Chapter 22:

The Devil Comes and Whispers

The Songstress of Avalon

"When are you going to give that body to me?"

The sonorous voice spoke teasingly into my ear. In response, I opened my eyes and saw Arisa sitting at my bedside, a red glint reflected in her downward gaze. She was looking down at me, her lips curled into a conceited smile that couldn't possibly have belonged to the girl I knew. Her eyes pointed downwards as though looking at a worm trying to crawl uphill.

"Is that you, Rakshasa?" I managed to utter my first words of the day. They did not sound as commanding as I intended them to be.

"You've found me out, huh?" the voice, previously melodious, descended into a malefic rasp completely incongruous with Arisa's features.

I ignored the comment.

"Leave me alone."

And then the demon disappeared. After all, it was difficult for something that shouldn't have a form to manifest itself in the physical world. Even though it was no longer using Arisa's face to taunt me, I could still hear Rakshasa's voice in my head.

"That guy you picked a fight with is no slouch, Ayato," the demon had no face to twist as he spouted his spiteful words, but I knew that if he did, he would certainly be sneering at me. "I can lend you some of my power, just like when I helped you pick up the Sword of Promised Ruin. But you have to give me your body afterwards, OK?"

Back when I first arrived in this world, I had made a pact with this formless demon; in exchange for its power, I would allow it to reside inside my body. But a demon is never content with what you give it. After five years, Rakshasa had gotten tired of simply existing, and wanted to enter the external world.

Whenever I became overwhelmed, and dark thoughts begin to cloud my mind, it's always Rakshasa's voice which echoes in my ear: Give me your body, give me your body...

But unfortunately for him, this was not one of those times.

"It might be that I'll need your help today," I kicked out of bed, not even bothering to entertain his offer. "But you can get forget about getting anything else from me. My priority is making sure Arisa doesn't have to marry that creep."

"Oooh, Ayato's got a crush," the voice in my head snapped sarcastically. "What happened to you, man? Well, whatever. I'll help you fry this guy up, then you can scratch my back too, OK? Well, you can make it so that I actually have a back to scratch..."

"Fry him up? That doesn't sound like a bad idea..."

Instinctively, I opened my mouth to reply, but then I remembered that there was no need. Rakshasa resided inside my mind and soul. It could be said that the very act of thinking was the same as communicating with Rakshasa - there were numerous examples of the demons in people's heads driving them insane with incessant talking. But fortunately, Rakshasa rarely saw it worth their while to comment on my life. 

I headed downstairs to breakfast which, due to Marissa's handiwork, turned out to be a dazzlingly elaborate affair. I couldn't eat much though, since my fight with Prince Ayling was scheduled for later today. With a few words of thanks to Marissa, I left the embassy and began the twenty minute walk to the Stadio Siro Peccatrice.

The challenge that I had apparently issued to the prince had become known to the public, and was now being treated as a spectacle. By virtue of literally being the man who saved the realm from the Demon Lord, I had achieved a certain degree of fame; naturally, the various royal families of the realm were also often the subject of public interest.

When these two personages clashed, everybody wanted to know why. In fact, the 'fight' between Prince Ayling and I was seen to warrant a suitable stage - in swept the owner of the Stadio Siro Peccatrice, which could hold over 40,000 people, to offer his venue.

The seat of honour belonged to King Karslake but Arisa, his prospective daughter-in-law, would be seated right next to him. They would both, of course, be flanked by the Avispan Royal Guard so there was little chance of Prince Lorenzo or his goons being able to get to her. He would undoubtedly be in attendance though.

I found Arisa in the corridor, standing at the juncture of the stadium which split into two paths - one led to the VIPs' seating area while the other led to the fighters' waiting room. She was facing the direction of the waiting room, a contemplative look on her face. She turned toward me, however, when she heard the sound of my encroaching footsteps.

"Ayato, you're here!" she looked surprised. "I thought..."

She must have thought I was in the waiting room, hence her indecision. Could it be that she had something to say to me?

"The fight doesn't start for another two hours," I said. "I was thinking of resting up for a little bit."

"Oh, I see. You know," Arisa began, "I heard that Prince Ayling is one of the strongest knights in the realm. Apparently, he's a high ranking officer in the Avispan army."

"Are you worried about me?" I grinned. "It's true that Prince Ayling is strong, but... ah, wait, you've never seen me fight before, have you?"

"I did, once. You remember that whole thing with Lullaby Boy's arm?"

"That was different," I insisted. "It wasn't like I could just cut Lull's arm off, right? There's no love between the prince and I, so there's no reason for me to hold back today."

"You're not thinking of seriously hurting Prince Ayling, are you?" she gasped.

"I'm not going to hold back," I repeated. "I can't afford to; if he's even half as good as they say he is, then I have to give it my all from the get-go."

"You could just choose not to fight, Ayato," she said. "You didn't want to fight in the first place, right? Even though everyone's saying that it was you who challenged him... your priority should be getting back to Japan. Getting involved in something like this just seems trivial to me."

"I'm not going to let you marry him."

"Why? It's not like it means anything. Find the Jewel of Lazarus that you need and then come get me before you do the ritual. That way, we ca-,"

"Don't misunderstand!" my face momentarily flushed red. "Prince Lorenzo and his goons are still after you, remember? He's a persistent guy. You won't be able to throw him off just by leaving the city. The safest place for you is here... with me."

Arisa looked contemplative again.

"The mere exposure effect, huh?" she spoke eventually.

"Mere exposure eff-?!" I stuttered. "Forget that I ever said that, it was..."

"OK, I think I get it now," she nodded, and then turned away to leave. "Good luck today, Ayato."

I wanted to say something, but the words simply wouldn't come out. I couldn't imagine a scenario where I would lose to Prince Ayling, and even as I watched Arisa slowly drift away toward the VIP seats, I was still confident that today's duel could only end in my victory. 

However, her words weighed heavily on me - this whole thing began because of Prince Ayling's misunderstanding, yes, but it takes two to tango, didn't it?

Like Arisa said, I could choose not to fight. She was right to say that too since, after all, the Jewel of Lazarus was much more important. If I backed out after all this though, Prince Ayling would certainly have some choice words for me, and the sensational headlines deriding me as a coward would be sold from every newsstand in the realm.

Is that why I was so eager? Was this entire thing just a mere issue of pride? But, for some reason, that answer seemed to me a bit too simple. As I entered the waiting room, I was still unsure as to my own reason for participating in this fight, no, in this farce - this travesty of a spectacle that Prince Ayling concocted.

After all, Arisa never agreed to marry him.

Steward McOy