Prei glanced up as Lily entered their room.
“How’s the situation? Any changes?”
Lily shook her head. After the parley offer, the human army had packed up camp and begun to move past the city. It seemed that their strategy had been successful, but they could not quite afford to let down their guard. It was still highly possible that the army could change directions and charge toward Riasode. To that end, the defenders were rotating shifts to keep track of the army’s march. If they made the slightest deviation in the direction of Riasode, they would know immediately. The march had started a little over four hours ago, and for all that time, Lily had been in the watchtower, watching the advance alongside Victoria. Meanwhile, Prei had retired to her home and was spending time with Tate, drinking tea and waiting for news. She knew she could count on the soldiers she had trained to keep a lookout, but she also knew that her mother would refuse to relax until the threat was gone. Her mother was one to err on the side of caution, after all. Still, the fact that Lily was here meant that Victoria had likely insisted on her getting some rest – there was no way she would have left the battlements otherwise.
Prei contemplated the chessboard as she waited for Lily to say more. Her patience was quickly rewarded.
“The army looks like it’s marching full speed toward the capital. We should be in the clear in about another three hours, and they should reach the capital in about twelve.”
Prei was tempted to ask about whether Lily had any intention of lending her support to the Demon King, but she held her tongue. Prei felt a close friendship with Victoria, and Victoria in turn was driven by a strong loyalty to her King, born of her noble upbringing and her personal code of honor. She knew it tore Victoria apart to be unable to run to the aid of her liege. In fact, Prei suspected the only reason she had not yet picked up her spear and run ahead of the advancing army was her strong sense of responsibility – she knew that the citizens of Riasode depended on her and her leadership. Seeing her friend torn like this, she faced the constant temptation to ask her mother for her support – but she could not. Lily had done so much for her, for this city. She had no ties here. In the first place, the only reason Lily was currently taking part in the defence of Riasode was because Prei and Tate called it home. Asking any more of her would be… ungrateful at best, obnoxious at worst. If Lily was to render any more aid than what she had already given, it would have to be offered up of her own accord.
“Ah, that was a bad move.”
While she had been contemplating the possibility of asking Lily to help defend the Demon King, Prei had also been absentmindedly making her move on the chessboard. Lily, being the fair bystander that she was, had waited for Prei to confirm her move before saying anything, but now that she had, Prei could only watch in despair as Tate moved a knight to claim her rook with a ruthless smile. Prei placed her head in her hands and groaned as she evaluated the board. Next to the two women, Lily watched the game with a satisfied smile.
Prei remembered when Lily had introduced this game to them, just a few months ago. She had recreated it with Iris’ help, referencing an old game from the ancient civilisation, while adding in numerous changes to make the game more interesting. The most obvious modification was the unique, distinct chess sets that each member of their family owned. Prei’s was filled with dragons, Tate’s was populated by soldiers in armor, and Iris’ was a collection of mechanical beings, modelled after military equipment from Sarah’s memories. Lily’s own set was a set that consisted of nothing but miniature replicas of Iris, wearing different dresses or in different poses.
The other major modification was the board. The game was played on a grid-based board, where each player could make one move per turn. Each piece had a different movement type, as well as different rules for capturing. All of this, Lily had copied wholesale from the original game. However, Lily had incorporated terrain into the board. When the game started, different squares on the grid would be lighted up at random with different colours, with each lighted square being granted some sort of terrain property for that game. These properties included changing movement types, changing attack patterns and allowing for pieces to be changed for other, specific pieces.
Prei had immediately seen the value of the game as a tool for teaching strategy and had raised the idea of mass producing it for the army, but Lily had gently turned her down – it was, after all, simply a side project. She could not afford to dedicate too much time to it. Besides, she liked the idea of their family having a secret game that only they could play. Knowing it was useless to argue with her mother, Prei had given up on the idea, but their family had quickly learned to love the game, and it was now their favorite pastime.
Focusing intently on the game, Prei made her move, causing Tate to sigh. Prei had a much better mind for strategy than Tate, and Tate knew when Prei was getting serious. As she predicted, Prei defeated her within twelve moves, leading her to slump resignedly in her chair. Prei relaxed as well and grinned.
“Well then, that makes it 7 out of 10 this week.”
“You’re just too good at this, Prei. I’m a blacksmith, not a tactician.”
“I guess that means you’re cooking this week. Again.”
Tate reluctantly nodded. Prei laughed.
“Great! I love your cooking. It’s the best thing in the world, Tate.”
Tate coughed into her hand, but it was a meagre attempt at hiding her blush – Lily and Prei could both see it. Lily raised an eyebrow, but Prei averted her gaze instead. She had only said what she truly thought about Tate’s cooking, but she knew it was unkind to lead Tate on like that, especially when they had their unspoken agreement about avoiding the subject.
Lily noticed her daughter’s look of distress and decided to step in.
“So, Prei, what’s your lifetime record in terms of win-loss?”
Prei’s wings perked up and she puffed out her chest proudly.
“214 out of 287!”
Lily narrowed her eyes.
“Oh, that’s pretty good. What do you say? Want to play a few rounds?”
Prei felt a twinge of uncertainty. She was confident in her own tactical abilities, but Lily was in a completely different class. Furthermore, she knew how competitive her mother could be. Prei considered her own competitiveness to be an inherited trait, though she had no blood relation with Lily. However, riding on the confidence from her high win rate, she decided to try a few matches.
Fifteen crushing defeats later, with no victories to her name, Prei found herself sprawled over the table in depression. Lily looked over her defeated form with a smug grin.
“I guess you’re not quite ready to challenge me yet.”
“…Yeah… Maybe in a hundred years…”
Prei had been utterly destroyed. Lily played with precision, speed and ruthlessness. Prei never stood a chance. Tate, having watched the entirety of the session, giggled and got up to prepare dinner while Lily patted Prei’s head in consolation.
“Well, to be fair, I did create the game, so-”
Lily’s words were interrupted by an urgent knock on the door. Halfway to the kitchen, Tate froze in her tracks. Prei called out to the knocker to enter. A panting winged demon appeared in the hallway. Prei stood up and grabbed Myriad, which was leaning against a nearby wall.
“Was there a development? Are they attacking?”
Lily was the one who asked. It seemed that despite her joking and playing, she had not let down her guard – she had simply concealed her anxiety. The messenger shook his head, but quickly spoke.
Three people uttered that single word. The messenger continued.
“The Vessel that was leading the army just suddenly vanished, but then another Vessel came flying back several seconds later. We suspect the Vessel we’ve been watching was an illusion.”
Prei’s eyes widened. She had a bad feeling. Lily grit her teeth and asked the next question.
“This second Vessel. Which direction did she come from?”
Lily pushed past the messenger and dashed out of the house. Prei quickly glanced over to Tate. The two women shared a look of understanding. They were both worried about the same thing, but they knew that Tate had to stay behind, to ensure that she could put up the barrier if necessary. Tate nodded and said a single word:
With that, Prei bounded after Lily, transforming into her dragon form once they had gotten to a reasonably open space. Lily wordlessly jumped atop Prei, and Prei flew straight towards their home, pushing her wings to carry her faster than she had ever flown before. As she flew, the same thought passed through the minds of both mother and daughter, as well as the shield that stayed behind.
Please let Iris be okay.