'm kind of jealous that Paul has such a bright kid."
"Being good at things as a child doesn't mean that person will keep being good at things as an adult," I said. "You don't need to be jealous now when there's still time for Sylphy to grow up." I figured I should put in a nice word.
"Heh. Now I see what Paul was talking about."
"What did my father say?"
"That talking to you makes one feel like an underqualified parent."
While we were talking, I felt a tug at the hem of my shirt. I looked, and Sylphy was clutching it, her head cast down. I guess a grown-up conversation like this was boring for children.
"Mr. Laws," I asked, "can the two of us go play for a bit?"
"Oh, yes, of course. Just don't get too close to the forest."
Well, that went without saying. I felt like there should have been more ground rules than that.
"On our way here, there was a hill with a big tree on top. I figured we'd go play around there. I promise Sylphy will head back home before it gets dark. And once your kid gets home, could you look out in the direction of that hill? If it looks like I haven't gone home, there's a good chance something's wrong. Could you please arrange a search if that happens?"
After all, there weren't any cell phones in this world. Establishing proper communication was important. It was impossible to avoid all potential trouble, but bouncing back quickly from problems was also important. This kingdom seemed fairly safe, but there was no telling where dangers might be lurking.
With one look back at Laws, who was a bit dumbfounded, Sylphy and I headed back for the tree on the hilltop.
"So, what did you want to play?" I asked.
"I'm not sure. I've...never played with a...a friend before." Sylphy struggled to get the word "friend" out. I supposed she really never had one before. I felt so bad for her...but I didn't have friends, either.
I wasn't really sure what to play either. What did I used to do back when I was her age in my old life? I think we mostly played make believe games like house, or movement games like tag and hide and seek.
Thinking about it, it would be hard for me to actually play something like that without having to put on an act of having fun. It would be no different than babysitting a little kid and pretending to enjoy the childish games.
But that didn't matter, what mattered was giving Sylphy a chance to have fun with a friend!
"Well," I said, "Until recently I never really left the house myself, I also don't know what to play. So choose something, anything, what did you want to play?"
Sylphy wrung her hands together and gazed up at me. We were roughly the same height, but because she kept herself hunched over, she had to look up at me. "So, um, how come you keep changing the way you talk?"
"Hm? Oh! Depending on who you're talking to, it's rude not to speak properly. You need to show deference to your elders."
"Like the way I was speaking to your father before."
"Hmm..." She sounded like she didn't quite understand, but she'd get it eventually. That was part of growing up.
"More importantly," Sylphy said, "could you teach me that thing you did earlier?"
Sylphy's eyes glimmered to life. She postured and waved her hands as she explained: "Like when you made warm water go all sploosh from your hands, and when you made that nice warm wind like whoosh."
"Ah, yes. That." The magic I'd used to clear away the mud.
"Is it difficult?"
"It's difficult, but with training, anyone can do it. Probably." Lately, my magical reserves had grown so much I wasn't even sure how much I was expending, to say nothing of what the baseline was for people here. But then, this was just using fire to warm water. People probably couldn't just up and conjure hot water without an incantation, but with Combined Magic, anyone could reproduce the effects. That's why it was probably fine. Probably.
"Okay then!" I announced. "Today, we'll begin your training!"
And so, Sylphy and I played until the sun went down.
When I got back home, Paul was furious.
He stood imposingly in the entryway, hands set on his hips in an expression of his anger. I immediately tried to think of what I'd done wrong.
"Father, I'm home," I said.
"Do you know why I'm upset?"
"I don't." First, I had to play innocent. I didn't want to bring unnecessary trouble upon myself by instantly denying that I did anything wrong.
"Mr. Eto's wife came by earlier and told me that you punched their boy, Somal."
Who the heck were Mr. Eto and Somal? The names didn't ring a bell, so I had to think. I hadn't had much interaction with the townsfolk beyond basic introductions. I'd given them my name and gotten theirs in return, but I couldn't recall whether or not there had been an "Eto" among them.
Wait. Hold on. "Was this today?" I asked.
The only people I'd run into today were Sylphy, Laws, and those three punks. Was Somal one of those three boys, then?
"I didn't punch him. All I did was throw some mud at him."
"Do you remember what it was I told you earlier?"
"That people with pride don't get strong just to brag about it?"
Aha. Now I got it. Come to think of it, that kid had said something about how he was gonna let everyone know I was a demon-lover. I don't know how that turned into him lying about me punching him, but either way, he was determined to badmouth me.
"I'm not sure what you heard, Father, but—"
"Oh, no you don't!" Paul snapped. "When you've done something wrong, the first thing you do is apologize!"
Whatever lie this kid had told, my dad had clearly bought it. Crap. At this point, even if I told the truth about me saving Sylphy from those bullies, it'd just sound like an outright lie.
Still, all I could do was explain what happened from the very beginning. "Okay, so I was walking down the road when—"
"No excuses!" Paul grew even more irate. He had no intentions of hearing me out.
I could have just said "sorry," but I felt like that wasn't going to be fair to Paul, either. I didn't want him to make a habit of behaving like this with any younger brother or sister he might well make for me.
This method of punishment wasn't fair. I kept my mouth shut.
"Why aren't you saying anything?" Paul demanded.
"Because if I do, you're just going to yell at me not to make excuses."
Paul's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Before a kid can even say anything, you yell at them and make them apologize. Everything is so quick and easy with you adults. Must be nice."
Whap! A hot jolt of pain shot through my cheek.
He hit me.
I mean, I'd expected as much. Talk shit, get hit.
That's why I firmly held my ground. I probably hadn't been hit in around twenty years. No—I'd gotten my ass beaten when I was kicked out of my house, so that made five years, I supposed.
"Father, I have always put in the utmost effort to be a good daughter. Not once have I ever talked back to you or Mother, and I've always done my very best to do whatever you both tell me."
"That...that has nothing to do with this!" It didn't look as though Paul had intended to strike me. There was a distinct look of consternation in his eyes.
Whatever. That was good for me. "Yes, it does. I've always done my best to keep your mind at ease and to get you to trust me, Father. You didn't listen to a word I said, and not only did you take the word of someone I don't know and yell at me, you even raised your hand to me."
"But this Somal kid got hurt..."
Hurt? That was news to me. Had I done that to him? If I had, maybe he was using it to sell his story. Well, too bad. I was justified in what I'd done. Assuming this whole thing about his being hurt wasn't just some dumb lie anyway.
"Even if it does wind up that it's my fault he got hurt, I'm not going to apologize for it," I said. "I didn't go against anything you taught me, and I'm proud of what I did."
"Wait, hold on. What happened?"
Oh, now he was suddenly curious? Hey, it was his own fault for deciding he wouldn't listen to me.
"What happened about not wanting to hear excuses?"
Paul's face twisted into a frown. It seemed I was close now.
"Please don't worry, Father. The next time I see three people going after someone who won't fight back, I'll ignore it. In fact, I'll jump in so that it's four on one. I'll make sure that everyone around knows that the Greyrats take pride in bullying and ganging up on the weak. But once I grow up and leave home, I'll never use the Greyrat name again. I'll be too ashamed to let anyone know I belonged to a family so horrid they ignored actual violence and accepted verbal abuse."
Paul fell dead silent. His face turned red, then went pale, and there was conflict in his expression. Was he going to be mad? Or had I still not pushed him over the edge?
You should quit while you're ahead, Paul. I know I don't look it, but I've spent over twenty years talking my way out of arguments I can't win. If you had even one solid point to make, this might end in a draw, but justice is on my side this time. You don't have any hope of winning this one.
"I'm sorry," Paul said, hanging his head. "I was wrong. Tell me what happened."
Yeah, see? Digging your heels in just makes things worse for the both of us.
Remember, when you do something wrong, the first thing you do is apologize.
Relieved, I explained the details of the situation as objectively as I could. I was making my way up the hill when I heard voices. There were three boys in an empty field pelting mud at a girl walking along the road. I hit them with mud once or twice until they backed down, and then they left while badmouthing me. Then, I used magic to clean the mud off the one girl, and we played together.
"So, yeah," I said, "if I'm going to apologize, this Somal kid needs to apologize to Sylphy first. When you're hurt physically, you'll heal soon enough, but emotional hurt doesn't go away so quickly."
Paul's shoulders drooped despondently. "You're right. I had this all wrong. I'm sorry."
When I saw that, I recalled what Laws had told me earlier: "Talking to you makes one feel like an underqualified parent." Had Paul's attempt at scolding me been him trying to show more of his paternal side?
Well, if so, he'd lost this round.
"You don't need to apologize. In the future, if you think what I've done is wrong, by all means, scold me as you like. All I ask is that you hear me out first. There are going to be times when words don't cut it, or where it's just going to sound like I'm making excuses, but if I have something to say, please just try to see my side of things."
"I'll keep that in mind. I mean, I don't expect that you'll be in the wrong in the first place, but—"
"When I am, use that as a learning opportunity for disciplining whatever younger brother or sister you wind up giving me in the future."
"Yeah. I'll do that," Paul said self-deprecatingly. The man was clearly in poor spirits.
Had I gone too far? I mean, losing an argument to your five-year-old daughter? That'd take the wind out of my sails for sure. I supposed he was a bit young to be a father.
"By the way, Father, how old are you?"
"Hm? I'm twenty-four."
"I see." So, he would have been nineteen when he got married and had me? I didn't know the average age for marriage in this world, but with things like monsters and war and such being an everyday occurrence, that sounded pretty appropriate.
A man more than a decade my junior had gotten married, had a kid, and was now struggling with how to raise him. Given my thirty-four-year-history of indolent joblessness, you wouldn't think I'd be able to outdo him at much of anything.
"Father, could I bring Sylphy over to play sometime?"
"Hm? Oh, of course."
Satisfied with that response, I headed into the house with my father. I was glad he didn't hold any prejudice against demons.
My daughter was angry. The girl had never been one to display much overt emotion, but here she was, silently fuming. How did it come to this?
It started that afternoon, when Mrs. Eto came by our house, furious. She brought along her son Somal, considered one of the neighborhood brats. There was a blue bruise around one of his eyes. As a swordsman who'd seen my fair share of battle, I knew right away that he'd taken a punch.
His mother's story was long and rambling, but the gist was that my kid had punched hers. When I heard that, I was inwardly relieved.
I assumed my daughter had been playing outside, caught sight of Somal and his buddies playing, and tried to join them. But my daughter wasn't like other kids; she was already a Water Saint magician at her age. She'd probably said something high-and-mighty, the other kids had fired back, and then they'd all gotten into a fight. My daughter was pretty clever and mature for her age, but she was still a kid, after all.
Mrs. Eto continued to get red in the face and then went pale as she tried to make this out to be a major bust-up, when it was just a quarrel among children in the end. And just by looking, you could tell that her son's injury wasn't even going to leave a mark. I'd scold my daughter, and that would be the end of it.
Children were bound to get into scuffles that turned to blows at some point, but Rudeia was far more powerful than other children. Not only had she been the disciple of the young Water Saint, Rox, I'd been training her since she was three. Any fight she got into was sure to be one-sided.
Things had gone okay this time, but if she ever got too hot-headed, she might wind up overdoing it. A smart kid like Rudeia ought to be able to deal with someone like Somal without throwing a punch. I needed to teach her that punching someone was a rash thing to do, and she needed to give it more thought before resorting to it.
I needed to give her a bit of a harsh scolding.
That had been the plan, anyway. How did it go so wrong?
My daughter had no intention of apologizing to me whatsoever. Rather, she looked at me with pure rage.
I'm sure that, from my daughter's perspective, they were having a fight on equal footing. But when someone has powers like hers, they need to be aware of how just how strong they are. Besides, she'd hurt someone. I needed her to apologize. She was a smart kid. She might not understand now, but I was sure she'd arrive at the right answer in due time.
With that in mind, I took a firm tone to ask what had happened, only for her to respond with condescension and sarcasm. It galled me, and in the heat of the moment, I struck her. And here I was, trying to teach her a lesson about how people with power shouldn't resort to violence against people weaker than them.
I'd hit her. I knew I was in the wrong, but I couldn't say that while trying to give my daughter a lecture. I couldn't tell her not to do what I'd done moments earlier myself. While I struggled with my rattled composure, my daughter implied she'd done nothing wrong, and even said that if I had a problem with that, she'd leave home.
I almost told her right there to go ahead, go, but I managed to resist the urge. I had to. I was from a strict family myself, with an overbearing father who'd tear into me without giving me a fair shake. My resentment had grown to the point where we had a huge fight that ended with me storming out of the house.
My father's blood ran in my veins—the blood of a stubborn, unyielding curmudgeon. And it ran in Rudeia's veins as well. Just look at how stubborn she could be. She was definitely my kid.
When I was told to get out, I gave my old man some tit for tat and did exactly as he said. I might drive Rudeia off as well. She said she'd wait until she grew up before leaving home, but if I told her to get out right now, I bet she would. I was sure it was in her nature.
I heard that, not long after I left, my father took ill and died. And I heard he regretted our big fight until the very end. And I was glad to hear it.
No—if I'm being honest, I regretted it, too. In that light, if I told Rudeia to get out and she really did leave, I'd surely regret that, too.
I had to be patient. Hadn't I learned from experience, after all? Besides, on the day my child was born, I decided that I would never be a father like mine.
"You're right. I had this all wrong. I'm sorry." The apology came out naturally.
Rudeia's expression softened, and she went on to explain what happened. She told me that she came across Laws' kid getting bullied and stepped in to help. Rather than punch anyone, she'd just tossed balls of mud. It could hardly be called a proper fight.
If what Rudeia said was true, then what she'd done was a laudable thing, something she should be proud of. But instead of being praised for her actions, all she got was a father who wouldn't listen and struck her instead.
When I was young, my father did the same thing to me so many times, never listening to my side of things and always blaming me for not being a perfect son. Each time it happened, I felt so miserable and helpless.
Well, whatever lesson I'd been trying to teach here, I'd failed. Ugh.
But Rudeia didn't blame me for it. She even consoled me in the end. She was a good kid. Almost too good. Was I even really her father? No—Zenith wasn't the type to have an affair, and besides, there was no father good enough to produce a child like her. Man, I never expected my seed would bear such strong fruit.
More than pride, though, what I felt was an ache in my gut.
"Father, could I bring Sylphy over to play sometime?"
"Hm? Oh, of course."
For now, I could at least be happy that my daughter had made her first friend.
We shared a smile with each other, then turned and walked side by side back home.
I turned six. My day-to-day life hadn't changed much. Mornings, I worked on my sword training. In the afternoon, if I had time, I'd do some fieldwork, or practice magic under the tree on the hill.
Recently, I'd been experimenting with ways to augment my swordsmanship with magic. I'd use a gust of wind to accelerate my sword's swing, create a shockwave to quickly turn myself around, turn the ground to mud under an opponent's feet and mire them in place, and the like.
Some people might think that my swordsmanship wasn't improving, since I was spending all my time on these little tricks, but I didn't agree. There were two ways to get better at fighting games: keep practicing to improve, or find a different way to beat your opponent with your inferior skills.
Right now, I was only thinking of the latter. Defeating Paul was the challenge at hand. Paul was a tough guy. He might have a ways to go in the parenting department, but as a swordsman, he was first-rate. If I were to focus on the first method, and hone my physique to an absurd degree, I was sure I could beat him someday.
However, I was six years old. In ten years, I'd be sixteen, and Paul would be thirty-five. Five years after that, I'd be twenty-one, and he'd be forty. So, yeah, I could beat him someday, but by then, it wouldn't mean anything.
Defeating someone far older than you just got brushed off with claims of, "Oh, if this were back in my day..."
Defeating Paul while he was still in his prime—that would mean something. Right now, he was twenty-five years old. He might have retired from the frontlines, but he was currently at his physical peak. I wanted to beat him at least once within the next five years. With the blade, if possible, but if that proved unfeasible, then at least in a close-combat situation where I could weave my magic into the mix.
That was what I kept in mind as I headed out for my day's training.
Under the tree atop the hill, Sylphy came by, as she usually did.
"Sorry," she said. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting."
"Not at all," I replied. "I just got here myself." That's how we'd start things off: where one would wait for the other before we began.
Back when we first started playing, Somal or some other local punks would come by. Sometimes older kids—school-aged or in their early teens—would be in the mix, but I drove them all off. Whenever I did, Somal's mother would come by my house to yell at me.
That's when I figured out that Somal's mother wasn't so much invested in castigating children as she was fond of Paul. She was using scuffles between little kids as an excuse to come and see him. She was absurd. At the barest scratch, she'd march over to our place with her son in tow, which Somal didn't seem too pleased with. So, yeah, he wasn't faking injuries after all. Sorry for doubting him.
I think they came after us about five times. Then, one day, they stopped coming our way altogether. Occasionally, we'd catch sight of them playing off in the distance, or we'd pass each other by, but neither side ever said anything. We'd apparently agreed to just ignore one another.
With that, the issue seemed to be resolved, and the tree on top of the hill became our territory.
Anyway, less about those punks and more about Sylphy.
What we referred to as "playing" was, in fact, magic training. If Sylphy picked up a bit of spellcraft, she could fend off bullies by herself.
This actually worked for me perfectly. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to put up with pretending to play and enjoy children's games, but magic on the other hand was something I actually enjoyed.
And Sylphy was the one who proposed this idea in the first place, so I want left feeling like I was the one forcing her to do something she doesn't enjoy.
In the beginning, Sylphy was only able to cast five or six entry-level spells before getting short of breath, but a year had gone by, and her magical reserves had grown significantly. Now, she could train for half the day without an issue.
I had very little belief in the idea that there were limits on a person's magical reserves anymore.
Still, there was work needed on the spells themselves. Sylphy was especially poor with fire. She could handle wind and water magic quite deftly, but fire was her weak spot. I wondered why. Was it because she had elven blood?
No, that wasn't right. During my lessons with Rox, I'd learned about "affinity schools" and "opposition schools." As the names suggested, some people had an affinity for certain schools of magic, while other schools inherently gave them trouble.
Once I asked Sylphy if she was afraid of fire. She shook her head and said she wasn't, but she showed me her palm, where she had a burn scar. When she was about three, she'd grabbed a metal skewer set over the hearth while her parents weren't looking.
"I'm not scared anymore," she said, but I bet she still had some instinctual fear.
Experiences like that had an impact on what became one's opposition schools. With dwarves, for instance, water was a very common opposition school.
Dwarves lived close to the mountains, and spent their childhoods playing in the dirt before following in their parents' footsteps by learning blacksmithing or mining and the like, which made them naturally more adept with earth and fire. Up in the mountains, there was also the risk of steam geysers suddenly erupting and causing burns, or heavy rains drowning people in floods, so it was easy for water to become an opposition school. So, yeah, there wasn't a direct relationship between magic and what race you were; it was more of an environmental thing.
Incidentally, I didn't have any opposition schools myself, due to my comfortable upbringing.
You didn't really need fire to create warm water or a warm breeze, but since trying to explain that concept was a pain, I had Sylphy practice with fire as well. She had nothing to lose by being able to use it whenever she needed. For example, heat could be used to eradicate Salmonella, so if you didn't want to die of food poisoning, you needed to use a bit of fire. Though I guessed even Beginner-level detoxification magic could neutralize most poisons.
Despite her struggles, Sylphy didn't complain as she went through her training, probably because she wanted to back up her claims of not being afraid. She looked so cute with my wand (the one I'd gotten from Rox) in one hand and my magic textbook (the one I brought from home) in the other, her face steeled in concentration as she chanted.
This would be the moment when parents would grab their cameras to quickly snap some adorable photos for the family album.
Sylphy was sure to be beautiful once she grew up. It made me jealous that some people are just born beautiful while others could do everything they can and still only pass for average.
Meanwhile in my old life I couldn't even achieve that level, my beauty was so low that it was nonexistent.
Times like this made me envious of Sylphy.
The words rang clearly in my head as if they'd been said aloud, but I quickly shook my head and banished the thought. This wasn't a matter of jealousy.
"Hey, Rudi?" Sylphy asked. "What's this word here?"
Her voice banished the feelings from my head. She was gazing up at me, pointing at one of the pages in A Textbook of Magic. And that look she was giving me was a powerful one. I wanted to just wrap my arms around her and pull her into a big squeezing hug. Why is it that adorable things make us want to squeeze them?
I managed to resist the urge.
"That says 'avalanche.'"
"What does it mean?"
"When tremendous amounts of snow build up on a mountain, it can't bear its own weight, and it all comes collapsing down. You know how when snow builds up on your roof it sometimes comes flumping off? It's like a way bigger version of that."
"Oh, wow. That sounds incredible. Have you ever seen one?"
"An avalanche? Of course I...haven't." Not outside of TV, anyway.
Sylphy had me read from A Textbook of Magic. This was also part of teaching her how to read and write. No harm in learning literacy. There was no spell in this world that could do that for you. The lower the literacy rate, the more valuable being able to read was.
"I did it!" Sylphy cheered. She'd managed to cast the Intermediate-level water spell Ice Pillar. A shaft of water sprang from the ground, glinting brightly in the sunlight.
"Hey, you're getting pretty good," I said.
"Uh-huh!" Sylphy replied, and then she tilted her head. "But there's stuff you do that isn't written in here, huh?"
"Huh?" It took me a few moments to realize she was talking about that thing I'd done with the warm water. I flipped briskly through A Textbook of Magic, then pointed at two entries. "No, it's written in here. Waterfall and Heat Hand."
"I used both at the same time."
"Huh?" Sylphy inclined her head even further. "How can you chant two things at the same time?"
Crap. I'd given myself away. She was right, of course, it was impossible to chant two incantations at once.
"Uh, well, you create the Waterfall without doing the incantation and use Heat Hand to warm it up. I think you could chant one of the spells if you wanted, and you could also put the water into a bucket and then heat it up after."
I then demonstrated casting both spells without the incantations. Sylphy watched me with wide eyes. Silent spellcasting was clearly a very high-level technique in this world. Rox wasn't able to do it, and I'd heard that only one of the instructors at the University of Magic was capable of it. Sylphy was better off using Combined Magic than trying the no-incantations route. I figured that would let someone achieve very similar effects without having to do something so difficult.
"Hey, teach me how to do that," Sylphy said.
"How to do what?"
"How to do magic without saying anything."
Apparently, Sylphy had a different opinion from me. Maybe she saw the ability to do something in one go as better than alternating between two spells?
Hmm. Well, if teaching her that wound up being futile, she could always use Combined Magic anyway.
"Right. So, you know the feeling you get when you're going through the incantation for a spell? That feeling throughout your body that collects in your fingertips? Try doing that without saying the incantation. Once you feel like you've got the magical energy gathered up, let the spell you want to cast come to your mind and then force it out through your hands. Try to do something like that. Start with something like Waterball." I hoped that got the point across. I wasn't good at explaining things.
Sylphy closed her eyes and began muttering and murmuring as she did a weird, wriggly little dance. Trying to convey something you did through feelings was really hard. Silent incantation was something you did in your head; different people probably had different methods that worked for them.
Figuring that fundamentals were important, I'd had Sylphy use incantations the entire past year. Maybe the more you used incantations, the harder it was to go without. It'd be like trying to use your left hand to do something you'd always done with your right; suddenly being told to switch was easier said than done.
"I did it! Rudi, I did it!"
Okay. Maybe not, then.
Sylphy beamed with pride after managing to conjure a series of Waterballs. She'd been using incantations before, but it had only been a year, I suppose. I guessed this was like removing the training wheels from a bicycle. Perhaps it was a matter of youthful perspicacity? Or maybe Sylphy had an innate talent?
"Good! Now, try casting the spells you've learned so far without chanting the incantations."
Besides, if she was able to skip the incantation part, it would make it easier for me to teach her. I'd just be able to explain things the way I already did them myself.
I felt a few drops of rain. "Hm?" I looked up and saw that, at some point, the sky had been overtaken by a dark bank of rain clouds. A moment later, the rain started pelting down. Normally, I watched the skies to make sure we'd be able to get home before it started raining, but today I'd been distracted by Sylphy learning silent spellcasting, and I'd slipped up.
"Oh, wow. This is some pretty bad rain," I said.
"Rudi, I know you can make it rain, but can you also make it stop?"
"I can, but we're already soaking wet, and without rain, the crops aren't going to grow. I make a point not to mess with the weather unless it's going to cause problems."
We were already off and running by then; since Sylphy's house was too far away, we made for the Greyrat estate.
"I'm home!" I called out.
"Uh, h-hello," Sylphy added.
Our maid, Lilia, was standing just inside, waiting with a large cloth in hand. "Welcome back, young Rudeia, and your...friend," she said. "I've already drawn some warm water for you. Please wash up and dry off on the second floor so that you don't catch a cold. The lord and lady of the house will be home soon, so I'll go get ready to tend to them. Will you be all right on your own?"
"Yes, I'll be fine," I said. Lilia must have seen the downpour and expected I'd come home soaking wet. She was a woman of few words, and didn't speak to me very much, but she was quite the talented maid. I didn't have to explain anything; she took one look at Sylphy's face, headed back into the house, and came back with another large cloth for her.
The two of us took off our shoes, then dried off our heads and our bare feet before heading upstairs. Entering my room, I saw that a bucket filled with warm water had been set out. In this world, we didn't have showers, or bathtubs even, so this was how we cleaned up. According to Rox, there were hot springs where people could bathe, but as someone who wasn't fond of bathing in the first place, this method was fine by me.
I undressed until I was fully naked, and then saw Sylphy fidgeting awkwardly, her face blushing bright red.
"What's the matter?" I asked. "You need to get out of your clothes or you'll catch a cold."
"Huh? Oh, y-yeah..." But still she didn't move.
Was she shy about getting naked in front of someone? Or maybe she'd never undressed herself before? I mean, she was only six.
"Here," I said, "lift up both your hands."
"Um, okay." I helped Sylphy lift her hands overhead, then peeled off her sopping wet coat, exposing her stark white skin.
I reached for her lower garments next, but she grabbed hold of my arm. "N-no, not that," she muttered.
Was she embarrassed about me seeing her? I was like that, too, when I was little. Back in kindergarten, we'd have to get naked and shower when it was time to swim in the pool, but it was always a little awkward being exposed to people in the same age bracket.
In any case, Sylphy's hand was freezing. She really was going to catch a cold if we didn't hurry. I grabbed her trousers and forcefully pulled them down.
"H-hey, stop it..." she squeaked, hitting me on the head as I took hold of her baggy children's underpants.
I looked up and she was gazing fixedly down at me, tears in her eyes. "I promise I'm not going to laugh," I assured her.
She was being quite obstinate. In all the time I'd known her, Sylphy had never so staunchly refused to do something. I was a little shocked. Did elves maybe have some rule about not being seen naked?
"All right, all right," I said. "Just make sure to change after we're done. Wet underpants are pretty gross, and once they get cold, you'll wind up with stomach problems."
I removed my hands, and Sylphy gave me a teary-eyed nod.
Her shyness was so cute.
And as I thought that, my mischievous streak suddenly sprang to the fore. After all, it was hardly fair that I was the only one naked.
"Gotcha!" I snatched hold of her underwear with my hands, then yanked them down in one fell swoop.
Sylphy shrieked. A moment later, she squatted and curled up into herself to hide her body from sight—but in that moment, what flashed before my eyes was not the sight that I was expecting.
Sylphy had a little extra piece there that I didn't have.
There was something there that shouldn't have been there.
One of those. That's what Sylphy had.
She...was a he.
My vision went white. What I'd just done was not okay at all.
"Rudeia, what are you doing?"
I came to my senses to see Paul standing there. When had he gotten home? Had he come into the room because he'd heard Sylphy cry out?
I stood petrified; Paul did likewise. There was Sylphy, hunched and curled up, naked and sobbing. There I was, also naked, with his underpants clutched in my hand. There was no talking my way out of this one.
It was raining just outside, but it sounded so very far away.
I came home after work to find my daughter assaulting the young boy that she always liked spending time with.
Wait, wouldn't this situation usually be the other way around with the girl as the one being assaulted?
No, that isn't what's important right now!
I wanted to tear into her on the spot, but I managed to stay level. Maybe this was another case where there were circumstances I wasn't aware of. I didn't want to repeat my previous failure. For now, I decided to put the sobbing boy in the care of my wife and the maid while I helped my daughter clean up and dry off.
"Why were you doing something like that?" I asked.
When I'd scolded her a year earlier, she seemed completely unwilling to apologize, but now the apology came right out and she turned meek, shriveling up like sautéed spinach.
"I asked you for a reason," I said.
"Well, they were soaking wet. I figured I should take them off."
"But he didn't like that, did he?"
"I told you to be nice to others, didn't I?"
"You did. I'm sorry."
Rudeia had no excuse for herself. I wondered if I'd been the same at her age. I felt like whatever I might have said would have been full of "buts" and "you sees." I'd had an excuse for everything when I was a kid. My daughter was more honest than that.
"Well, I suppose that, at your age, it's natural to want to pick on the boys you like, but you can't do that."
"I know. I'm sorry. I won't do it again."
Something about seeing my daughter so utterly dejected made me feel guilty. That mischievous behaviour came from me. When I was little, I was full of youthful vigor and virility, and incessantly chased after cute girls who caught my eye. I managed to keep myself more subdued these days, but I really couldn't restrain myself in the past.
Of course an intellectual girl like her would struggle with mischievous instincts. How hadn't I noticed it? Maybe because Rudi was always so mature I didn't even consider she might have a playful, childish side to her. But no—this wasn't the time to sympathize with her. I needed to give her proper guidance based on my experiences.
"Don't apologize to me," I said. "You need to apologize to Sylphy. Right?"
"Is Sylphy going to forgive me?"
"You don't apologize just because you hope to be forgiven right away." At this, my daughter looked even more despondent. In hindsight, it was clear she'd been infatuated with the boy from the very beginning. The whole fuss from a year ago was because she'd decided to protect him. And all she'd gotten for it was a smack from her old man.
Even after that, they'd played together almost every day, my daughter protecting him from the other kids. She had to keep up with both sword and magic training, but still made as much time for him as she could. She was so close to him that I think she even offered to give him her wand and magic textbook, which she valued more than anything.
I understood why she was feeling so glum at the idea that he might hate her now.
"Hey, it'll be all right," I said. "If you've never been mean to him before this, and if your apology comes from the heart, I'm sure he'll forgive you."
My daughter's face brightened at that, if only a tiny bit. She was a smart kid; she'd messed up this time, but she'd recover from it soon enough. Hell, maybe she'd find a way to turn this around completely and win his heart. It was both a promising and foreboding prospect.
Rudeia stood up from the bath, looked Sylphy in the eye, and said: "I'm sorry, Sylphy. You're really pretty and delicate, so I thought you were a girl this whole time!"
I'd always thought our daughter was perfect, but maybe she was a lot dumber than I'd thought. And that was the first time I'd ever thought that.
After a lot of apologies, compliments, and reassurances, I got Sylphy to forgive me somehow.
Paul looked at me as if he were dumbfounded at how I ever mistook him for a girl. But I never expected Sylphy would actually turn out to be a boy.
I suppose it really wasn't my fault. It seems the elven race tends to be more on the beautiful side just like in video games from my old world. Even the males weren't very masculine looking.
I guess the way he dressed didn't look like girls' clothing—just a plain shirt and trousers. In this world it was quite common for most girls to wear dresses or skirts, so if he'd never worn a skirt then I should have known he wasn't a girl.
Okay. I needed to calm down.
If I'd met him three years from now, I wouldn't have mistaken him for a girl. I only thought she was a cute girl because of my own preconceptions, not because he was androgynous or anything like that.
No, enough with that. Anything I said now would just be an excuse.
Learning that Sylphy was a boy changed my attitude. Seeing him with his girlish features made me feel kind of weird.
"You're really cute, Sylphy," I said. "I, uh, I really like your hair." I avoided his eyes and twiddle my thumbs while telling him that.
I figured it'd be easier for me to talk to him by starting with a compliment. And I wasn't lying when I said that. Sylphy may have hated his hair, but that emerald green color looks dazzling in the sunlight.
"No..." he said.
Ever since that incident, Sylphy had been wary of me. In particular, he conspicuously avoided physical contact. Since he always went along with whatever I'd proposed, I was kind of shocked.
"Oh..." I said. "Did you want to practice some more silent spellcasting today?"
I forced a smile to mask my feelings. Sylphy was my only friend. At least we could still play together. There might be some lingering awkwardness, but at least we were still hanging out together.
For today, I told myself, that would be good enough.
My skills, according to this world's standards, were as follows:
Sword God Style: Beginner; Water God Style: Beginner
Fire: Advanced; Water: Saint; Wind: Advanced; Earth: Advanced
Healing: Intermediate; Detoxification: Beginner
Healing magic was divided into the same seven ranks as usual, and comprised four schools: Healing, Protection, Detoxification, and Divine Strike. But these schools didn't come with cool-sounding titles like Fire Saint or Water Saint; you were simply called a Saintly-level Healing caster, or a Saintly-level Detoxification caster.
Healing magic, as the name implied, was used to heal injuries. Beginners would expend most of their effort simply to close up wounds, but it was said that people at the Imperial level could regrow lost limbs. But not even someone at the Divine level could bring a dead creature back to life.
Detoxifying magic helped to purge poisons and disease. At higher levels, one could create toxins, craft antidotes, and the like. Spells that dealt with abnormal status effects were all Saintly-level or higher, and were apparently quite difficult.
Protection magic included spells to increase one's defenses and create barriers. In simple terms, it was a form of support magic. I wasn't too clear on the details, but my understanding was that it included things like increasing your metabolism to heal minor wounds, or generating chemicals in the brain to numb you to pain. Rox couldn't use that kind of magic.
Spells in the Divine Strike school were apparently very effective at doing damage to ghost-type monsters and wicked demons, but such spells were the secret purview of human Priest Warriors. Not even the University of Magic taught this school. Rox couldn't use this kind, either.
I'd never seen a ghost before, but apparently they existed in this world?
It was rather inconvenient that you couldn't silently cast a spell without understanding the theory behind it. Elemental Attack magic, for instance, worked on scientific principles. I wasn't sure what principles, if any, applied to other spell types. I knew magic was like some kind of all-powerful element, but I didn't know how to rework it into doing just anything.
Take psychokinesis, for example: the ability to make objects float and come to your hand and all that stuff. Even if I thought that was something that could be reproduced with magic, I had no way of finding out how to reproduce the effect, since I'd never had psychic powers.
In the same vein, I remembered very, very little about how wounds healed, so I didn't think I could do Healing magic without incantations. If I had a doctor's know-how, I bet it would be a different story.
Beyond that, though, I was pretty sure I could reproduce most other effects through spells. Hey, maybe if I'd participated in sports, I'd have been better at my swordsmanship.
In retrospect, maybe I had wasted way too much of my past life.
No. It wasn't a waste. Sure, I didn't have a job or go to school, but it wasn't like I'd spent the whole time hibernating. I'd immersed myself in all sorts of video games and hobbies while everyone else was busy with things like studying or working. And all the knowledge, experience, and perspectives I'd gained from those games would be useful in this world.
Or, well, they ought to be. They hadn't really been, so far.
One day, I was outside doing sword training with Paul. Unwittingly, I let out a loud sigh.
I thought my father would be angry with me for being so obviously out of breath, but he flashed a grin instead.
"Hehehe. What's the matter, Rudi?" he asked. "Feeling down because Sylphy doesn't like you?"
That wasn't what I'd sighed
about, though. Granted, Sylphy was one of the things weighing on my mind. "Well, yeah. Sword practice isn't going so well, Sylphy is mad at me—yeah, I sighed."
Paul grinned again and thrust his wooden practice sword into the ground. He leaned against it and looked directly at me. Oh, please tell me he's not about to make fun of me...
"Want some advice from your dad?"
I hadn't expected that. I thought about it some. Paul—my dad—was a popular guy with the ladies. Zenith was definitely what you'd call beautiful, plus there was the whole thing with Mrs. Eto. Sometimes he'd flirt with Lilia, and the look on her face suggested she didn't mind at all. He had to have something: some way to keep people from hating you.
Granted, Paul was more the kind of person who acted on intuition, so I wasn't sure I'd understand him. Not to mention I was looking for a way to rebuild my friendship, I wasn't looking for a girl to roll around in bed with, but if nothing else, his advice would be food for thought. "Yes, please," I told him.
"Hmm. How to put this...?"
"Should I go and kiss his boots?"
"No, that's—wow, you got all servile all of a sudden."
"If you don't tell me, I'll let Mother know how you were making eyes at Lilia."
"This is a very high-pressure situ—whoa, hey! You saw that?" Paul balked. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry for acting high-and-mighty."
I'd only mentioned Lilia to bait the conversation into going my way, but...was he actually having an affair?
"Listen, Rudi," he said. "So, about men..."
"Although they like strong women, they also like their softer aspects."
"Ohh." I'd heard as much before. Did that have something to do with dominant instincts or whatever? The whole alpha male thing?
"Now, you've only been showing Sylphy the things that make you strong, haven't you?"
"Maybe? I haven't really noticed one way or the other."
"Think about it," Paul said. "If someone clearly stronger than you came at you with their intentions for you on full display, how would you feel?"
"Scared, I guess?"
"Exactly." I could only assume he was talking about what had happened on that day—the day I'd learned "she" was a he. "That's why you need to show him your softer side, too. Use your strengths to protect him, and he'll protect your weaknesses. That's how you keep a relationship going."
"Ohh!" That was simple to understand! I didn't think a vague guy like Paul was capable of such an explanation!
You couldn't just be strong, but you also couldn't just be weak. You had to be a little of both.
"But how do I show him where I'm weak?" I asked.
"That's simple. You're worried about stuff right now, aren't you?"
"Take what you're bottling up and share it with Sylphy. Say 'I've got a lot of stuff wearing me down, and having you avoid me is making me worry,' or something along those lines." Paul flashed a broad grin. It was an unsettling look. "If things go well, he'll bridge the gap. He might even console you. So, cheer up. You've got a friend who'll make things right with you. Anybody would be happy with that."
"Aha!" Now I got it! "B-but, wait, what if things don't work out?"
"If that happens, come to me. I'll teach what you do next."
Wait, this was a multi-stage plan? This guy was a total schemer!
"Oh, okay. I get it. Anyway, I'll be back!"
"Good luck!" Paul said, with a wave of his hand.
Unable to wait any longer, I dashed off. As I left, I could've sworn I heard him say one final thing.
"What the hell did I just teach my six-year-old daughter?"
I got to our spot under the tree earlier than usual, so Sylphy hadn't shown up yet. I'd brought my wooden practice sword, as always, but I hadn't cleaned up before heading out like I usually did, so I was all sweaty.
What should I do? There was nothing to be done, really. Times like this, I just had to do mental exercises. I swung my sword around as I ran through some simulations in my head. I'd shown him my strengths. Now I had to show my weaknesses. Weakness. How was I supposed to do that again? Ah, right—let him see that I was feeling down. But how? When was the right time? Should I just come out with it right away? That seemed like it'd be weird. Should I try to work it into the flow of the conversation? Could I do that, though? No—I would.
Caught up with thinking about this while idly swinging my sword, I must have loosened my grip, because the sword slipped right out of my hand. "Whoops!" I followed its path as it skittered along the ground, landing right at Sylphy's feet.
My mind went completely blank. Crap! What should I do? What should I say?!
"What's the matter, Rudi?" Sylphy was staring at me, his eyes wide. What was the matter? Was it because I'd shown up super early?
"Uhh...hmm...well... Y-you're... You're really cute, and I, err...wanted to see you, but, uh..."
"No, not that. The sweat."
"Hmff... Ahh... S-sweat? Whaddya mean?" I approached, causing him to flinch and recoil. As usual, he wouldn't let me get within a certain distance of him. It was like we were the same poles of two different magnets.
Sweat dripped off my forehead. My breathing leveled out.
I reached down to pick up the wooden sword in dejection, then I looked down, facing away from him. My shoulders slumped, and let out a heavy sigh.
"I feel like you don't like me anymore, Sylphy."
For a few moments, there was silence.
This felt awkward, I wasn't used to letting people see my true feelings. I've always hidden away my Remorse from those I care about,locking myself up in my room. I hoped showing Sylphy my vulnerable side wouldn't scare him off.
Suddenly, something grabbed my hand from behind. The sensation was warm and soft, and I looked to see Sylphy there.
Oho! He was close. Sylphy hadn't gotten this close to me in a long while.
"You know, Rudi, you've been acting really strange recently," he said, his face a touch lonesome as he said it.
That snapped me back to my senses. I mean, he was right. He didn't need to say it for me to know that I hadn't been treating him the same way I had before. From Sylphy's perspective, this change must have come completely out of nowhere. As sudden a switch as the moment a young man who's looking for marriage prospects discovers you've got a fair bit of money.
I wasn't acting like this because I enjoyed it. But how else was I supposed to deal with him? I couldn't well treat him the same way I had before. There was no way I wouldn't be nervous around a cute boy like him.
A cute, young boy around my age. I hadn't the foggiest how to be friends with someone like that.
If he were a girl, I could have leveraged the experiences from my past life when my I was younger. If I'd been an adult, or if Sylphy was more grown up, I could have gotten by with my knowledge of adult dating sims. But he was a boy my age. And besides, that wasn't even the sort of relationship I wanted with him. We were both way too young.
Well, for the time being, anyway. I definitely had high hopes for the future!
All that aside, this was a boy who had been bullied. Back when I'd been bullied, I didn't have anyone on my side. So, I wanted to be there for him. Boy or girl—it didn't matter. That much hadn't changed. Still, treating him the same way was just too hard. I was a girl, and I wanted to forge a good relationship with a cute boy.
Ugh. I just didn't know what to do. Maybe I should have asked Paul about this, too.
"I'm sorry," Sylphy said. "But Rudi, I don't hate you."
"S-Sylphy..." I must have had a pathetic look on my face, because he patted my head. Then, Sylphy flashed me a wonderful, carefree smile. It was so soft.
I was moved almost to the point of tears.
I had clearly been in the wrong, but he was the one who'd apologized. I took his hand and gripped it tightly in mine.
His face blushed red with surprise even as he gazed at me and said, "So, could you please just act normal?" Those upturned eyes of his added weight to his words.
Hidden away within me was the power I needed to make this decision. And so, I did.
That's right. What he hoped for was normalcy. A relationship the same as the one we'd always had. So, to the best of my ability, I would treat him normally, and do my best not to frighten or fluster him.
In other words...I would become one of them. I supposed I might as well.
It was time to be an oblivious protagonist.
I nodded and Slyphy smiled. Things still felt a little awkward, like when you fight with your friend and find it difficult to go back to how things used to be, but in time everything should return to normal.
The two of us sat down together and Sylphy started telling me a funny story about something that happened back home.
We laughed and smiled under the branches of that tree for the rest of the afternoon, sitting side by side in the shade. We didn't practice magic today, instead we just relished in each other's company.
I wish time could just freeze and we could stay like this forever.
One day, out of the blue, Zenith learned she was pregnant. I was going to have a little brother or sister. Our family was growing. Oh, Rudi, you lucky girl!
For a few years now, Zenith had been worried about her inability to conceive another child. I'd heard her mutter and sigh on occasion about how maybe she couldn't bear children anymore, but about a month earlier, there was a shift in her food cravings, along with nausea, vomiting, and a general sense of fatigue—in other words, symptoms of classic morning sickness. The feelings were familiar, and a trip to the doctor confirmed that her self-diagnosis was almost certainly correct.
The Greyrat household was abuzz at the announcement. What will we name the baby if it's a boy? What will we name it if it's a girl? We still have rooms, right? Oh, we can use Rudi's old clothes and hand-me-downs. There was no end to the topics to be discussed.
It was a day of bubbling joy and countless smiles. I was honestly very happy, hoping that I'd wind up with a little sister. A younger brother might break all of my precious things (with a baseball bat).
The problems didn't arise until about a month later.
Our maid, Lilia, had discovered that she was pregnant as well.
"I'm so sorry," she announced matter-of-factly to the family as we sat at the table. "I'm pregnant."
In that instant, the Greyrat family froze. Who was the father? But given the circumstances, nobody could bring themselves to ask.
Everyone had realized it on some level at least. Lilia was our maid. She sent almost all of her pay back home to her family. Unlike Paul, who frequently headed into town to help settle problems, or Zenith, who helped out at the local clinic at certain times, Lilia almost never left the house unless it was on work-related duties, and nobody had heard rumors about her developing an especially close relationship with anyone. Perhaps it had been a casual fling?
I knew the truth, though.
Ever since Zenith had gotten pregnant, Paul had been forced to go without sex. And he'd been sneaking into Lilia's room in the middle of the night. If I'd been an actual kid, I would have thought they were just playing cards or something.
Unfortunately, I knew all too well what was really going on. They weren't playing any game of Old Maid; there was playing around, and there was a maid involved, but this was no mere round of cards.
Still, I wish they'd been more careful. Which is probably what both of them were thinking, too.
Hello, boys and girls! The phrase of the day is "You can do it!" Today we'll be learning all about the importance of contraception!
Part of me wanted to say that to Paul with a completely deadpan face, but I wasn't sure if the concept of contraception was even a thing in this world. And obviously it wasn't like I wanted to tear the whole family apart by spilling the beans. Also, if I messed with the maid, I was pretty sure she'd never forgive me.
At the same time, however, Zenith shot a look right over at Paul, her shocked assumption plain on her face.
Conveniently enough, our gazes both fell upon Paul as one, bearing down on him.
"Uh, sorry," he blurted. "This child is, uh...probably mine."
Good grief. Really? Well, no; I suppose I should commend the man for being honest. I suppose that, since he constantly told me to "be honest" and "be sure to protect others" and "never impugn your sense of honor" and other high-and-mighty stuff like that day in and day out, the least he could do was practice what he preached.
Well, whatever. I couldn't say I hated him for it.
Anyway, this really was the worst-case scenario. That sentiment solidified as I watched Zenith draw herself up to her full height, her face livid, her hand rising into the air.
And thus was convened an emergency family meeting, with Lilia included.
It was Zenith who first broke the silence. She had the authority in this meeting. "So, what are we going to do?"
From what I could see, Zenith was as calm as anything; instead of going into a fit of hysterics over how her husband had cheated on her, she'd contented herself with a single smack. A red mark like a maple leaf spread across Paul's cheek.
"After I've assisted with the lady of the house's birth," Lilia said, "I assume I would take my leave from your home." She seemed rather level as well. Maybe this was a common occurrence in this world?
Paul was all huddled up in a corner. So much for paternal dignity.
"What about the child?" Zenith asked.
"I was thinking I would give birth here in Fittoa, and then raise the baby back in my hometown," Lilia replied.
"You're originally from the south, yes?"
"You're going to be physically exhausted after the birth," Zenith said. "You'll be in no condition to make a long journey."
"Perhaps so, but I have nowhere else to turn."
The Fittoa Region was in the northeastern part of the Asura Kingdom. Based on my understanding, to reach what was considered "the south" in this context took close to a month and required switching between multiple stagecoaches. Still, that was a month traveling through safe lands with good weather, and riding in stagecoaches wasn't terribly arduous.
That, however, was for a typical traveler. Lilia had no money. She couldn't afford to ride on stagecoaches, and would have go on foot. Even if the Greyrats paid for her travel expenses, that didn't make it any less risky. She'd be a woman, traveling by herself, having recently given birth. If a bad guy were to spot her, what would he do?
He would attack her. She was an obvious sitting duck, practically begging for someone to take a shot at her. Take the child hostage, keep the mother distracted with empty promises. Meanwhile, take all her money and possessions. I'd gathered that slavery was a thing in this world, so in the end, he'd sell off both mother and child, and that would be that.
Even if people said that the Asura Kingdom was the safest nation in the world, that didn't mean it was completely devoid of evildoers. I bet there was still a high likelihood of being attacked.
And like Zenith had said, there was also the physical aspect to consider. Even if Lilia did have the stamina to make it, what about the child? Could a newborn handle a month-long journey like that? Probably not.
Of course, if Lilia didn't survive the journey, neither would the child. Even if she simply fell ill, if she didn't have money to see a doctor, she was done for. I suddenly had the mental image of Lilia lying dead in the midst of a blizzard, baby cradled in her arms. I, for one, didn't want to see her suffer that sort of fate.
"Dear," Paul started to say, "surely she could just sta—"
"You keep your mouth shut!" Zenith snapped, cutting him off.
He shrank like a scolded child. This was definitely one instance where he had no right to speak. Paul was useless here.
Zenith chewed on her nails with a look of consternation. She was clearly conflicted as well. She didn't want Lilia to suffer; on the contrary, the two were quite good friends. Considering how they'd spent the last six years running this household together, it was probably fair to say they were best friends.
Well, except for the part about how Lilia was now carrying Paul's child.
If Lilia had gotten pregnant under any other circumstances, Zenith would have unquestionably sheltered her, and allowed her to—no, she would have insisted she raise the child in our home.
Based on the conversation, I surmised that abortion wasn't easily accessible in this world.
Zenith appeared to be grappling with two separate emotions: her fondness for Lilia and her feelings of betrayal. Considering the circumstances, I thought Zenith was pretty incredible for being able to set aside her emotions about the latter. If I were her, I'd have given in to jealousy.
The fact that Zenith was able to keep her cool seemed connected to Lilia's own attitude; she hadn't tried to talk her way out of anything, and had taken full responsibility for betraying a household she'd served for so long.
If you asked me, though, it was Paul who ought to be taking responsibility here. It was weird to lay the blame solely on Lilia. Very, very weird.
I couldn't allow us to part on such weird terms.
I decided that I was going to help Lilia.
I was indebted to her. We didn't do very much together, and she hardly ever talked to me, but she'd always been there, helping out. She set aside a towel for me to wipe away the sweat when I was practicing my swordsmanship; she drew me a bath when I got caught in the rain; she fetched me blankets on chilly nights; she rearranged the shelves when I put a book back in the wrong space.
She was always there to help me.
"Mother?" I asked, keeping my tone as childlike as I could. "How come everyone's acting so glum about how I'm going to have two new siblings at once?"
I wanted to give off the naïve impression of: Hey, if Lilia's pregnant, that means our family's getting even bigger! Hooray! Why's everyone so upset about that?
"Because your father and Lilia did something they shouldn't have," Zenith said with a sigh, an unfathomable rage mixed in with those words. But it wasn't directed at Lilia; Zenith knew full well who bore the brunt of the blame here.
"Oh, I see," I said. "But is Lilia allowed to go against Father's wishes?"
"What do you mean by that?" Zenith asked.
It was time for Paul to reap what he'd sown.
"Well, I know that Father has some leverage over her."
"What? Is this true?" Zenith said, looking over at Lilia in surprise.
Lilia was as stone-faced as ever, though she did raise a curious eyebrow, as if my assertion had been on the mark. I had my opening here.
"A while ago, I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and as I was passing by Lilia's room, I heard Father say something like... 'Spread your legs!'"
"Huh?!" Paul blurted. "Dammit, Rudi, what the hell are—"
"You shut up!" Zenith snapped, putting him in check. "Lilia, is this true?"
Lilia's gaze wandered. "Um, so, well, actually..." Was she playing along?
"Ah, I see," Zenith replied, seeming to come to an understanding of things. "You can't bring yourself to say it out loud."
Paul's eyes blinked over and over, his mouth opening and closing repeatedly like a goldfish's, no words coming out.
Perfect. Time to wrap this all up.
"Mother, I don't think Lilia is to blame."
"I suppose not."
"I think Father is to blame."
"I suppose so."
"It isn't right that Lilia is in such a hard position because of something that was Father's fault."
"Mmm. I suppose."
My mother's responses were more noncommittal than I'd hoped. I just needed to push a little further.
"I have fun playing with Sylphy every day, so I think it'll be really nice that my little brother or sister will have someone the same age to be friends with!"
"And besides, Mother, they'd both be little brothers or sisters to me!"
"All right, Rudi. I get it. You win." Zenith let out a heavy sigh.
Jeez, way to give me a hard time about it, Mom.
"Lilia, I insist you stay with us," Zenith pronounced. "You're family at this point! I am not letting you do something as foolish as leave!"
And that seemed to be the final word on the matter. Paul's eyes went wide; Lilia brought her hand to her mouth, holding back her tears.
All right, then. That was all done and settled.
And so, with all of the responsibility laid squarely on Paul, we got through things without further issue. By the end, Zenith was looking at him with the cold dispassion of someone who was about to slaughter a pig. My stomach tensed up in anticipation of what punishment she might unleash upon him. With that look still in her eyes, though, Zenith simply returned to her room.
Lilia was crying, her face blank and expressionless, but tears streamed from her eyes. Paul looked conflicted about whether he should put his arms around her or not. For the time being, I was going to let the playboy do his thing.
I followed after Zenith. If this situation wound up with her and Paul getting divorced, that would create its own host of problems.
I knocked on the bedroom door, and Zenith poked her head out. "Mother," I said, deciding to just cut right to the chase, "the stuff I said earlier was a lie I just made up. Please don't hate Father."
For a moment, Zenith was taken aback, but then she grimaced and gently patted my head. "
I know, sweetie. I would never have fallen in love with a man who was that terrible," she said. "Your father's got a weakness for women, so I'd prepared myself for the day something like this might happen."
"Father has a weakness for women?" I asked, playing ignorant.
"Yes. Not as much in more recent times, but back in the day he was pretty indiscriminate. You might have older brothers and sisters out there that we don't know about, Rudi." She then exerted a bit more pressure with the hand that was ruffling my hair. "Make sure you don't grow up to be someone like that, okay, Rudi?"
She rubbed—no, gripped the top of my head even more firmly. "Make sure you treat Sylphy real nice, okay, Rudi?"
"Ah, ow! Of course, Mother! Th-that hurts!" It almost felt like she'd nailed down what I was going to go on to do in the future.
Things would be all right if they stayed like this. Where they went from here—that was all on Paul now.
Still, it was tough knowing that my dad was such a damn hedonist. No more second chances from me.
The day after that, sword practice was exceedingly rough.
I was able to keep pace with him and all; I just wished he wouldn't take it out on me like that.
I'll just come out and say it: I was the one who seduced Paul.
I had no intention of doing such a thing when I first came to this house. But to hear them moaning night after night, to clean a room that smelled of a man and woman who were very satisfied—I had my needs, and they were building up.
At first, I was able to deal with those needs on my own. Watching Paul practicing swordsmanship in the yard every morning, however, stoked the fire inside me that had never completely died.
Watching him practicing swordsmanship reminded me of our first time.
We were still so young, back when he was staying at the training hall where we practiced. Paul snuck into my room at night, and that was that. I didn't dislike him, but I certainly didn't love him back. It wasn't exactly the most romantic encounter.
The next person who made advances toward me, though, was that bald, fat minister. That certainly put into perspective how much better things with Paul had been.
Also, when I heard that Paul was hiring a maid, I figured I could use what had happened back then as leverage in my negotiations.
Paul was a much manlier fellow than he'd been back then; any trace of boyishness had disappeared, replaced with the look of a man who'd refined himself both physically and mentally. At the sight of him, one of the first thoughts to cross my mind was that the past six years had certainly been kind to him.
At first, Paul didn't try to make any moves on me. Every so often, though, he'd flirt just a little, and that worked me up all the more. I was able to resist, but I was fully aware that I was walking a very thin line.
All of that came crashing down when Zenith got pregnant.
Knowing that Paul had an abundance of libido, I got it in my head that this was my opportunity. I saw my chance, and I invited Paul into my room. So, this really was partly my own fault.
But I was forgiven. Rudeia forgave me. That clever child, she managed to correctly deduce what had happened, lead the conversation precisely where it needed to go, and even brought things to an elegant compromise. She was so level and calculating about it, as if she had some similar prior experience to go on.
It was an unsettling—no, best to quit while I was still ahead.
Rudeia weirded me out, and so I made a point to avoid her as much as I could. The girl was smart; she probably realized I was avoiding her. Even so, she had saved me. I couldn't imagine that felt good for her, but she chose me and my child over her own feelings.
I would owe her for that for the rest of my life. She was someone who deserved my respect.
Yes, she did deserve it. I would owe her a debt for as long as I lived. So, once the child in my belly was safely born, and once they were grown up, I would see that they made their way into young Master Rudeia's service.
Several months passed without anything especially major happening.
Sylphy was growing remarkably fast. He was now able to cast Intermediate-level spells without incantations, and he was reaching the point where he could pull off some pretty subtle effects. In comparison, my skill with the sword was relatively unchanged. I'd gotten decent, but I hadn't managed to win a single round against Paul so far, so it was difficult to get too excited about my progress.
Lilia's attitude had softened as well. Previously, she'd always been on her guard around me—but since I'd been messing around with magic since I was a little kid, that was only natural.
While nothing had really changed about her lack of overt emotion, I felt her words and her mannerisms now bore an overwhelming sense of reverence for me. I got that she was happy about my help, but I wished she'd tone it down.
If nothing else, ever since that incident, Lilia had begun to talk to me a little—mostly old stories about Paul. Apparently, they had both studied swordsmanship at the same training hall many years back. She told me things, like how Paul had been very talented back then, but hated to practice. Or how Paul would skip training in order to gallivant around town. Or how Paul had snuck into her room in the middle of the night and taken away her virtue. Or how Paul had eventually fled the training hall.
Bit by bit, Lilia opened up to me about all that. The more she told me about the past, the more my opinion of Paul dropped. He was a cheater and a womanizer. He was trash.
It wasn't like he was rotten to the core, just weak. He was childish, irresponsible, and something about that seemed to tickle women's maternal instincts. He tried to be a good, strict father to me, but he wasn't good at keeping up that facade; when he set his mind to it, he mostly just came across as frank and straightforward, and I knew for sure he wasn't a bad guy through and through.
"C'mon, look at me," Paul said, pulling me out of my daze. We were in the middle of sword practice. "Don't you want to grow up to be cool like your dad?"
The nerve of this guy, honestly. "Is it cool to be a guy who cheats on his wife and risks tearing his family apart?"
"Ngh..." Paul grimaced. At the look on his face, I resolved to be a bit more careful. I was supposed to be young and oblivious.
"Look," I said, "if that bothers you so much to hear, could you please keep your hands off of anyone who isn't Mother?"
"O-other than Lilia, right?"
This man had learned nothing.
"Next time, Mother might move back in with her family without saying a word, you know."
Was this guy hoping to build himself a harem? To have some secret retirement out in the sticks, where he had a beautiful wife, a maid he could get handsy with whenever he wanted, and a daughter to train in the way of the sword? Huh. That was probably the best ending from his perspective.
But it wasn't for me. I remembered the look in Zenith's eyes when that family meeting of ours came to a close. Did I want to be in the same situation as her one day? I don't want a cheating husband thank you very much.
"I mean, you have the Greyrat genes," Paul said. "You know how it is." He was still refusing to back down.
I rolled my eyes at that comment. I was nothing like him, I like to think I inherited all kg my genes from my mother's side.
"What would a six-year-old girl know?" I shot.
"Well, take Sylphy; you're into him, aren't you? He's going to be handsome when he grows up."
Well, I sure couldn't disagree with him there. "I guess you're right. Though I think he's pretty cute right now."
"So then you do understand."
"this and that have nothing to do with one another..."
I looked to see Paul grinning and chuckling. His gaze wasn't directed at me, but rather behind me. I turned around and saw Sylphy standing there. It was rare of him to come to our house.
On closer inspection, he was blushing ever so slightly, his hands fidgeting. He must have overheard me.
"Go on, repeat what you just said for him," Paul said.
I turned away as a hot blush spread across my face. Guess Paul still had a ways to go.
Even heartfelt words eventually lost their impact if you heard them so often you got used to them. Repeating those words now was a no-go. So I just flashed Sylphy a wordless grin and offered him a wave instead. Besides, Sylphy was only six years old; it was a decade too early for that sort of conversation.
"Um, I mean... I... I think you're cute, too, Rudi."
"Oh! Uh, t-thanks, Sylphy!" I grinned wide to cover up my embarrassment from his comment.
Sylphy was excellent at being polite; I nearly mistook that look in his upturned eyes for sincerity. I'd certainly meant it when I'd said he was cute, but there were no romantic feelings behind that.
Not right now, anyway.
"All right, Father. We're going to head out," I said.
"Don't go rolling around in the hay out there, okay?"
Oh, come on! As if I would! This is me we're talking about, not you.
"Mother!" I started to call. "Father is—"
"Gah! No, stop!"
And so, today our house would be a peaceful one yet again.
Soon after that, Zenith gave birth.
It was a rough experience, a breech birth. With Lilia gravid as she was, she called for a midwife from the village, an older woman, but even she said the situation was hopeless. That's how bad it was.
The birth took quite some time, with both mother and child at risk. Lilia put all of her combined knowledge to work, and I assisted by continually casting Healing spells, even though I wasn't great at them.
All told, our efforts worked, and the birth was a success. The baby came safely into this world, letting out its first, healthy cries.
It was a girl. I had a little sister. I was glad it wasn't a little brother.
Our relief was short-lived, however, as Lilia went into labor as well. We were all already exhausted, our guards down. The words "premature birth" flittered through my mind.
This time, however, the midwife was able to play her part. While she might not have been good with breech births, premature births were something she claimed to have experience in. Age really did bring wisdom, sometimes.
I did as the midwife instructed, kicking Paul in the butt to snap him out of his daze and have him bring Lilia to my room. While he was taking care of that, I used magic to prepare a new bath for the soon-to-be newborn, gathered up all the clean cloths and towels we had, and went back to the midwife.
I let her handle things from there.
The moment the baby was born, Lilia boldly cried out Paul's name. He was at her side, dripping with sweetness, clutching her hand.
The baby was smaller than Zenith's, but let out the same kind of healthy cries all the same. This one was a girl as well. Two little sisters. That made three daughters in total. Paul chuckled sheepishly to himself even as he mused about both of his new children being girls. For the second time that day, I got to see the big, dumb grin of a new parent on his face.
Paul was in an unenviable position, however. The women in our household had now doubled in number. Who was going to wind up on the bottom of the totem pole in that situation? Probably the guy who cheated with the maid and knocked her up.
I was hoping to establish myself as the cool older sister; no way was Paul getting any respect.
Zenith's daughter was named Norn.
Lilia's daughter was named Aisha.
I was now seven years old.
My two little sisters, Norn and Aisha, were growing quickly. They cried when they peed themselves, they cried when they pooped themselves, they cried when they were upset about something, and they cried even when they weren't. They'd cry in the middle of the night, and they'd cry first thing in the morning, and when afternoon rolled around, there'd be some particularly energetic wailing.
Before long, Paul and Zenith were having a shared nervous breakdown. The only one who kept her cool was Lilia.
"See!" she said, tending skillfully to the two girls, as she usually did. "Now this is what childrearing is! Things with young Rudeia were much too easy! You could hardly call that real childrearing!"
In my case, I was already used to crying babies, thanks to my younger brother from my last life, so it didn't bother me much. And, not to brag, but I had experience in looking after babies—again, thanks to my brother—so I'd briskly change diapers and help out with the laundry and the cleaning. Paul would watch me, looking quite embarrassed for himself. Much like a Japanese man born before World War II, he didn't know how to do anything around the house.
Certainly, his skills with the sword were undeniable, and the people of the town held him in esteem, but he was only half the man he needed to be in order to be a dad.
And this was his second time around, too. Good grief.
Paul might have been human garbage, but I could say this much for him: He was good with a sword. These were his skills:
Sword God Style: Advanced.
Water God Style: Advanced.
North God Style: Advanced.
Yeah. Advanced in all three schools. To put that into perspective, they said that it took a talented individual a good ten years of dedication to reach the Advanced level in a given school. To put it in kendo terms, it was somewhere around fourth or fifth dan. Intermediate level was somewhere around first through third dan, and was the rank at which someone was considered a full-fledged knight. To reach Saintly level required the skill of someone the equivalent of sixth dan or higher, but that's irrelevant here.
Essentially, Paul possessed skills equivalent to someone who'd reached fourth dan in kendo, judo, and karate—and he'd given up on all of those before finishing his training. He made a poor excuse for an adult, but in terms of strength, the man was a certifiable badass. Moreover, for someone only in his mid-twenties, he had an almost scary amount of real-world combat experience.
That experience had made him both cunning and pragmatic. It was an intuitive thing, so I barely made sense of half of it, but I could tell that he was the real deal. In my two years of training under Paul, I hadn't even broken out of the Beginner level. Maybe that might change after my physique developed more in a few years, but for now, no matter what mental simulations I ran, I couldn't see myself defeating him. Even if I made full use of my spell catalog and tried every dirty trick I could, victory didn't feel within my grasp at all.
I had seen Paul do battle with monsters before.
Actually, it was more accurate to say he showed me. He'd gotten some reports that monsters had turned up, and so he'd dragged me along so I could watch from a distance, saying that "seeing a battle would be a good experience" for me.
And I'll be honest, here: It was pretty damn amazing.
Paul was up against four monsters. Three of them were what we called Assault Dogs, canine monsters that moved about like trained Dobermanns. The fourth was a bipedal, four-armed porcine monstrosity known as a Terminator Boar. The boar had emerged from within the forest with the three dogs in formation behind him.
Paul handled them with ease, beheading the lot of them in a single stroke.
I'll say it again: It was pretty damn amazing.
His fighting style had a certain beauty to it—a mysterious rhythm that made your heart race, yet put you at ease while watching. I had no good way to explain it, but if I had to boil it down to one word, I'd say it was charisma.
Paul's fighting style had charisma. It earned absolute trust from the men in his command, won Zenith's heart and Lilia's lust, and even stoked the passions of Mrs. Eto. He was the most desirable guy in the whole entire village.
Charisma aside, I was grateful to have Paul around—to have someone more powerful than me so close by. If he hadn't been around, I might have grown up to be an arrogant punk. I would've let my skill in magic convince me to challenge some monsters to a fight, and, unable to handle a pack of Assault Dogs, I'd have wound up getting torn to literal pieces.
And if the monsters didn't do it, people would have. If I'd let my skills go to my head, I'd definitely have picked a fight with someone I couldn't beat. It was a common story, and I'd have deserved whatever came to me, too.
Swordsmen in this world had skills beyond what I was used to. They could run at speeds approaching fifty kilometers per hour, and their reflexes and ability to track movement were quite impressive. Thanks to the existence of Healing magic, death from injury was something that could be staved off, so these swordsmen were practiced in killing their foes in a single stroke. In a world where monsters existed, it only made sense for people to grow so powerful.
Still, even Paul was only at the Advanced level. There were plenty of people higher up the rankings within the official framework alone. And there were enough world-famous individuals and monsters out there that Paul couldn't hope to defeat even if he had backup helping him.
There's always a bigger fish, after all.
I was grateful for Paul teaching me to wield a sword. Other than that, though, he was still no good as a dad. He was like an Olympic gold medalist who also happened to be a convicted criminal.
One day, I was working on my sword practice with Paul, as I usually did. Once again, I could tell I wasn't going to beat him that day. I probably wouldn't beat him the day after, either. Lately, I hadn't felt the sense that I was improving at all. Still, if I didn't do anything, I definitely wasn't going to get better.
Besides, even if I wasn't feeling that sense of improvement, my body was still internalizing the practice. Probably. I mean, it had to be, right?
As I was mulling that over, Paul broke the silence.
"By the way, Rudi," he said, as if suddenly remembering something, "about school..." He quickly broke off. "No, you probably don't need that. Never mind. Let's get back to it." He brought his practice sword to bear, as if nothing had happened.
I wasn't going to let that slide. "What do you mean, school?" I asked.
"There's an educational institution in Roa, the capital of Fittoa, where they teach things like reading and writing, arithmetic, history, etiquette, and that sort of thing."
"I've heard of it."
"Normally, you'd start going there around your age, but...you probably don't need to? You already know how to read and write and do sums, right?"
I let everyone think that Rox had taught me arithmetic. With two new baby girls, the financial situation at home had gotten rather tough, and with Zenith constantly poring over our accounts ledger, I'd decided to help her out—to her great shock. It had looked like there was going to be another uproar over what a genius I was, so I'd blurted out Rox's name to fend that off.
And hey, if that made their estimation of Rox go up as a result, all the better.
"I'm interested in school, though," I said. "There'd be a lot of other children around my age there, right? Maybe I could make some friends."
Paul swallowed, as if he had a lump in his throat. "I mean it's not all that great a place. Etiquette is just stuffy nonsense, knowing history doesn't help with anything, and you're definitely going to get bullied. A bunch of local noble brats will be there, sure, but they just get all bitchy whenever they're not number one. With a kid like you there, they'll probably form a clique and push you around. And my father was a marquis, so with you being of even lower standing than I was, you'll be seen as even more of an upstart."
Paul's rundown sounded like it was coming from personal experience. He'd run away from home because he was disgusted by his rigid father and the corrupt nobility. Etiquette and history were an inescapable part of being a proper Asuran noble, so he must have found those subjects tough to tolerate.
An unmistakable tension filled the air between us as we talked.
"Really?" I asked. "I would've figured that noblemen had some pretty cute sons."
"Let me stop you right there. Noble brats fuss obsessively over their hairdo and clothing, and reek of cologne. I mean, sure, some of them practice swordsmanship, but the bulk of them keep their bodies hidden underneath their fancy coats, and you can't tell what's what until you see them with their clothes off. Your dad's been tricked many times on that front with noble women." Paul had a distant look in his eyes as he spoke.
Ugh. There he went again. What a heap of rubbish.
"Maybe I won't go to school, then," I said. There was still a lot of stuff I wanted to teach Sylphy, for starters. And I'd have to be crazy to go someplace where I knew for sure I'd be bullied. I hadn't been a shut-in for close to twenty years just for show.
"Good call," Paul said. "If you ever feel like schooling, you can just become an adventurer and go delving in some labyrinths."
"Yeah. Hitting up labyrinths is great. The ladies there don't wear makeup, so you can tell at a glance who's pretty and who's not. And whether they're swordswomen or soldiers or wizards, they're all in great shape."
Okay, setting the garbage bits of all that aside, based on what I'd read, labyrinths were a kind of monster themselves. They started as simple caverns, but were altered by accumulations of magical energy, transforming them into labyrinths.
At the deepest part of the labyrinth was a magical crystal you could think of as the power source, which was protected by a boss that acted as the guardian. This magical crystal was bait, exuding a powerful, attractive energy. Monsters were drawn in by that energy and made their way into the labyrinth, where they fell victim to traps, starved to death, or were killed by the boss that guarded the crystal; the labyrinth then absorbed the magical essence of those dead monsters.
However, newly formed labyrinths often had their magical crystals devoured by monsters instead, or the crystal was shattered by the cavern collapsing. Hearing that some of them met clumsy ends made them seem all the more like living creatures.
But monsters weren't the only thing drawn in by these magical crystals. Humans found them quite tempting as well. The crystals could be used as catalysts for certain spells, and they fetched a rather high price. The price went up with size, but even a small one would bring in enough to afford someone a full year of easy living. And while these magical crystals were the only treasures the monsters cared about, that wasn't the case for humans.
As time passed, the equipment that belonged to the monsters and adventurers that the labyrinth had devoured would grow imbued with magical energy. They became a new sort of bait: magical items.
Magical items differed from magical implements in that they could be used without drawing upon the wielder's own magical energy. Most magical items, however, didn't come with useful abilities; the majority of them had powers that were garbage. Still, there was a chance that you might find one among them that gave the user the abilities of someone who was a Saintly-level magician. Items like this sold for a fortune, and people delved into labyrinths with dreams of striking it rich quick.
The bulk of them fell before they could reach their prize, however, their deaths feeding the labyrinth as it took their magical essence and used it to grow larger and deeper. This was how long-standing labyrinths came to have their depths filled with hoards of treasure.
The oldest and deepest known labyrinth was the Pit of the Dragon God, situated at the foot of the holy Mount Dragoncry in the Red Wyrm mountain range. From what I'd read, it had been around for at least ten thousand years, and was estimated to contain some twenty-five hundred floors.
Apparently, this colossal dungeon was connected to a hole at the pinnacle of Mount Dragoncry itself. By leaping into it, you could presumably plunge right to the very deepest floor, but no one who tried that stunt ever made it back alive.
That "hole" wasn't a volcanic crater or anything, by the way. The labyrinth itself had supposedly created it in order to consume red dragons; when one flew by, the Pit would suck it into its maw.
There wasn't much proof to support that particular myth. But it wouldn't have been too surprising, given that the Pit was a truly ancient monster.
As for the most purely challenging labyrinths... you had the aptly-named Hell, located on the Divine Continent, and Devil's Cave, which sat in the middle of the Ringus Sea. Both of these were brutally difficult even to reach, meaning it was all but impossible to resupply once you arrived. Given their great depths, and the fact that you couldn't really take your time exploring them, they'd earned a reputation as the toughest tests an adventurer could face.
That was basically the extent of my knowledge on this topic at the moment.
"I've read a bit about labyrinths..."
"Ah. The Three Swordsmen and the Labyrinth, right? Exploring a legendary dungeon like that's a sure way to get your name into the history books. Ever thought about giving it a shot yourself?"
The Three Swordsmen and the Labyrinth was the tale of three brilliant young fighters who would come to be known as the Sword God, the Water God, and the North God. The book began with their initial meeting and followed them through a series of twists and turns that led them to challenge a huge labyrinth together. There was plenty of conflict, laughter, and male bonding along the way, as well as a few painful farewells; in the end, naturally, they achieved their goal triumphantly.
The labyrinth in that book only went down about a hundred floors, but it was bad enough.
"Isn't that just a story, though?"
"Nope. They say the three great styles we've passed down through the generations were born inside that labyrinth."
"Hmm, really? But those guys became Divine-class swordsmen, and they had all sorts of trouble... I don't think I'd last five minutes in that place."
"Hey, I used to poke around in labyrinths all the time, okay? You'd be fine."
Paul rolled right into the story of a young Oni man who teamed up with a group of human warriors to enter a labyrinth full of fishmen, and their eventual victory at the cost of several comrades.
Before I had time to process that one, he moved on to the tale of an incompetent magician who accidentally fell into a labyrinth, joined a party that happened to have lost its own magician, and discovered his latent talents in the heat of battle.
It kind of felt like Paul had been rehearsing this conversation in advance.
Come to think of it... he wanted me to be a swordsman, didn't he? I guess the plan was to barrage me with stories of adventure and fill my head with dreams of labyrinths and dramatic battles.
I wouldn't say I was uninterested, especially when it came to the labyrinths themselves. But on the whole, it sounded way too dangerous.
The people in that book tended to meet their ends pretty damn abruptly, for one thing. The three swordsmen weren't the only characters, of course, but they were the only ones who survived their expedition.
One of their allies got charred to a crisp in the middle of a conversation by a fireball that came flying out of nowhere. Another one fell through a hole in the floor and went splat. Oh, and then there was that guy who got chopped in half the moment he poked his head out of cover. Even warriors strong enough to easily take down fearsome monsters were slaughtered by traps the instant they got a little careless.
Being the protagonists and all, our three heroes made their way past these obstacles unscathed, but I doubted a clumsy person like me could manage that. I was the oblivious type, after all.
"What d'you think? Adventuring might be pretty fun, too, right?"
"Come on, you can't be serious."
Why would I deliberately put myself in highly risky situations just to get a thrill? A relaxed life full of men—just like Paul's life full of women—seemed way more appealing.
"I think I'm more inclined to spend my life living comfortably and carefree."
"Oho. I guess you get that from your mother!"
"Good, I wouldn't want to be anything like my deadbeat dad."
"Ouch that hurts," he said with mock sadness. "But don't you want to at least find love like I did?"
I pondered over his question for a bit. It's not that I didn't want to find love, it's more that for so long love seemed impossible for me so I've always put it on the backburner as a fantasy that will never come true.
I smiled a bit while looking down, suddenly embarrassed. "Well I guess finding a husband would be nice, if that dream could ever become a reality."
Paul pointed behind me with a grin. I turned around to find myself face to face with a very sulky-looking Sylphy.
Perfect timing, moron.
I'd been spending a lot of time indoors with Sylphy recently, walking him through the basics of math and science. It seemed like the quickest way to help him understand how silent spellcasting really worked in detail.
Unfortunately, I'd left school after junior high in my previous life. While I'd technically gotten into some high school for morons, I'd dropped out almost immediately.
As a result, there was a real limit to how much I could teach him. Book learning wasn't everything, sure...but I was starting to get angry at myself for not having taken my studies a bit more seriously.
By now, Sylphy had mastered the basics of reading and writing, and could handle multiplying two-digit numbers. The times table had been something of a struggle, but the boy clearly wasn't dumb. He'd probably pick up division soon enough as well.
I was also teaching him some fundamental science, in parallel with magic.
"Why does water turn into, uh...vapor when you heat it up?"
"Well, water naturally dissolves into air, but it takes some heat for that to happen. So, the hotter it gets, the more easily it dissolves."
Today, we were covering the cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.
From the look on Sylphy's face, it was clear he didn't really understand what I was saying. Still, he'd proven himself a quick learner in general. Probably because he always paid attention and tried his best.
"Uhm... Basically, anything melts if you get it hot enough, okay? And if it gets colder again, it turns back into a solid."
I wasn't a teacher or anything, so this was the best I could manage.
Sylphy was cleverer than me anyway. He'd probably try a few things out himself until it all made sense to him. Thanks to magic, you didn't really need tools to experiment with stuff like this.
"Anything can melt? Even stuff like rocks?"
"Yep. You'd need some really intense heat, though."
"Could you melt one, Rudi?"
"Of course." Not that I'd ever tried.
Still, when I really focused, I could now roughly distinguish between the different elements in the air around me. I could probably just pump oxygen and hydrogen into a rock until it melted.
Incidentally, there was also a spell called Magma Gusher that let you create a spontaneous burst of lava. I felt like that one had to be some combination of earth and fire magic, but it was classed as an Advanced-level fire spell.
They liked to divide things neatly into their different disciplines here, but it was all interrelated. And pumping more raw magical power into your spells wasn't the only way to make them stronger; by manipulating combustible gases, for example, you could produce intense heat more efficiently.
I'd figured all that out by now. But not much else.
My skill as a magician hadn't really improved since Rox left. I'd just been finding ways to combine my current spells, use them more effectively, and increase their power with some minor scientific tweaks.
At a glance, it probably looked like I was growing stronger...but it felt more like I'd hit a dead end. Given my current level of knowledge, I might never manage to do anything more challenging than what I could pull off now.
Back in my former life, it was easy enough to find information on the internet when I needed it, but there wasn't anything so convenient in this world.
Maybe I really did need someone to teach me...
"Hmm. School, huh...?"
Rox had mentioned that schools for magicians tended to have very strict rules and standards, but maybe I could find some way to get into one.
"Are you going to a school, Rudi?"
Apparently, I'd been thinking out loud. Sylphy turned to look at me, an anxious expression on his face.
The movement left his emerald green hair swaying slightly. He'd been growing it out a little lately...
Before it was cut really short, probably because Sylphy hated the colour and wanted to get rid of it as much as possible. But now he was letting it grow out to a normal length, probably because I'd kept dropping casual comments about how much I loved his hair.
"No, I'm not planning on it. Father says I'd be bullied so mercilessly that I wouldn't learn a thing."
"But you've been acting kind of strange again..."
That was news to me. Had I screwed up again? I'd been trying so hard to keep up the "totally oblivious" act around him, too...
"I've been strange ever since I was a baby, according to my parents."
I was trying to probe for details with a little joke, but Sylphy frowned and shook his head.
"That's not what I meant. You seem kind of sad lately."
I was worried I'd done something to upset him again, but apparently, he was just concerned about me.
"Well, I haven't made that much progress lately, you know? I'm not getting any better with magic or the sword."
"But you're already amazing, Rudi..."
"For my age, maybe."
True, there probably weren't that many children in this world on my level. But that said, I hadn't yet accomplished much of anything.
My "skill" with magic came partially from my memories of my previous life, and partially from my initial breakthrough with the silent spellcasting. Those two factors had given me a leg up over most people. But now that I'd hit this wall, I couldn't find a way past it. The fact that I could remember thirty-four mostly wasted years wasn't that much help anymore.
It was easy to curse myself for not having studied when I had the chance, but what was done was done. And of course, facts from my former world wouldn't necessarily apply to this one anyway. This place had its own set of rules I needed to discover.
I couldn't just lean on my old memories forever.
Magic was the fundamental law here. And to understand it, I needed to understand this world.
"Still, I feel like it's about time I took my next step forward, you know?
Sylphy was improving steadily at magic, and getting smarter by the day. Watching him progress was starting to make me feel a little pathetic. I was just treading water by comparison.
For the moment, I could still think of myself as the oblivious protagonist of this story. But unless I got my arrogant butt in gear, this boy was going to leave me in the dust someday.
His frown only deepening, Sylphy pressed me further. "Are you gonna go somewhere?"
"Well, maybe," I answered. "Father did say I should give exploring labyrinths a shot, and there isn't that much I can do in this village... I'll probably end up going to some school or trying the adventurer thing, I guess."
I'd spoken casually, without giving it too much thought. But for some reason...
"N-no!" Sylphy cried out and threw his arms around me.
W-what? Don't tell me this is a confession scene?! No, I'm not ready just yet!
But even as the thought was running through my mind, I realized he was trembling.
"No... No... No!"
The boy was squeezing me so hard it was difficult to breathe. Not sure how to respond, I fell silent for a moment.
"Don't... Don't go, Rudi! Hic... Waaaah!"
Apparently interpreting this negatively, Sylphy burst into tears. Little shoulders shuddering, he proceeded to bury his face in my chest.
Huh? Seriously? Uh, what's going on here?
For the moment, the boy clearly needed comforting, so I stroked his head and rubbed his back. I wrapped my arms around Sylphy.
When I buried my face in his hair, I discovered that it smelled extremely nice.
Can I just...keep him? Please?
"Hic... Please, Rudi... Don't... Don't go away..."
Whoops. Snap out of it, stupid.
It made perfect sense, really.
For a while now, Sylphy had been coming over to our house first thing in the morning almost every day. He would happily watch me practice my swordsmanship, after which we moved on to magic and his studies.
If I suddenly left, Sylphy's whole daily routine would disappear, and he'd go right back to being a loner. He could fend off bullies with his magic now, but it wasn't like he'd made any other friends.
The more I thought about it, the more affection I felt for him. I was the only one Sylphy cared about this deeply. He was mine, and mine alone.
"I get the message, okay? I won't go anywhere."
How could I even think of tossing a sweet little boy like this aside and wandering off somewhere? To do what? Improve my magic?
To hell with that. I could already cast Advanced and Saintly spells. That was good enough to make a living as a tutor, the way Rox did. So why couldn't I just stay here with Sylphy until we were old enough to get by on our own?
Sounded pretty good to me.
We'd grow up together...and maybe we could even get married one day...
Crap! No. No. Bad thoughts. Bad thoughts. What happened to the whole "oblivious" thing, buddy? You're getting way too far ahead of yourself. That said...there's nothing in the rulebook that says an oblivious protagonist can't build a romance with their childhood friend, right?
Gah! What am I thinking?!
The kid is only six years old for crying out loud. He was clearly very fond of me, but he wasn't capable of feeling romantic love yet.
So, uh... yeah. Let's put all that on hold.
What if we ended up growing apart, though? His affection meter was maxed out for now, but there was no guarantee it would stay that way forever. Could I live with myself if it dropped to zero?
No. Hell no! Seriously, he's so soft and warm and fluffy! And he smells so freakin' good!
He's baring his soul to me right now, and I'm supposed to just sit here slack-jawed?! That's so messed up! We both know how we feel, so we should just confess! Why force myself to waste precious time? Why not just admit I made the wrong call?!
That does it. I've decided!
I'm...I'm oblivious no more, Sylphy!
"Hey, Rudi...letter for you."
At this point, Paul barged into the room, pulling me out of my own little world—and not a moment too soon. Startled, I pulled away from Sylphy.
My dear father probably deserved some gratitude for that one. I'd been about two minutes away from making a very pathetic confession.
Still, a woman's endurance had its limits. I'd managed to weather this storm, but there was no telling what might happen next time.
The letter I received that day was from Rox, as it happened.
How have you been?
It's hard to believe, but I suppose two years have flown by since we parted.
Things have finally settled down a bit on my end, so I thought I'd take the chance to write.
At the moment, I'm staying in the royal capital of the Kingdom of Shirone. In the course of exploring various labyrinths, it seems I've made something of a name for myself, so I ended up getting hired to tutor a certain prince.
Teaching him brings back memories of the time I spent in the Greyrat household. For one thing, the prince is actually quite a bit like the young lady I tutored there. While not quite as talented as you, he's a quick-witted boy and a budding young magician in his own right. Regrettably, he's also prone to stealing underwear and peeping on women when they're changing. His personality's a bit on the pompous side, and he's considerably more energetic. Perhaps ambitious men are all sex-crazed animals at heart?
Hmm. Maybe I shouldn't be writing this. If anyone were to read it, they might toss me in the dungeon for besmirching the honor of the royal family.
I'll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it. It's not like I mean any of this in a bad way, really.
In any case, it seems the royal court is planning to appoint me as a "court magician" for the duration of my stay. There's still a great deal of magical research I'm itching to pursue, so that should work out quite nicely.
Oh, that reminds me—I've finally managed to get the hang of casting Kingly-level water spells. The royal library here happened to have some helpful books on the subject.
Back when I first mastered Saintly-level magic, I thought that was the best I could ever do, but it seems a bit of good old-fashioned effort goes a long way.
I wouldn't be surprised if you're already casting Imperial-level water spells by now, Rudeia. Or maybe you broadened your horizons and reached the Saintly level in a different discipline? I know how voracious your thirst for knowledge is, so I could certainly see you dabbling in Healing or Summoning as well.
Then again, maybe you chose to focus on your swordsmanship instead. I'd be a bit disappointed, to be honest, but I'm positive you'd make your mark on the world either way. Personally, I'm aiming to become a Water Divine-level magician.
Like I mentioned before...if you ever find yourself hitting a dead end in your magical studies, go get yourself admitted to the Ranoa University of Magic. Without a letter of recommendation, you'll need to pass an entrance exam. But I don't think that should pose you any difficulty at all.
Well then, until we meet again—
P.S. It's quite possible I will have left the royal court by the time your reply reaches it, so don't feel obliged to respond.
Well, damn. Talk about a wake-up call.
It took a moment for me to find the Kingdom of Shirone on the map. It was a small country in the southeastern part of the Central Continent.
Not so far away from here as the crow flies, but the mountain range in between was infested with red dragons, making it totally impassable. You'd have to take the long way around and approach it from the south.
For all intents and purposes, Shirone was a far-off land.
And as for Ranoa, home to that university of magic...you'd need to take a big loop around to the northwest to get there.
At least now I knew why Rox had never told me anything about magic above the Kingly level. He didn't know any better spells himself at the time.
I decided to write a brief, vague reply to the letter. No need to explain the sad truth about my current situation. The boy seemed to have a mental image of me as some sort of genius, and I didn't want to disappoint him.
Anyway...the Ranoa University of Magic, huh?
Rox always made it sound like an amazing place. But it wasn't exactly close to home, and I couldn't just abandon Sylphy here.
What to do?
For the moment, I finished my letter.
The next day, I waited until my family was gathered at the dinner table, and then made my move.
"Father, can I make a selfish request?"
Only to be shot down instantly.
Fortunately, Paul's response earned him a good hard smack to the head from Zenith, who was seated at his side. And a follow-up attack from Lilia, who was seated on his other side.
Ever since that whole mess with the unexpected pregnancy, Lilia had been joining us at the dinner table instead of waiting on us like a maid. It seemed like she was officially part of the family now.
Was polygamy...even a thing in this country?
Ah, well. Not my problem!
"You just tell your father what you want, Rudi. He'll make it happen," said Zenith, with a sidelong glare at her husband—who was currently cradling his head in his hands.
"Rudeia has never asked for much. This is a golden opportunity to demonstrate some paternal dignity, Master Paul," Lilia added supportively.
After resettling himself in his seat, Paul folded his arms and stuck out his chin imperiously. "Look, the kid wants something so crazy that she asked permission just to bring it up. Whatever it is, it's probably impossible."
This comment earned him another two smacks that knocked him right back down to the table. Just our usual family slapstick routine.
All right, let's get straight to the point.
"The thing is, I've recently hit a dead end in my magical studies. And for that reason, I was hoping to attend the Ranoa University of Magic..."
"But when I mentioned this to Sylphy, he broke down in tears and begged me not to leave him."
"Hah, what a little man-slayer! Wonder who you got that from?"
Another two smacks followed that one, naturally.
"The ideal solution would be for the two of us to go together, but Sylphy's family isn't as well-off as ours. I wanted to ask if you'd consider paying for both of us to attend."
"You don't say?"
Leaning his elbows on the table, Paul shot me a sharp look that brought to mind a certain spectacled commander. His eyes were deadly serious—the same way they got when he picked up a sword.
"Well, the answer's no."
Once again, he'd shot me down. But this time it wasn't just a joke, and Zenith and Lilia stayed silent.
"I've got three reasons. First, you're still in the middle of your training with the sword. If you drop it now, you'll end up a permanent amateur with no hope of improving. As your teacher, I can't allow that. Second, the money is an issue. We could probably manage your tuition, but not Sylphy's, too. Magic schools aren't cheap, and it's not like we have a magical money tree ourselves."
"Third, you're only seven years old. You're a clever kid, but there's still plenty you don't know, and you're seriously lacking in real-world experience. It would just be irresponsible for me to cut you loose right now."
Paul's refusal didn't surprise me in the least.
I wasn't about to give up, though. Unlike before, he was grounding his denial in three rational, well-defined objections. That meant that if I addressed those points, I could gain his permission.
There was no need to rush. I never expected any of this to happen tomorrow, anyway.
"I understand, Father. I'll continue training with you in the sword, of course... but can I ask how old you think I need to be before this could happen?"
"Let's see... Fifteen? Nah, let's say twelve. Stick around that long, at least."
Twelve? Hmm. Fifteen was the age kids came of age in this country, as I recalled.
"Can I ask why you chose twelve, specifically?"
"That's the age I was when I left home myself."
"Ah. All right."
This didn't seem like something Paul would be willing to compromise on. No point arguing about it and getting his hackles up.
"Well then, one last thing."
"Can you help me find a job? I can read, write, and do arithmetic, so I might make a decent tutor. I wouldn't mind working as a magician, either. I'd take whatever pays best."
"You want a job? Why?" Paul asked, his eyes narrowing.
"I want to earn Sylphy's tuition for him."
"I don't think it's in his best interest for you to do that."
"Maybe not. I think it's in my best interest, though."
The room fell completely silent for a long moment. I had to fight the urge to squirm awkwardly in my seat.
"I see. So, that's how it is, huh?"
In the end, Paul nodded to himself, apparently convinced of...something.
"All right, fine. In that case, I'll look into a few things for you."
While Zenith and Lilia's faces now expressed open concern, the look in Paul's eyes told me that I could take him at his word.
"Thank you very much," I said, lowering my head in gratitude as my family resumed their meal.
Well, I can't say I was expecting that.
I knew my girl was growing up quickly, but most kids don't start talking like that until they're fourteen or fifteen at the earliest. Even I didn't hit this stage until I turned eleven, when I reached Advanced level in the Sword God Style. And some people never get to it at all.
What was it again? "Don't rush through your life too fast, or it'll end before you know it." A certain warrior had told me that a long time ago. I'd just rolled my eyes back then. The way I saw it, everyone else was taking things too damn slowly. Any given human has a limited window of time in which they can actually accomplish things, but nobody seemed to feel any sense of urgency at all.
I wanted to do everything I possibly could while I had the chance. And if someone wanted to criticize me after the fact, well, I'd cross that bridge when I came to it.
Of course, thanks to "doing" everything I could, I'd eventually found myself with a pregnant wife on my hands. Ended up quitting the adventuring business and leaning on my high-status relatives' connections to get myself a steady job as a knight.
Forget that part for now, though. Point is, Rudeia was taking things at a much quicker pace than I ever did. The kid was sprinting forward so fast that it made me a little nervous just to watch her go.
I'm sure the adults around me had similar thoughts when I was young. There was one major difference, though: Rudeia was actually planning things in advance instead of randomly flailing about the way I used to. I have to assume she got that side of her personality from Zenith.
Still, I think I need to keep her still a little longer.
With that thought in mind, I began to write a letter.
Just like Laws had been telling me the other day, Sylphy had clearly gotten quite attached to Rudeia. From his perspective, she was both the knight in shining armor who'd saved him from the misery of his early childhood and the all-knowing big sister who could answer all his questions.
He obviously admired her. Recently, he seemed to be developing a crush on her as well.
Laws, for his part, told me he was hoping the two of them might end up getting hitched someday. I wasn't totally turned off of the idea, but after hearing what Rudeia had said today, I had to reconsider.
Right now, the boy was basically putty in her hands. If the two of them continued to grow up together like this, Sylphy was going to be permanently under Rudeia's sway. Even as an adult. I'd seen a few cases like that back when I was still "nobility." I'd seen human beings who were little more than puppets, totally controlled by their parents.
That life's not so bad while the person who pulls your strings is still around, I guess. As long as Rudeia kept loving Sylphy, he'd probably be just fine. But unfortunately, the kid had a bit of her dad in her as well. There was a chance she might get bored of Sylphy and go running off with another man who caught her eye. And when the dust settled, she might not end up choosing Sylphy.
He'd never recover from that blow. Never.
My daughter might very well end up entirely ruining that sweet little kid's life. I couldn't allow that to happen. It sure as hell wouldn't be in his best interests, either.
And so, I wrote my letter. Hopefully I'd get the response I was looking for.
That said...how was I going to convince that smooth-talking kid to go along with this?
Hmm. Maybe this calls for a brute-force approach.
One morning, maybe a month after I told Paul that I wanted to start working, a letter addressed to him arrived at our home.
It was probably the reply that I'd been waiting for. I tried my best to brace myself for the news without getting too impatient.
Would he tell me after training? At lunch? Maybe dinner?
For the moment, I decided to focus on our sword practice.
As it happened, though, he chose to bring it up before we'd even finished training.
"Yes, Father? What is it?"
Trying to keep my face composed, I waited eagerly for Paul's next words. This was going to be my first job ever...in either life. I had to nail this.
But instead of giving me the good news I was expecting, Paul took things in a strange direction.
"Tell me something. What would you do if I said you had to stop seeing Sylphy for a while?"
"What? Uh, I'd object, obviously..."
"Right, right. Figures."
"What's this about?"
"Ah, forget it. No point talking this over. You'd just twist it all around on me, I'm sure."
The instant these words left Paul's mouth, his expression changed dramatically. All of a sudden, there was murder in his eyes. Even an amateur like me could sense what was coming next.
In one smooth, intimidating motion, my father leapt forward.
Death was rushing straight at me, cold and silent.
Acting on pure instinct, I responded with all the power at my disposal—using fire and wind magic simultaneously to create a blast between us. I jumped backwards just as the wave of hot wind struck me, letting the impact carry me farther.
As it happened, I'd played out this scenario in my mind more than once. In a fight against Paul, I had no chance unless I put some distance between us at the start. The blast would hurt me as much as him, but as long as I took the damage without flinching, it would buy me a bit of space.
Only a bit, of course.
My totally unscathed father was still running forward, his body low to the ground.
Didn't do a damn thing to him!
I hadn't expected anything else, but it was still terrifying. I needed to make my next move, and fast.
Just backing up wouldn't work. The guy running forward would always be faster.
Acting on a reflexive judgment call, I set off a shockwave right next to myself. The blow hit me hard enough to send me flying to the side.
In that same instant, I heard something slice through the air next to my ear, and my blood ran cold. Paul's sword had slashed through the space where my head had been a split second earlier.
Well. That's good, I guess...
I'd dodged the first attack. That was a very big deal. He was still close, but I'd put a little distance between us. I started seeing some possibility I might win this.
As Paul turned toward me to press the attack, I cast a spell that turned the ground in front of him into a sinkhole. His leading foot stepped right into the trap.
He instantly shifted his body's entire weight onto his other leg and freed himself—barely even missing a beat.
Damn! Do I need to catch both his legs at once?!
This time, I transformed the ground around me into a thick, watery bog. Before I could sink into it, I fired a small jet of water at the ground in front of me, sending myself gliding backward across the surface.
By the time I realized that I wasn't moving fast enough, it was too late.
Paul reached the edge of my little swamp and took one great bound forward. The force of his stride actually left a small crater in the ground.
The man was going to reach me in a single leap.
I swung my sword in a blind panic, trying to intercept him. It was an ugly, careless attack, nothing like the strikes I'd learned.
The grip of my sword wobbled unpleasantly in my hands as my blow was gently turned aside. I could tell Paul had used a Water God Style defense...for all the good it did me.
Once a Water God swordsman deflects your blow, they always follow up with a counter strike. I knew what was coming, but I couldn't do a thing about it.
Paul's blade arced toward me for a moment that lasted an eternity.
Well, I'm glad we're using wooden swords, at least...
A short, sharp blow to my neck knocked me instantly unconscious.
When I woke up, I found myself inside a box of some sort. Given all the swaying and clattering going on, it was presumably some kind of vehicle.
I tried to sit up, only to discover that I couldn't move at all. Looking down, I realized I was tightly bound in...quite a lot of rope.
What the hell is going on here?
I managed to turn my neck enough to look around, and saw there was a woman in there with me. She had dark brown skin, a muscular body covered in scars, and skimpy leather clothes. The strong features of her face, combined with the eye patch she was wearing, gave her a definite tough-guy vibe.
Pretty much the picture of a fearless female warrior from some fantasy show... especially given those big, furry ears and tiger-like tail.
Apparently sensing my eyes on her, the woman glanced down at me.
"Nice to meet you," I said. "My name's Rudeia Greyrat. Pardon my manners—I can't seem to get up at the moment."
A preemptive introduction felt like the right move. The most basic rule of conversation was to start talking first. Once you seized the initiative, you could control where things went from there.
"For Paul's daughter, you're oddly polite."
"I'm my mother's daughter as well, as it happens."
"Ah, right. Guess you've got some Zenith in you, too."
Apparently, she knew both of my parents. That was something of a relief.
"The name's Ghislaine. We'll be getting very well acquainted starting tomorrow, kid."
Starting tomorrow? What?
"Uhm, well, okay. Nice to meet you, Ghislaine."
"Yeah. Same here."
At this point, I went ahead and burned away the ropes around me with a bit of fire magic.
My body was sore as hell. That wasn't too surprising, since I hadn't been sleeping in the most comfortable of places. I stretched out my arms and legs and reveled in the blissful sense of release. Sure, I'd spent most of my previous life sitting in a cramped little room moving nothing but my fingers, but that didn't mean I wanted to spend so much time lying bound and helpless at the feet of some sadistic-looking older lady. Might have gotten a little uncomfortable after a while.
There were benches to the front and rear of our little "box," so I sat down across from Ghislaine. Windows to the left and right offered a view of the world outside; nothing I saw outside looked remotely familiar.
Okay, so this was definitely a vehicle.
It was swaying so vigorously that I was a little worried I might get sick, and I could hear a sort of clopping coming from the direction we were moving in. Seemed reasonable to assume it was a horse-drawn carriage.
Right. So. I was taking a carriage ride with some macho lady, for reasons totally unclear to me.
Gah! H-have I been kidnapped by some random woman weightlifter?! How did this even happen, what's going on?!
Please, have mercy!
Wait. Wait, wait. Bad thoughts.
C-c-calm down, dumbass. At times like these, a girl's gotta stay cool! Count off prime numbers in your head until you relax! Remember what that one priest guy said. "The primes are solitary numbers, divisible only by one and themselves... they give me strength!"
Three. Five. Uhm...eleven. Thirteen...? Uh, er... I can't remember, damn it!
Okay, screw the prime numbers. Just calm down. Think through this calmly. You need to figure out what's going on here. Deep breaths. Deeeeeep breaths.
Now then, let's piece this together as best we can.
First of all, Paul had attacked me for no apparent reason and knocked me senseless. And when I'd woken up, I'd found myself inside a carriage, bound hand and foot. Presumably, he'd KO'd me for some specific reason and then tossed me in here.
The only other person in said carriage was a macho lady who said we'd be "getting acquainted" starting tomorrow.
Come to think of it...Paul also said something strange right before he attacked me.
Something like, "Stop seeing Sylphy."
Or maybe, "Sylphy's too good for the likes of you."
It was hard to think straight when Sylphy was concerned. I'd gotten completely derailed in no time at all.
Damn it. This is all Paul's fault...
Ah, well, guess I'll just have to ask.
"You can call me Ghislaine."
"Oh, okay. In that case, you can call me Riri."
"Sure thing, Riri."
Right. So, the woman clearly didn't know a joke when she heard one.
"Miss Ghislaine, did my father tell you what's going on here?"
"Just Ghislaine, kid. No miss required."
As she spoke, Ghislaine reached into her jacket to retrieve a letter and handed it over to me. The front of it was completely blank.
"That's for you, from Paul. Read it out loud, will you? I'm not so good with writing."
Opening up the sloppily folded piece of paper, I began to read.
"To my dear daughter Rudeia. If you're reading this letter, it means that I'm no longer in this world."
"Wait, what?!" Ghislaine shouted, jumping to her feet.
Good thing this carriage has a high ceiling.
"Please sit down, Ghislaine. There's more."
"Hm. Right..." Just like that, she sat right back down.
"Sorry, just kidding! I always wanted to try that one out on somebody.
"So, anyway. I knocked you down into the dirt, tied you up, and tossed you into a carriage like a bandit kidnapping a princess. I expect you're wondering what the hell is going on, hey? Ideally, that ball of muscle in there with you would just explain everything...but sadly, her brain mutated into an extra bicep some time ago, so I don't think that's going to work."
"What was that?!" Ghislaine shouted, jumping to her feet again.
"Please sit down, Ghislaine. The next part's nothing but compliments."
Right back down she went.
Okay then, moving on.
"That woman's a Sword King. When it comes to the blade, you won't find a better teacher this side of the Sword Sanctum. Trust your old man on this one: She's really damn good. I never once got the upper hand on her...except in bed."
Dad. Please. Could you not have just left that last part out?
Ghislaine didn't exactly look displeased, though. The old man was certainly popular with the ladies.
Anyway...I was evidently travelling with one hell of a fighter.
"Now then, let's move on to your job. You're going to be tutoring a young noble boy in Roa, the biggest city in the Fittoa Region. Teach him reading, writing, math, and some basic magic, all right? The boy's a spoiled, violent brat who was asked to leave his school, and he's already chased off a number of other tutors. But I've got faith in you, kiddo! I'm sure you'll manage somehow."
Wow. Very helpful, Paul.
"Uh... y-you don't really look spoiled, Ghislaine..."
"I'm not the young boy in question."
"Right. Of course."
Someone really needs to teach her about jokes and sarcasm.
Okay, let's keep moving.
"That lump of muscle with you works for the boy's family as a bodyguard and swordsmanship instructor. In exchange for training you in the sword, she wants you to teach her reading, writing, and arithmetic as well. I know, it's a ridiculous request coming from a woman with a bicep-brain, but try not to laugh out loud. She's probably serious."
"That son of a..."
Was I seeing things, or was that a vein throbbing on Ghislaine's forehead? The main purpose of this letter was to explain the situation to me, but Paul's secondary goal was clearly to piss her off. Made me kind of curious about the nature of their relationship.
"She won't be a quick learner, I'm sure, but it's not such a bad deal. You won't have to pay for your lessons, at least."
My lessons, huh? Right. I guess she's my new instructor from now on...
Paul's swordsmanship was mostly instinct-based. Maybe he felt I needed a better teacher at this point. Or maybe he'd just gotten sick of watching me not improve at all.
I think you could have stuck it out a little longer, man...
"How much would it usually cost to learn the sword from you, Ghislaine?"
"Two gold Asuran coins per month."
I was pretty sure that Rox had earned five silver coins a month back when he was tutoring me. This lady charged about four times more.
This was really a pretty solid deal, then. A normal person in Asura could get by on about two silver coins a month.
"For the next five years, you'll be staying at the noble boy's house to teach him. Five whole years, you got that? You don't get to come back home until then. And no writing letters, either. Sylphy's never going to learn how to stand on his own two feet if you keep hanging around the village. And you were growing increasingly reliant on him, as well. That's why I made the call to separate the two of you."
H-hold on a second. What?
Are you serious? I can't see Sylphy for five whole years? I can't even write him letters?!
"What's the matter, Riri? Did you break up with your boyfriend?" Ghislaine asked, apparently amused by the look of despair on my face.
"No. My childish bully of a father broke us up by force."
I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye. Damn it, Paul. You'll pay for this...
"Hang in there, Riri. It'll be okay."
"I think I'd rather you just called me Rudeia, actually."
"Hmm. All right, then."
When I really thought about it, though, Paul had a point. At the rate things were going, Sylphy might have turned into a "childhood friend" character from a particularly shitty visual novel. You know...the kind who sticks to the protagonist constantly, revolving around her like a satellite, and never develops a personality of his own.
In the real world, a boy like that would make his own friends and learn about new things at school. But thanks to his hair, Sylphy was always going to have a tough time with that. There was a real chance he would have stayed glued to my side for years and years.
This made sense. Paul had made the right call this time.
"As for your compensation, you'll be paid two silver Asuran coins a month. That's below the going rate for a live-in tutor, but it's more than enough for a child's allowance.
"When you have a little spare time, try to head out into the city and get a feel for spending money. A little practice is the best way to make sure you can use your cash effectively when you really need to. Then again, maybe that won't even be an issue for a kid as gifted as you.
"Additionally, once you complete five years of consistent service and finish providing the boy with a solid education in all respects, your contract entitles you to a special reward: a payment covering the cost of tuition for two people to the University of Magic."
Hrm. I see.
In other words, once I did my time as a tutor, Paul was going to let me do what I wanted...just as he'd promised.
"Of course, there's no guarantee Sylphy will want to tag along with you five years from now, and you might lose interest in him yourself. But in any case, I'll make sure to explain the situation perfectly to him."
Uh...not sure I trust you on that one, daddy dearest.
"I hope the years you spend in this new environment will teach you many things, allowing you to develop your talents even further.
"Sincerely, your noble, wise, and brilliant father, Paul."
Brilliant my ass! Your whole plan was just to beat me into submission!
Still, I had to admit his overall line of thinking was pretty solid. This was for the best, for both Sylphy and me. He might go back to being a loner again, but...unless he learned to face his own problems, he was never really going to grow as a person.
"Paul really loves you, doesn't he?" Ghislaine said.
I couldn't help smiling a little at that one.
"He used to be kind of distant, but he started really getting into the whole fatherhood thing. Anyway, seems like he's pretty fond of you as well, Ghislaine..."
"Hm? Why d'you say that?"
I proceeded to read the letter's final line out loud.
"P.S. Feel free to make a move on the noble boy as long as it's consensual, but that ball of muscle's already mine, so make sure the boy keeps his hands off her."
"Hmm," Ghislaine said. "Send that letter on to Zenith for me, will you?"
"Sounds like a plan."
Just like that, I found myself travelling to the Citadel of Roa, the largest settlement in the Fittoa Region.
I had some mixed feelings about that, of course, but it really was for the best. I couldn't just stay with Sylphy, so this was something that needed to happen. I definitely wasn't bitter about it at all. Nope.
Well... maybe I'd manage to convince myself of that at some point. I just wasn't quite there yet.
"D-damn, that was close..."
My daughter lay unconscious in my arms with filthy mud-caked shoes.
Since this would be my last day teaching her the sword, I'd decided to put the fear of God in her before I knocked her out, but the kid actually snapped off a bunch of spells the instant I made my move.
Wasn't just a bunch of panicked attacks, either. She was mainly trying to slow me down. And every single time she cast something, it was a different spell.
"That's my daughter for you, all right. Kid's got a knack for battle..."
Sure, the fight had only lasted a few seconds. But it was a complete surprise attack, and I still needed three steps to take her down. That last one had been especially dangerous. If I'd hesitated even slightly, she would have snared both my legs and taken me out in no time.
Three steps is just too many when you're fighting a magician. If she'd been in a group, one of her allies would have stepped in to protect her by the time I'd taken my second stride. And if there'd been just a bit more distance between us, I might have needed four steps.
For all intents and purposes, the kid got the best of me. You could probably toss her into a party of adventurers right now. She'd more than pull her own weight in a labyrinth.
"Guess you'd expect no less from the prodigy who gave a Water Saint-level magician an inferiority complex..."
The girl was downright terrifying. But for some reason, that made me happy. Up until now, I'd been jealous of anyone more talented than me...but where my daughter was concerned, all I felt was pride.
"Okay, this isn't the time to be talking to myself. Let's get this done before Laws makes it over here..."
I quickly proceeded to tie up my daughter. The carriage had arrived by the time I finished, so I picked her up and prepared to toss her into it.
Of course, Laws picked that moment to show up with Sylphy in tow.
Seeing his playmate bound hand and foot, the boy immediately fired off an Intermediate-level offensive spell at me without so much as an incantation. I warded it off easily enough, but on top of the silent spellcasting, the attack's power and speed were both impressive. He could easily have killed a normal person.
Damn it, Rudeia. Don't go teaching him that crap...
After handing Ghislaine my letter, I unceremoniously dumped Rudeia in the carriage and let the coachman know he was good to go.
Glancing over, I saw Laws crouched next to Sylphy, speaking to him firmly but quietly.
Yeah, that's the way. It's the parent's job to teach their kid what's what.
Laws had allowed Rudeia to take over many of his duties, but now he'd get the chance to reclaim his rightful role. Exhaling quietly, I watched the little family conference from a distance; after a moment, the wind carried Sylphy's voice over to me.
"No... I'll get strong enough to help Rudi!"
Hmm. That boy really adores you, daughter of mine.
At this point, my two wives emerged from the house. I'd told them to stay inside if they wanted to watch, mostly for their own safety. But I suppose they wanted to see the boy off, at least.
"Oh, my sweet little Rudi's leaving me!"
"Be brave, Madam. This is a trial we must endure!"
"I know, Lilia. I know! Oh, Rudeia, Rudeia! My little daughter is riding off! She's left her poor mother all alone. Woe is me!"
"You're not alone, Madam. She's not your only child!"
"You're right, of course. She has two little sisters now."
"Two?! Oh, Madam!"
"Of course, Lilia. I'll love your child as much as mine! As much as I love you!"
"Oh, Madam! I feel just the same!"
For some reason, Zenith and Lilia acted out a weirdly theatrical scene as the carriage set off down the road. I suppose they weren't really too worried about Rudeia. The kid had a solid head on her shoulders, after all.
In any case...those two sure do get along these days. Wish they'd be that friendly with Daddy, too. Or at least stop ganging up on me.
"Still... I guess Rudeia won't be around to watch the little ones grow up, huh?"
I knew she'd been planning to become the "best big sister ever," but things weren't going to work out that way.
Tough luck, kid. Daddy's going to get all his little daughters' love! Eheheheh.
Hm. Wait a second, though.
Rudeia was about to start special, accelerated training under a Sword King. Five years from now, she would be twelve. Much bigger and stronger than she was now. If we had another anything-goes scrap when she came back, was I even going to stand a chance?
Oh, man. My paternal dignity's on the line.
"Zenith, dear? Lilia? Now that Rudi's left us, I think I'll have to start training a bit as well."
Zenith glanced at me with a disinterested expression. Lilia leaned over to stage-whisper in her ear. "Did it really take a near loss to make him realize that the young lady might soon surpass him?"
"Honestly, he's always like this. Never puts a bit of effort in until someone nearly embarrasses him."
Apparently, I was already somewhat lacking in the paternal dignity department.
Ah well. What's dignity good for, anyway? My old man was a walking lump of pride and nobility, and I was never exactly fond of him. I wanted to be a friendly, lovable kind of father, not a dignified one.
Well, there was time enough to think about that later. Thoughts ran through my mind as Rudeia's carriage rumbled off down the road.
Believe me, this isn't how I wanted to do this, either. I don't think you would have agreed to my plan, and I'm not sure I could have convinced you in an argument.
Still... as your father, I couldn't just do nothing. I'm basically passing you off to someone else for now, but I think that's how it has to be.
I know I didn't give you any choice, but I'm sure a clever kid like you will understand. The experiences you're going to have out there wouldn't have been possible in this village. Even if you don't understand my reasons, dealing with the challenges in front of you will make you stronger in the end.
So resent me all you like. Resent me, and resent yourself for letting me do this.
I grew up under my old man's thumb myself, you know? Ended up just running away, rather than ever facing up to him.
I do regret that to some degree. And I wish I'd done some things differently.
I don't want you to feel that way, of course. But you know...running away like that did make me stronger. I'm not sure if I'm stronger than my dad was, but I found women I loved, protected the things I cared about, and grew tough enough to put the screws on my own kid.
You want to fight back? Fine by me. Have at it.
Come back stronger, kid.
Strong enough to stand up to your tyrant of a dad.
My name is Zenith Greyrat.
I was born in the Holy Country of Millis, a land noted for its long history, great beauty, and rigid moral code.
By birth, I was a member of the nobility-the second daughter of a count.
Like most young ladies raised in "good families," I was a sheltered child. I thought the little world I knew was all there was. I was clueless and naïve. But I was also a good child, if I do say so myself. I never disobeyed my parents. My grades in school were excellent. I obeyed the tenets of the Millis Church, and I learned to play the role expected of me in society gatherings. Some people even called me the perfect picture of a Millis lady. My parents were rather proud of me, I'm sure.
Had things continued as they were, I suppose I would have been introduced at some party to a man my parents chose for me. Probably the first son of some marquess, well-mannered but proud, with absolute respect for the dictates of the Millis Church. I would have married this moral paragon, given birth to his children, and seen my name go down in the register of Millis nobility as a perfectly respectable marchioness.
As a woman of the aristocracy, that was the road in front of me.
But of course, I didn't end up following it.
My life changed forever on my fifteenth birthday-the day I came of age. I had a terrible fight with my parents. For the first time in my life, I refused to do what they told me. And I ran away from home.
I'd gotten thoroughly sick of letting them control every moment of my life. My little sister Therese had always been a free spirit, and I think I was a little jealous of her as well. These factors, along with many smaller ones, combined to push me off the path I had been following.
It's not easy for a fallen aristocrat to find a new road through life. But fortunately, I'd learned Healing magic in an academy for noble girls, and had even gotten proficient at Intermediate spells. Millis was a country where Healing and Protection magic flourished, but it was still unusual to progress beyond the rank of Beginner in either. Reaching the Intermediate level opened up the possibility of working in the Millis Church's hospitals; it was an achievement that earned me much admiration in our school.
As a result, I was convinced I could make it on my own anywhere I went.
I really was hopelessly naïve.
A dishonest group of people spotted me almost immediately, as I awkwardly tried to navigate the unfamiliar process of taking a room at an inn.
Claiming they'd been looking for a healer, they pulled me into their party, taking advantage of my total ignorance. The pay they offered was lower than what Beginner-level magicians earned, but they insisted it was higher than the going rate.
Being a complete fool, I took their superficial kindness at face value. I actually remember thinking, I suppose the world does have some decent people in it.
I'm sure they would have mistreated me further if I had stayed with them. They were probably planning to use me as a human shield in battle or force me to cast magic until I fainted. Maybe even to demand sexual favors. But they didn't get the chance, thanks to a young swordsman named Paul Greyrat.
After beating down my new "friends," he rather forcefully dragged me into his own travelling party. Until Elinalise (one of his companions) explained, I was convinced I'd been kidnapped by a violent thug.
In any case, that was how I met my future husband.
At first, I hated Paul. He was an Asuran noble by birth, but his language was coarse. He broke his promises left and right, acted impulsively, wasted money, and mocked me constantly. Still, I could tell he wasn't exactly a bad person. He was always coming to my rescue, after all. He made fun of my cluelessness, but in the end, he always sighed and stepped in to help.
We were total opposites, but he was dependable, free-spirited, and handsome. I suppose it isn't that surprising that I grew attracted to him.
Of course, there were always pretty women around him. And I was a follower of the Millis Church, which preached the virtues of monogamy. I might have run away from home, but the teachings of my faith had been drilled into me daily since I was a child, and everyone I knew in school had been a believer. Its commandments were deeply rooted in my mind.
So, one day, I blurted out these words: "You can sleep with me, but only if you never touch any other women again."
Paul immediately agreed with an easy smile.
I knew he was lying to me, of course. But on some level, I didn't mind. Once he broke his promise, I thought I might be able to get over him.
But once again, I'd been naïve, careless, and foolish. I never even considered that I might get pregnant after a single night with him. I was so hopeless, anxious, and afraid. I certainly didn't expect that Paul would actually do the honorable thing and marry me the way he did.
The child I bore him was a son, as it turned out.
Rudeia Greyrat. My little Rudi.
At the moment, Rudi was crouched next to her little sisters' cribs with a very serious expression on her face-so much like her father's.
Frowning intently, she peered into one crib for a moment, then looked over into the other.
Norn began to fuss, and Rudi's expression stiffened even further.
But an instant later...
She stuck out her tongue at Norn and made a silly face.
"Ha haa! Baa, baa!"
Nodding in satisfaction as Norn gurgled happily, Rudeia resumed her previous serious expression.
This time, it was Aisha who piped up out of nowhere. Rudeia immediately turned to face her, pressed her palms against her cheeks, and mumbled,
Clearly amused, Aisha let out a happy little, "Nhah, ahah!"
Once again, Rudi nodded to herself with a grin of pure pleasure. She'd been keeping up this little routine for quite a while now.
At the sight of Rudi's smile, I couldn't help but let out a little laugh of my own.
It wasn't something you saw every day, after all. Rudi always had the most serious expression on; no matter how well things went with her sword practice or her magic, she never looked particularly satisfied. She almost never let me or Paul see her smile. And when she did, it was usually a forced, awkward grin.
But now, she was making silly faces to amuse her little sisters and smiling with genuine pleasure when it worked. Just watching her put me in a pretty good mood myself.
We'd come a long way from the way things used to be.
I sighed quietly to myself, recalling Rudi's early years. At first, I'd been overjoyed when we discovered her talent for magic. But after a while, I'd started to feel like she was so talented that she secretly looked down on the rest of us. I wondered if she even loved her family at all. She'd never really gotten that attached to me, for one thing.
But I had it all wrong, of course.
I realized this in the midst of our greatest family crisis-the day Lilia announced her pregnancy, and Paul confessed that he was responsible.
I felt so terribly betrayed by the both of them. So angry and so sad.
In particular, I was so furious at Paul for breaking his vows to me that I felt about ready to explode. I was on the verge of either screaming, "Get out!" to Lilia or announcing that I was leaving myself; it took an effort of will to keep myself calm.
Before our marriage, I'd expected Paul to prove himself a liar, and planned to dump him once he did. I'd almost forgotten about that, but apparently my feelings hadn't changed. I was so upset that I was ready to break apart our family for good.
But in the end, Rudi changed my mind. Playing the part of a guileless child, she stepped in to guide things to a neat conclusion. Her methods weren't exactly admirable, of course. And even if I believed her little story, it certainly wouldn't have convinced me to forgive my wayward husband.
Still...from Rudi's words and the expression on her face, I could see what she was really feeling, deep down inside.
She was afraid. Terrified her family was going to break apart.
The moment I realized that, I finally understood that she did love us in her own way. And I wanted nothing more than to reassure her. My anger softened. I managed to bring myself to forgive both Paul and Lilia on the spot.
If not for Rudi, things wouldn't have worked out that way.
"Ooh, you're such a cutie pie, Norn. You're gonna be real pretty, just like Mommy, yeah?"
And now, here she was playing with Norn's little hands and smiling happily. My ever-serious little daughter was soothing her sister with silly baby talk.
I'd been a bit in awe of Rudi's talents for quite some time, but lately I was starting to appreciate her dependability as well. Things had been truly hectic after Aisha and Norn were born. Our two new daughters cried at all hours of the night, puked up half the milk we fed them, and routinely pooped when we were bathing them.
Lilia told me all of this was perfectly natural, that it was only to be expected, but in no time, I was utterly exhausted. For days and days, I barely got a wink of sleep. But then Rudi stepped in and started to handle all sorts of things for us...without even being asked.
She was oddly skillful with the babies. It almost seemed as if she'd cared for one before, although that couldn't possibly be the case. I suppose she must have picked up a few things from watching Lilia.
That's our Rudi for you.
I wasn't particularly happy that my daughter was better at soothing my own child than I was, but it was still an enormous help. I'd never seen a child her age so helpful and reliable, or even capable of looking after newborn babies the way she did.
Watching her work sometimes reminded me of my brother, who presumably still lived back in the Holy Country. Like Rudi, he was serious, diligent, and talented; my father always told us to learn from his example. But he was also cold to his family, and ignored his little sisters almost completely.
As nobles went, he was a good and honest man, but I didn't think much of him as a brother. Rudi was obviously going to be different. She was going to be a good big sister. The kind who earned her sisters' admiration.
That certainly seemed to be her intention, at least. She'd actually announced "I'm going to try to be the coolest, most perfect big sister ever," to Paul while they looked down at Norn and Aisha. I was already eager to see what the three of them would be like in a few years' time.
At this point, I was startled out of my reverie by Norn, who'd begun crying loudly. Rudi's body jerked in surprise, but she quickly turned to her crib to make more silly faces.
This time, Norn didn't stop bawling. Rudi touched her diaper to see if it was wet, then picked her up and checked her back for rashes, but the waterworks just kept flowing.
If I'd been on my own, I probably would have gotten flustered and called for Lilia, only to fall into an outright panic once I remembered she was out shopping at the moment. But Rudi stayed admirably calm. Working by process of elimination, she checked carefully for potential problems. After a while, she clapped her hands and turned to me.
"Mother, I think it's time for her milk."
Come to think of it, it was about that time of day, wasn't it? The hours really did fly when I watched Rudi playing with her sisters.
"Right. Of course."
"Here, have a seat."
I lowered myself into the chair Rudi pulled up for me, opened up my blouse, and took my bawling baby into my arms.
Norn had clearly been quite hungry, just as Rudi thought. She immediately pressed her little mouth to my nipple and began to suckle greedily. The sensation always made me intensely conscious of my own motherhood.
After a moment, I realized that Rudi was watching. It was cute to see her taking interest in everything about her sisters.
"What's the matter, Rudi? Do you want some too?"
Startled by my little joke, Rudi jerked her head away and blushed a brilliant shade of red.
"No, that's not it. I was just impressed by how much she's drinking..."
It was a bit cute seeing her flustered. I couldn't help laughing a little.
"Sorry, but I need my milk for Norn now. You had plenty when you were a baby, so don't be greedy now, all right?"
"Of course, Mother."
I was expecting her to get all defensive and flustered at this point, but she parried my remark with a calm expression. I suppose she'd figured out I was just messing with her.
No fun. But that's Rudi for you, I suppose.
It always made me feel a bit melancholy to see her acting all grown-up like this.
I turned my attention back to Norn, who'd had her fill. After patting her on the back until she let out a little burp, I gently placed her back in her crib.
Whoever does marry Rudeia might have a tough time of it. Sylphy seems like the leading candidate at the moment...and that boy tends to do anything Rudi tells him to. He might not be able to say no, even when he wants to...
All right, then. If worst comes to worst, I'll just have to set her straight.
I was Rudi's mother, after all.
Norn looked quite satisfied now she that had something in her stomach. It didn't take long for her to start nodding off in her crib.
"That's the way," I murmured softly, stroking her little head. "Drink lots of milk, get lots of sleep, and grow up nice and healthy."
Unfortunately, Aisha picked this moment to start fussing a little herself.
Tearing her eyes away from Norn, Rudi peered down into the other crib.
"Whatsamatter, Aisha? Is your back a widdle itchy?"
Just as she'd done for Norn a bit before, she picked Aisha up, checked her diaper, and looked for rashes and insect bites.
But after a moment, still holding the baby in her arms, she turned to me with an uncharacteristically anxious expression. I did like seeing different emotions on Rudi's face, but I didn't want her looking that troubled very often.
"What's the matter, Rudi?"
"Uhm, Mother... Miss Lilia's a little late today, isn't she?"
"Come to think of it, you're right." Normally, she would have returned from her shopping trip by now. Could something have happened?
No, no. A group of merchants from the Citadel of Roa were in town. She'd mentioned she was planning to buy a bit more than usual; it was probably just taking a little longer than expected.
"Well, you see... about Aisha..."
"I think she's hungry, too."
"Oh, I see."
We tended to feed our babies at the same time, so it made sense they'd both get hungry at the same time as well. Normally, I breastfed Norn while Lilia took care of Aisha, but...
At this point, I finally understood that awkward expression on Rudi's face.
Slowly, cautiously, she continued, clearly choosing every word with care.
"Mother...there's no telling when Miss Lilia will get back. I'm sure Aisha could wait a while, but if she keeps crying, Norn might wake up too, so... uhm..."
As a faithful member of the Millis Church, I was still unhappy with both Paul and Lilia for breaking our marriage vows. I knew they didn't subscribe to my faith, but it was never pleasant to have someone disregard your values. And Rudi had obviously picked up on all of this.
She was afraid her suggestion might upset me. She was worried I might even take out my displeasure on her little sister. The girl was clearly anxious.
From her perspective, Norn, Aisha, and I were all equally family. And...given where things now stood, I ought to feel the same.
Still, was this really a good idea? What if breastfeeding Aisha made me feel anger or revulsion?
What if Rudi saw hatred on my face and despised me for it?
"Oh, really now. What are you going on about, Rudi? Come on, give me Aisha." I answered in the kindest voice I could, trying to shake off my own uncertainty.
"Of course," Rudi said.
Slowly, hesitantly, she deposited Aisha into my arms.
After exposing the opposite breast from the one Norn had just been using, I lifted her up to it.
I probably would have felt a bit upset if Aisha had kicked up a fuss at this point, but she latched right on to me and started gulping down milk immediately. Too quietly for Rudi to hear, I breathed a little sigh of relief.
I felt the exact same way I did when I was feeding Norn. My heart was full of a warm, pleasant awareness of my own motherhood, and nothing else.
How odd. Why had I hesitated, even slightly, to bring Aisha to my breast?
Why had I thought this would make me feel unhappy?
Why did I think of this as some trial I had to endure?
It was all so much simpler than I'd thought. I was a mother. Nothing else really mattered.
Whether you're a member of the Millis Church or not...it doesn't really make a difference when it comes to things like this.
"She's certainly guzzling it down, isn't she?"
"Uhm. Well, your milk is delicious, Mother."
"That's...an odd attempt at flattery, Rudi."
Seeing Aisha happily suckling at my breast, and the contented expression on my own face, Rudi smiled with obvious relief. She clearly regarded protecting her little sisters as a duty on her part. Very admirable. Her desire to become a good big sister, worthy of their adoration, seemed to be quite genuine.
"It's not flattery. I still remember how it tasted."
"Do you really now?"
Chuckling softly, I reached down to stroke Aisha's little head. After a while, she finished up and took her mouth from my breast; only moments later, she was nodding off in my arms, so I lowered her back into her crib.
Rudi watched from a distance, her gaze warmer than usual.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Mind if I stroke your head a bit?"
"You don't need to ask my permission."
After slowly sitting at my side, Rudi leaned her head toward me invitingly. I reached down and began to stroke it gently.
Rudi was our first child, and she never needed much from us. Most of the time, I didn't feel like I was much of a parent to her. But recently, that had begun to change.
I truly was this girl's mother. And she truly was my daughter.
Sensing a bit of warmth, I turned in its direction. Spring sunshine was streaming in through the window. Outside, golden fields of wheat stretched out as far as the eye could see. It was the picture of a peaceful spring afternoon. As I gazed quietly out at it, a sense of happiness washed over me.
For some reason, I felt utterly content.
"I wish this moment could last forever."
"Me too," Rudi murmured with a nod.
I suppose she also found this little domestic scene pleasantly tranquil. But it was only thanks to him that I could feel the same.
If she hadn't intervened... as a pious member of the Millis Church reduced to one wife of two, I would probably have stormed out of this house with Norn, cursing my misfortune. Or stayed behind, perhaps to take out my resentment on Lilia and Aisha.
Thank god for Rudeia.
If she wasn't such a wise and clever little girl, I never would have experienced this blissful moment.
"Thank you for being born."
Startled, Rudi looked up at me.
After an awkward pause, she scratched her head and answered in an adorably bashful tone of voice.
"Well...thank you for having me."
My only reply was another chuckle of amusement.