Tate offered to help clean up the plates after their feast, but was promptly stopped by Lily.
“Leave the dishes to Prei and Iris. There’s something I want to show you.”
With that, she walked across the room and opened the door, revealing the familiar path that led to the workshop and forge. Tate turned to Prei, who nodded in agreement while wiping the dining table with a cloth. Tate returned the nod and wordlessly walked through the open doorway, followed closely by Lily.
The path was a very dear and familiar one, one which she had trod many times in the past. While she walked, she glanced wistfully at the building which sat along the path between the house and the workshop annex. At one point, that had been her forge. She wondered whether Lily had repurposed it for some other use. It wouldn’t make sense to leave it as a forge if there was nobody there to use it, after all.
Lily noted Tate’s line of sight and answered her unvoiced question.
“It’s still the same as when you left it. We didn’t remove a thing, and Iris even makes sure to clean it up regularly.”
“Eh? You even clean it?”
“Yep. Want to see?”
Tate was tempted. It had been a year since she had set foot within that forge. The idea of entering it again was akin to that of meeting a close friend after a long separation. However, Tate shook her head. Not now. She needed to keep looking forward.
“No, it’s fine. But, isn’t it kind of a waste to maintain a place that nobody uses? After all, this isn’t my home anymore.”
Moving quicker that Tate’s eyes could track, Lily stepped in front of Tate and turned, bringing her hand to Tate’s forehead and flicking it with a forefinger. Any ordinary human would likely have reeled back and doubled over in pain, but thankfully, Tate was a shield with an absurd degree of tolerance for pain. As such, she simply stood there with a look of surprise and confusion, blankly staring at Lily as she was scolded, the two of them temporarily stopping on the path.
“Silly girl. This will always be your home. No matter where you go or what you do, this will always be your home. We did the same for Prei, when she left, and we’re continuing to do it to this day. When the two of you left this house to pursue your own paths, it was a happy occasion. We were glad to see you setting foot on your own journeys. But even so, we’ll always make sure that there’s a place here for you to rest your weary feet. The reason Iris keeps your rooms and forge maintained is so that whenever you want to, you can come home, and we’ll be ready to receive you with open arms. This will always be your home. That’s the promise I made when we built this house, remember?”
Tate fell silent. She had not realised that Iris had kept Prei’s room clean, as well. Back when Prei had first left them, Tate had still been throwing herself into her work. She had not kept track of the others’ activities within the house, spending most of her time in her forge or her room. After she had left the house, as well, she noticed on her return trips that her room was invariably neat and tidy, but she had assumed that Iris had just tidied it up in preparation for their return. Now she was learning that Iris was apparently maintaining her room and Prei’s room on a regular basis. It was a realisation which inspired feelings of gratitude as well as guilt. Gratitude for their affection, guilt over leaving.
“So that’s why Prei’s room was always so clean, even after she was gone.”
Lily’s ears pricked up as she narrowed her eyes.
“Eh? When did you go into Prei’s room? I thought you spent all your time in the forge?”
Tate gasped as she realised her blunder. Unbidden thoughts about the times she had sneaked into Prei’s room while Lily slept entered her mind. She briefly recalled her midnight trawls, climbing into Prei’s bed, burying her face in Prei’s pillow, snuggling under Prei’s blanket, muffling her voice with Prei’s pillow while her hand crept down, reaching for-
Tate’s face flushed red and she quickly averted her gaze, trying to purge the impure thoughts from her head. She was in front of Prei’s mother; she should not be entertaining such impure thoughts about her younger friend. She quickly fumbled for an excuse.
“Ah, um, er, t-the armor! Yes, you know how Prei keeps one full set of armor mounted on the wall of her room? I entered her room to do maintenance on that, to make sure it was in good condition.”
It was the truth, she did do maintenance on that set, but it was evident from her agitation and tone of voice that she had gone into the room on other occasions as well, with much less innocent motives.
Lily uttered a noncommittal sound of patronising understanding, her eyes and the slight curl of her lip clearly showing how entirely unconvinced she was. Tate struggled to think of another, better excuse, but Lily chimed in while she pondered.
“You know, maybe it’s a bit hypocritical of me to say this, but if you love Prei, you should just go out with her.”
Lily’s apparent approval of their relationship took Tate by surprise, reducing her range of vocal responses to simple, monosyllabic sounds. Seeing this, Lily continued.
“I mean, you’re both plenty old enough to pursue love. And I’d much rather have Prei date you than some stranger I’ve never met. If nothing else, I’d be assured that you could definitely protect her far better than anyone else could. So if you want to ask her out, well, you have my full blessing.”
Tate smiled slightly at how very literal Lily’s statement was. However, even with Lily’s explicit approval, she doubted she would properly confess to Prei. At least, not yet. Both of them still possessed vast insecurities, but they were different from those that Lily had been plagued with. Maybe one day. But not yet. Instead of answering to this statement, Tate decided to make her escape by seizing on the opportunity that Lily had provided, her mouth twisting into a slight smirk.
“Yeah, that’s a hypocritical statement, alright. After you waited 7 years just to confess to Iris, you’re asking me to ask Prei out? Really?”
Naturally, Lily saw right through Tate’s feigned spite.
“Yes. Because I waited 7 years, and I don’t want you to wait like I did. Those 7 years were… uncomfortable at times.”
Saying this, Lily said nothing more on the subject and continued walking toward the workshop. Tate fell silent. She had no good response, so she just quietly followed.
The workshop looked the same as it always had. At least, the general layout did. The tools were all in the same place, the books and materials were haphazardly stacked in the same locations. The five workstations in the middle of the room were in the positions they had occupied since their introduction to this environment. Naturally, much of what was actually on these workstations was alien to Tate, but she had long given up on the idea of attempting to keep track of what Lily was working on, even before she had moved out. The five workstations reflected Lily’s tendency to get distracted: it was not uncommon for her to be working on a project, then suddenly drop the project and move on to another new idea or machine, returning to the original project at a later date. Lily was usually a neat and organised person, but she became someone different when she was immersed in her research and experimentation. All notions of neatness were forsaken, and she became a creature driven by curiosity. There was a saying back in Saphiz: “Caprice is the child of talent”. Lily seemed to be a living embodiment of its meaning.
Confronted with a range of machines and inventions which had purposes inscrutable to Tate, Tate simply turned to Lily. Lily clearly intended for her to see something. The problem was where she should be directing her gaze.
“…Well? Where am I supposed to be looking?”
Lily grinned and strode over to the workstation in the middle of the arrangement. The floor on either side of the large table was covered in a mixed pile of books, notes, stationary, gears, plans and metal. At a glance, it was clear that they had been haphazardly shoved off the tabletop to make room for the device that now sat prominently in the middle of the table. Tate walked up to it and laid her hands on its surface.
Cool to the touch, it resembled a closed book, made entirely of metal. A network of mana crystals were embedded in its surface, forming a lattice-like pattern that emitted a soft green glow. Where an ordinary book would have pages, there was a singular, unblemished block of metal. A line that ran along it lengthwise indicated where the block was split into half, along the middle of the device. Along the longer side of the book-like object, part of the split line bounded a small rectangular opening.
Without waiting for permission, Tate opened the object, exposing the interior: the rectangular opening opened up into a much larger rectangular depression in the metal. On the side that bore the latticed cover, the page was covered with row upon row of small, almost invisible holes. Tate looked to Lily.
“…What’s this supposed to do?”
“Admittedly, the form isn’t the most intuitive. But I thought it looked nice. And it’s portable, too. Bit heavy, though.”
Tate attempted to lift the book. Heavy was an understatement. She could feel a bit of a strain lifting it, and she was many times stronger than a regular human. An ordinary human would likely have trouble even opening the cover, as she had just done.
“That’s well and good, but what does it do?”
Lily’s eyes sparkled with excitement.
“It’s probably easier to show you than tell you.”
With that, she took out two stacks of metal and placed them on the table. One was a stack of plain, perfectly circular palm-sized metal discs. The other was a stack of square metal plates, much smaller in size, small enough to be comfortably between the thumb and index finger. Lily flipped the book around, showing Tate that the edge of the book which had not been facing her concealed a pair of smaller slits, each the size of those smaller square plates.
Lily placed the metal disc in the larger depression, on the side of the book which did not bear the holes, then inserted one of the square plates into the left slit. Instantly, a number of the holes began to emit a bright light. Looking carefully, it was clear that the holes that lit up formed some kind of pattern. Lily carefully closed the book. After about three seconds, she opened it up again, retrieved the metal disc, and handed it to Tate.
Tate looked at the disc in astonishment. Even though the disc had been completely blank a moment ago, it now bore a lovely engraving of a lily, accompanied by the name “TATE” written above it in cursive. Mouth agape, she looked at Lily, who proudly beamed back.
Lily had somehow managed to automate the art of engraving. With this machine, it would be possible to mass-produce engraved works. Going one step further, if it were possible to adjust the depth of the cut, it would be possible to use this to expedite the filing and grinding process, and it might even make it easier for her to incorporate locking and pivot-based mechanisms in her work. She gazed at Lily in wonderment. Lily gave a mock sigh.
“Well, I spent all morning working on finishing this up. I’ve been developing it for a while, but really only finished it today. It’s too heavy and not as versatile as I’d like it to be. Still, I think it’s not too bad for a prototype.”
Lily shut the book and walked around the workstation, standing next to Tate and ruffling the younger girl’s hair.
“And, of course, it’s now yours. I’m sure you can find some use for it.”
Tate shouted in surprise. She had thought Lily had just intended to show it to her as a proof of concept, maybe give her the engraved disc as a gift. But to give her such an amazing invention, one which could revolutionise industries? That was far too unreasonable!
“A-Are you sure? If you sold this, or even if you just kept and used it, you could get a ton of money! Why give it to me?”
“Come on, Tate. You know how heavy it is. I’d never be able to sell it because nobody would be able to buy it. Besides, even if I did sell it, I’d just use the money to get something for you anyway. Far better for you to have it. Your arrival today is pretty much the only reason I was able to finish it, after all.”
Lily picked up the book in one hand and handed it to Tate. Tate gratefully received it, tucking it away under an arm.
“Now, I’ll be following you back to Riasode this week. About time to pay my monthly visit to Victoria, and I do want to see how Roan is doing with that new kid. Roan, a father! I can barely imagine it. Anyway, I’ll teach you how to use it and how to generate new designs while we’re there. It’s not much, but this is my birthday present to you, Tate. I hope it’s satisfactory.”
Lily pulled Tate into a hug.
“Happy Birthday, Tate.”
Tate allowed herself to be hugged, overwhelmed with gratitude. For the umpteenth time, she thanked whichever gods existed that she had found this second family.