Hime x Hime
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The overwhelming odor of woodsmoke invaded my lungs, and bits of ash rained down on my cheek. I coughed, finally opening my eyes. Along with the haze, my breathing was labored by an external pressure on my chest.
"What..." I muttered, still groggy from my slumber.
"Sakuta! Oh man, is it good to see you awake! Are you doing alright?" I was draped over Henrí's shoulder, and so was Amber from the looks of it.
"Yeah, I think so. Amber, how about you?" I watched her eyes open slowly from Henrí's other shoulder.
"Fine, I think. Where the heck are we going, Henrí?" Amber looked like she was about to hurl from the motion.
"The safe house, we're almost there." Despite the added weight, Henrí ran effortlessly through Morningstar, carrying the two of us until we reached an alleyway. He finally set us down, making certain we didn't fall over.
"It's a mess out here." I gasped. A sinister, red glow painted the sky. It was like a scene out of a horror movie as a full-on siege was taking place from within the city.
"Wait, Mavis! Where is she!?" Amber exclaimed. Our third Dream Garden escapee was nowhere in the immediate vicinity.
"She's waiting safely inside, I promise. Poppy brought her." Henrí assured her. "Keep your voices down for a moment, I hear someone coming..."
We backed up against the wall into the shadows, and some of the Queen's guard passed by in a hurry. At least half of them had defected to Cedrick's side according to Apprentice's sources, but I couldn't tell them apart.
"Poppy, huh... Inside where?" I whispered, my legs wobbling a bit.
Glancing upwards, I happened to notice a sign that read: Old Bard's Inn. It was a real hole-in-the-wall sort of establishment that would take some looking to notice in this back alley.
"Right through here, actually. Welcome to the safe house." Henrí opened the rickety wooden door to reveal the sleepy tavern within.
It was your standard inn with wooden, rustic features. It had a single flight of stairs leading to what I assumed to be the rooms on the floor above, and the bar at ground level. I hadn't thought my first trip to an honest-to-goodness otherworldly tavern would be under these circumstances. Otherwise I might feel like a true adventurer.
Sitting at the bar were some people we knew, and at the tables sat some of the Queen's guard. The ones that hadn't defected at least. My first impression of our gathering, however, was that not everyone was present.
My eyes scanned the room until they came to rest on Queen Veranda, her face caked in ash. She immediately stood up from her chair at the sight of us with a look that only a worried mother could pull off.
"Mother!" Amber called out.
"Amber, Sakuta!" Queen Veranda paced over, throwing her arms around her daughter. Her shoulders sagged in a mixture of relief, and exhaustion. "Henrí, thank you. Truly for keeping them safe."
"It has been my greatest honor, your highness." The wolf man bowed at her genuine thanks.
"Where's my sister? You brought her here, didn't you Poppy?" Amber asked as she was released from Queen Veranda's embrace.
"She just woke up, and she's already helping tend to some of the wounded upstairs... That sweet girl." Poppy sat at the bar, smiling sadly. An old man behind her worked on cleaning a glass. "How much do you guys know about what's going on out there?"
"Only what the pixies told us. The Duke, and Cedrick finally made their move. What's the situation like at the castle?" I asked.
"It's not good... not at all." Queen Veranda slowly made her way back to her chair, and sat down near Poppy. She looked totally defeated.
"The entire servants’ wing has collapsed. It took most of our manpower just to evacuate the survivors. We didn't have time to think about a counteroffensive." Poppy sighed.
"What about the Royal armada?" Amber asked. "We keep most of our forces in the surrounding forts, why aren't they here to take back the castle? What about Az?"
"Commodore Flynn is already leading the punitive force from outside. They circle the walls of the city in airships even now awaiting my orders." Queen Veranda replied. "However..."
"But what?" Amber asked.
It was then that I realized who was missing from our usual gang. She would have already made a snide remark about how I took too long to arrive. If she were here, that is... but she wasn't. Jewel was missing.
"Where is Jewel?" I asked as I felt my pulse rise. I was only met with sad looks, and averted gazes. "Hey, where's Jewel!? Answer me!"
"We don't know..." That was all Poppy had to say. As tempted as I was to speak further, I struggled to find any words. Not that they would have done us much good.
With the entire servants wing collapsed, and the castle in enemy hands...
I shook away the thought, I couldn't afford to let my mind stray to the worst possible outcome.
"Now you see why we can't simply launch an air raid with innocent lives in the crossfire. Hostages remain, and countless wounded. Other than the skirmishes outside, the fighting has stopped within the castle itself. It's almost as if they're waiting for something..."
Waiting for something... Cedrick!
"That crazy elf bastard, Cedrick made contact with the Goddess of Chaos. If he hasn't brokered his contract yet, he's buying himself time with those hostages." Amber guessed. "He has us right where he wants us."
"Are you serious!?" Poppy exclaimed. "I doubt even the royal fleet could take him on with that kind of power... So what do we do?"
"We go stop him. Now. We don't have any more time to waste talking about it." I said.
I say that... But I'm no strategist.
Up until a month ago I had never even seriously fought anyone before in my life. I wasn't a storybook hero, or a gallant knight.
I'm just a kid from Hokkaido... And I'm all out of options.
"This is all my fault..." Queen Veranda broke the silence. "After Raymond disappeared, I stopped using my intention ability. I wanted to shield my heart by feigning ignorance. I even denied Cedrick's schemes, because I didn't want to lose anyone else... I have failed this nation as its Queen. I'm no longer fit to wear this crown."
"Mother..." Amber stared at Queen Veranda with a look of shock, and sadness. She clutched the front of her dress. It was one of very few times where I saw the mother-daughter pair look so deflated.
This can't go on. I was so hyped to get back here, and for what exactly? Was their defeated expressions all it took to shake my faith in them? In myself!?
But what could I even do?
What could I—
"It's a tough ask for someone like you, but you just have to be smarter than that sleazy elf."
"Oh, that's right... Jewel said that to me back in the library. What else did she say?" I muttered to myself inaudibly.
"Poppy trusts you, and Amber trusts you too. I... Anyway, you're not alone in this. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, and do something."
"Maybe if I offer up my life, and beg to Cedrick... He and the Duke may spare your lives. Maybe he'd—" Queen Veranda began.
"Don't give me that crap..." I whispered, clenching my fist.
"Pardon?" Queen Veranda looked puzzled.
"I said, don't give me that crap! All of you! But especially you, your highness." I pointed in the direction of Queen Veranda. "You're supposed to lead these people. We're here right now, because we're ready to do whatever it takes to take back the castle. And you're ready to what? Give up!?"
"Sakuta, that's—" Poppy began sternly.
"I'm not finished! Your highness, you brought me to this world, treated me like family, helped me meet the most important person in my life here..." I looked over at Amber who was speechless. "I never once blamed you for bringing me... In fact, I trust you with my life... So be a leader, and take some damn responsibility for it!"
"But I..." Queen Veranda looked down.
"Sakuta lacks the tactful delivery, but he's absolutely right, mother. I hate seeing you like this." Mavis came walking down the stairs upon hearing the commotion.
"We both do... It reminds me of when father disappeared. That look you had on your face every day..." Amber agreed, rubbing her shoulder.
"Forget the stuff from the past for now... There are people in the present who need our help. Jewel told me to stop feeling sorry for myself, and do something. Well let's DO something, but... We need your leadership. This whole kingdom does... I can't be that person."
Having said my piece, everyone turned to face Queen Veranda. As if they were ready for the next order of business.
"You're... right. Of course you are!" Queen Veranda stood up, and smacked her cheeks. I winced a bit, but I felt the change in her mood immediately. "Lives are at stake, and I'm sitting around moping. No longer! We storm the castle now, and signal the armada when we've staked our position. We will not fall on this day!"
"Hooray!!!" The Queen's guard along with the rest of us fed off her energy, filling the small tavern with raucous cheers. I worried it may alert the defected guards outside.
"I couldn't have said it any better myself." Amber whispered, giving me a peck on the cheek. She quickly retreated to her mother's side to strategize.
"Nor could I!" Henrí swung his arm around my shoulder. "I never properly thanked you for clearing my name, by the way. I guess the real culprit was—"
"Charles... Yeah, we found that out too." I sighed. "And he's on the other side... I really hoped we wouldn't have to fight him."
"We might not... I don't know. It's strange since I was almost executed on his account, but I have faith in Charles still. You learn a lot fighting alongside a man." Henrí chuckled. "Princess Mavis tells me you have a trump card. Have you tried reading it yet?"
Reading? Oh that's right, the journal! I almost forgot about that thing.
"Well I might as well before we set out." I pulled out the now-opened journal, and began flipping through the pages." Woah... this is— this is—!"
"It's what!?" Henrí looked extremely curious about what was inside, even taking a step back in caution.
"This is just a bunch of chuunibyou crap!" I lamented at my newfound discovery. The journal I held was not filled with priceless magical research, but the random scribblings of a secret otaku.
Buster shield? Top ten hero poses? Catchphrases to pick up maidens!?
"Whoever my predecessor was, he was totally unserious!" I huffed. The journal suddenly gave my hand a little shock. "Ouch! What's that all about..."
It was almost as if it responded to my insult, but that couldn't be possible... Right?
"Sakuta, you're unserious." Amber came walking back over. "Don't you remember where you got the idea for your own weapons?"
"Oh yeah..." We had been given the power to create anything we wanted. I guess I should have expected something like this. "Maybe I'll try out some of these if the moment presents itself. So what's the game plan?"
"Henrí, you, and I are going to bust into the castle and give Cedrick and Duke Cleishay the fight they asked for. The guards will follow soon after, and the armada will clean things up." Amber explained.
"Got it." I nodded. "And we need to find Jewel, and send the rest of the injured back here to the safe house until reinforcements come."
"Mavis volunteered to help our healers with restoration magic, my sister is quite good at it." Amber smiled.
"Good luck, you three! May the spirits guide you." Queen Veranda called from the bar where she strategized with the others.
We stepped outside the inn, and into the night.
After a bit of a walk we ascended the steps to the castle, having avoided detection by the guards scouring the city. A light drizzle had cut through the warm evening air, setting the scene for what was sure to be a fierce battle
"The servants’ wing didn't collapse on its own... There's another group apparently helping Cedrick, so be ready for anything." Amber warned as we approached the front door.
Lightning flashed, and a figure appeared in front of us.
"My, my. To what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from you three? " The young man smirked.
"Hello Charles." Amber replied.
"You're outnumbered, my friend. Why not join us?" Henrí suggested.
If only it were that easy... But things rarely are as far as Count Cleishay is concerned.
"Join you... You know I can't do that, Senator. My role in all this is to hold you all here until it is finished." Charles said without a hint of emotion. "It's really nothing personal. Isn't that right, Sakuta Yamada? I warned you after all..."
I clenched my teeth. He certainly did, but he also played a huge role in everything going to hell. If only he'd been with us, so much of this could have been avoided... Or that's what I told myself.
"No... Your opponent will be me, and only me." Amber stepped forward.
"Amber?" I glanced at her. "What do you mean?"
"I need to catch up with my old friend, Charles here. You and Henrí go on ahead... and stop Cedrick." Amber smiled. "I know you can. I trust you, Sakuta. We all do."
"But... Alright." I nodded. "Just don't do anything reckless, now... We haven't had that talk yet, you know?"
"We will. I promise." Amber replied as she stuck out her pinkie. I accepted the gesture with my own.
"I'll hold you to that. Let's go, Henrí." Charles made no attempt to stop us, nor did he break the intense eye contact shared between him and the princess.
I took one final look back at Amber—who stood there with her own intense look—and closed the door with a thud behind me.