Chapter 5:

Heart to heart.

I became the Recordkeeper of the Second Holy War.

As had been the case yesterday, Kazuya was having a less than amenable relationship with his steed, which translated into a fairly rocky ride. As was usual with the people here, their explanations assumed Kazuya understood concepts he was hearing for the first time, so they served mainly to fuel his frustration.

Now, that was being unfair to their efforts. Kazuya had gotten better at riding this stubborn beast. Yesterday, according to Narsem-san, Kazuya’s riding skills could be labelled as those of a sack of potatoes bursting at the seams. Today, he was like a sack of potatoes *almost* bursting at the seams. Admittedly, though, he was in a funk after that spectacle. He had an inkling these people would be particularly religious, and that, deep down, had given him some pause. He had in no way experienced such a raw reaction. Oh sure, he was a thug or whatever people wanted to label him. He wasn’t gonna slice someone’s throat for not believing in something.

With a very marginal improvement in his riding skills, Kazuya was now able to pay attention to those around him. After the first cursory glance, he saw how the men-at-arms occasionally looked at him; their sights were filled with mistrust, wariness. He held the reins tighter, his uncomfortability upping up a notch. Were they like this yesterday? Most likely yes, but this morning’s exchange had only aggravated the issue. How many of them thought about killing him, he wondered as his throat became dry like parchment. Were they fantasizing about murdering this unbeliever?

The words of the pipsqueak rung inside his head. You should want to learn! Right, that’s what he got for wanting to learn. He bit his lip. He had to learn. Nodding and feigning understanding would carry him so far. He had to learn, as much as he could bemoan the idea. Because if he stayed this way, he’d stick out, and he didn’t want that.

The crusaders, bar a certain pointy eared murderous fanatic, were in so far reasonable with him. Minerva, particularly, had been pretty fond of indulging his ignorance, given that it meant indulging in her own chatterbox vices. But both Minerva and Narsem were riding next to Pioll, and he somehow felt that further aggravating the man would not be the best of ideas. He had been polite so far, but Kazuya wasn’t going to tempt fate.

The crazy elf, of course, was out of the question. She seemed to sense those thoughts, because Sidonie turned and glared at him. This time she wasn’t angry or annoyed. There was a bone chilling calmness to her. Kazuya was unsettled by that out of character reaction, he just couldn’t dare to think what was going inside her head for the time being.

Trying to steer away from that line of thought, Kazuya mulled that he was left with one choice: Cassandrra. Cassandra rode slightly ahead of him, silent and slightly apart from the other troopers. The two crossed glances briefly, and Kazuya cocked an eyebrow in puzzlement when he saw her grimace. Upon closer inspection, he realized that the girl was riding about as well as him. Wel, she still did a better job, though even him could tell the satyr girl was bad at it.

Kazuya ordered the horse to march forwards, gently tapping the reins. The animal, of course, decided to neigh in complaint and raced at a much faster pace than he was comfortable with. His torso reeled backwards and one of his arms flew backwards, but Kazuya managed to not fall to the ground, which had happened once yesterday. Several of the nearby troopers looked at the ruckus, and one of them clicked their tongue in disapproval.

“You bloody moron, I will turn you into glue,” he tried to hold the horse in check, but the stubborn animal doubled down.

Thankfully for him, Cassandra turned around and saw the incoming disaster. “Nestor’s beard!” she exclaimed just as she stretched her whole body to grab the reins of the contrarian horse. She succeeded, but had overcommitted; she was off balance and about to fall. Kazuya was fast enough and clasped her shoulder, acting as a support beam for her to regain her stability. The satyr tucked away the wildly flailing locks of her mane and shot a thankful glare at the japanese youth. “Thank you.”

This time, Kazuya didn’t fight back the second nature urge to bow. Cassandra, obviously, was taken by surprise by the sudden gesture, but it was the right thing to do. “No no, I must be the one to thank you Ca… cassandra,” for a second he was about to ask her her family name.

“Flustered, are we?” She chuckled heartily at the apparent awkwardness. She ordered her steed to move sideways and give each other some breathing room; the horse obliged, but she had

“No, I was about to ask your surname, then I remembered you don’t call people by their surnames here.”

“My surname,” once the word rolled out of her mouth, her eyes lit up with an epiphany. “Ah, you mean the family’s name!” and once again, when the words rolled out of her mouth, her expression radically changed, this time to a more anxious and depressed outlook.

“I hope it’s not something one shouldn’t ask,” Kazuya bit his lip for a moment, wondering how he had managed to offend the goddess and why she made sure he stepped on all the proverbial landmines.

“Oh no! It’s just my story,” she trailed off for a few moments. Cassandra let out a drawn-out, painfilled sigh. This was clearly something she was not comfortable with. She fidgeted briefly before finding the courage to tell her tale.

“It’s not something I want to hide, so don’t feel guilty afterwards: I am technically of House Daphostenes; I say technically because,” she paused, grabbing a deep breath of air before letting it out slowly. Her hands trembled.

Kazuya’s first reaction was to place a comforting hand. “You don’t need to force yourself; in my homeland, it’s polite to address people by their family names, but if that causes you this level of discomfort I can acclimatize.” He smiled reassuringly in an attempt to extinguish her doubts. As if on cue, he thought of an attempt to shift the conversation away.

“I wanted to ask you something,” for a moment, his eyes flitted towards Sidonnie. “While it’s true that you all were taken aback by my comment, Sidonnie took it the worst way possible; is there any particular reason why?”

Once again, the satyr flinched in surprise by his seemingly innocuous question and Kazuya wanted to pull his hair in desperation. Seriously, why did they assume he knew every obscure piece of trivia of this land?! Regardless, he kept a calm facade as best as he could.

“I mean,” Cassandra scratched a shoulder with her left hand. “Sidonnie’s an elf, so it is pretty obvious she is going to be a fire brand.”

That broke the proverbial camel’s back. Kazuya grunted in annoyance. “Right, I am an expert in elves.” He caught himself a second too late on his acritude. “Look, I know you’re not doing it intentionally, nor I want to make it seem I’m singling you out; it’s just frustrating to be in a conversation but not on the same page as everyone else."

"Mmmm," she scratched her chin pensively. “True, you're from this Jeipang land, right, you are unlikely to have a clue," right after that she began to wrack up her brains. “Can’t say I know for sure myself, it’s just something that I heard on occasion back at the village, I guess it’s related to their Old Faiths.”

The response lightly deflated Kazuya.“Oh,” that killed whatever momentum the conversation had. The two of them rode in an awkward silence, with Cassandra focusing on the road ahead and Kazuya’s gaze wandered through the forested hills. For a second, he could appreciate the vibrant life that seemed to teem in these parts. “This is so different.”

“Oh, you come from a city?” Cassandra’s eyes picked up with a glint of curiosity. She got sidetracked by one of the scouts but, after shouting a few commands and seeing him off, she turned to him.

The yankee just nodded. “Aye, I’m a city boy from Tokyo,” anticipating her confusion, Kazuya realized he had to elaborate, otherwise he was doing the same he’d been complaining about til a moment ago. “That’s my homeland’s capital, and one of the biggest cities in the world, it’s flatout massive.”

The satyr looked at him for what seemed to be a full minute. “You know, I’ve never been to a city proper, I’ve always lived in Samnos, my home village, how’s the city life anyway?” Her inquiry was accompanied by a timid smile. Even her horse seemed keen on hearing more about this Tokyo, judging by his soft nicker. Okay, maybe he was imagining that one.

The yankee blinked and clicked his tongue, still processing what was going on.This certainly wasn’t what Kazuya had in mind when he first approached her. Still, all take and no give was boring. “Oh it is great, there’s a ton of stuff to do and see, the city never ceases to provide new experiences, but at the same time,” “It’s asphyxiating at times, you know? There’s a perpetual tide of humanity pulling a tug-of-war on your body, shoving you around and keeping a thousand eyes upon you.”

“That... that sounds terrifying,”

That gave Kazuya pause. His mouth went slightly agape when the girl put it like that. There was some truth to that, to be honest. “It can be terrifying, but you get used to it with time.” Noticing that his horse wasn’t feeling so gutsy for now, Kazuya allowed himself the luxury to turn and look straight at the satyr girl, pressing his left hand’s knuckles against his cheek. “What about you?”

“Samnos, my home, is a humble village tugged between mountain ranges; it’s a hilly land, so we mainly tended to our flocks of sheep and poached the woods," her voice was a murmur, her eyes were locked in a far, far away land and time. She let out a rueful chuckle. "That, of course, was against the local lord's wishes, so when he caught me, he had a mind to hang me," as if to illustrate her point, Cassandra stretched an arm and feigned her would be execution.

Kazuya, absorbed by the tale, gestured to her to continue. She bit her lip with nervousness, but she wanted to keep on. "He had me stripped naked, eager to humiliate me, and then he found that I had the Cross and blood of Old Nestor, just like him," she closed her eyes. Her trembling smile was bitter. "He had been fond of the occasional tumble with the shepherds.

Kazuya was noticing "Don't tell me he was-." Cassandra just nodded. That left him breathless. "Mothertfucker."

"My father had married twice, but neither marriage had produced an issue. I had the blood of a Crusader, a symbol of status, so he could avoid losing face by naming me successor," tears began flowing down her cheeks. "He destroyed my world, took me away from all that I knew and, during two years, tried to mould me into an adequate successor... until his third wife sired a child with a Cross."

"He discarded you," Kazuya couldn't believe it. His jaw almost touched the floor. "That… that is horrible!"

She didn't respond. She just feebly nodded as she fought back the flood of tears."Yes, I am a bastard, snatched and exiled by a father that never saw himself as such," her voice cracked during the last words. Tears gently fell from her cheeks and her whole body shuttered with her barely repressed sobs.“That's the reason why I was so flustered about my family name."

Kazuya stood silent, deep in his own thoughts. Memories came at him. Of his mom, crying alone in the apartment. The pregnant silences that reigned during family reunions when a certain man was brought up. Of the abandonment. For a moment, he thought about sharing those memories with her, to let her know that pain wasn't only hers. Ultimately, though, Kazuya shook his head and decided against it.

This was her moment. She had taken the effort to unload that painful memory. Right now, this was about her. These were living people, with their quirks and issues. He couldn't just use them as walking repositories of knowledge.

"Cassandra-san," Kazuya once again bowed, out of respect for her plight, out of consideration for her pain. "I thank you for sharing this with me: if you ever need a shoulder or help, count with me.

"You are a daft one, you know?" Still, she managed to make a weak smile amidst those tears.

That smile was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.