Bulat was a lucky man. A very lucky man who was playing with fire. Shirou conceded this without a matter of doubt.
As a military man, Bulat's description of certain actions was rather explicit rather than vague. When you fought side-by-side in a corp primarily composed of men, there had never really been a need for subtlety, nor to learn it. Tasked with trying to convey positive energy as a 'wingman,' Bulat was practically floundering, but hey his efforts were there.
Shirou took a long moment to process, and gradually piece together the pieces of the puzzle. Bulats present actions practically tied everything together all at once. To begin with, his escape from Esdeath's camp went unimaginably smoothly. Perhaps no one else but him would have considered questioning it, as Akame and the others main priority had been his recovery. However, as the captured man in question, Shirou was privy to a different perspective.
The moment he'd fled the tent, why had Liver not been guarding its front like a dutiful man of his station would have done? Moreover, would a man of Liver's caliber have failed to notice Tatsumi and Iyasu making contact with him? Then there was Akame's praise for Bulat 'single-handedly' delaying Liver on his own, and from the looks of it, without much injury.
When everything is practically a series of coincidences, it crosses the boundary of chance and into certainty.
"You are a brave man…" Shirou blurted the words out without much thought, traces of admiration mixed in. "It was Liver wasn't it?"
Bulat nearly choked.
It didn't take a genius to comprehend what Liver must have been scheming, and to think he'd managed to even rope in Bulat's aid. What a terrifying general.
There was no need for words at this point. It was not lost on either of them how big of a blow it would be to the current Empire if they pulled their greatest general away to the other side. Politically and strategically, it was a choice that pragmatic leaders would not hesitate to carry out.
Personally though, it was a different matter that had a lot more to do with compatibility than benefits. Was that beast even tamable? Could a wild lioness be tamed into a docile housecat?
Bulat seemed to believe so if his actions had any meaning. He'd never have even tried playing a wingman if he didn't have some semblance of confidence that if anyone could pull this 'mission impossible' off, it was Shirou.
…But a dangerous mission indeed.
Bulat did not take Shirou calling him a brave man as a joke. It was more of a warning, for those that would not look at the big picture and act on emotion alone.
Love is war, and love is blind.
Shirou had no shortage of pursuers that he was either ignorant or purposely ignorant of. Regardless, there was no hiding the flash of empathy flickering across Shirou's features which grew heavy.
It was an obvious sign that Shirou knew the type of danger Bulat was in. Hell, the guy might have even experienced it before- a woman's vindictive fury. Bulat stared at Shirou knowing that he at least had someone that understood the depths of his peril. A true brother was before him, and that brother never looked so serious before.
"Go back." Shirou abruptly warned, causing Bulat to freeze amidst his gesturing.
"Huh?" Bulat paused, shoulders perking up as he fought to understand the sudden shift in Shirou's attitude.
Shirou didn't waste a moment's breath to clarify.
"For your own sake, go back now."
The sound of footsteps began to echo before Bulat registered the urgency in Shirou's tone. If Bulat didn't leave now and his actions were discovered, he might very well die if it was Akame or the rest.
"I'll take my leave."
Nodding in understanding, Bulat saluted in earnest and bolted out the other side of the room by carefully tearing through the side of the tent with his spear. The movement was swift and precise, the sharp edge of the blade piercing through the fabric without much resistance or nary a sound. He would have taken the exit, but the exit was also the entrance of the tent, and there was no telling who he'd run into if he took that path. However, just before leaving, Bulat turned around one last time and nodded at Shirou to at least consider his proposal.
"For the Empire," this time, Bulat managed to say it with a straight face, not noticing the twitch over Shirou's brow before escaping.
With Bulat's departure, the sound of approaching steps only became more audible before a wrinkled hand pulled back the entrance flaps of the tent and revealed a familiar face.
"Chouri." Shirou called out in greeting, tension leaving him as he wouldn't have to mediate a bloodbath if it had been anyone else from the prior meeting.
"Was that Bulat earlier?" Chouri queried with a knowing smile, a hand pointing at the far wall. As it would turn out, Bulat wasn't as stealthy as he'd believed. That or Chouri was just too observant. Bulat had thought he'd left no traces, but Chouri was too experienced in sighting the little details due to his former position as Prime Minister.
"It would seem that my earlier speculation was correct and you're not as affected by your capture as everyone else believes. Dare I ask?" Chouri chuckled lightly.
"Please no." Shirou pinched the bridge of his nose and hung his head in exasperation. "It's enough with Bulat."
Chouri continued to chuckle while making his way forward and stopping by a chair opposite to Shirou's position. "May I take a seat?" He inquired.
"Go ahead," Shirou said, gesturing freely with a hand. It wasn't as if he was going to turn Chouri away anyway, and they both knew it. Chouri had only asked for the sake of asking for curtesy's sake.
"Was there something that you needed to come seek me out after everyone else had left?" Shirou raised a brow as Chouri fixed his robes over the chair and made himself comfortable.
"My, you make my actions sound underhanded by going behind the backs of the others. Then again you aren't wrong, but not all right either. My actions are nothing too underhanded of the sort, but rather born from consideration. Frankly, it was more for my own safety. Based on how convinced everyone else had been of your 'trauma' under general Esdeath's hands, it was certainly not going to be a popular opinion to suggest anything but rest for you."
A very, very fair point.
Shirou could picture how Elaine and the rest would have reacted. Although they had agreed that it would be best to let Shirou reveal himself to the members of the camp, he was distinctly aware how no one said anything about 'right now,' or 'immediately.' Chouri certainly picked up on this, and as such had chosen to propose an alternative course of action such as creating the order of the Knight of the Round to occupy the focus of the others instead.
"In the end, I could only propose what we should do over the meeting, and never anything too strenuous, or God forbid, send you on more field work." Chouri clapped in good humour, revealing his old grampa energy as if he was the only one in on a joke. "Hahaha, my boy, I bet if I even suggested you take any immediate action then, I'd have been skinned! You don't understand, but practically everyone present in our meeting today were assassins, and you don't want to get on their bad sides unless you favor sleeping uncomfortably at night."
Shirou wasn't as slow-witted as he was when he was younger. Chouri admitting this all to him meant only one thing. "And now that no one but you are in front of me, you have your opportunity to suggest something other than just walking around camp and greeting others as discussed prior?"
"Spot on my boy!" Chouri grinned, putting down any airs of an aged advisor and revealing his admiration. "We've already gone over what needs to be done for long term benefit, but there was something that the rest were purposely ignoring in consideration of your 'mental state.'"
Shirou grunted, already dreading how he was going to solve this misunderstanding when any attempts to do so may only strengthen it. He could picture it now, 'you don't have to pretend to be strong,' or 'it's okay to depend on others from time to time,' or even 'leave it to us.' They were all things that could be said to which he'd only be digging his own grave by insisting otherwise.
Be that as it may, at least Chouri was giving it to him straight.
"And that is?" He asked.
"An opportunity," Chouri's eyes glinted like that of a scheming fox. "Unfortunate as it is to admit, but our forces are considerably small against the full might of the Empire's armies under Honest. Despite having a legitimate right of succession, it means little if those in power have a greater force, and before you argue otherwise, know that it's not an individual problem, but a collective problem."
"Let me explain." Chouri gestured to Shirou, stopping him from getting a word in, as the old men felt he already knew what Shirou would say. "You, Shirou, may be able to rival the might of an army with your sword and shield, but looking at the collateral damage in Kalance plains, would you be able to unleash such an attack on the capital where both the vile, noble, and innocent dwell? Honest is not below such treachery."
The point was all too valid.
Knowing Honest, he was exactly the type of man to put others to use at their expense. No one would put it past him to hide behind a group of innocents including the child Emperor if the Capital was put under siege.
"...I see," Shirou mumbled dimly, in agreement with Chouri's discernment. "Continue, I can tell that you have more to say. Maybe even in regards to a solution? You did say something about an opportunity?"
Chouri's features twinkled before he nodded. "The only way to circumvent the issue is to have a force that can rival the Empire's armies and subdue them within the capital. Moreover, the most important action is to set up a perimeter that spans the entire capital. Honest's hidden means have long since been acknowledged. Unless he's fully encircled, there will almost always be a method prepared for him to escape in advance."
Then it was going to be a problem of numbers? If the opportunity Chouri spoke of was related to this issue, then looking at the overall set up of the battle of Kalance Plains, who was left?
Shirou knew that Chouri's words had led him here. "The extra force to surround the capital, the opportunity you spoke of- you mean to use the Revolutionaries, don't you?"
"Precisely." Chouri leaned back into his seat. "You may not know it, but delegates have been urgently requesting an audience with you since yesterday. Reports say that general Esdeath has launched an unrelenting assault on Revolutionary lines. The attack appears unwarranted, but she seems unnaturally motivated which doesn't bode well. She never moves without an objective, and I fear that this one may prove nefarious in that even I can't understand her motives."
Unnoticed by Chouri, but an almost unnatural expression crossed Shirou's features upon hearing this, fully knowing what Esdeath's motive may be. He shook his head, trying to keep his thoughts straight.
"Do we really need to recruit the Revolutionaries?" Shirou asked objectively.
With Esdeath occupying the Revolutionists attention, the pressure on Calla's camp had drastically reduced. Moreover, if it was just numbers then, didn't they already have enough?
Shirou vocalized his point, but Chouri was long since prepared.
"Do we not have the aid of the people of Wakoku? Together with Calla, we should be able to make up a considerable force-"
"'Of foreigners and barbarians trying to encroach on Empire territory,' yes, I can see the narrative now."
Shirou frowned, but conceded the point.
"In any case, the delegates from the Revolutionaries have been idling by the perimeter of the camp for days to request your audience. This is just as much of a chance as it is an opportunity to integrate into the command chain of the Revolutionaries. Of course, the only variable now is whether or not the leaders of the revolution are truly fighting on behalf of their kingdom, or out of self-interest? Rather than them, I'd rather believe in you." Chouri spoke his opinion bluntly, staring at Shirou and waiting.
Pensively, Shirou mulled over the proposition. "You are suggesting that I try to usurp authority from its current leaders?"
"It would be ideal since most revolutionaries join to better the Empire, and not to destroy it. Corrupt as the kingdom has become, their friends and family still live there. If the commanders of the revolution are corrupt, then they are using the sentiments of good people for their own gain. These people are not fighting to instate another corrupt monarchy or general collective."
Shirou sat in silence, Chouri's features growing solemn as he idly rapt his fingers over the table before growing serious.
"Listen." Chouri straightened his back, and looked Shirou in the eyes. "I have a couple of favors and connections I can call upon through former colleagues in the Revolutionary army. Using these connections, I can wrestle control from a few of the resistance leaders, but I fear that infighting is a likely possibility from those already in power. Still, I plan to carry this out."
The implication that many innocents or the righteous could get caught up in Chouri's scheme and die was not lost on either of them. Unfortunately, Chouri had no other suggestions than this. It was simply just out of his hands. He'd grown old, and the only thing left that had only grown sharper in his age was his wit and cunning, which would pose no benefit in a corrupt free path. In any case, no path was always straight. Just as long as Shirou's path remained straight, such that others could look upon it with admiration and unwavering faith, it would be enough.
"I'll handle it," Shirou answered firmly, showing clear dislike over the suggestion.
As expected, Chouri had a wry smile spread across his features before nodding his head in deferment. "By your will. Then I will leave this to your discretion from here, and take my leave."
Chouri got up, inclined his head towards Shirou, and then silently departed.
Once outside, he sighed, a weary chuckle escaping past his lips.
Chouri had been fully willing to take a road of no return, but he'd still decided to simply run it by Shirou first instead of implementing it behind the scenes. After all, Chouri was never a bad judge of character. Running a finger through his long beard, he hummed in acknowledgment. In his time spent with Shirou, he'd seen the disposition of a destined King, an emperor to surpass the first.
What was a King if not one who understood the hearts of the people? What was a King if not one who was willing to put the wellbeing of those people first?
Some would say a fool. Others would call it naive.
Chouri was of a different opinion.
The weakest army was not simply the one least equipped, but the one without unity.
For a King who would rule for his people, it would be the people who would choose to die for the sake of their cherished King.
Chouri hummed in genuine acknowledgment, and envisioned it through Shirou's hands- a return of the Empire's Golden Age.
A whisper carried in the wind.
"You are my Emperor."
Delegates from the Revolutionary Army continued trying to seek an audience with Shirou at the front of Calla's camp. All things considered, they seemed rather desperate now that Esdeath was actively leading an attack on their forces, and everyone knew it.
Esdeath's current fervor was just too insane, leaving no room to breathe with her constant harassment and lethality. Before long, the situation would grow from barely manageable to dire unless something was done. This wasn't lost on any of the Revolutionary Army's delegates trying to request an audience with Shirou.
As far as anyone was concerned, not just anybody would be able to stand up against Esdeath in a head-on battle except for one. The only one that stood a chance at fending off the utterly notorious Esdeath.
The splendor that befell the light of that battle still had a deeply moving effect. It was the kind of power, charisma, and authority that the Revolutionaries needed right now after grueling years of seeing no end in sight.
It was beautiful, a sign of change.
It was a light of dreams, of fleeting hope amidst desperation.
Like moths to a flame, all that had felt the aura of that light were drawn in. This was no different from the Empire's side as well as the Revolutionaries. In fact, it only convinced them further that what they needed was that power to come to their aid.
Near the perimeter of Calla's camp, a man and a woman in a sorry state with cuts and bruises over their skin stood at an impasse. The man wore a long white trench coat and had horns growing over his head like a bull. The woman was short statured and looked to be reaching the edge of her sanity.
Her name was Chelsea. Her and her companion, the man, Susanoo, were part of another branch of Night Raid headed by a different commander that was unfortunately put out of commission. She and Susanoo were all that were left of her old team from the Revolutionaries, but more accurately, only she was really left. After all, Susanoo may not be officially counted by the higher ups as an individual for reasons that Chelsea already knew.
Chelsea wore a white long-sleeve shirt with the collar tied by a red ribbon under a black vest. A red checkered miniskirt adorned her waist while black leather stockings fitted into shin-length combat boots covered her legs. In her mouth was a lollipop she'd all but grinded between her teeth at this point. Her eyes were narrowed as a flush of annoyance reddened her pale complexion to match her auburn hair.
After such a long time waiting, they needed to meet the Child Emperor's cousin, someone who could succeed the throne of the Empire, and not this-this, frustrating woman.
"How long do you plan to make us wait?"
It had been hours, and by this point, Chelsea's patience was running thin. It was like no one else seemed to understand the urgency of the situation. The longer they delayed with any form of reinforcements, the more the chances of her allies surviving the Empire's assault deteriorated.
"How many times do I have to say it?" The one who answered Chelsea was Mine. Mine puffed her cheeks, crossed her arms, and shouted for the umpteenth time. "I've told you, he's not seeing anyone, so beat it already!"
Chelsea's eyes twitched, blood ringing in her ears from how long she'd been subject to this insanity. It was like nothing she said would get through to this bratty woman.
"Where's your commander?" Chelsea grew fed up, wanting to deal with someone else. "I know you're from another Night Raid branch. Clearly, she'll understand the situation better than you," Chelsea growled, frustration sharpening her tone.
Mine took immediate offense. "The commander? I'm more than enough to make the decision in this instance! He's not seeing anyone!"
Susanoo sighed from the side, not commenting on the way Chelsea was inadvertently digging her heel into his foot.
A vein popped over Chelsea's temples from how unreasonable this pink-haired imp was acting! People's lives were in danger, and the one person who may be able to prevent it and turn the tide of battle may very well be unknowingly sheltered by those who didn't want to endanger him…Goddamn that was actually reasonable, wasn't it?
Still, the decision should be in the hands of the person in question and not someone else!
Chelsea was making strangling motions, that's how pissed she was that she didn't notice the headphones over her head slip over her neck instead.
It was here, right when Chelsea was about to damn the consequences of snapping at Mine, that she took notice of a passerby in Calla's camp.
That face, those eyes, demeanor, and figure, it was the same as the ones on the wanted posters.
It was Akame, the wanted assassin of the Empire's Capital, and another member of Night Raid. The information processed instantly in Chelsea's mind.
Next to Akame was Leone, and the moment Chelsea entertained the idea of talking to someone other than Mine, her annoyed expression took a one-eighty in relief.
"Hey, hey wait, you two there!" Chelsea called out, pushing past a blustering Mine while waving towards Akame and Leone.
Leone and Akame paused much to Chelsea's relief.
"Yes?" Leone was the one who answered while Akame held her silence, scrutinizing Chelsea with a notable frown playing on her lips.
Both Akame and Leone could hear Mine speaking on their behalf; screeching about their decision being no different from hers, so there was no point in asking them. Chelsea pointedly ignored this however, ticking Mine off to no end.
"Finally, someone who looks reasonable." Chelsea breathed a sigh of relief when she took in Leone's general amicability. As for Akame, Chelsea was just thankful that she appeared neutral on the issue.
Pleased with herself, Chelsea carefully placed her headphone back over her head, acting like a hair band to keep her hair swept back.
"Did you need something?" Leone nodded and gave an inviting gesture, one arm settling over her hip while the other placed itself beneath her chin. "I couldn't help but overhear my colleague here, and it seems that you're both on the wrong side of the foot?"
"I can deal with anyone but her at the moment," Chelsea said in all seriousness.
Mine bristled before spouting her grievances at Leone.
"I already told her no, and she just won't accept no for an answer!"
Chelsea sneered, barely holding back her outburst. Actually, no. No, she did not manage to hold herself back. "People's lives are on the line!"
"How is that our problem?!"
The two butted heads, teeth gnashing before Leone found herself pulling them back by the scruff of their necks, her physical strength greater than both of theirs. It was enough to sweep Mine off her feet, and for Chelsea to back down after adjusting herself.
"Whoa whoa now, no need to start shouting. What's this all about?" Leone asked good naturedly.
Mine snorted, her arms crossing despite still being lifted a foot off the ground by one of Leone's hands. The way Mine was acting, it almost seemed like a common occurrence, but it was probably just her priorities.
"She wants to negotiate a meeting with Shirou," Mine blurted out, Leone's grip on Mine slackening enough for Mine to squirm out and drop onto her feet. Momentarily at a loss, Leone didn't even notice Mine escape and gradually turned her attention Chelsea's way instead.
It could have just been Chelsea's imagination, but it was like Leone's tone had hardened considerably. Still, Chelsea could only press on and hope for a better response.
"The situation of the Revolutionaries is growing dire." She wet her lips, taking in a deep breath. "Since hearing rumors regarding Kalance plains and a potential relative of the Child Emperor, the higher ups of the Revolutionaries couldn't keep still and amassed a force to investigate."
"Evidently," Mine spat snidely from the side. A force? It was more like an army.
Chelsea balled her hands into fists at Mine's ignorant remark. They had no choice but to bring this much to contend against the Empire, more so if the Child Emperor's blood relative was legitimate. Shirou's value, if he proved a noble and righteous leader was immeasurable, and the hope of many fighting in the Revolution. The leaders were quite insistent on getting Shirou on their side by all means if he embodied these qualities.
After what Chelsea and many of the Revolutionaries had seen in the skirmish between Shirou's forces and the Empire's, Shirou certainly embodied the concepts and more.
That sword, that shield, and the Teigu capable of keeping those on the verge of dying on life's door, the image was burned into everyone's minds.
The image of an undefeated King.
Chelsea put Mine's provocations behind her. Now wasn't the time.
"What I was trying to say is how critical the situation has turned out. With such a large number of revolutionaries no longer spread out and in hiding before her, general Esdeath seems intent to slaughter us. The main army can't even run since she's dispersed her forces out into a cage-like perimeter while she fights the army encircled within on her own. It's like she's proving a point about how weak we are, like crushing bugs! Only specialized members with enough agility and stamina like Susanoo and I were able to escape before the perimeter was set! We need this meeting!"
"So, then you came here as if we'd just up and aid you?" Mine snorted, her chin craning up but failing to express condensation as Chelsea was a good three inches taller than her.
"Actually," Chelsea mouthed, glaring at Mine before turning back to Leone. "We weren't hoping for any of you, but maybe just him who took down an army with a swing of that legendary-"
Leone cut Chelsea off here, already knowing what Chelsea really wanted. After the prior battle's display, many people envisioned only one person capable of reversing the tide for the Revolutionaries against Esdeath.
"Let me get this straight. You want help?" Leone carefully collected her expression.
Chelsea nodded stiffly.
"Shirou's help? The future Emperor who should be protected at all costs?"
Chelsea nodded again, but promptly flinched. The look in Akame's eyes was terrifying to the point Chelsea felt that she would rather deal with Mine again if push came to shove.
Leone could suddenly see why Mine had already refused so many times. It didn't take a genius to know how Shirou would respond to a genuine plea for help…and that's why it was better to refuse it here.
"Sorry, but no." Leone crossed her arms and refused to budge.
Chelsea opened and closed her mouth after again being denied. "Will you at least just let me meet him instead of answering on his behalf?" She was reaching the end of her rope here.
Leone shook her head, Mine adopting a smug look off to the side.
"Are you the future emperor's spokesperson?" Chelsea pursed her lips and continued to question.
Strangely enough, Chelsea noticed a flaw in Leone's expression. A twitch. A small thing that was instantly smoothed over, but it had been there.
"No. I, he, dammit…he needs his rest. Sorry, but I can't agree to this," Leone said firmly, but this time Chelsea was quick to respond.
"Is that your decision or his?" Chelsea had always been rather shrewd, and a second's hesitation on Leone's part had been enough to infer that she was being turned away for more personal reasons than practical ones.
"Does it matter?" Leone grimaced, lips tugging down while the rest of her features darkened.
"It does if you're monopolizing him and making decisions on his behalf!" Chelsea's frustration bubbled. Her comrades were dying and she was still here arguing with people who didn't even make the shots. "Why? Are you stopping me here because you know that someone as righteous and noble as him would agree?" She spat out in the spur of the moment, not knowing how deep those words dug.
"..." Neither Leone or Mine responded to that, all but verifying the conjecture, stunning Chelsea into silence. However, they still refused to give Chelsea an audience with Shirou.
"I-I can't believe this! These are people's lives on the line- Our comrades! We're all part of the Revolutionaries aren't we?!" Chelsea pointed stiffly. "Y-You all, your actions make you no different from the whispers of Honest to the child emp-"
The sound echoed as the latch over the hilt of Akame's sword was released, crimson eyes icy and daring Chelsea to keep insisting.
He's suffered enough. The horrors he'd endured must have scarred him, and you want to put him against Esdeath now with no rest or preparation? It wasn't happening.
Chelsea's jaw clamped shut at Akame's silent and suffocating pressure.
"He's done enough. Leave him alone."
These were the first words Akame had spoken, and they were fraught with unconcealed warning.
Chelsea inwardly recoiled, lips pursing. It was easy to infer that Akame, no; everyone she'd been talking with, wasn't in the best of moods for some reason or another. But how could Chelsea just give up like this?
"Now see here-"
"Chelsea," a hand placed itself on Chelsea's left shoulder. Looking up, Chelsea saw her companion, Susanoo shaking his head at her while subtly gesturing to their surroundings.
Numerous unfriendly gazes were being leveled on them. If she dared to act here, she'd be put down before she could even blink.
Chelsea had no choice but to relent.
Chelsea later made up her mind and conveyed a plan to Susanoo under her breath, asking for his cooperation.
For the sake of her allies…she'd sneak in if she had to.
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