By the time Hisui returned to their room the following morning, Strider had made sure not a thing was out of place. When she entered, she saw he was sitting in a comfortable chair, his nose in a book.
"Don't you sleep?" she asked.
"I get that quite a bit. I need less sleep than most people. Part of my heritage," he answered.
"I think I remember you tell me about that. You're from some different line of men, right?"
"I am. The Dúnedain. Alas, I am not so stealthy as my compatriots. No, I am–"
"A hammer that nails all the problems. I know," she giggled.
"How are Robin and Hancock?"
"Better, I think. The Wizard Saints Yoruichi, Esdeath, Silvan, and Reiko are with them right now. Luna, Luvia, and I pretty much begged them to stay with them for the rest of the trip, just in case. No one will try anything then."
"That is certainly ideal," Strider said, pulling out a pipe. He was about to put it in his mouth when Hisui snatched it away.
"No smoking," she said warningly.
"As you command," Strider sighed, putting it away in a pocket dimension. "So, the location is to be unveiled today?"
"Mhm. And a little extra surprise for you," Hisui said.
"Oh? What is it, I wonder?"
"Whatever it is, you can thank Hancock and King Mornin–"
"Just call him Lucifer. Or Lucy, if you'd prefer."
"He must hate that nickname," Hisui said.
"Depends who says it," Strider said.
"You can thank Lucifer, then."
"Maybe a little. Mostly him. He really seems to respect you," Hisui said.
"And I, him," Strider said graciously. "But that conversation will require a lot of alcohol to even get started."
"He said the same thing. I'm really curious now," Hisui said.
"Life is about mysteries," Strider said, getting up. "Shall we be on our way, then?"
"Lets," Hisui said. As they walked out, Strider noticed more than a few guards seemed to be posted near their quarters.
"What's this about?" Hisui wondered, frowning.
"I can only guess," Strider answered honestly.
"Guess they do think you had something to do with Robin," Hisui said, eyes narrowed as she held his arm. The guards gulped as she glared at them, leading Strider down the hall. They were some of the first to arrive in a large banquet hall. The monarchs were sitting on a raised platform around a circular table while the champions and retinue were on a lower platform. To Strider's intrigue, there was something else behind them. It had a black drape covering it, but underneath, he could see the light. He saw that Silvan – Nimrodel's – eyes were drawn to it as well. She looked across the way at him, unusually pensive. He suddenly felt something brush against his leg. Looking down, he saw Reiko's cat looking up at him with a smile.
"Oooh, so cute," Hisui cooed as she scooped it up and cuddled close. Strider had to hold back a laugh as a look between contempt and pleasure came across the cat's face. It wiggled its way out of her grip and, with one more look at Strider, rushed off to Reiko.
"Isengrim made a big fuss about how sorry he is that you, as a king, can't sit up there with them," Hisui said distastefully, nodding at the table.
"I do not mind," Strider said as he saw Isengrim, Meline, and Reynard glaring daggers at him. He smirked and suddenly kissed Hisui on the cheek, surprising them and her.
"W-w-what was that for?" she asked, blushing.
"Forgive me. In part, because I wanted to. In part, to get a rise out of them. Certainly more of the former, however," he said.
"You shouldn't tease a girl like that so much," she said quietly.
"I hope I didn't overstep. If so, perhaps – once we're back in Fiore – you'll allow me the chance to make it up to you?"
"And how do you plan to do that?" Hisui wondered.
"Well, I recently acquired a new home in the mountains near Magnolia. A decrepit old castle, in fact. I am restoring it. Perhaps you will honor me by being one of its first guests?"
"I'd like that," Hisui said, smiling. "When should I be there?"
"Mmm, let's call it a few weeks after our return. It should be enough time for me to get it back to its former glory, with my powers and resources," he said.
"Alright. I'll see you then, then," she said.
"You do me a great honor, my lady," he said, kissing her hand before sitting down at the champions table.
"Oooh, you and Strider seem to be really close. Don't worry, I get it. The total package," Luna giggled.
"Gentiana and Noctis better be ready for my champion," Hisui said smugly. "Don't cry too hard when he kicks your asses."
"He's your champion now?" Luna asked smirking. "I thought he was Fiore's champion."
"Ugh, you know what I mean," Hisui grumbled. She looked at the champions table and saw Strider take a seat next to Gentiana. "Wow. Gentiana is gorgeous."
"I know. I wonder what she wanted to talk to Strider about?" Luna said, poking her chin. "I never knew her to be interested in someone like that, except maybe Noctis."
"She just wants to make sure Noctis takes good care of you," Hisui giggled. "So, when's the wedding?"
"A few months," Luna said, smiling. "Gosh. I've known this day was coming for a long time, but…"
"I know," Hisui said, hugging her. "I'm really happy for you. For both of you. I can't wait to see you in that beautiful dress."
"Thanks. And thanks for agreeing to be my matron of honor," Luna said, returning the hug.
"I'm happy to do it," she said.
"Oooh, I need to invite Strider as well!" Luna said, suddenly shooting up. She took Noctis's hand as he approached, and the two went over to Strider.
"What's up?" Strider wondered.
"Noctis and I are getting married in a few months. I wanted to invite you to our wedding personally. You don't mind, right, Noct?"
"No way," Noctis said, smiling. "We'd be happy to have you."
"You honor me greatly. Come what may, I shall be there," Strider said, giving them a gracious bow.
"I'll make sure you get an official invitation before we leave here," Luna said, escorting Noctis back to the monarch's table.
"They certainly grow up fast," Strider said, his eyes flitting between the two. He turned his attention to Gentiana. "Forgive me for not meeting you sooner. Perhaps after this is over?"
"Nice job yesterday," Rin said, smiling.
"You know! With Robin!"
"I dunno what you're talking about," Strider said, smiling.
"Mhm. That's probably for the best, then. I thought you'd be an asshole or something, honestly. But you're pretty alright."
"Ha. I appreciate it," he said. Slowly, the others began to file in. Across the way, Strider saw Robin and Nami smile wide at him. Even Hancock seemed to soften towards him a little. She gave him a curt nod, but no more. It didn't escape the notice of the Bosconian royal family, who glared daggers at Strider. His smile fell as he looked at them. At the back of his mind, he could feel an old nagging. He felt Gentiana touch his shoulder, sending a cool feeling through his body. That relaxed him, and he fell into an easy conversation with some of the other champions. When everyone was gathered, Lucifer stood up.
"Ladies and gentlemen, champions and monarchs, I'm certain you know why we are gathered here today. That was a trick statement; we're gathered here for two things, actually. One of which you know – the unveiling of the location and reward of the Ishgar Cup! The second piece of business shall come first, however. Strider! My old friend! We could not think of a better time to reward you for bravery against that abominable beast, Acnologia! Bastard's been a terror for a while now, but no more! Not since the Prin– ah, yes. Forgive me," Lucifer said, smiling at the look he received from Strider. "Not since the Champion of Ishgar slew him and smote his body upon the mountainside. I believe it was a mountainside. Might've been a cave. Or a valley. No idea. Still haven't told me that story yet. But, he's dead! Very dead. No coming back from that one. Unless you're sufficient in Necromancy, in which case, you'll probably resend him to his grave. And in return, you deserve a commensurate reward! Such services don't come cheap, after all – even if they're rendered unawares. And so we've decided to put together a proper reward to the tune of one billion jewels. That'll keep you satisfied for a while."
"My thanks," Strider said simply, eliciting a grumble from Lucifer.
"I gave that speech, and I get two words of thanks in return," he said.
"My sincerest thanks," Strider replied, eliciting a slight growl from Lucifer and a chuckle from Mazikeen.
"Mazikeen, make sure you cut him well for me at least once," Lucifer grumbled as he went over to the champions table.
"Cut him yourself."
"Ha! And risk these good looks? I think not."
A loud murmuring went through the hall; one billion jewels was no small amount, and it came just after his reward of five-hundred million jewels for his successful competition of the Century Quest. Including the smaller rewards from other jobs, Strider found himself one of the wealthiest men in Ishgar. He could almost see the plots being formed in the heads of others to separate him from his capital. Lucifer hand-delivered him twenty cards, each with fifty million jewel that Strider immediately deposited in a pocket dimension – the safest place.
"Might wanna be careful," Mazikeen whispered to him.
"Aren't I always?"
"HA!" she exclaimed. "I can't name one time since meeting you."
"I resent that," Strider sighed.
"Now, we shall move on to the second order of business. Lord Isengrim?" Lucifer asked.
"Thank you, Lord Morningstar," Isengrim said respectfully before standing up. "I shall announce not only the location but the rewards for the victor! This competition…" he continued in a pretentious manner that Strider mostly tuned out. He caught bits and pieces about the camaraderie between nations and accepting differences in philosophy. He talked about bringing the continent closer together through these games, which were a way to show how well a particular country could foster talent.
"Even though he is the prince of this country, during the Cup, he will be nothing more than a challenger! I am proud of his accomplishments – his win, which he earned through his own power and cunning," Isengrim said proudly. Strider locked his with Reynard, who vacillated between a glare and a smirk. Strider's eyes instead passed from the prince to the queen, to the king, and then to the black drape. Finally, Isengrim got the particulars.
"The Ishgar Cup will be held on Himejima, an island that sits between Fiore, Bosco, and Minstrel. Many thanks to Princess Hisui and King Toma for benevolently agreeing to allow us the use of this island, which was formerly a part of Fiore," Isengrim said respectfully. A polite clap went through the room before Isengrim restarted. "We thought that – because there would be so many people competitors – it would be best not to host this event in a more populated city. Each country has pitched in to turn the island into a worthy location; construction has been going on for a long time now, in fact. The Ishgar Cup will be held precisely six months from this day; we expect the island to be at full capacity a month prior to the beginning – certainly, no one will want to miss this!"
"Each one of us will be serving as a judge, so each champion knows that someone will fight tooth and nail for them. The Wizard Saints have also agreed to come on as judges, as has Gran Doma, the Chairman of the Magic Council. That means there will be 27 judges in total – each of whom is determined to be fair and exacting in their council!"
"But I imagine that's not of much interest to you, good champions. You are looking for glory, yes, but such simple pride cannot be enough for the strongest mage in Ishgar. No, that is deserving of both immortal fame as well as tangible rewards. And so here it is," Isengrim said, flashily pulling out a scroll and dramatically unfurling it. Ears immediately perked up, intrigued. "There will be only one winner, and to that winner will go all the spoils. There will be no runner up prizes. The winner will receive 1.4 billion jewels as prize money. They will receive the title Strongest Wizard in Ishgar. They will be allowed free, unrestricted movement throughout the continent. They will be given a seat among the Wizard Saints and the Magic Council. They will be called upon to serve in times of continental crisis. They will pledge their fealty to faithfully serve not only their sovereign but all of Ishgar. They will receive a special request from each of the sovereigns to fulfill – a way to prove not only their loyalty to this magnificent continent but to see the people that they represent on the wider stage of the world! And, of course, the many, many, many unnamed benefits that come with such a title."
"I think you forgot one thing, dear," Meline said.
"Ah, yes! How foolish of me!" Isengrim chuckled. He walked back to the black drape and ran his hand alongside it. "To the winner will also go what might be the grandest prize of them all. It was found washed up on the shore of Himejima upon our prior excursion there. I love my wife. She is the apple of my eye, a pristine emerald. Alas, my love, I fear I may have found a thing more beautiful than you. To the winner will go a thing of such beauty, it will make you the envy of all who have gazed on it. Behold!"
As he took the drape off, several people and most of the champions shot up to get a look. Underneath it was a gem of such radiant, pure light, it was almost blinding to everyone who saw it. It was a brilliant jewel that seemed to produce its own light; it outshone even the well lit Great Hall. It was no diminutive thing; one would be hard-pressed to hold it in a single hand. Rather, it would cost one both.
Only Strider, Gentiana, Alucard, and Mazikeen remained seated. Most of the monarchs had turned to look it, lust, and greed in their eyes. Only Lucifer kept his eyes forward, staring at Strider. Strider noticed Lucifer shake his head imperceptibly. Mazikeen put a hand on his shoulder in an effort to calm him. Strider immediately knew what it was. His mind and heart were set ablaze with a thousand emotions, chief among them shock and surprise.
That was the foremost question on his mind. He saw Nimrodel look at the jewel and then at Strider and then back at the jewel. He saw her ball her hands into a fist; she knew well what it was, as would most of her kind.
"This is the Jewel of the Moon," Isengrim said, licking his lips. Strider saw that his desire to own it was only suppressed by the knowledge that acting on it would bring only catastrophe right now. "Lord Morningstar was the first to notice it and has since been entrusted with keeping it safe."
"And shall be until the champion of Ishgar is proclaimed," Lucifer said, smiling. Strider let out a sigh of relief. Amongst the kings and queens, prince's and princesses, there was only one he could really trust.
"Y-yes," Isengrim agreed. Lucifer's comment seemed to ruffle a few feathers; each of the monarchs shifted a bit, obviously unhappy with the arrangement. Strider wondered what Lucifer had done to get their agreement.
"A question," Strider stated. Every eye turned to him. Gone was the evergreen smile, the twinkling eyes, and the warm tone they'd gotten used to. Strider finally stood up, imperial in his posture. "How came you by this jewel?"
"Weren't you lis–" Reynard said before a dangerous look quieted him.
"We found it on Himejima, Strider," Hisui answered honestly. To her surprise, he turned his cold gaze on her. "I-it was found by an attendant."
"I hope they're alright. Its light seems as though it would burn you if you got to close," Strider said. None of them had a reply to that, yet he needed none. He knew the fate of the one who had first touched it with greed and lust in their hearts and soul. Only Lucifer offered a knowing smile. As he sat down, he kept a disconcerting, unblinking watch on the monarchs. Lucifer finally moved to cover it with the black drape. Isengrim hurried through the rest of the announcement before sitting back down. Strider saw heads kept turning to the now-covered jewel.
"You all can drop out now," Dyst said coldly. The worth of the competition had finally hit them all. "I'm the one that's going to be winning this."
"You couldn't even move that wine bottle. What makes you think you're going to win?" Rin sneered.
"Why you–" Dyst began before the clearing of the throat from a nearby guard quieted him. Everyone was on edge.
"You guys can keep everything else. I just want that Jewel. Wow. Gorgeous," Uma sighed.
"You'll have to win, then," Zane said. Like everyone else, his eyes were immediately drawn to what was no doubt the grand prize. More than the money, the fame, and everything – it was the Jewel that everyone had their hearts set on.
"What do you think, Toyohisa?" Saeko asked the swordsman.
"It's interesting, I'll say that much. The old man probably has his eye on it," he said, nodding at Nobunaga.
"I imagine most of us do. Wouldn't you say so, Strider?" Saeko asked. Strider looked up from his food to see them looking at him. He was the only one that interrupted the proceedings.
"I imagine I would," he said in a measured tone.
"Are you going to be gunning for the jewel, telekinetic?" Clare asked Strider. To their surprise, Strider didn't answer. He continued to eat and drink in silence.
"What's up with him?" Rin asked Uma quietly.
"No clue. Maybe he's thinking about the Jewel?"
"Safe bet," Rin agreed.
When they had finished, each champion went to their respective monarch. They all immediately fell into conversation about the grand prize. As Strider picked up on a few threads of conversation, he knew one thing was certain: gone now was all sense of propriety. The veneer of fairness was shattered, and it was now each and every champion for themselves. The most brazen quietly discussed tactics to take on the others, while the circumspect mostly listened.
'This will not end well,' Strider thought to himself.
"So quick to devolve," Lucifer whispered to Strider. "Look at them. One look at that which they do not know, and they shed themselves of all reason and focus on acquisition. They don't even know what they have."
"For the best, perhaps," Strider said softly.
"You've become quite a topic of interest now," Lucifer said, seeing the looks Strider got from some of the champions and monarchs.
"Aren't I always?" Strider wondered.
"Indeed. I'd tell you to be careful if I didn't know how this would all play out," Lucifer said cheerfully. "Still, Maze will not go easy on you. Isn't that right, Mazikeen?"
"Mhm. I'm still looking for revenge for that last match," she said, running her finger across his neck. "If I see an opening, I'm gonna cut you."
"I look forward to it, my dear," Strider said, kissing her cheek.
"Careful. I don't want the princess pissed at me," Mazikeen said, nodding to a blushing Hisui. "Either of them."
"Either?" Strider wondered. Mazikeen nodded to Hancock, who was suddenly glaring at her.
"This shall be interesting," Strider declared.
"Yeah, that's a safe bet. Surprised at the reward, though?" Mazikeen wondered.
"More than a little bit. Himejima?"
"Indeed. It had just washed ashore. This time, it was pure luck that I was there," Lucifer said seriously.
"I believe you," Strider said, eliciting a smile. "Not even you know how all is to be."
"Especially not these matters. I have no interest in that accursed thing. I cannot even touch it. And so it is safest with me."
"I know. That is for the best. I will win the competition fairly."
"You cannot be serious," Lucifer sighed.
"Certainly not. Well, I am about the whole winning fairly bit. But it will not be easy to separate them from the jewel. They have agreed to this perfunctorily. They will do what they can to ensure their champion wins if only to provide their acquisition with a flair of fairness. But I know well how this will end. I know the hearts of men."
"If it comes to that, you will have my support."
"No," Strider said, shaking his head. "You will stay out of this. You take too great a risk in keeping it, even. I trust you to keep it safe. Leave the rest to me."
"I do not mind, mostly," Lucifer said.
"I thought you do not lie?"
"I don't. That's why I added the mostly," Lucifer laughed.
"Nonetheless, I will have you stay on the sidelines. It poses a great threat to you and Mazikeen. Plus, this is my affair. Just record what you see. Faithfully," Strider said.
"As you wish. Will you be giving Strider the help he needs, Princess?" Lucifer wondered. Hisui blushed; she was trying to listen in on their conversation, but could barely hear a thing.
"What I can, yeah. Strider wants to win this without help like that, though," Hisui said.
"Indeed, he does. And what do you think of the jewel?" Lucifer wondered, emphasizing the final word. Strider heard the din die down a bit; everybody wanted to know what the others would do with it.
"I think it's beautiful. Probably the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," Hisui said.
"Indeed. A suitable dowry," Reynard added.
"If you can touch it, of course," Lucifer said with a little smile. His glee was heightened when he saw the looks of alarm on the other monarchs.
"Why wouldn't you be able to touch it?" Strider wondered, knowing full well the answer.
"Ah, we may have accidentally left that part out. You see, the attendant that fou–"
"L-Lord Morningstar, I don't think we have to go into such ghastly details," Meline said.
"As you say, my dear," Lucifer said; he was satisfied with the narrowed eyes and suspicious looks the others had.
"And why not?" Hancock suddenly shouted, looking Meline dead in the eyes. "There is no need to hide it. The man that found it touched it. It burned him – severely. And that was a mere couple seconds."
Everyone went quiet as they looked at the black drape.
"Such deadly beauty," Strider said.
"Indeed, Strider," she said. That was just as surprising to the others; it was the first time they heard Hancock address someone by their name.
"If we can't touch it, what's the point of making it a reward?" Toyohisa demanded.
"W-well, those of suitable strength might be able to," Isengrim added.
"Then let him try," Bishamonten said, pointing at Serena. Serena just smiled and shrugged.
"Not worth the risk," he said.
"You people wouldn't understand," Cream snarled, his eyes full of greed and lust for the jewel. "This is no mere jewel. It is a sign!"
"A sign of what?" Luna asked, raising a brow.
"Divinity," he said breathlessly. "We mock it by making it a prize to go to the winner of this event."
"Ah, so it should've gone to the one who found it?" Lucifer sneered. "Let us bring the attendant out, then."
"That's not what I meant!"
"You know not what you have, so it is wise to approach it cautiously," Nimrodel said.
"You are wise, Lady Silvan," Isengrim said magnanimously. "However it came to be, it is now one of Ishgar's most prized possessions. It is only right that it goes to the winner – one who may protect it, be its keeper."
'I wonder what he plans to do if his spawn loses?' Strider thought.
"And what would you do with it if you won, Strider?" Reynard wondered.
"Toss it at someone I dislike, probably," he laughed.
"That'd hurt," Lucifer mused.
"Seriously," Luvia added.
"I wonder myself," he said, looking at the black drape.
"Careful," Reynard said with a smirk.
"Of what? You? I think not," Strider said coldly. He dropped all pretense of respect towards the Bosconian royalty; he would say and do as he pleased from now. Reynard glared at him, caught between his position as champion and royal. The others watched to see how he would respond before Strider scoffed.
"Toma, you need to get a handle on that boy!" Isengrim hissed.
"Be my guest to try, Ise. Strider might be too big for Fiore," Toma responded.
"Nonetheless, the way he speaks to us is extravagantly rude!"
"Calm down," Nobunaga said with a grin. "It's just a bit of friendly teasing. I'm sure your kid'll get a few licks in during the fight."
"Yeah, right. He'll be lucky if he doesn't get split open," Kenpachi said; while the jewel was interesting, it had nothing on his desire to lock swords with Strider.
"Kenpachi," Retsu said in a warm, warning tone.
Everyone retired earlier than usual that day. While there were many festivities planned, most of the monarchs had a mind to leave early. Strider headed over to Luna's room and knocked. She answered with a look of surprise.
"Strider! What're you doing here?"
"Hello, Luna. I'm here to see Gentiana. Is she here?"
"Yeah. Stay here, I'll go get her." When Luna returned, Gentiana took the lead and had Strider follow her. The two made their way throughout the castle, attracting stares and tails. They didn't seem to mind and made no effort to shake them loose until they finally reached the long, winding staircase that led to the top of the castle. Strider set up a telekinetic barrier that stopped anyone else from passing through the single doorway. When they finally reached the top, Gentiana looked up at the sky.
"The Prince of Peace goes to war anew," Gentiana said, repeating the first thing she had ever said to Strider. "He burns those in his path with the Flaming Iron. All will know when he comes into his own, for he shall await Evil at the Door of Night when Time has passed, and Space as at its end."
"I have no great pretensions, my lady," Strider said, looking over the city. "Settling evil now is enough for me."
"Never shall it be enough for you. Your task is fraught, your errand endless. Because of and in spite of His favor, you will continue. You will not put down the sword until it has consumed Evil."
"A just cause," Strider said.
"But is it justice you seek?"
"I seek peace."
"Do you seek peace? Or do you seek to make a desert and call it peace?" Gentiana wondered. "You are favored and unfavored. Loved and hated. A warrior and peacekeeper. A Prince with great designs; a King with a far-reaching eye. Which will you be?" Strider had no answer for her. She continued, "One ends, another begins. The prince demands action; the king, caution. The wise seek both without the cost of the other."
"Caution has led to the sorry state of this country," Strider said, nodding at the view. "It demands action."
"Will you be the one to act?"
"I did not become who I am now by letting evil defile the innocent without mercy," Strider said, turning his full attention to the country that unfurled below and in front of him. "You are wise, and I will heed your questions, my lady. But as long as I live, I will not allow such suffering to proceed. If no one else desires to act, so be it. But no longer will I allow myself to be bound by such denialist politeness."
With a polite bow, Strider took his leave and returned to his room. Hisui was still awake & reading something when he came in.
"How was your talk with Gentiana?"
"Interesting," Strider responded.
"She's beautiful," Hisui sighed.
"Indeed. As are you," he said, smiling. Hisui returned it and walked up to him. She took his face in her hands, caressing his cheek. She moved her hands down his chest and stomach, feeling the ridges of his scars.
"Is this proper for a princess?" Strider wondered.
"I don't see why not. I'm still a girl, you know," she said.
"A beautiful woman," Strider corrected her. He tilted her head up and leaned in to kiss her. Hisui was surprised but took it in stride. She wrapped her arms around his neck, walking him back to her bed. Strider hoisted her up and laid her on it. She broke the kiss to let him go down her neck, holding his head down.
"Not here," she said, lifting his shirt up and running her hands across his skin. "Your place."
"As you wish," he said, smiling. He got off to the side and pulled her close; she just pushed him off.
"It's improper for the princess to share her bed with a man like that," she giggled.
"Fine," he laughed. "I think I'm going to go for another jaunt. I might not be able to control myself otherwise."
"Fine," she said, accepting another kiss before getting settled.
While Strider was walking around the castle, he ran into an old woman that he recognized to be from Boa Hancock's retinue.
"The Empress would like a word with you," she said.
"Lead on, then," Strider said. As she led him through the hall, Strider noticed an uptick in guards. They seemed to avoid his gaze when he passed by. The old woman waited until they entered a room before speaking again.
"Guards to intrude on us should anyone, but the Empress or I leave the room," the woman sighed.
"Troubling, to be sure," Strider said. As they passed into the main room, he saw there were many women waiting for him expectantly. They sized him up, curious about his presence, appearance, and power. He saw Robin sitting off to the side, a kind smile on her lips, while Nami sat beside her, a curious look on her face.
"Be nice to him, ladies," the old woman warned them.
"Yes, Granny Nyon," they said in a dull tone.
"In here," Strider heard Hancock say from an adjoining room.
"Don't try anything funny," a green-haired woman said, narrowing her eyes at him.
"And leave your sword here," another blonde said.
"I would sooner leave my head here," Strider answered. Several hands flew to their own weapons when Hancock shouted: "Let him pass!" With a gulp, the others obeyed. Strider passed through the door and closed it from the other side. This room had a gigantic bed in it – far too big for any one person, perhaps ten people. He saw a solitary person sitting on it. Hancock was beautiful to see up close. Her lustrous black hair descended down her back, while a beautiful purple dress proclaimed her figure. Her eyes were strikingly blue, and, unlike the first time, he saw them, kinder. She looked at him more curious than anything.
"Thank you for coming here," she said. There were plenty of people listening on the other side of the door; Strider immediately heard shouts of terror as they heard their princess thank someone.
"Granny! Granny! The Empress is sick!"
"She's fine, you fools! Get back here!" Nyon shouted.
"A boisterous crew," Strider said. "Who're you calling boisterous?!" he heard a muffled voice shout back. He soon heard the sound of a walking stick rap several heads; Nyon finally managed to calm everyone down, he thought.
"Indeed. Please, take a seat here," she said, pointing to the bed. Strider did as she asked, keeping a polite distance. Hancock stared at him for a long while before she spoke again.
"Thank you for helping Robin," she said.
"I did nothing of the sort, my lady," he said.
"That's a lie. Robin told me everything. Her slave collar was not around her neck, but her thigh. I was behind you when that gust of wind flew in; I saw her dress hike up and the collar. I saw it snap and shoot back. It's not possible that it happened by itself; Bosco's slave collars are almost impossible to remove without a key – certainly not something you can take off by brute force. Unless, of course, you can manipulate the world around you. It's not something that is weakened with fire, bashed with rock, or soaped up. No, it requires something few – if any possess. Whatever, however – your secret is safe with me," Hancock promised.
"How is she readjusting?" Strider wondered.
"She is very resilient. She made her way to Enca a long time ago under less than optimal circumstances. I have cared for her since – until she was abducted," Hancock said, biting her lip. "But she is free now, and she will be free to leave with us. Should anyone dare to stop her…"
"I understand. It's good to hear, at least. Will you be leaving soon?"
"Many of us will. I have decided to leave alongside Princess's Hisui, Luvia, and Lunafreya. The latter says that Prince Noctis and Lord Morningstar will be leaving with us as well. I know not about the others," she said.
"Ideal, then. Best to do so with others around you. And by which route will you go?"
"That I have not decided yet," she said, frowning. The coming was dangerous, but the going would be double.
"Might I see a map? Perhaps I can help," he said. Hancock nodded and rolled out a large map. Strider observed it carefully; he had only looked at smaller representations thus far, but Hancock's map was well marked – as though for war.
"I looked for every way," she said softly.
"I can tell," he said, smiling. "Forgive me."
"Forgive you? For what?" she asked, surprised.
"My tardiness," he said. "Had I know about your situation when I first arrived in Fiore, 7 seven years ago…"
"You can hardly be blamed for that!" she exclaimed.
"Nonetheless," Strider said mindlessly, as he caressed the map. "Forgive me."
"I do," she said softly.
"Mmm…" Strider hummed as he traced the map. The north and south of Bosco were was mountainous – and if anyone knew how to get through them, it would be the king's attendants. Going through Stella, then Joya was one option, but the latter was surrounded by mountains on all sides. Then passing through Desierto would expose the large retinue to demons as well as the heat. Finally, he offered his council.
"I believe you should accompany Princess Hisui and me back to Fiore and then sail south, past and around Minstrel and Midi. Or, if you trust him, go alongside Lucifer," Strider said.
"Is he trustworthy?"
"I believe so. He is an old friend; he & Mazikeen will let no harm befall any of you."
"They're two people," Hancock said.
"They're… uniquely powerful," he said, smiling. "But if you're uncomfortable, then come to Fiore and go from there. If you don't want to sail the entire route, then perhaps you can accompany Luna to wherever she is in Minstrel and take a ship from the eastern port there."
"That seems most reasonable. I will talk to her about it immediately," Hancock said, rolling the map back up. As she sat back down, she stared at Strider.
"You haven't made any demands," she finally said.
"Demands? Of what?" Strider asked.
"Saving Robin. Don't you want access to our trade? Our goods? Don't you want me to open up our ports and stop attacking passing ships? Don't you want to ask for my hand in marriage? Or Robins?"
"You are certainly beautiful, my lady, but alas, I am not as pragmatic as other kings and queens. No, I am a romantic and idealist," Strider said with a laugh.
"Evidently. You'll make a horrible king one day," Hancock giggled.
"Thank you for the compliment," Strider said, grinning.
"So why did you do it? Why take the risk?" Hancock asked.
"I did what I could because I thought it right and just. It would've been riskier to leave her to her fate. I did wage war for so long only to let such wrongs go unlighted. And as it turns out – with the Century Quest and killing Acnologia and whatever else – I'm also quite wealthy now. And I have little interest in most of the politics of the continent."
"Most. I am quite interested in seeing the fate of this country," Strider said. "I wonder – what are your thoughts on Isengrim, Meline, and the fox?"
Strider could feel the seething rage roll off of Hancock as he said their names. There was a cold fire in her blue eyes; he had his answer before she gave it voice.
"I would see them totally, utterly, and entirely destroyed," she snarled.
"Very well," Strider nodded.
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing at all. I am no regicide, after all," he said, smiling. "Well, not here at least."
"Yes, you are from the Northern Continent," she said, smiling – the first real smile he had seen from her. "What is it like?"
"Ah, that is a story I would prefer to give its proper due, and I don't think this is the setting for it. Another time, perhaps," he said.
"Of course. I will be accompanying you to Fiore, after all. But Princess Hisui did tell us some things. Did you really have an institution of slavery there?"
"The enemy did. Oh, but those bastards got what they deserved in the end. Burned every last one of them."
"Does what you did ever bother you?" she asked quietly.
"Only that I did not do so sooner," Strider said. Suddenly, he got up. "This was enjoyable, my lady."
"Call me Hancock from now on. Not my lady or Empress or Queen or Princess or anything else. Just Hancock," she requested, getting up as well.
"As you wish, Hancock," Strider said. He extended his hand to her. Hancock smiled and took it, blushing as he kissed it.
"You're the first man that's ever had that honor," she said.
"Then I will treasure it until the end of my days," he said. "I will see you soon." As soon as he opened the door, plenty of the women suddenly bounced on him.
"Did you hear what the Empress said?!"
"Call her Hancock!"
"What did you do?!"
"Enough!" Hancock shouted at them. "Leave Strider alone."
"They love you, dearly. That much is evident," Strider said, smiling.
"Of course we do!" they shouted, almost in unison.
"So, will you be leaving with us?" Nyon asked.
"I shall; we shall, rather," he said.
"Then you ought to get some rest. We're leaving tomorrow," she said.
"Ah. I must make some haste, then. Until then, ladies," Strider said. With a wave at Robin, he took his leave. He saw several guards still waiting for them on the outside. In their number, he saw the two he had dominated on the first day. When he looked at them, they knew that they were summoned. Strider made his way to the highest point of the castle. After several long hours, the two guards appeared. They were dressed in the same dark green clothes they wore when they snuck into Hisui's room.
"Yes?" they asked, in sync with each other.
"What, precisely, are your positions?"
"Spymasters," they answered.
"And you're posted as mere guards?"
"Prince Reynard wants us to keep a watchful eye on Nico Robin & Boa Hancock."
"What exactly did he want with her?"
"To use her as leverage to marry into the Empress's line."
"She is the most beautiful woman in Ishgar."
"That's it?" Strider asked, surprised.
"That is enough," one of them said.
"Should've figured, I suppose," he sighed, rubbing his head. "He won't let it go easily. What are his plans now?"
"You will be closely followed as you leave the country."
"We are to deploy to each country."
"That's not very sportsmanlike."
"Prince Reynard has no interest in sportsmanship. He desires to win and keep the Jewel."
"Yes, I imagine so," Strider said, turning to them.
"The king and queen initially desired to woo you away from Fiore," one of them said.
"Oh? How so?"
"A large parcel of land near the Fiore/Bosco boundary, a harem of slave women, a yearly income, a ten-year exemption from taxes, and a title."
"But Prince Reynard convinced them that marrying the princess would not only be cheaper but form better relations."
"And because of your position, you were sent to find Hisui? If he wanted to marry Hancock, why go after her?"
"Hedging his bets," one answered.
"Makes sense. Alas, I have no more interest in the minutiae. You are aware of planned slave revolts, correct? I imagine your intelligence is good. There have to be some in the works. I can't believe that no one is trying to upend the system."
"Correct. There are several planned for tomorrow, in fact, when the monarchs leave. Many will guard their passage, so security in the castle and city will be lighter," one answered.
"I see. Do not diffuse any more revolts. Let them happen – particularly the one's tomorrow. I do not care about the particulars. Kill whosoever stands in your way and destroy anything that might hinder the revolts. Provide them the resources they need," Strider said. As he said that, Anglachel rattled at his side. "That will not be enough, however. Find me two guards or attendants closest to the king and queen."
'Not sure how to deal with the succession crisis. But if the revolts end up being successful, I imagine that'll sort itself out somehow,' Strider thought to himself. "Keep yourselves safe and out of trouble. I'm going to want regular communication on how the political structure reemerges in this place. I have no head for it myself. Begin ingratiating yourself with the revolutionaries that seem most likely to succeed. Give them whatever they need and make sure your position remains unhindered."
"Yes, sir," the two said. One went and found the two attendants that Strider wanted. He quickly dominated them and gave them both two orders. When they had left, the spymasters were alone with him again.
"Whom do you serve?" Strider asked softly.
"Strider," they both answered.
"Take your leave," he ordered. Without another word, they did so.
'An excellent choice,' Anglachel whispered to him.
"It's only just," Strider said softly.
'That it is,' Anglachel agreed.
The following morning passed without incident. As the noonday sun approached its highest point, several carriages were lined up to leave. Fiore, Minstrel, Caelum, Midi, Sin, Enca, Seven, Stella, and Bellum were are preparing to leave. Most of them – save Stella, Bellum, and Seven – would travel west to Fiore. Luna agreed to go west with Fiore as well; after which, she would accompany Hancock and Lucifer to the eastern ports of the country, from whence they'd sail to Enca and Sin, respectively. Strider noticed that almost every monarch approached Hancock, professing apologies and anything else to get back into her good graces. Nyon politely accepted their goodwill while Hancock refused to speak to any of them.
"It won't be easy for them," Lucifer said to Strider.
"As well it shouldn't. At the very least, she doesn't seem to have a problem with you," Strider said.
"Back then, I said I wouldn't help her, but neither would I hinder her. She was welcome to pass through Sin, but Bellum would've been another story entirely. It was all unnecessary, of course. The things a man can do when he is unhindered by mere politics. Although it would do well to exercise some caution. You aren't all-powerful," Lucifer said before adding, "Yet."
"Too true. I've been thinking of things to add to my repertoire recently," Strider said.
"Do tell. Your mind is impenetrable to me," Lucifer said, poking Striders' head.
"All I know is leaving something behind is a pain," Strider said, focusing his eyes on a leaf. Lucifer's eyes went to it as well; a moment later, he saw it begin to vanish from the stem to the tip.
"Now that I would like to see," he said gleefully.
"You just might. Although I imagine Mazikeen has a few tricks up her sleeve," Strider said.
"And down a few other places," she said, smirking.
"What until you see what else I've been thinking up," he laughed.
As the carriages finally set off, no one had any clue as to how the following days would play out.
After stopping off in Crocus and dropping Hisui & Toma off, Strider hitched a ride with Lucifer in his carriage.
"There's a port in Magnolia you all should be able to use," Strider said.
"Perfect. We'll head there, then."
"But first, to Strider's castle!" Lucifer ordered. The others were sufficiently intrigued and headed there. As they saw the derelict and decrepit look of it, though, they shuddered.
"It's still a work in progress," Strider groaned.
"It's a death trap!" Luna exclaimed.
"Dude, are you sure about this?" Noctis asked uncertainly.
"Yeah. Not sure I could survive these stones falling on me," Gladio said, pointing to a large stone that fell just feet from them.
"Cowards, one and all. I'll show you how a real champion behaves," Strider grumbled.
"Wait! Strider, maybe you should fix it up before going inside!" Rin exclaimed.
"Miss Gorilla is right! This is dreadful! Please, don't go inside – I'm begging you!" Luvia said as another stone fell.
"I'll be fine," Strider assured them. No one seemed to want to stick around for an accident; Luna quickly handed him a proper wedding invitation before heading back to the carriage.
"I look forward to seeing it completed," Hancock said, smiling. She gave him her personal call card. "Let me know as soon as it is?"
"You shall be the first," Strider said. That reminded the others to exchange their own call cards with him.
"Fucking hell, you weren't kidding about the castle! This is fantastic!" Lucifer exclaimed. "Oooh, let me know as soon as it's done so we can have a proper housewarming party."
"Of course," Strider chuckled. "Ensure their safety, Lucifer."
"With all my heart," he said, hugging Strider.
"See you soon," Mazikeen said, kissing his cheek. Finally, after they had all gone, Strider and Mithrellas made their way back to Fairy Tail. As soon as he got there, Strider collapsed on his bed, deciding to catch up on his missed sleep. Mithrellas sat by the bed, emanating a soft glow that put him at peace.
"Strider! Did you see the news?!" Makarov exclaimed the following morning, bursting into his room.
"Master Makarov, why are you shouting me awake at this accursed hour. I might not need as much sleep as most, but I still need some," Strider groaned, getting up.
"You might want to see this, though. It's about Bosco," Makarov said. Strider took the newspaper from him and blinked a few times before reading the headline.
KING AND QUEEN OF BOSCO FOUND DEAD IN MURDER-SUICIDE: The king and queen of Bosco were found dead in their royal chambers. Sources claim both were murdered by two members of the Royal Guard, who then committed suicide. Prince Reynard has flown from the castle, while slave revolts have begun sprouting over the country. This occurs a short while after Bosco hosted every other country in Ishgar in preparation for the Ishgar Cup. No foul play from other countries is suspected – yet.
"Wow," Strider said, rereading the headline several times. "This just happened?"
"Hot off the press," Makarov said.
"After seeing the state of the country, I find myself unable to conjure the littlest sympathy for anyone in the royal family. I just hope it doesn't trouble Hisui too much," Strider said. "I wonder where the prince has gone?"
"Into hiding, if I had to say," Makarov said, closing his eyes. "We'll have to be careful. Bosco is on Fiore's borders. There will likely be an exodus."
"We will see," Strider said, handing the paper back to him. "I'm going to head to Elostirion to work on my home, master. I need some time to think. Let me know if something urgent comes up."
"Alright, my boy," Makarov nodded. When he left, Mavis entered his room.
"What do you think?" she asked Makarov.
"I don't think he did this. If he did, they probably wouldn't have found their bodies," Makarov said.
"He does have the power to control others," Mavis reminded him.
"That seems limited to short distances. Otherwise, why wouldn't he have controlled more people? No, I think this is more of an uprising and plot than anything else. There's no better time to do it – when so many powers are there. It could be anyone," Makarov said.
"What if he did?" Mavis wondered. Makarov had no reply; instead, he posited the same to Mavis.
"Hmm," Mavis said, thinking on it. "I'm not sure. Do the means justify the ends?"
"That's a dangerous way to think, First Master," Makarov said warningly.
"Perhaps. But Strider has already killed as a part of Fairy Tail. Acnologia, while a dragon, was also a man. And, of course, Zeref," Mavis said. Makarov had no response to that.
As Hancock, Lucifer, and Luna traveled across Minstrel, Nyon was quick to hear news of what happened.
"Have you seen the news, Empress?" she asked Hancock. Hancock took the paper from her and reread the headline multiple times. She couldn't help but smile.
"So that's what he meant," she said softly.
"What was that, Empress?"
"Nothing, old woman. Leave me be," Hancock said.
"What did you call me?!" Nyon demanded. Nami and Robin did their best to calm her down while Hancock receded into her thoughts. When Lucifer read it, he just grinned.
"I can't wait to see what happens next," he said.
"Don't you have an idea?"
"Usually. Whenever he is involved, however, it's blank. Otherwise, I would've visited him at Fairy Tail much sooner."
As Strider got to Elostirion, he saw that Mithrellas was already there.
"Did you enjoy the trip?" she wondered.
"Very much, my lady. Yourself?"
"I did. It was good to see her again," Mithrellas said, smiling as she closed her eyes and thought of Nimrodel. "She will be visiting me soon."
"I hope I can welcome & host her properly. As she requested, I will go to Alvarez soon," Strider said.
"What do you hope to find?"
"A good question. I'm not sure just yet," Strider said. His eyes turned north, as though he could see beyond the distance.
"A difficult crossing. For anyone and anything," she said.
"Indeed. I wonder how it came here?"
"The world is vast. It might be a pure chance if chance we could call it."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whatever the way or reason, I will reclaim it," Strider said.
"Of that, I have no doubt. But what will you do with it?" she wondered.
"Carry it across the sea," he said, smiling. Mithrellas returned it and watched him get to work.
"You are fascinating," Mithrellas mused.
"Indeed. Magnanimous, yet so violent. I hope I do not offend."
"Not at all. I welcome your council. I hope to err more on the former if it can be helped, however. I am, after all, a mere man."
"A man, yes. Mere? That remains to be seen."