Now alone with Nia, Natalia peered at her. Her skin seemed soft, like her own. Her hair was long.
“Nia?” she said.
The woman turned to her, a soft smile on her face.
You really don’t understand me? Or Tsubame? None of it?”
Nia’s head tilted to the side, and Natalia huffed out a breath. Mrs. Roose would be at this for a while. Hopefully her parents and grandmother wouldn’t mind taking in someone else. They had a guest bed, at least.
“Kotori!” Tsubame’s cry had Natalia leap from her seat, but Nia grabbed her hand before
she could go up and see for herself.
“Y-You just grabbed me,” Natalia said, her voice hushed.
Maybe her sheer surprise had got through to Nia, since she let go.
Natalia stared at her wrist. Nia hadn’t grabbed her especially hard, but still. Surely she should know better? Everyone treated the Corenlia family kindly, and nobody ever grabbed her. They knew what would happen if she so much as whispered a word to her grandmother. She could have the guards cut Nia’s hand off for what she’d done. Was Dainai really so lawless? The doll seller hadn’t mentioned that.
Nia held up a hand.
“Skappe. Krunchu. Shonsapudu genali ucheistharu.”
She seemed to know that her words weren’t getting through by how frustrated she looked.
Natalia grabbed her own wrist like how Nia had done, and then shook her head.
Nia’s brow furrowed, and she nodded after a moment. Then she hung her head apologetically.
Konoe and Tsubame came back down shortly after. Tsubame’s relaxed brow and hopeful smile coaxed one from Natalia.
“So Kotori is okay?”
“She’s awake,” Konoe said. “But try not to touch her.”
“Is she sick?”
Konoe’s lips pressed together.
“We’re not sure,” she eventually said, glancing down at the floor. “But we’ll make sure she’s well, after we’ve saved Tamatoya.” Her gaze fell to Nia with an intensity that had the stranger fidgeting in her chair.
“Err, is there anything I can do?” Natalia said, as the seconds passed.
Then Konoe stared at her, her eyebrows arched and her mouth pinched at the corner, like she was thinking about something really hard.
“Your offer earlier, to help Nia,” Konoe said. “I would appreciate it if you could do that. Take her in a little while, and teach her enough Meliodan to get by.”
Natalia tried not to think about how Nia had just grabbed her without even the slightest bit of delicacy, but she still grimaced.
“I have my reasons,” Konoe eventually pressed, glancing tentatively at Nia. “I-I’d like to teach Nia magic.”
Natalia’s mouth fell open, and she glanced at Nia again. Was she related to some famous Dainian mage that Tsubame’s mother knew? That would explain her skin, and why she showed up to their house one day.
“D-Did you smuggle her into Melioda?”
“It-It’s complicated,” Konoe said. “But it’s very important that I teach her how to use magic. Responsibly. But it would be hard to teach her anything if we can’t speak the same language.”
“I-I see.” Then that all but confirmed it. She frowned at Tsubame. She could’ve told her the truth. Friends were supposed to trust each other.
“Y-You okay, Natalia?”
“I-I’ll ask my grandmother,” Natalia said.
“Thank you Natalia.”
Konoe peered at her, and for a moment, Natalia glimpsed Kotori’s usual frigidity.
“I-Is something wrong, Mrs. Hikou?”
“Nothing,” she said. “I was just thinking. Considering I’ll already be taking on one student, I could handle another.”
“Me? Learn magic?”
“If you want to learn,” she said, smiling warmly. “I don’t mean to force you.”
“Wh-Who wouldn’t want to learn?” Natalia said, her eyes widening. “And I can’t take a trip to the mage academy in Giormund because of all the monsters on the road.”
After what that Hell Diver had said about the livestock between here and the imperial capital being put in a trance, her mother and father wouldn’t let her go.
“That’s good to hear. Then I’ll write a letter about becoming qualified to take on students,” Konoe said. “But I will ask your parents first, just so I know they’re fine with me teaching you.”
Natalia pouted at that. If her parents wouldn’t let her seize this once in a lifetime opportunity, then where else would she learn?
“But before that, I need to pick some dawnberries for Kotori,” Konoe said. “So would you mind waiting here until I get back?”
“I can, of course. Stay safe. I-Is there anything I can do to prepare for the lesson?” Natalia could barely conceal a tremble of excitement.
“Be ready to memorize lots and lots of details. I should be back in two hours.”
Konoe left, shutting the door behind her. Nia waved.
“I-I’m gonna be taught magic, Tsubame!” Natalia cried. “Magic!” As it sank in, her mouth stretched into a broad smile.
The smile Tsubame returned was stiff, her eyes not nearly as elated.
“So casters have specialties, right? You said that Kotori’s is lightning. Yours would be your strength, right?”
Tsubame shook her head.
“Magic was too tough for me,” she muttered. “Couldn’t get my head around it.”
“Yeah,” Tsubame murmured, looking down at the floor. “Hopefully you do better than me. That won’t be hard.”
Natalia winced, unsure of how to respond to that.
Nia got up from her chair and squeezed Tsubame’s shoulder.
“Tsubame,” she said. “Nimaitta…” She seemed to realize that Tsubame wouldn’t understand, as she swallowed her words with a grimace.
Tsubame looked up at her.
“Err, is everything okay, Nia?”
Nia grumbled under her breath, before gently pulling Tsubame into a hug.
Tsubame gasped, and Natalia looked taken aback.
Nia’s grimace relaxed when Tsubame hugged her back.
“Err, thank you.”
Eventually Tsubame slipped away from the hug, and Nia returned to her seat. The stranger glanced around the kitchen sheepishly.
Natalia cleared her throat as her mother would to gather people’s attention, and much like those times, Tsubame’s eyes fell to her.
“Err, sorry about what I said,” she said softly. “I always just assumed that was it. So then where does your strength come from?” She remembered when she and Tsubame had gone to a town fair last year, and Tsubame had arm wrestled a full grown woodsman.
“I don’t know. A gift from the gods, maybe? Maybe one of them felt bad that I didn’t have anything like Kotori’s genius and magical talent and gave me a small boost.” Then Tsubame straightened up. “Oh! Kotori wanted me to thank you for your help getting the medicine for her.”
Maybe Kotori really was feeling weird, if she was going to actually thank people.
“Err, then tell her you’re welcome, I guess. But since Kotori’s awake now, did you want to spend the night? And I never showed you the doll!” She glanced around for where she’d left it amidst all the excitement, and set it on the kitchen table.
Tsubame looked at it.
“Looks nice,” she said.
Her down tone had Natalia pout.
“Just ‘nice’? Look at the eyes, they’re like sapphires!” Natalia said, pushing the doll closer. “Doesn’t this cheer you up, even a little?”
“I guess a little bit? Sorry. But thanks for coming all the way here to cheer me up, Natalia. Really.”
“You’re welcome. Err, right, did you want to come over tonight? I was gonna ask earlier, but then the stuff with Kotori came up, and well, yeah. Couldn’t find a good time.”
Tsubame mulled on that for a few moments.
“I don’t want to leave Kotori alone,” she eventually said. “But mommy doesn’t want me in her room, just in case. So I guess I can go? But that means Kotori’s gonna be here alone tonight if mommy goes out to look for daddy again. Since Nia’s gonna be going to your place too, I guess?”
“Probably not tonight,” Natalia said. “I’ll talk to mother, father, and grandma first.”
“Makes sense? Then I guess it’s fine? At least one other person will be here.”
They turned and smiled at Nia, who smiled back.
When Tsubame went to pack her belongings for the night there, she and Nia followed. Natalia glanced at Nia as she helped Tsubame pack. If she knew any magic taught in Dainai, she wasn’t using it to make the packing easier. She might not know a translation spell, but then why couldn’t her magical family there give her a translation tool? A ring, maybe? Or was Dainai suffering its own problems, and they didn’t have a choice but to send her here with nothing?
“Have you seen her use any Dainian magic?” she said, glancing at Tsubame.
“Oh, uhh, nope,” Tsubame said, folding up her nightgown. “But she wouldn’t need mommy to teach her if she could already use magic, I’m thinking?”
“True enough,” Natalia said, nodding.
If they would both be learning under the same mentor, wouldn’t that make them sister disciples? The thought of learning alongside someone so much older was strange, but she would just have to get used to it.
Once Tsubame had packed her things, she and Natalia played board games. Nia watched closely, occasionally attempting to pronounce words they would say while asking about their meanings as best she could.