Chapter 43: Archer's Bias
In preparation for lunch...
"As a large portion of our battle power, shouldn't you let me do the cooking?" was what the Einzbern maid named Sella asks of me.
There were plenty of left over boiled potato slivers from breakfast that the maid had needlessly peeled in excess and the blanched asparagus lay on the cutting board after taking a dip in ice water. The oven was still in the process of being pre-heated. On the stovetop, the deboned chicken thighs were getting a nice sear as the sliced onions were ready and waiting in the bowl beside it. I could already guess the sort of meals that were planned for Saber in order to show her the world of potatoes beyond mashed.
"This place isn't the Einzbern kitchen nor is it that cramped apartment. I'm no magus, so you're more valuable elsewhere. I think it's fair that we divide our roles based on our aptitudes."
As the girls work on whatever project they have chosen for themselves after looking through the shed, I add the onions to the pan and sauté them with the chicken.
The Emiya kitchen in this world may not have been the one I grew up with, but as I level the cast iron pan once more, its weight felt right. There were accounts of Roman soldiers swinging around wooden training swords double the weight of the swords they would bring with them into battle. A typical Roman gladius was slightly under a single kilogram, but the ten and a quarter inch in my hands was easily five.
"I am a maid first and that pan in your hands is just simple iron, not gold or Rhenium," as Sella scoffs at the comparatively light pan in my hands, but a part of me just couldn't trust her with this kitchen.
I mix in the potato slivers with shredded cheese before the onions burn along with milk and cream before running my mouth once again.
"Indeed, these pans are made of iron not because it is the best material, but because it is abundant. When it comes to thermal conductivity, copper and gold are certainly better. Iron even loses to aluminum in that regard," was fact.
Aluminum used to be worth its weight in gold due to the high cost of extraction from bauxite in the days before ubiquitous electricity, but it is in fact more plentiful than iron. Being light and cheap, aluminum became the go to metal for cheap mass produced Teflon coated pans, but this lightness wasn't without a drawback. Aluminum pans heat up quickly at the cost of cooling down just as quickly, so only an amateur would think of searing meats on aluminum. In front of an unpredictable fire which is the case when roughing it, a thick heavy pan that wouldn't warp and could retain heat was a necessity. For an aluminum pan to match an iron pan's thermal mass, it would be impractically thick. Three-ply and five-ply pans with alternating layers were an attempt by manufacturers to combine the positive attributes of several different metals, though such a process wasn't cheap. Other manufacturers opted to simply weld an aluminum plate onto the bottom of their stainless steel pans. Despite all this, iron and steel pans endure in kitchens not just because of the proliferation of induction cook tops.
"I'm sure that with alchemy, you could even create a non-stick coating superior to what is on the market that won't smoke under high heat. Despite that, in a professional kitchen, there is no room for fancy coatings. A chef may keep around a non-stick pan for eggs and fish if they lack of confidence, but in the end, a fancy coating is nothing more than an insurance against poor technique. Coatings inhibit normal heat transfer and aren't oven safe."
As I top the pan with more shredded cheese, asparagus and bread crumbs, the oven was ready and waiting.
"Oven safe? You're using that pan as a serving vessel?" Sella inquires as her sense of aesthetics was being attacked.
In this familiar kitchen, I feel the weight of the familiar cast iron pan with one hand as I slide it into the oven. When I was but a boy, I could barely lift a carbon steel pan with two, though the name is a misnomer. Cast iron has higher carbon content than what is considered "carbon steel" hence the natural black colour. Becoming familiar with such heavy duty cookware was a given for someone who travelled the world with only campfires to serve as a kitchen. Despite all the things that were the same as I remember, this kitchen wasn't mine as I shut the oven door.
"It's just a simple gratin, nothing too fancy and besides, cast iron has a warm rustic charm to it that suits comfort food."
"That may be good enough for the low born rabble, but my mistress is a lady of the Einzbern," was what the maid emphasizes.
"Different lands and different people have different standards. Magi who seclude themselves to protect their mysteries must know that their definition of class differs from the masses. At least so far, your mistress hasn't complained about my cooking. Comfort food is needed after a horrible night, though I can't say any of the nights so far haven't been horrible in one way or another. It might not be the healthiest thing, but life is short."
"Whom are you trying to comfort with that food of yours?" the maid asks of me.
I eye the small diminutive 8 inch carbon steel pan that was still on the stove top that should have been relegated to the drawer once Emiya Shirou grew confident in his strength. It sat on the stove with prominence and was well used. The difference in tools Emiya Shirou kept in stock highlights the difference between him and the Emiya Shirou I knew. The girls had joked that I would have made a fine father, but it wasn't funny. I hoped to keep my mind off of such things by endlessly cooking, but it was a fool's errand considering where I was. Even if Emiya Shirou didn't live his life with borrowed ideals, he had still raised someone as painfully foolish as I was.
At lunch with the cast iron pan in the center of the table...
Leysritt happily inhales her portion of gratin with the plate in her left hand and a fork in her right. It was envious how carefree some people could be. Sella by contrast wore a complicated expression as she glanced over the small Emiya girl who was no longer in handcuffs staring at the plate I had prepared for her. Hopefully, she'll eat it this time. Rin was still keeping watch in case Illya pulled something and not Miyu who was supposed to be our prisoner of war. I stand guard over the lunch table I had prepared and hoped the tensions would ease just a little from the one thing I still had pride in.
"It's not fair to Archer if you don't at least try his cooking. You can blame Sella needlessly peeling so many potatoes in the morning or does someone need to feed you?" is the remark Illya makes towards the younger girl she was adamant about hurting with malice on her sleeves. Miyu simply stares at Leysritt and examines the functionality of her own handiwork. Rin stares intently as she furiously tries to think of a way to defuse the escalation, but from personal experience, I knew it to be unneeded, yet there were still things I had yet to learn. Illya's patience runs thin as she was someone who rightfully couldn't stand being ignored.
"Aahhh," was Illya's taunt as she levels her fork with a portion of cheese covered asparagus in front of her victim's face.
Miyu takes up Illya's offer to everyone's surprise including my own. She takes a bite from Illya's fork without hesitation and then there was a flash of light. Light from the Wizard Marshall's dubious little wand that had more unnecessary functionality than anything on the consumer market for some time.
"Thanks for the meal," was Ruby's remark as she documents this "Holy Grail War" as I have come to expect of it.
"So how is it?" Illya asks a little annoyed.
Miyu chews the morsel carefully, taking great care to savour the flavours and her vacant eyes fill with life just like the Saber from my memories. Well, if only.
"The asparagus is well caramelized and I can taste the natural sugars, but I won't have an accurate assessment of the dish as a whole without eating the rest," were blunt trigger words that came out of the innocent girl's mouth.
From her soft tone, it wasn't a haughty demand or an order; the people who raised her were simply lacking. They certainly spoiled her rotten.
"You can just say that it's delicious," Illya chides her.
"Nn," Miyu nods in response, before turning her gaze towards me.
"Thank you, Archer. It was delicious," she speaks with perfect manners. Maybe she was doing it on purpose.
The whole exchange was surreal because the Illya I knew was the sort of devil that drags everyone along with her pace instead of the one being dragged along, but that was probably my own personal bias. Hopefully Illya by some miracle doesn't take it personally, but she simply readies the fork once again. Hopefully someone doesn't mention something about preferring chopsticks over forks.
"Aaaahhh...," as Illya happily feeds her "baby sister".
There was still someone missing from the table that wasn't eating and my eyes drift to the person in the corner. Shinji was standing as far away from the Einzbern as he could with legs that weren't there before, but even with the ability to run away, the one who took those legs away the first time around was standing guard just outside the building. Compared to everyone else, he was an ordinary person and ordinary people value their own life over everything else.
"Albino Puru. The Emiya's are Ashta's...I'm stuck in ZZ with Servants instead of giant robots. Hehhhahahahah..." as Shinji mumbles nonsensically to himself.
Leysritt's new arm and Shinji's new legs were made from nothing more than some junk stored in the shed at the back of the Emiya estate. The shed was very much the same as the one I remembered with plenty of old appliances in various states of repair that Emiya Shirou refused to abandon as he practiced his meagre abilities. If Emiya Miyu could work as an unlicensed doctor for Taiga's family in a state of emergency, then it was a given she would have some training dummies left lying around. The shed may not have been a legitimate workshop by the standards of normal magi and screamed 3rd rate; it was still the Emiya family workshop. It was where the Magus Killer buried his most personal weapon. The small girl may not have been much more of a magus than her brother, but even I was surprised by the results.
"So displacement could be used for something like that huh?"
I could scan the properties of any blade at a glance and project near perfect copies too, but prosthetics were outside my narrow window of specialization. Still, the point remains that creations take after their creators. The false limbs were presumably products of alchemy, but they were definitely outside the ideals the Einzbern pursued. The Einzbern were intimately knowledgeable about anatomy from their expertise in creating artificial life, but there is a clear distinction between creation and salvation. The Einzbern was an automated assembly line that thoughtlessly churned out product emphasizing efficiency over something as inane as "suffering". When a cast iron pan comes out defective from the mould or gets cracked before shipping, it is simply melted down and cast it anew. If something needed to be repaired, there was no reason to specifically engineer spare parts. As long as a product could serve some purpose, even as raw material, extraneous things like life span and happiness were inconsequential to the Einzbern. By contrast, for better or worse, the Emiya's weren't the type to carelessly throw things away even in the absence of OEM parts. There was nothing they couldn't accomplish with elbow grease and power tools. Miyu could not stand the sight of missing limbs and stood up to her captors to push the off the shelf solutions she had intended to use for a certain idiot.
"You helped out with Liz's arm, but don't get used to this treatment," Illya warns as Miyu eats the final bite.
"That cold and warm contrast, you really do make Rin look obsolete in comparison Illya!" Ruby chimes as my Master tries her best to let the comment slide.
Despite how warm and friendly Illya could be, the Einzbern had no real concept of something like "mercy" and Kiritsugu was probably the least qualified to teach someone else such a thing. The man was petty when it came to games even against Taiga. However, both father and daughter did not like being indebted.
"Just letting you know, I'm still contemplating about stuffing her into a stuffed animal, but judging from her bear pyjamas, I feel like she might be the type to enjoy that instead," was the remark Illya makes to cement her position as Emiya's enemy.
"Dresses like a stuffed animal, but collects human sized dolls. That's quite a gap," was Ruby's praise.
"I kept those dolls around just in case S-shirou needed them," was what Miyu tries to clarify, but the instrument of the Second Magic had always lived in its own parallel world.
She had called her brother by name and no longer sported eyes like his as if the mystery around her was slowly unravelling. I had no memories of such a girl. Her specs were certainly too high to pass as Emiya Shirou's biological sister in any world. Her magical capabilities were certainly high enough for Illya to readily acknowledge her as a sibling despite all her misgivings. She should have been nothing more than a stranger at best and suspect at worst. She certainly wasn't doing herself any favours with her behaviour so far.
"And not for yourself?" was the frustration that slips from my lips and was Illya's cue to bombard the poor girl with questions.
"That's a good question. How did you survive? Did you spatially displace a Noble Phantasm so it only looked like it pierced through you or are you better at fixing yourself than others? Do you have an artificial heart? How did it feel to be betrayed by your own Servant? What did you hope to accomplish saving her from Berserker?" was Illya's unhinged enthusiasm.
Miyu was taken aback as the strongest personality she faced on a daily basis was probably Taiga. Sella was staring daggers, but her gaze eventually softens as she pities the child who bore the name of the family traitor.
"I-I...don't know," was the small girl's admittance that there was no greater mystery or conspiracy that only adds to Illya's frustration.
"Don't know? You don't know much of anything do you, but it's not like anything you do has any logic to it in the first place. How does that brain of yours even work?...Sella could you bring me that drill again? There's something here to modify other than an arm or a leg," was the order Illya gives, but Sella doesn't move and my body moves on its own.
"May I suggest I handle this? It's clear that nobody here but me is remotely qualified with interrogating anybody."
"Really? You didn't say anything when the bigger Emiya was with us, Archer," was the fact Rin digs into.
"Let's just say I have more experience than I would like with trauma victims."
Ruby floats to my side and above my shoulder.
"Suspicious. Very suspicious. How old were these trauma victims you were comforting?" was the trap I stupidly walked into.
"Who would we report him to?" Liz chimes in.
Miyu stares at me with judging eyes. Even if Avalon's protection remains, painful things are still painful. The Einzbern most definitely knew the answer as to why the small Emiya survived Saber's blow because they were the ones who gifted Emiya Kiritsugu with the relic to use as a summoning catalyst in the first place. The Einzbern were privy to share that knowledge with my Master or the girl who unknowingly possessed it. However, they were at a loss at the girl's true identity even with their 1000 year history, but competent magi do not leave behind evidence.
"Are you choosing her side this time, Archer?" Illya asks of me, but no words came out of my mouth as I desperately rack my brain wishing I was still in the kitchen.
Under pressure, Emiya Shirou had claimed that Miyu was a descendant of the Sakatsuki family that had settled in this city roughly 400 years ago. The children of this supposed Sakatsuki family possessed the trait of "wish granting" suspiciously similar to the one the Einzbern possessed. These children were once revered as gods by the locals when high child mortality was the norm. Magi were naturally hermits that sought to protect their secrets. If such a family really existed, it was only logical that they would deliberately make themselves scarce because there would be no end to magi interested in abducting their children. Within an hour of the death of her parents during the 4th Holy Grail War, the Emiya family was conveniently available to adopt her. In Sella's mind, Miyu's existence was nothing more than a breach of Einzbern secrets and evidence of Tohsaka incompetence.
Rin was my Master and we were in this together for better or for worse. She wouldn't let anyone else bad mouth me but her.
"Enough. We already know that this girl has no mental defences, though we can't discount any geas the Magus Killer might have put on her. Maybe she's just pre-conditioned into accepting Saber as an ally or maybe she can't comprehend the difference between herself and Saber under the Saber Card's influence?" were the explanations Rin posits.
"No, that's not it Rin and that's why you fail as a magical girl," Ruby chimes as she turns towards Miyu.
"Even if a friend turns on you, you'll save them because that's just what a magical girl does. An Ally of Love and Justice," Ruby blares the things I least wanted to hear as I tighten my fist unseen by anyone else.
"No, I'm not anything that amazing," was Miyu's self assessment.
"You're being modest!" Ruby chides.
"If you're not anything amazing, then what does that make me?" was the statement Illya makes.
"An ordinary girl like me," was Miyu's sincere answer.
"Then you must have a skewed sense of ordinary. Not even Shinji over there is ordinary. If the Second Owner has her eye on you, don't you dare use that as an excuse," as Rin's gaze narrows.
Despite all her pride, the Einzbern princess does not find the remark insulting as she simply smiles.
"Again, what makes you think I'm anything like you?" Illya asks.
"There was something you wished for that wasn't granted. You came to this city, wishing for something else. ...People from the moment they are born, continue to wish for something, so in that regard, there is no difference between us and everybody else. For myself, I...," as Miyu stumbles over her own argument as if noticing the contradiction that I was all too familiar with.
"And?" Illya chides.
If it was Emiya Shirou, I wouldn't have cared and would have thought nothing of it, but no matter how much time passes, I couldn't stand people suffering in front of me. Even as my memories erode away, I'll always remember that day; a pair of eyes that looked down at me and the voice pleading for me to live. I thought not of the fact I was saved, but the fact there was someone to save me. I had nothing and there was nothing remaining in me so I admired the first thing that came into my sight. Emiya Miyu was indeed an Emiya like the others before her and that wasn't a compliment, but I didn't like how everyone was ganging up on her.
"It could just be a heavy dose of survivor's guilt. It's not unthinkable for those who survived the fire."
I direct my gaze at the girl I was always avoiding up until now. Her eyes were no longer the same sheen as his, but it was still very much a cruel thing. It was frustrating.
"Whatever you may feel, there was nothing you could have done to change the outcome."
"No...that's...," the small Emiya tries to argue.
Illya sighs as if she heard something funny and doesn't hesitate to verbally attack her baby sister.
"What could you possibly even remember back then? Like you said, people's wishes are fickle things. It's all in the moment nonsense right?" as Illya pulls no punches with a condescending smile.
Miyu's eyes glaze over at the person who said such words in shock as if she was betrayed. It was a new expression that she did not make even as Saber pulled Excalibur from her chest. I called it nothing more than survivor's guilt, but that was where the inconsistency lay. Judging by the girl's age, she should have been nothing but an infant back then who wouldn't know the difference between a miracle and a tragedy. The Emiya Shirou of this world still had something when he met Emiya Kiritsugu which led him down a different path where he cared for things more than ideals. Her memories of Emiya Kiritsugu should have been nothing more than a haze, so how did she become this way? Maybe I was projecting too much. From Illya's assessment, Miyu was anything but empty; a girl who possessed all the world's blessings. In that regard, Miyu had more in common with Saber than Emiya Shirou, but Illya was still unquestionably Kiritsugu's daughter.
"So you can stop your own tears like faucet. So you realized they won't work on me? You see, there's no reason for me to pity you, but I would like to say that I'm actually thankful to you. I really am," as Illya hums to herself.
The girl who was left alone in that winter castle had psyched herself up to relish moments like these. The passing week is something normal people would abhor, but for this small homunculus, this was probably the best week she's had in over a decade. This is the most she's gotten to talk to people outside the castle so she likes to ramble on about anything be it birds or her revenge fantasies. The girl had nothing, not even mercy, so she could not be expected to give it.
"You've known Saber for less than a week, minutes less than my Berserker and she betrayed you, but you still decided to save her? Is it because you know there are no consequences at all if you get hurt or do you actually enjoy getting hurt? Do you fancy yourself some kind of invincible hero or are you just a masochist? Or, did you do all that just to spite me?" Illya asks.
Miyu's gaze gives way to an uncharacteristic frustration at the person she couldn't understand.
"If there was someone in front of you who's suffering, someone you can save, would you just abandon them?" was Miyu's simple answer to her big sister.
Illya turns her gaze to the two maids that served her, before turning her gaze back to Miyu. The Einzbern princess contemplates her next action before letting out an exasperated sigh, but my own frustrations slip out first.
"Are those your own feelings or are you copying someone else?"
I knew of a man who harboured a wish; for everyone in this world to be happy and nothing more. It was a childish ideal that all young kids grow attached to at least once, but childhood dreams naturally fall apart on their own. Happiness requires sacrifice and that is something all children are forced to accept when they become adults. But for now, the Emiya in front of us was still a child in spite of all the tears she had shed so far. It was more than a little irritating. The man who wanted everyone in the world to be happy was unmatched in his ability to make children hurt themselves.
"That's what anyone would do," she says to me as if it's the most obvious thing in the world in a way only children could.
"Would do or should do?"
It is only natural for a child to falter in front of the words of an adult, let alone a child whose primary experience with an adult was someone like Taiga. She had a brave front, but I could tell that she was desperately holding back tears. I must have looked absolutely ridiculous trying to argue with a literal child and Illya agreed as she kicks me in the shin with little effect.
"Bullying her is my job!" Illya berates me as I realized what I was even saying.
Illya makes her advance as she storms in front of the girl I was scolding with their faces mere centimetres apart. She pulls closer and rests both hands on Miyu's ears. She makes a quick glance at me with daggers in her eyes before turning her gaze at her baby sister. Her eyes soften as she lets all the biases she clung onto drain away. Those raised by the Einzbern can only deal in extremes.
"Close your eyes. I'll send my mind into your memory and I'll judge for myself if you're crying about nothing or not. The pressure of your 10 years shouldn't be anything compared to the thousand of the Einzbern," was Illya's mercy; something I myself was unable to give even if I wanted to.
Despite what the Einzbern raised her to be, her hands could still hold onto something.