The surface of the lake seemed to shimmer and shift. Then, without warning, a circle opened in the middle of the lake, the water roaring around an invisible barrier, leaving a clear space about 50 meters in diameter, exposing the seabed, leaving numerous fish, suddenly stranded and without water, restlessly flopping around on the ground. Prei nodded and twitched a finger on her outstretched hand. The water instantly collapsed back into the empty space, filling it again, the water shimmering slightly before settling, as if it had not just been magically forced away.

Prei brought her hand down and gaped at Lily.

“…That was amazing. Just because of this little thing?”

She fingered the hairclip that her mother had provided her. It was an amazing thing. It was so small, so unassuming, and yet just by wearing it, magic responded so much more easily to her beckoning. She could cast faster and longer than ever before as long as she wore this hairclip. But perhaps what was most impressive that the effect occurred just by wearing it; Unlike traditional magic-amplifying weaponry, like staves, there was no need to focus her magic through the item as a conduit; just by having it in contact with some part of her body, her magic was amplified.

“…Mother, I can’t begin to fathom how you managed to make something like this. You’re a genius.”

Lily grinned.

“Well, I certainly can’t deny that. I doubt anyone else in the world could have done it. Objectively, I mean. I had very good reference material.”

Prei chuckled. Certainly, most people did not have a sentient piece of ancient technology for a wife. But even if they did, having a reference was one thing; knowing how to put that knowledge to practical use was another thing altogether. She knew from experience how hard it was to emulate someone who was far more skilled and knowledgeable – it had taken her years to get to Victoria’s level of spear usage. The fact that Lily was able to recreate something as amazing as this little hairclip in just under four days while working on other projects spoke volumes about her mother’s natural talent.

“I’m glad you like it, Prei. Anyway, on to more important things: are you two going to stay for dinner, or are you leaving immediately?”

Iris interrupted Prei’s gushing about her new toy to ask a practical question. Prei frowned.

“Eh? Two? Are you not coming along?”

Lily and Iris shared a quick glance, Lily closing her eyes and apologetically dipping her head in Iris’ direction. Iris gave a resigned sigh.

“Sadly, no. I’m staying behind and watching the house.”

“Eh? Really? Why? If you came along, two hundred thousand enemies would be nothing! We’d be unstoppable!”

Lily bit her lip. She did not know how to respond. As far as possible, she didn’t want Prei to know her reasons. Her fear and anxiety over Iris’ safety were a sign of her weakness, an indication of her misgivings – a sort of evidence that at least a part of her believed that there was a chance of failure. As a mother, she could not show this weakness to Prei, especially not now, at this time, when Prei was relying on her to carry them through to victory. She had to be the fearless, confident leader. She had to discard and deny the possibility of failure. Her mind raced for another reason, one that would be better than the flimsy one she had originally given Iris.

“It was my idea. Lily wanted me to go, but I decided that at least one of us had to watch the house. The last thing we want is for you three to come home to a destroyed house, no?”

Iris interjected, saving Lily from her predicament. However, for some reason, she gave the same flimsy excuse. Prei frowned, unconvinced.

“…That kind of makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense at the same time. I doubt we’d be gone long enough for this house to be raided. Besides, this place is extremely difficult to find, almost impossible. You’d only know where it is if you’ve been here before, or if you could fly, like me. There’s more to it, isn’t there?”

Being the precocious girl she was, Prei clearly immediately noticed the flaws with the justification, as expected. However, Iris then blushed and turned away.

“…You got me. Clever girl. Alright, the truth is… I’m afraid. I’m afraid of dying, I’m afraid of fighting. I’ve killed so many people in my past, people who didn’t deserve death… I… I didn’t want to kill again. I didn’t want to kill anymore. I’m afraid. I know that makes me a coward, I know it’s selfish of me to stay here, safe, while the rest of you are risking your lives fighting, but I can’t help it; I- I just…”

Iris’ voice became more and more hysterical – she seemed on the verge of tearing up. Prei panicked and began to wave her hands around frantically – a habit from her younger days that seemed to have stayed with her.

“No, no, no! That’s not cowardly at all! That’s perfectly fine, it’s perfectly alright to be afraid, nobody’s judging you! It’s alright, so please don’t cry, mother! Please don’t cry… Oh gods, why’d I have to go and say all that, I’m so sorry…”

Tears fell from Iris’ eyes as she began to sob. The action accentuated Iris’ childish appearance, creating a scene where Prei appeared to be bullying a younger girl. Prei, at a loss, feeling desperately sorry for bringing up the topic, glanced at Lily pleadingly. Lily walked up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Let me handle this. Why don’t you go in and start dinner preparations?”

Prei nodded and reluctantly left for the kitchen, dwelling on the doorstep, nervously glancing at Lily patting Iris’ back. She had been there when Iris had ended Sarah’s life; she should have known that the thought of killing would make her uncomfortable. Prei cursed her own stupidity and ignorance as she wandered to the kitchen, determined to make an amazing meal as an apology.

Lily continued patting the crying Iris while tracking Prei’s movements through her probe network. Once she ascertained that Prei was in the kitchen, she leaned in close to Iris’ ear.

“She’s gone. You can stop now.”

Iris instantly stopped crying and straightened, rubbing her eyes.

“Wow. It’s been so long since I had to activate my tear ducts.”

“…That acting was terrifyingly realistic, by the way.”

“Of course it was. It’s a lot easier to fake crying when you can isolate and manipulate every emulated muscle involved.”

Iris sat on the ground and patted the space next to her. Lily sat by her side, the two women looking out over the lake together. The two shared a moment of silence.

“…Thanks, Iris. For covering for me.”

“No problem. You looked like you were having trouble coming up with a better excuse.”

“…Yeah. And I really didn’t want her to know about my weakness.”

“Of course. Naturally, even though we’re both her mothers in name, since she relies on you far more than she relies on me, it’s not as damaging for me to suggest that I’m afraid of dying as it would be for you to do the same. Logically, the actions I took were the most effective in attaining our desired goal.”

“…I feel like there’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere.”

“…But I still think your fears are unfounded. That said, we’ve already established that this is the best course of action. I wouldn’t want you to be distracted on the battlefield. Distraction and stray thoughts statistically lead to higher combat mortality rates.”

Lily fell silent. Iris leaned her head on Lily’s shoulder.

“But like I said, I’m afraid too. I’m afraid of losing you, Lily. And that’s why I understand that you’re afraid of losing me. That’s why I’m standing by your decision.”

Iris reached out her hand and caught Lily’s ring-bearing hand. Iris brought the ring to her lips and kissed it.

“Just remember the vows we made on our wedding day. I am yours, and you are mine.”

Lily mirrored Iris’ actions, kissing Iris’ ring while reiterating the second half of their vows.

“We are one.”

“Exactly. You’re mine, so you’d better come safely home to me, Lily.”

“We are one. I’ll definitely come back to you. I will surmount any obstacle in my way. Two hundred thousand soldiers, a thousand dragons, it matters not. I’ll definitely find my way home.”

“…I’m not entirely sure how Prei would react to you slaughtering a thousand dragons.”

“…Let’s just hope we don’t have to find out.”

Lily leaned her head against Iris’ head.

“Lily, promise me you’ll be careful, okay? If things look bad, just run. Prei and Tate might not like it, but I don’t care. Promise me you’ll run if the battle looks unwinnable.”

“I promise. That’s always been my intention, anyway.”

“Excellent. On my part, I promise that I’ll wait for you day and night, and when you return, we’ll all have an enormous feast. We can probably extort money from Victoria for helping defend her city, anyway.”

“Sounds good. ‘Extort’ is such an ugly word though. Why not call it ‘renumeration’?”

“Because ‘extort’ is a far more appropriate description for what I’m almost certain you’ll do.”

“…Can’t really argue with that.”

The two girls laughed briefly, their laughs slowly fading into a comfortable silence, the atmosphere charged with the mutual warmth shared by the two lovers.

“…So, did you like my crying face? It was cute, wasn’t it? Made you want to protect me, right?”

“…I can’t deny that. It was cute. Very cute.”

“Want to see it again?”

“What, now?”

“No, when you return. I’ll make sure I greet you with a crying face.”

“…I feel like that might set the wrong tone for a triumphant return.”

“It would be me pouring out all my loneliness from now till that moment.”

“Out of curiosity, how much loneliness would that be?”

“Oh, plenty. Enough tears to fill this lake, surely.”

“Oh, my. We can’t have that. Is there anything I can do to reduce that amount?”

“I suppose, if you could let me stockpile a bit of happiness now, it might counteract some of the loneliness. A vaccine, if you will.”

“Hm. I see.”

Without warning, Lily abruptly rotated her body while pushing Iris down, such that she was holding Iris down on the grass. She stared into Iris’ eyes, twin orbs that mirrored the feverish passion in her own eyes.

“Then I suppose I’ll have to give you lots of happiness now, then. So that you’ll be smiling when you greet me.”

Iris, breathing heavily, squirmed slightly, her body getting hotter by the second.

“That would be… nnh… nice, yes…”

Lily grinned and gently parted Iris’ legs…