“Prei, I told you, don’t eat so quickly.”
Despite her apparent concession, the white-haired girl who had introduced herself as Prei continued to devour the meat on her plate at frightening speeds. Lily frowned as Prei stopped eating, coughed, and started choking. Sighing, she moved over to the younger girl and thumped her back repeatedly.
“See? That’s why you don’t eat so quickly.”
After a few more coughs, Prei seemed to dislodge the stuck morsel and drank heavily from a glass of water. Setting the empty glass down, she burped loudly, upon which she quickly covered her mouth with her hands. She glanced at Lily, catching Lily’s admonishing glare, and shrank down in her seat, face red.
Lily tried to maintain a stern expression, but was unable to perform this feat in the face of Prei’s crestfallen expression. Shaking her head in resignation, she patted Prei’s head.
“Just be more mindful of yourself, okay?”
Nodding happily, Prei returned her attention to her meal, eating at a slower pace this time.
Along the same table, Iris and Tate watched this scene with bemused expressions. Iris was the one who first spoke, bearing a wry smile.
“You’ve – totally become a mother, Lily.”
“Yeah, you’re acting just like my mom.”
“…I’m not entirely sure how I’m supposed to respond to that.”
Lily regarded the cheerful Prei. It had been two days since she had awoken and suddenly called Lily “Mama”. Lily had initially assumed it to be a case of mistaken identity, but apparently, she was wrong. Prei seemed to completely and wholly believe that Lily was her mother. The reason: she had no memories. Lily had tried to ask her about her circumstances after she calmed down, but she seemed to remember nothing. She had no recollection of her past, her home, or her actual parents. All she could tell Lily was her name: Prei.
Caught up in the flow of events, Lily had somehow fallen into the role of Prei’s mother. Lily had quickly discovered that Prei was highly intelligent and adaptable, but also highly dependent: She picked up skills and knowledge absurdly quickly, but required Lily to teach her everything. This included eating. When Lily had first set a plate of food in front of Prei, Prei had stared at the plate curiously for a while, then plunged her face into it, causing a panicking Lily to stop her before explaining the use of utensils. When Prei had tilted her head in confusion, Lily had painstakingly demonstrated the process of eating using utensils, after which Prei quickly picked up the skill.
The girl was a mystery, certainly. Memory loss was one thing, but for her to be lacking in what should be a basic life skill… Who was she, and where did she come from? These questions flew through Lily’s mind as she watched the little girl eat, but the answers were still beyond her grasp, lost in the mists of Prei’s unknown past.
Still, Lily found herself unable to leave Prei alone. She caught herself constantly keeping an eye out, ensuring the girl stayed out of danger. Tate and Iris had simply voiced out what she herself felt: she had completely fallen into the role of the mother. Perhaps it was her maternal instinct…? No, it was nothing as pure as that. It was her desire to be needed. To be depended upon. It was her desire to have someone rely on her. She treasured her relationships with those already around her, but neither Tate nor Iris were reliant upon her. Lily often found herself relying on Iris instead, and Tate was a strong and independent girl who did not have to rely upon anyone. To have someone so dependent on her gave Lily a sense of vulgar self-satisfaction, and that was perhaps the reason why she had so naturally accepted the role of Prei’s mother. She smirked in self-admonishment.
When Prei had cleared the plate of its contents, the four girls went out onto the deck, each heading somewhere different. Tate took the dishes down to the kitchen, whereafter she would adjourn to the armory to maintain the weapons and armor, a voluntary responsibility she had insisted on assuming. Lily was bedridden at the time, but according to Iris, Tate had broken down in tears when she first saw the armory of the ship, bemoaning the tarnished state of its contents. Iris took Prei to the poop deck, where she would assess the girl’s <<Affinities>> – having decided that Prei had recovered enough to do so. Finally, Lily strode over to the large hole in the side of the ship, which was now half-sealed with scrap metal salvaged from bits of the Serpent.
Among the people on the ship, only Lily and Tate had experience in metalwork, and only Lily had worked with this type of metal before, so the task of repairing the ship with the metal naturally fell to her. The captain had reassured her on several counts that it was not necessary, that the ship would sail fine even with the hole, but Lily was adamant. It had been weeks since she had the opportunity to exercise her craft, and the prospect of working with that unusual metal again excited her.
Lily’s fingertips split open, revealing a set of minute instruments, each emerging from a fingertip. She had initially been hesitant to show the captain that her arms were artificial, afraid that it would lead to undesirable lines of inquiry, but then she had decided that since he had already seen Iris’ enormous, otherworldly weapon, and had not pursued the matter, it would be alright for him to know. Minute wires from her fingertips spidered out across the metal plates, carefully feeling out each plate to identify its strength. Plates with too many weak points she tossed into the ocean, plates with sturdy construction she soldered to the metal frame she had constructed the previous day. If she were working with ordinary metals, such as steel or iron, she would have had to account for the weight differential and calculate whether the ship’s existing wooden components would be able to support the weight of the metal components, but thankfully, the strange metal – the same metal that formed her arm – was lightweight.
Through her Extension, she could feel the exact composition of the metal she was using, but it employed several mystery components she had neither heard of nor seen before, and the exact method of its forging was unknown to her. Given enough time, she might be able to puzzle it out, but… that was a thought for another time. She filed this mystery away at the back of her mind, determined to solve it when she had the leisure to do so. As she worked, fitting the strong plates into place, her instincts and experience taking over, she let her conscious mind wander to the question of Prei and Iris.
From Lily’s experience, testing for <<Affinities>> could be done in one of two ways: The first, someone with a <<Scan>> affinity would be able to determine another’s <<Affinities>> by touching their wrists. The second was using a tool known as a <<Diagnoser>>, an artifact of unknown origin, passed down in the cities throughout the generations. Though nobody could explain exactly how they worked or who created them, there was one in every city that had a <<Dungeon>>. The <<Diagnoser>> was a needle, attached to a slate. By pricking one’s finger on the needle, their blood would be absorbed into the needle, and their <<Affinities>> would be displayed on the slate. Given that Iris was clearly incapable of performing <<Scan>> magic due to her limitations as an inorganic, Lily suspected that her method of identification would be similar to the <<Diagnoser>>.
While making a mental note to ask Iris how the <<Diagnoser>> worked, she welded the last metal plate into place, then retracted her wires and tools back into her hands, her fingertips neatly sealing themselves. She took a step back and reviewed her work. The transition between wood and metal was anything but seamless, but the seal looked and felt tight and secure, meaning her work was done. At that same moment, Iris and Prei descended from the poop deck, with Iris’ face showing signs of contemplation and surprise. Curious, Lily walked towards them, meeting them at the bottom of the stairs. Lily met eyes with Iris, who glanced at Prei. Lily bent down slightly to meet Prei’s eyes.
“Mm, Prei, Iris and I are going to talk for a bit, so can you go back inside the cabin for a while?”
Prei smiled sweetly and skipped over to the cabin. Lily motioned at Iris to follow her, and ascended to the poop deck, standing at the prow of the ship, looking out over the vast ocean. Iris came to stand beside her, and the two stood beside each other wordlessly for several seconds, savoring each other’s presence. Then, Lily broke the silence.
“Well? What does she have?”
“She’s a <<Paragon>>.”
Lily raised an eyebrow in surprise. Well, given that Prei apparently possessed an abnormal amount of mana, that was hardly unexpected. The question was…
“In which Affinity?”
Iris stayed silent for a while. Then,
“…<<All Elemental Magic>>”
Lily staggered, grabbing the side of the ship to steady herself.
Lily’s face twisted into an expression somewhere between amazement and disdain. <<All Elemental Magic>> was another classification, in parallel to <<Paragon>>. It was used to refer to a person with an <<Affinity>> in all five cardinal magical elements, <<Fire>>, <<Water>>, <<Earth>>, <<Wind>> and <<Light>>. It was exceedingly rare, about as rare – perhaps rarer – than <<Paragons>>. Although their abilities in each field would not match a <<Paragon>> of that field, a person with <<All Elemental Magic>> had the potential to be an unparalleled spellcaster. But a <<Paragon>> of <<All Elemental Magic>> was unheard of. That basically meant that Prei could use all five elemental magic types at a <<Paragon>> level. She had five <<Paragon>> affinities. Hence, Lily’s amazement was expected. As for her disdain, well…
…It struck Lily as slightly unfair.
Shaking off her shock, she returned her gaze to Iris, composing herself.
“…And? There’s more, right? You wouldn’t be this troubled otherwise.”
Iris sighed and smiled while nodding.
“As you suspect. When I took her blood for diagnosis, I took the liberty of cross-referencing her blood sample with my records of existing humans to find discrepancies in the genetic composition.”
Lily looked at her blankly. Iris giggled and rephrased.
“I checked to see how human she actually is.”
“Ah. And the result?”
“She’s 82.4% human.”
“And the remaining 17.6%?”
“…I’m not sure.”
Lily frowned and looked back out over the ocean. Yet, while her gaze lay on the water, her mind lay elsewhere. Prei, the girl who had suddenly become Lily’s daughter. The girl with an impossible Affinity. The girl who was almost human, but not quite.
What was she?