“Are you sure you’re alright? You look a little pale. Maybe you should get a little more rest.”
Prei regarded a coughing Tate with concern, peering over the rim of her teacup. Tate shook her head, waving off Prei’s worries.
“No, no, no. I’ve been lying in bed for two weeks. If I don’t start making an effort to recover, I’m going to lose myself to laziness.”
“Lazy? You? Impossible. You don’t even know what the word means. You’ve always been the most diligent one in our little haphazard family.”
“That’s a lie, and you know it. If anything, it’s like our family is constantly competing to see who can overwork ourselves the quickest. You’re the one who wakes up at three in the morning to train. And Lily works just as hard as me in her workshop. And Iris… well… she… she was always such a hard worker too, preparing meals, keeping the house in shape, making sure we were all comfortable. I still… can’t believe she’s gone, to be honest.”
Tate bit her lip and became pensive, staring into the depths of her teacup. Unlike Lily and Prei, she had not been able to see Iris’ passing with her own eyes, only knowing whatever Lily and Prei had told her, back in Riasode and in the two weeks she had been bedridden. Things were moving so quickly. First the attack, and then Iris, and now this latest development. She downed her tea, and placed the teacup back on its saucer. Immediately, a serving-girl – a humanoid demon of some sort, whose skin was deathly pale and whose lower torso was composed of a trail of mist rather than legs – hurried to the tableside and refilled her cup, before wordlessly retreating back to her post, hovering by the door. Tate glanced at the refilled cup and frowned. It felt odd, not having to refill her cup on her own. Prei’s eyes followed the movements of the serving-girl, betraying an equal level of discomfort, following which she sighed.
“This is going to take some getting used to.”
“At least you were awake for the whole process of moving in. Imagine how I must feel.”
Tate had woken up in an unfamiliar bed, facing an unfamiliar ceiling. To be precise, an unfamiliarly high ceiling. The room she had woken up in was, in a word, expansive – the ceiling toward far above her, the bed was softer and more luxurious than even her bed in the mansion. The room itself was far bigger than what she was accustomed to, easily three times the size of their accommodation in Riasode, with a carpeted floor and glossy furniture. A large dresser was inlaid in the wall next to her bedpost, and a short distance from her bed had been a small, round table with four chairs – the table around which she and Prei were now seated.
When she first woke, she had panicked – a natural reaction, given that nothing in her vicinity seemed at all familiar. The only thing that stopped her from crying out in surprise had been the only sight she found familiar, and comforting – the sight of Prei, dressed in an unfamiliar silken nightgown, sitting on a chair next to her bed, her head resting on the mattress, the light sounds of breathing escaping her mouth. Tate had lightly stroked Prei’s hair, waking the dragon – a decision that had promptly resulted in her being caught in a tight hug.
Prei had later filled her in on what had happened: after she had taken the massive hit, she had been knocked unconscious, and had stayed unconscious for three days. During that time, it seemed that Lily had been officially recognised as the new Demon Queen through some strange sort of magical selection process wherein the previous, dead King selected his successor. She was not quite sure how it worked, and Lily was equally confounded.
Due to Lily’s newfound responsibilities as ruler of an entire species, she had spent much of the last two weeks cooped up in a throne room, learning of her duties and completing a myriad of tasks necessary to facilitate the transfer of authority. Thankfully, the demons did not have much of a bureaucracy, and thus while some demons disdained the idea of having a human female as a ruler, the absolute authority conferred by the King’s Brand – the mark which had emerged on Lily’s arm – caused them to keep these feelings of disdain separate from the loyalty they owed to the one marked by the Brand. However, even with this ease of transition, the sheer volume of transitory duties kept Lily busy, causing her to only have been able to pay a single visit to Tate, a week after Tate had awoken.
Despite Prei telling her about what had happened, Lily’s new appearance had shocked Tate – she knew it was the same woman to whom she was bonded, but seeing the black armor and red mana had still been a surprise. Lily had clearly expected such a response, for she had simply given Tate an apologetic smile. During her short visit, Lily had asked after Tate’s condition, had thanked her for blocking the attack. Lily had further elaborated on the situation, explaining what had occurred, explaining what the future held for the three of them – but she was forced to leave before she could finish detailing their new positions. Prei had filled in the gaps later on, but Tate still felt a little overwhelmed by the immensity of responsibility that she had been suddenly given.
As her thoughts turned in this direction, Tate ran an unsure finger around the rim of the teacup, musing.
“…Chief of Development, huh…”
Prei grinned as she observed Tate’s unease.
“Hey, it fits you perfectly, doesn’t it? After all, you’re the greatest smith in the land. Who else could hold this position?”
Tate said nothing. She did not deny Prei’s assertion that she was the greatest smith – it was, after all, true. She was not one prone to arrogance, but it was an undeniable fact that her work was recognised throughout the Demon Continent as work of unquestioningly superior quality. Until another smith emerged who could challenge her mastery, it was pointless to assume a guise of excessive modesty. However, even so, the responsibilities of the position she had been granted frightened her, somewhat. The Chief of Development was in charge of all technological research and development in the continent – it was a new role created by Lily, inspired by her firm belief in technological advancement as a vital avenue of development. The position came with prestige and power – from what Prei had told her, she would hold authority to commandeer resources and manpower that was second only to Lily herself. However, Tate found herself unsure of whether she would be able to fulfill Lily’s expectations. Finally, having organised her thoughts and pinpointed the source of her unease, she answered Prei.
“It’s just… I’m a smith. Not a machinist. That’s Lily’s area. I did pick up a few things from her, but I craft weapons and armor, not machines. What if I’m just not good enough? What if Lily just appointed me to this position because she felt guilty about me taking that hit?”
Prei sighed, then leaned across the table and placed a hand under Tate’s chin, tilting Tate’s face upward such that their eyes met.
“Come on, Tate. You know Mother better than that. Would she do something like this just to alleviate her sense of personal guilt?”
Tate averted her eyes. Prei was right, of course. Lily was far too responsible to make such an important decision based on personal reasons.
“You won’t be doing it alone, Tate. Mother said she would help you – in fact, didn’t she say she would be taking the helm for mechanical developments? She just needs your help to hold the fort when she’s busy with her other responsibilities – and you know how many of those she has.”
Tate said nothing, turning her head away. Prei forced her to turn back, eyes bearing a challenge.
“Tate. You know, you can still refuse. Mother wouldn’t force you to do what you don’t want to. She’ll understand if you say no.”
Tate’s anger flared up, leading her to slap away Prei’s hand. Narrowing her eyes, she rebuked Prei.
“Don’t. I’m not going to sit by and do nothing while the two of you fulfill your responsibilities. I’m not as weak as that. What kind of shield would I be if I wasn’t even willing to share the burden of my owner? How dare you insinuate that-”
She found herself cut off by the sight of Prei breaking into a wide grin.
“And there’s the Tate that I know and love. Serious, never backing down, never giving up. Your silent, understated confidence is one of those things I love about you, so don’t go losing it now.”
Tate found herself reddening as Prei expressed for the first time her love, breaking their unspoken pact to avoid the subject. She stammered out an objection.
“E-eh? Love? B-but what about your duties? Your responsibilities? Those… anxieties…?”
“When you took that hit, when you collapsed, I regretted it. Regretted all those silly worries. I don’t want to risk that regret again. I love my work, I love my duties. But I love you more.”
Confronted with Prei’s unfaltering declaration, Tate could only blink, dumbfounded, heart pounding, wordlessly watching, as Prei leaned across the table, bringing her lips ever closer to Tate’s. Tate hurriedly glanced at the door, looking to the two serving-girls who hovered there, waiting. Or rather, the two serving-girls who had hovered there – they were no longer anywhere within the room, having apparently exited it at some point. Deprived of her excuse, Tate frantically cast her eyes around the room, searching for another reason to stop herself, but she was unable to find one – and as she was searching, their lips connected, Prei’s soft tongue invading the depths of her mouth. Prei’s tongue traced circles around Tate’s, to which Tate responded by tentatively curling her own tongue around the invading one. She felt herself melting, losing herself to the sensation – and so she pulled away. Prei’s eyes, glazed with longing, followed her movement, but Tate closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Prei…don’t. I- I’m glad that you feel that way, and… I’m sure that I don’t need to affirm that I feel the same. But… it’s not going to work out. Not yet. There’s too much for both of us to do in our respective roles. We need to focus on this first. When… when things calm down and we get used to it, then… then we can think about this. This isn’t… it isn’t a no. It’s just a… ‘not now’.”
Prei touched a finger to her lips, closing her eyes, memorising the feeling of the kiss. Then she smiled with a hint of resignation.
“I was expecting something like that. That serious part of you is part of why I love you, after all.”
Prei sat back down in her chair, leaning her face against her hand, supporting it on the table.
“‘Not now’, huh? That’s fine. I can wait. I can wait forever if you want. Just promise me that a life together for the two of us lies at the end of the wait.”
“I promise. It probably won’t take too long. A century, at most, I think. Just until things calm down.”
“A century is a long time. Good thing I’ll have the memory of that kiss to tide me over till then.”
Tate flushed red and quickly downed her cup of tea to hide it. As she set the teacup down, however, the serving-girl again appeared beside her and refilled it. Almost choking in surprise, Tate glanced to the door and saw that at some point both serving-girls had again entered the room and were once again standing at either side of the door. Tate turned her gaze back to Prei and saw that she was similarly surprised. How did these girls enter and exit so quietly – and how did they seem to know when Prei and Tate desired privacy? It was uncanny. Prei’s eyes met hers, and they shared an expression of incredulity. Then they burst out laughing in unison. Getting used to their new environ would take some time, indeed.