There was a moderate amount of bustle as people’s chairs were being shoved back and I briefly felt a lump in my throat at seeing just how elated people were to see me. Everyone had lit up like they’d heard an ice cream truck, and I raised a hand, smiling sheepishly, trying not to show that I was tearing up at seeing everyone in one piece. Erza was the first to nod and say something to the people at her table. One by one, people sat back down. I’d talk to them eventually, and I’m glad they understood I wanted to take my time talking to each and every one individually.
I approached Elena first. I hadn’t seen her in what felt like months, and I’d barely recognized her. Her usually-sizzling long hair had been cut, and her dramatic red robes had been swapped out for something more sober but, I noticed, not less fine. What I was mostly curious about, of course, was the young man on her lap. He seemed to be half a decade younger than she was, though her short hair gave her face a more youthful streak. She looked more, well modern.
When I’d greeted them, the smile she’d given me when she’d looked up at me had been unexpectedly genuine. The last time I’d seen her, she’d mellowed out some, but the young woman sitting by the tree seemed downright relaxed. For one thing, her hair was no longer on fire. Her eyes were still alive and bright, but they no longer burned. Nothing about her seethed anymore. When I stopped by them, she gently closed her book and tousled the young man’s hair, and they both got up. The boy especially seemed to be more than a little intimidated by my height. Something about him, his awkwardness, seemed familiar, but I couldn’t remember talking to any gangly not-quite-a-teen-anymore’s since I’d arrived here.
“Hello, Queen Eliza,” Elena said. It was odd to be called that again. I hadn’t been addressed that way for some time now. No time like the present to change that.
“Please,” I said. “Just call me Liz.”
She nodded. “Of course, Queen Liz.” She must’ve seen me occasionally glance at the other person, who seemed too shy or timid to introduce himself. Now that I was in front of him, I could take a proper look at him. He was in his early twenties, with short now-messy curly hair, sharp cheekbones and intense blue eyes. He was dressed in a kind of traveling gear, comfortable but not very protective. He was carrying a small pouch that, as a lovely little detail, had been adorned with stars and constellations. I had assumed he was her apprentice-cum-lover. “You’ve met,” Elena said coyly. I looked sideways at Kazumi, who had the same kind of smile on her face; she seemed to be in on the joke.
Elena nodded and took a book out of the satchel at her hip, and handed it to me. I raised an eyebrow as I took it. It was very small in my hands, but her script was elegant and easily legible. “You actually kept a diary all this time?” I asked. I was taken aback, in the best way. I’d suggested it as a way for her to keep track of her growth -- she’d been so angry back then -- but I never expected her to actually go through with it. It required a great deal of focus, and she simply hadn’t seemed like she’d had the attention span for something like that. I certainly never had, with one several-month exception a few years ago. She nodded and motioned that I keep reading.
“What am I looking for?” I asked. Clearly, they wanted me to find out what was going on this way.
“Second to last entry,” Elena said. I rifled through the pages until I found the last entry and browsed backwards. Then held it sideways and squinted.
“These portraits are striking, Elena,” I said, blushing furiously, “if a bit graphic. But I don’t see--”
“Before that,” Elena said hastily and she shot the boy a glance that was part fury and part amusement. I couldn’t help but smile at the two of them. Without the weight of her rage, Elena seemed a lot lighter and it was easy to see her as the young woman she was. I did as was asked and found the page she’d indicated, and read it quickly. I got to the end.
I looked at the boy with shock, then at Kazumi, and finally at Elena. This was highly unexpected. Sure, John had been a little off when we’d met him, but this had come out of nowhere. “What did you do to him?” I asked Elena. Her elated laugh crackled like a fire, and she put her hand on John’s arm.
“Just gave him the kind of space,” she said warmly, “you’ve given myself, Queen Liz. It’s all in there. Without pressure, read it at your own leisure.”
I nodded and gratefully held on to the diary like the precious gift it was, and looked at John again. He sheepishly raised a hand. “You just… you were younger all this time?” I eyed him suspiciously. “Not… deeply uncomfortable in your skin, are you?”
Elena laughed again. “I’ve asked him the same thing, given your tendency to find such people.”
He shook his head with a smile. “I’m quite happy like this, Queen Eliz-- Liz.”
“Then… why?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“He was afraid,” the young fire sorceress said, rolling her eyes dramatically, “that people wouldn’t take him seriously because he was so young. I have disabused him of such ridiculous notions.” She touched him softly on the arm. “Repeatedly.” He blushed bashfully and I couldn’t help but do the same. Elena pretended not to notice, bless her heart.
“How did things go defending the mountain pass?” I asked. They both seemed to be in good health, which was already an indicator that things hadn’t ended in disaster and catastrophe. Still, I wanted to make sure they’d both come out safely.
John, more in his element when passing on pure information, nodded. “It went well. Assaults continued during the entirety of the, well, war, but they never overcame our magic and we managed to stave them off with minimal losses each time.”
Elena smiled proudly. “That was his idea,” she said. “He figured that, if there were fewer losses, they’d keep trying to take the pass, whereas too many casualties might lead the army to try and push through to Whitehallow and Innshire over the river.”
Kazumi piped in. “Nothing happened on that front either, apparently. It seems they were waiting for reinforcement from the south to fight the army they thought we had, or news of a breakthrough on the pass. When news from the south came that the Demon Queen was marching on the capital in secret, several detachments were sent south, and they never had the manpower necessary to take Whitehallow, let alone the rest of Innshire.”
That was a relief. I smiled at the two mages. “Thank you so much, then. I think you’ve saved most of the kingdom from being sacked by the Wydonian military. I don’t know how to thank you properly.”
John gently took Elena’s hand. “I’ve all I want already,” he said. It was extremely sappy and very endearing. Elena smiled at him like someone might at a kitten having trouble walking, and raised her eyebrows.
“We’ll think of something,” she told me and I couldn’t help but grin.
“You’ll be rewarded,” Kazumi said, looking thoughtfully through her ledger again, “accordingly.” I realized she’d probably spent most of what was supposed to have been downtime catching up on how things had been back home.
“Ominous,” Elena said with a little smirk.
“Oh, no,” Kazumi added hastily. “I just don’t know what the situation is up north, and I don’t want to promise anything.”
“Calm down,” Elena said. “I was only teasing. I’ve every faith in you. Take your time.”
Kazumi visibly relaxed and closed the ledger. Meanwhile, I was trying not to stare at Elena in awe. Going from someone as hot-headed as she once was to being this, well, mellow, was a bit of a shock. Clearly, time up on the mountain with John had given her the time and space she’d needed. I hoped she’d gotten some use out of the exercises I’d recommended to her. They’d certainly helped me when I’d been working through my own issues.
“I’ll leave you to greet the others,” Elena said and softly pulled John away. “I’m teaching him to relax, and I really want to finish this.” She held up one of the books she’d borrowed from Erza. I heard Kazumi snort, but neither of us said anything as they resumed their place under the tree. We didn’t know how many warm days were left, and I couldn’t fault them for taking advantage of it.
As I approached the others, all of them except Morgana and Queen Anastasia, they got up again, almost like soldiers standing to attention. “Don’t,” I said softly, and I was glad to see they capitulated. I hated the idea of being the kind of person to demand that kind of subservience.
“I’m glad to see you’re all okay,” I said to them. They looked well rested and nobody seemed to be missing any extremities.
“Mellie got stabbed!” Tilly squeaked and pointed at the Elf woman.
“That was one time! And I’m fine anyway, you little snitch.”
“Hee hee hee,” Tilly said and shoved a pastry into her mouth.
“Mostly okay,” I corrected myself with a little smile. I shot Sally a glance at that. “How are you feeling?”
Sally smiled. “I’m okay, Liz. Though I’m not flying any time soon yet. It’s gonna take a while before I can. But hey,” she said. “I can flex again at least.” She flashed her guns and more than one person at the table blushed.
“And how are you feeling?” I asked again. I wasn’t having her nonsense, she was a dear friend of mine and she’d been through a personal hell the past few weeks.
“I’m… okay. Things are better now that the threat of war and death of everyone I love isn’t hanging over my head anymore.” She paused and sipped her tea. “I would still like to… do what we talked about. Visit, at least.” I nodded. We couldn’t tell the others about the whole other world, of course.
“We’ll figure it out, Sally,” I said. “We’ve got time now.” She nodded and smiled, though she didn’t seem entirely convinced. It was sad to see that her optimism had taken a hit, but we also had the time to rebuild that confidence.
I looked at Erza as she’d joined the others and she looked, as always, like the picture of composure. She was wearing her old Artificer’s robes again, and it was refreshing how much more at ease she seemed to be, now that she wasn’t pretending to be an ironclad mercenary anymore. She smiled at me.
“Hello, Liz,” she said softly.
“How did things go for the two of you?” I asked. Her and Morgana would’ve been the most likely to attract attention as they’d traveled. “Any trouble on the way?”
Erza shrugged. “Some. Nothing we couldn’t handle.”
Lillian crossed her arms. “By which she means that they single-handedly stopped the military from wiping out the fledgling army of ex-indentured by blowing up two bridges.”
“You did what?”
Erza smiled and for the first time since I’d known her she looked downright embarrassed. I worried for a moment that there’d be ramifications, but Kazumi came to the rescue, as always. “The costs for the repairs have already been taken into consideration, Liz. We can afford to.”
“Thank you, love,” I said. She reached up and squeezed my hand softly.
“You should talk to Anastasia, by the way,” Sally said. “Her and Morgana wanted to speak to you, but Kazumi wasn’t letting her see you about matters of state.” Kazumi huffed, but Sally simply grinned. “We’re all grateful for that, Kaz. Don't worry.”
I nodded and made my way over to Morgana and Anastasia while Kazumi joined the others for tea. I realized that, as I walked over to the two others at the edge of the garden, looking out over the ocean, that all three of us were technically royalty. Or had been, at least.
“Queen Eliza,” Anastasia said with a soft smile. She was wearing her royal garb again, but she still carried the weight of the past harrowing months on her shoulders. Nevertheless, her eyes smiled too. Morgana simply nodded. She looked… different. Still her wispy self, as if she was not quite here. But she was, perhaps, a little less intense. I wondered what they’d been talking about here and I suddenly realized that, if she’d been in this position only weeks ago, she would probably have killed Anastasia where she stood. It was a testament to her trust in me that she hadn’t, frankly.
“Queen Anastasia,” I said, smiling back at her. “You’ve recovered?”
“Faster than you have,” she said, playfully. “There’s something we wished to discuss with you.”
“We’re putting the regents on trial, but Morgana has assured me that there’s more to be said, and I was hoping you would, if not judge the guilty, then at least have your voice heard during the trial. You’ve ended a full-scale war before it began and saved my life,” Anastasia said. “So we feel you deserve to address the court more than anyone here.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “When is it? I would like to prepare, if possible.”
“Uh,” Anastasia said awkwardly. “Tomorrow morning.”
I bit my lip for a moment. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll speak, if you’ll have me.” I looked at Morgana, whose steely gaze was back on the horizon. “There’s definitely things I want to say.”