The streets of Riasode were alive with laughter. People crowded the streets, shouting, laughing, cheering, drinking, dancing. The sounds of revelry echoed within the city walls, to the point where it was impossible to believe that just two days ago their city had been under attack – or perhaps it was precisely because of that fact, because their lifestyle had been under threat, and because they had somehow emerged victorious, that their joy and relief seemed appropriate. Soldiers mingled among civilians in the streets, laughing and joking, exchanging their doubtlessly embellished tales of valor in battle.
Looking carefully, it was clear to Tate that the overall tone of joy and victory was underscored by a subtle current of grief. Several soldiers were missing limbs. A good number of the brave soldiers wore eyepatches to conceal the sockets where their eyes had once been, either lost on the battlefield or later surgically removed to save their lives. The funeral pyre still smoldered in the centre of the town square, flanked by guards who stoically watched over the ashes of their fallen comrades, regarding the festivities with a guise of solemn abstinence. Yet when their shift ended and they handed their duties to the next watch, they immediately assumed expressions of joy and flung themselves whole-heartedly into the revelry, as if it were their solemn duty to thoroughly enjoy themselves. Meanwhile, those soldiers who replaced them, who might have been revelling and partying just minutes before, each quickly arranged their features into that same solemn expression as that which had graced the previous guards’ faces.
Respect for the dead, by mourning their passing. Respect for the dead, by not dwelling on their absence. Demon society somehow held these contradictory forms of respect in concurrence. While human society saw them as steps in a process – one is meant to mourn for the dead, and, following an acceptable period of grief, one is encouraged to move on – demon society exercised both these forms of respect at the same time. The result was this strange affair, a nexus of mourning and solemnity surrounded on all sides by unrestrained levity. Confronted by this strange mixture, Tate found herself considering how she would want herself to be respected, should she pass on.
“Naturally, I’d want those around me to move on, I think.”
The idea of having people grieve over her death made Tate feel distinctly uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because of her nature as a shield. A shield was made to protect. A shield was made to sacrifice itself for its owner, if need be. It was a foolish thing to grieve for a shield. The time spent grieving opened one up to danger, invalidating the shield’s sacrifice in the first place. If a shield could have feelings, undoubtedly being able to sacrifice itself to protect its owner would be its greatest source of joy. As a half-shield, Tate’s feelings on the matter were clear. If she were to ever meet with death, her dearest wish would be for her owner to go on without her, ensuring that her sacrifice was not a futile one.
Tate sighed and turned away from the window. Her thoughts had taken an uncomfortably morbid turn. As much as she was a shield, she was still partly human, and it was thus uncomfortable to give such consideration to the possibility of her own death. However, she knew why her thoughts had turned in this direction. The seeming contradictory nature of the demons’ mourning practices aside, she relied on these thought experiments as a distraction, to keep her mind from dwelling too heavily on the multitude of possibilities that she could conjure up as to why Lily and Prei were taking so long.
It had been two days since they had left for the mansion, leaving Tate to keep up the barrier in Riasode. A wise decision, as it happens, since the human army had stopped marching once they noted the enormous dragon flying in the direction of the forest. As a sort of a show of force, Tate had briefly made the barrier surrounding the city visible, which caused the human army to resume its march past the city, towards the capital. However, as the hours passed, and the human army marched out of sight, and the funerals and celebrations began, Lily did not return, and this obviously caused Tate no end of worry. Prei took only three hours, at most, to fly between here and their mansion. That they were taking so long to return was a fact that could be taken to be either very good or very bad. The best case scenario was that they had made it in time, that Iris was unharmed, or otherwise not injured beyond repair, and they were taking so long due to the need to take care of the android. In the worst case, something had happened to them, causing them to be injured, or incapacitated, or otherwise delayed from returning.
Tate could still feel her connection with Lily, so she was sure that Lily was still alive. The question was, in what form? She had felt something through their link, a great emotional pain, and a slight shift. She could not quite describe it, but Lily felt…different, somehow. The uncertainty made Tate uncomfortable. Was Lily injured? Was she alright? And what of Iris? Tate had known from the moment of Vessel’s sudden appearance that Iris had been attacked. There was nothing else in that forest, aside from their home. Clearly, anyone who was coming from that direction must have had some business with their home. Considering that Vessel was an enemy, it was not unlikely that she had found their home and attacked it – attacked Iris.
Tate muttered the name of her friend under her breath and sipped away at the cold tea that was set on the windowside table before her. Tate and Iris had never really talked much. Tate was not someone inclined to talking, not since she had matured, at least. Iris, similarly, was not someone who particularly enjoyed conversation, unless it pertained to Lily. But despite their lack of conversation, they shared a mutual understanding, that they would both do anything for Lily. Iris would do so out of love, while Tate would do so out of duty and friendship. She briefly recalled that time on the ship, when Iris had taken the time to polish her, and speak with her. She recalled the numerous cooking lessons she offered the android, teaching Iris how to prepare food fit for human consumption. She recalled Iris quietly talking with her while she tried to decide how best to frame her decision to leave Lily’s side. She shared a bond with Iris. Something distinctly different from what she shared with Lily, or with Prei. It was different, but it was a bond she cherished nonetheless. A tear came to her eye as the memories of the few times they spent in each others’ company inadvertently rose to the forefront of her mind. She wiped the tear away, admonishing herself.
“What the hell, Tate. It’s like you’re sure she’s dead.”
Tate bit her lip. She knew that Iris’ chances for survival were slim, if Vessel had indeed attacked. Lily and Prei’s combined efforts were barely enough to hold the angel off. Iris, on her own, would not have been able to defeat her opponent. The likelihood of Iris having died was extremely high, but even so, Tate could not bring herself to accept that likelihood. Not until she had received confirmation, either from her own eyes, or from Lily’s mouth.
Tate downed the rest of the tea and got up to refill it, the rush of the tea hitting the base of the cup lending an almost ominous quality to the silence of the house.
Placing the teapot down, she turned to the window and glanced out. The revelry and celebrations in the street had abruptly stopped, the entire crowd looking in the same direction. Following their gaze, her eyes alighted on two figures, walking briskly through the crowds that parted before them. Two armor-clad figures. Prei and…Lily?
Tate rubbed her eyes and looked again. The figure next to Prei was Lily, that was certain. But her appearance had changed drastically. Most notably, she was no longer wearing the special armor that Tate had developed for her. Instead, she seemed garbed in some kind of silvery, metallic armor that bore an appearance similar to that heap of metal they had dismantled in the wasteland. Furthermore, her eyes were now differently-coloured, and her hair colour seemed slightly different. Furthermore, she had a pair of wings. Large, skeletal, metallic wings. Tate wondered where she had gotten the armor. More importantly, Tate wondered why Iris was not with them. Then her eyes landed on the pauldron that graced Lily’s shoulder. Her pupils traced the outline of the face that adorned it. Her eyes widening in shock, she let the teacup fall to the floor and shatter as she took a step back, her hand cupping her mouth. It was obvious what had happened. It was obvious, but she didn’t want to believe it. She crumpled to her knees.
She was still crying when Lily and Prei opened the door to her home. Both of them said nothing, instead quietly arranging themselves on either side of her, Lily placing one hand on her shoulder, while Prei sought out Tate’s fingers and intertwined them with her own.