Prologue: A Chance Encounter
It was a calm and warm afternoon within the royal capital of the Clover Kingdom. A pristine blue sky stretched above the resident, the sun listed between the soft clouds above, casting cool shadows and streaks of sunshine across the grand castle town. On this day all was peaceful and many were going about their days alike in peace and serenity.
However, such tranquility would be brought to an abrupt end by a single screeching voice.
"WHAROOWAHHEEEE! THIS IS AWESOME!"
Many within the immediate vicinity and even those further away halted what they were doing, their heads turning as one towards the source of the disruption.
There, standing within the small plaza were two teens. One was the source of the obnoxious noise, a young man with messy, ashy blond hair with a black headband tying his hair, dressed in a simple white tunic, dark blue jacket, and black shorts. His companion was dressed in a fine silk sleeveless short purple dress and covered by a silver-colored blazer that stood in complete contrast to the commoner standing before the silverette. The former wore an expression of childish glee while the latter bore a vexed embarrassment.
"Quiet! Must you constantly yell?!"
"I'm sorry, Noelle, but come on! Everything's so big and shiny, I'm just having fun."
"You can have fun by not screaming like some belligerent monkey and making a fool out of yourself every time you see something new, Asta!"
"But aren't you yelling as well?" Asta pointed out.
A deep flush overtook Noelle, as she realized the truth in his word. Further supported by the fact that they were the center of attention, with many noblemen and noblewomen glaring annoyingly at the duo at the ruckus they were making. Even some children were pointing and laughing at the scene the two of them were making.
"I-I only did so, because I couldn't hear myself thinking over your insufferable voice, Bakasta! B-besides! You were screaming first!"
Noelle quickly grabbed Asta by the ear, forcibly dragging him away as her ears burned with embarrassment.
"Oww, oww! N-noelle! P-please-ow! Stop pulling on my ear, you're going to tear it off! OW!"
The silver-haired royal paid little heed to his pained plea as she hurriedly dragged him behind her, pushing their way out the plaza and away.
'Why did I think inviting him was a good idea again...' Noelle internally bemoaned.
It had been roughly a week since their last mission and quest regarding the exploration of the Dungeon that appeared along the Clover Kingdom border. What started as a routine mission turned complicated and deadly when they learned that the Diamond Kingdom too was after the treasures hidden deep within, especially against that one mage: Mars.
An idle hand reached up, retracing the wound that stretched down her chest and stomach where the emotionless Diamond mage all but gored her. The memory of the battle brought with it a sense of shame but also a burning desire to be better, to be stronger.
Though they had won in the end they would have little opportunity to reveal in their victory and spoils for the dungeon began to collapse in on itself soon after the final confrontation. Which forced the Black Bulls and the Golden Dawn to leave in a hurry lest they be crushed and buried with the dungeon. Leaving behind the grand treasures and loot that was rightfully theirs.
And what a shame it was.
Noelle could still remember the awe upon setting her sights on the fabled treasure hall of the dungeon.
The inside of the treasury itself was practically the size of a small castle, bathed in soft golden light and filled to the brims with mountains of gold and jewelry of all shapes and sizes in addition to weapons, scrolls, crystals, pottery, magical items, trinkets, potions, and anything and everything in between. It was in the truest sense of the word; a treasure trove. Which made it all the more lamentable that they were forced to leave it all behind. They would've been a great boon to the kingdom.
Her biggest lament would have to be the fact that she didn't have time to look over and appraise the few sharp but exquisite swords that were scattered about within the mountain of treasures. Not before the crystal mage awoke and began his second rampage.
They would've been a great reference for her in the future...
Noelle shook her head. What was done was done, there was no point in stewing over what had already come to pass.
Despite escaping with very little of the treasures the mission was considered a success for they were able to drive out the Diamond Kingdom forces while also preventing the enemy kingdom from taking a majority of the spoils.
Earlier today, they were informed by their Captain, Yami, that since the two of them were finally healed up they were to head to the Magic Knight Headquarters in order to give their report.
However, their appearance wasn't expected until the next day, granting Noelle some breathing room to attend to a family matter. For earlier in the week, she received a letter from home. Hence, she'd arrive early in the capital in order to spend some time with her family, of whom she had not seen in a while.
Was it any surprise, then, that Asta eagerly begged to tag along? After all, he'd not had the pleasure to see the capital and who better than his fellow Black Bull to guide him? And, somehow, his pleas had actually been heard, as the silverette allowed him to come along. The flush on her skin, when she'd accepted, had apparently been dismissed as a fever and she didn't wish to be caught sick by herself, so he'd be pulling guard duty like the peasant he was.
They had decided to come without their Brigade robes to avoid any unwanted recognition but thanks to Asta's wild rambunctiousness they ended up drawing attention to themselves either way.
After they were suitable far away Noelle finally let go of Asta. The Anti-Magic knight fell to his butt, cradling his red swelling ear.
"Ahh, jeez Noelle, you didn't have to pull that hard." Asta hissed, trying to alleviate some of the pain. "You could've asked nicely ya' know."
She huffed, her arms resting on her waist as she leaned over him.
"Please. You'd think I haven't tried that. I swear your brain must be collecting cobwebs from how little you use it, you muscle-bound oaf." Noelle said, jabbing a finger at his dense head.
"Are you a child? Seriously, who gets excited at just seeing a new place."
"Well, not all of us grew up in mansions or towns, princess..." Asta grouched, standing back up with a pout and his arms crossed to her.
Noelle said nothing, turning away for a moment.
Despite her heated words and agitation, she recognized where Asta was coming from and understood his point.
He lived all of his life near the outskirts of the Clover Kingdom, in the countryside, a mere lowborn. So it was only natural that the populated castle towns and cities within the Common and Noble Realm would be a sight of wonder for the countryside teen.
Noelle could still recall the wide-eyed excitement and awe he held in his eyes when the two of them visited the merchant town, Kikka, with Venessa when they received their first pay. Despite being an admittedly populated but common center town, the look in Asta's eyes was one of wonderment as if it was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen. No matter how basic or mundane the town was, it did little to dampen the boundless excitement he held as he took it all in.
If a simple trading hub town could elicit such a reaction from the muscular teen it was only natural that the shining capital of the Clover Kingdom, renowned for its amazing architecture and elegant splendor, would truly be a majestic sight to behold.
Not even she was cruel enough to try and stomp out that childish but wondrous innocence, but there was a time and place for everything, and she needed to hammer that into his head.
"Look Asta, it's ok to be excited but there's no need to be wild about it. As Magic Knights, we must maintain a level of dignity and standard for we are an exemplar to the people of the Kingdom, lest we lose the respect of our peers and citizens."
"But we're the Black Bulls, our reputation is kind already in the black anyways. Plus that kind of thing doesn't matter for us, remember?"
Noelle froze, blushing again when Asta yet again correctly pointed out the truth.
"Nevertheless! That does not mean we should be content with our current reputation! Lest our standing and respect amongst the eyes of our peers lower further than it already is. We must always strive to be better!" The pink-eyed mage hastily corrected, huffing as she crossed her arms and looked away.
"I still don't see what the big deal is." Asta gave only a blank look.
Noelle huffed again, flicking her hair before turning and walking away, spurring Asta to catch up.
"Perhaps you and the others might not believe it to be a big deal, but it would be moronic simply to ignore it in its entirety." She began with the short stature swordsman trailing behind her, listening.
"This is the capital, the heart of all nobility for the Clover Kingdom. One must be mindful of not only ourselves but also of others and our surroundings. For though the Black Bulls are the lowest regarded of the Magic Knight Brigades, we are still one of the nine tasked by the Clover Kingdom as its first responders and protectors. Furthermore..."
A feat that lasted but for a minute before his mind quickly got bored and overwhelmed by all the jargon spewed forth from Noelle's mouth about the inter-politics and public perception and whatever else. One could almost see steam spewing forth from his ears with his eyes wide and dazed.
Inadvertently, his quickly overheating brain performed an emergency maneuver, his sense of hearing staving the flow of info from his partner by blending it alongside the background drone. Not that it was particularly difficult, as the distinctively festive and increasingly louder ambiance became the new center of his attention.
His focus wavered and unsurprisingly, his mind wandered, latching onto an escape. A quick glance inside showed it to be some sprawling bazaar with stores, vendors, food stalls, and much more. Along with hundreds of people standing and walking about, going about their business. One that was infinitely more interesting to him than whatever it was Noelle was rambling on about.
With his eyes and attention hooked, he slowly trailed off, making his way towards the inner market. An action which left Noelle behind, who was known the wiser as she continued walking aimlessly.
"And..." She hesitated for a moment. "Since it's still early into the afternoon I'd like you to accompany me while we do some shopping. To pass the time before we head to where we need to go..."
She paused for a moment, realizing what her words sounded like, and blushed at the implication.
"But it's not a date!" She hurriedly said without turning around.
"I m-merely need a mule! Yes, a pack mule! And, since you seem so proud of all those muscles, Bakasta, it only makes sense you'd help me... and, if you b-behave we could have a... nice d-dinner afterward..." The heiress offered meekly at the end.
She stopped in the middle of the walkway, bracing herself to hear his answer. And so she waited, and waited, and waited some more. After a full two minutes of silence Noelle got suspicious. She could hardly remember a time where Asta was never not loud, constantly speaking whenever he had the chance. It was considered a miracle that he was able to keep his mouth shut for even a minute, let alone two.
"Asta... Asta, are you listening to me?!" Hearing no response, Noelle turned around.
She was expecting to see the goofy face of her secret crush, only to find him completely gone without a trace. It was only her, standing by herself, in a different part of town with her fellow Black Bull teammate nowhere in sight.
She stood there in silence for a few seconds before the realization hit her and when it did, her face reddened like an overly ripe tomato. She felt a great sense of mortification at the fact that she'd been talking to herself for who knows how long, but that was quickly drowned out by the mixture of burning embarrassment and stroking anger. Her pearly teeth gnashed together as a shaking clenched fist rose, wishing to administer punishment upon the one that did this to her.
Taking in a deep breath she let out a scream that roared to the heavens above.
"ASSTTAAA! YOU IDIOT!"
As for the Magicless Knight in question, he paused suddenly, looking up into the air while his pinkie dug into his ear. Strange – he thought, looking around for he thought he heard his name being called for a second there.
Shrugging, he quickly turned his attention back to what he was doing.
The populated market reminded him of his time back in Kikka, but here, while smaller it was admittedly more packed and opulent with its wares and goods.
The next several minutes Asta saw exploring all that the bazaar had to offer, scrambling from one venue to the next with the same wide eyes and amazed expression plastered across his face. He earned more than a few odd and weirded glances, along with murmured questioning of how and why someone like him was here but the junior Black Bull paid them hardly any mind. He was too busy having fun and soaking in the extravagant and interesting sights and goods on display.
He eventually came to a stop when he saw something that caught his eye. It was a beautiful jeweled necklace, one made up of glimmering azure sapphires.
He leaned against the railing of the stall, eyes transfixed on the exquisite jewelry. One that instantly made him think of sister Lily and how beautiful she would look with it.
"Ah, I see this particular piece has caught your eye, my good sir." A voice said, coming from the stall.
The owner leaned against the counter, smiling what appears to be a charming smile but one Asta felt was greasy as he rubbed his hands together.
"This here is known as the Jewel of the Ocean. A very beautiful piece I can assure you, and one that would make any girl very happy."
Again the image of sister Lily popped into his head, and from there it spiraled into her crying and saying how amazing it was and then confessing her love for him with the two getting married at last. He drooled as he daydreamed. Asta felt tempted to buy it right then and there.
But at the last moment, another image popped into his head, one of Noelle wearing it.
Asta internally blinked, wondering where such an idea spawned from. Though, he would have to admit that the colors complimented her very well.
"And it can be yours for the low price of 250,000 yuls."
The muscle-bound teen immediately snapped back to reality upon hearing the ludicrous price tag, his eyes nearly popping out of his socket.
"250,000 yuls?!" He shouted in shock.
Such a number boggled his mind. With that kind of money, it was enough to pay for the entirety of Hage village's needs and necessities for years without worry. And the man was asking that amount of money for a simple piece of jewelry?!
The owner's happy façade dropped, revealing an opulent frown.
"So you're not going to buy it then." He said, already knowing the answer.
"Heck no! That amount is crazy!" Asta replied, slack jawed at the ludicrous price tag.
"Then I have nothing to say to you but leave! I have no time to entertain mere riff raffs when I could be talking with an actual paying customer."
The owner sneered, waving him away as if he was some pesky fly. Asta's eyes narrowed as his mouth pressed into a thin line. He quickly stomped away without another word for it wasn't worth it.
For a bit he simply wandered through the plaza, aimless in his destination. The last encounter left the normally cheerful teen in a dour mood.
"Man, nobles are something else..." Asta said to himself, thinking back on the price. He still couldn't quite believe it.
Still, that did make his memory jog, remembering how different his and Noelle's sense of monetary value was. She'd call their first pay meager and underwhelming when it was likely enough to sustain him for around a month... if he didn't splurge it, as he was often reminded by Sister Lily to not do.
'Someone like Noelle could probably afford that necklace easily...' He thought, once again the image of her Noelle popped into his head.
Asta came to a stop in the middle of the walkway, something that drew the passing attention of the bystanders that were forced to walk around and past him. Furrowed brows were raised when the ashen-haired teen began to pale, sweat dripping from his forehead as his body was racked with trembles.
"I LEFT HER!"
Asta shouted, having fallen to his knees and clutching his head in realization and despair. It didn't stop there as he began running in circles, screaming his little head off.
Already, his mind conjured the very real and scary image of Noelle glaring down at him, as if he was some particular bug with her grimoire opened and glowing and her wand pointing right at him.
He did not want to face Noelle's wrath again. Last time, he nearly got bisected!
"Wait!" His eyes widened, looking up. "Nero!"
"You can find her! Fly Nero, fly! Lead the way!"
The slanted-eyed bird said nothing, giving him the same bored look as always before unfolding its wings and taking off. Asta quickly followed after the swallow-tail bird.
Asta ran after Nero as the bird led him to parts unknown, through short corners, long pathways, and up and down some areas and anything in between. Eventually, he came to a long and steep stairway that climbed up to somewhere. He saw Nero swooping down before landing on the railing at the top, looking down at him as if to say, 'are you coming?'
Asta smirked, ascending the marble stairway with ease and great speed as he made it to the top in record time.
"I did it!" He cheered, leaning on the railing, slightly winded after the short marathon Nero had Asta run through.
Nero flapped its wings, jumping onto Asta's head once more and making its perch in his hair.
"Nero! You're supposed to be helping find Noelle!" He cried out.
Before Asta could say any further he felt a flicker of light from the corner of his eyes. Emanating from behind. Turning, he narrowed his eyes and raised his hand to block out much of the bright glare. Slowly his eyes opened, and when he looked back out he was instantly captivated by what he saw.
From the top of the stairway he could see almost everything within the capital. Where once he walked among the large sprawling buildings and leaning architecture, they now stretched out almost endlessly below him. Its people were small but numerous, filling the town with life. He could even see past the castled walls of the royal capital, spying on the numerous neighboring towns that dotted the Common Realm and even the wild expanses of the Clover Kingdom wilderness. The bright clear blue skies served as a wonderful backdrop with a sprinkling of fluffy clouds wandering above, and the sun shone majestically, casting its warm glow over the land.
For a moment it was as if he was on top of the world.
He took in the scene in front of him and was filled with awe but also another emotion, determination.
'When I become the Magic Emperor, I'll be seeing this a lot more...'
Brimming with energy he was instantly fired up.
"I'm the best around! No one's ever going to take me down!" He hummed in a jaunty tone, punching the air in victory.
So wrapped up in his thoughts was he that he didn't hear the sounds of footsteps coming from behind, up the stairway. And so, as he let out his last punch, it met resistance in the form of another person that appeared at the top of the stairway at the same time Asta threw his punch.
A pained groan filled the air followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground and other loud clatters. Asta instantly turned, finding a person there, leaning against the adjacent wall and clutching his side where he had hit him.
"Ahh! I'm sorry!" Asta let out an opened mouth scream, profusely apologizing to the man as he rushed to help.
The junior Black Bull member came to his side. He held out his arm to the man but he found nothing to hold onto. The emerald-eyed teen couldn't help but blink rapidly, his hand grasping at nothing for where the man's left arm should be.
Recovering on his own, the stranger turned to face Asta.
The noble, for who else could he be, with his silk tunic and fine leather jerkin was concealed partially behind a cloak that draped over his shoulder and body. The short hood which covered up his head was also knocked back, revealing short, lush auburn hair with a single streak of silver running down one part of his hair. Warm, amber eyes sought Asta out, taking in his presence.
His own emerald eyes wandered, eventually traveling down to the man's left side. Where his left arm would normally be, there was nothing besides the empty short sleeve that reached down and was tied up to where his elbow would end. Nothing more than a stump.
Asta also made note that the man looked different compared to everyone he'd seen and known, drawing a comparison to his Captain, Yami, between their features.
That little tidbit was secondary, however, compared to the mounting realization and horror that he had struck not just a noble, but to an extent a crippled as well.
'Sister would be so disappointed in me!' Asta thought wildly, already imaging the nun's sharp and disappointed look.
"I'm sorry sir!"
Asta immediately bowed on his hands and knees, his head striking the floor in the interim, not that he felt it anyhow.
"I, um..." The voice of the stranger hesitated.
He didn't know what to do, a feeling that only grew as the seconds ticked ever onward, yet the young man found his gaze traitorously inching towards where he'd last seen the nobleman's presence, only to spot nothing.
Confusion and guilt alike quickly pulled him from his dogeza as he looked for the redheaded stranger who he had wronged, not that it was difficult. He spotted him a few short steps away from him, kneeling on the stairway before the strewed groceries that littered down the steps. He picked them up, meticulously determining what was salvageable and what wasn't. The pitiful amount that went into the former pile, only made his stomach heavier.
"I'm so very sorry!" he apologized again, louder than before and bowing even lower, leaving a distinct indent on the floor where it and his forehead met.
Not only did he topple him, but he'd also ruined the man's food and groceries, something he understood to be precious, as his background made every meal a godsend and something to never be wasted. As it stood, he felt a brief sickness, at the spread of ruined goods, knowing they could've fed a family on their own.
"Please, let me make this up for you!"
The man's words would go unheard as Asta's hand searched his pouches, rummaging to find his coin bag. He quickly found it and pulled it out but as he was holding it, he noticed something about it. It was lighter than he last remembered, very light.
Opening it he found nothing, he even turned it upside down and shook it. There were no yuls but there was a small, folded note that floated out of it.
Grabbing it, Asta unfolded it to find it was a letter.
"Dear Asta, I'm a bit low on funds so I borrowed a few yuls from you for something. Promise I'll pay you back – love Vanessa." He could hear the flirtatious and slightly drunken voice of Vanessa, as she pilfered from his pouch to forget that fact she even owned him.
"Yo' Asta, my man. If you see this, sorry for springing this up on ya' but I needed some extra yuls for a small gamble. Trust me, when I win it big, I'll pay you back. Your awesome bro, Magna." He could hear the loud voice of Magna, who'd likely been conned by any number of people and, he knew, he'd never see that money back.
"Hey Asta! There's this tournament going on where you can fight some really strong people, but you need to pay to get in. So I'm taking some of your yuls, thanks! Luck." He could hear the wild and hurried voice of Luck, who he distinctly remembered having suffered a mysterious concussion. At least, he now knew where it had come from.
"Need more ingredients, buy groceries, more food when you and Noelle come back." This one wasn't signed but it didn't take a genius to guess it was Miz Charmy. While the thought of the resident chef's cooking made his stomach grumble, his guilty conscience quickly killed any sense of appetite he could've had.
"I require your funds all for the sake of Marie. Know that your money is put to a good cause. For Marie. For Marie. For Mari—" The rest was illegible on the account of red blotches. He could all but hear the heavy breathing of Gauche over his shoulder and he found himself shivering at the oppressive sensation of his senior's obsession...
Asta said nothing. He stood there, holding the note in his hands with an utterly blank look.
"I'M BROKE!" He exclaimed, back on all four with a river of tears running down his cheeks.
Before Asta could offer anything more he heard a sound, a snicker before it turned into full-blown laughter. He looked up, finding the man laughing near to the point where tears leaked from his eyes, but it was far from mocking nor was it directed at Asta. But rather, at the seeming absurdity of the situation.
It was soft and warm, hearty, and one that instantly reminded him of those he would share with the likes of his fellow Black Bulls at home.
"Ahh, I needed that." He sighed, catching his breath and wiping the tears from his eyes.
The auburn-haired noble offered his lone hand out, greeting the young man with a tender smile.
"What's your name, son?"
Asta answered, taking his hand as the man helped him back to his feet. Something he noted was that the man's grip was firm. He could feel the man's callus rubbing against his own, hinting him to the man's strength once upon a time.
The man said nothing, looking at him curiously but for a moment, a hint of recognition lurking behind those gentle amber eyes.
"Asta, huh? I'm Shirou. Nice to meet you Asta."
'Shirou...' The name repeated itself in Asta's head. It sounded foreign, just like that of his captain.
"Well Asta, thank you for kind consideration but please don't worry about it. There ain't nothing I can't just buy again."
"B-but sir! W-wait! There has to be something I can do! Please! Let me help you."
Shirou said nothing, but Asta noticed a subtle shift in his eyes as if he was reminiscing on something that brought a nostalgic smile to his face. His gaze saw through him, in a strange fashion, as if noting some unseen quality or some hidden attribute. Yet, it wasn't an invasive or unpleasant experience, as he felt his back straighten and chest puff, in response to the strange man's equally odd stare that shone with a mysterious pride. It was parental in nature, and distinctively new. Finally, a warm smile broke the standoff, as he regarded the teen fully, eyes alight with warm gentleness.
"Thank you, young man. It is good to know that there are still such kind individuals around and, seeing as how your conscience wouldn't leave you alone otherwise, would you mind helping an old man with carrying some new groceries?"
"No problem Mr. Shirou! I can easily carry five bags, no, ten!" Asta exclaimed, smacking his chiseled pectoral and flexing his muscular arms.
"I'd believe it." Shirou chuckled amusingly at the teen's enthusiasm.
After hurriedly agreeing, much to the older man's amusement, the two headed off to the shopping district with Asta following a step behind him. During which Shirou once more donned his hood just before entering the market.
It was also during this Asta astutely noted that Shirou walked with a slight limp in his steps, favoring his right side as he took his time. Not that Asta minded, for it served to reinforce his drive to help the man with all his needs to properly repay him for the trouble he caused.
For the next hour or so, they meticulously retraced the redhead's steps, buying replacements for what had been unsalvageable and even some extras, which Shirou mentioned they'll need to feed everyone. He'd been confused by the knowing smile that his new acquaintance had, but he shrugged and simply added their purchases to his pack, not that it was heavy to begin with.
As they wove through the crowd, they couldn't help being dragged into pleasant conversation, trading tidbits about each other as they got to know one another better.
Apparently, the man who'd been added to his list of nice nobles was a skilled swordsman, who was semi-retired to enjoy the family life. The supplies they were gathering were meant for a celebratory dinner, for his daughter as she'd been away for some time. In return, Asta decided to mention that he was part of the Black Bulls, only to be kindly reminded that he still carried the sigil on himself, much to his embarrassment. However, when he mentioned he himself wielded a sword for combat, Shirou had surprised him once more by offering some tips and pointers. Ones that the Magicless Knight humbly accepted and listened intently to the advice and words of a experienced veteran. And so, the two bonded over their shared interest.
By the end they had everything they needed and perhaps more. Asta was quite insistent that he could carry more stuff to properly repay the man, which earned a playful rebuttal from Shirou of how just because he was rich doesn't mean he carried a fortune on him always.
"Are you hungry, Asta? Why don't I buy us something to eat?" Shirou offered. "My treat."
Asta wanted to politely decline the offer. He'd already made the man spend more of his money already than he should've have and he didn't wish to impede on the man's kindness any more than needed. However, before he could answer his stomach offered one instead in the form of a bubbling growl.
Any objection he had died in his mouth as his cheeks burned red. Shirou on the other hand quirked a small amused brow, smirking.
"Come on, I happen to know a good spot." He said, leading the way.
Asta followed him and within a few more minutes the two found themselves in one of the many open food courts that dotted the inner castle town.
Despite his previous objections, the emerald-eyed teen was practically salivating upon entering the plaza. His eyes glittered with excitement and hunger as he perused all the delicious food on display. The pleasant aroma brushed against his nostril, further stirring up his hunger and he was quick to give in.
After getting their food, enough to feed a family of five, the two managed to find an empty table and took their seats at a table situated on a stony balcony near the edge of the plaza. One that overlooked part of the castle town below and offered a scenic view for their lunch.
From there the two happily enjoyed their meal, none more so than Asta, who attacked the large spread of food with great gusto. He grabbed one of everything and threw it into his mouth, his eyes sparkling in delight at the delicious taste that graced his tongue.
"This is delicious!" He exclaimed with cheeks swelling like a chipmunk with food.
Those sitting nearby watched his voracious appetite on display and couldn't help but make disgusted faces and grimaces upon seeing the teen all but shoving food in his mouth. Some even stood up and moved, unable to bear such an ill-mannered display.
As for Shirou, he just watched on with a small smile. If anything, he seemed more impressed to see just how much Asta could stuff into his mouth.
"Easy now." He said. "No need to rush, Asta."
"Bus'h s'o gwood!" He replied, trying to eat and speak at the same time.
"I can see that, also please don't talk with your mouth full. The food isn't going anywhere, Asta." Shirou said, softly chiding him.
Asta nodded, heeding to the man's word and swallowing the load of food already in his mouth. He ate much slower but still eager, his eyes shining with every delicious bite.
Seeing how much fun Asta was having Shirou joined him and the two ate in relative silence, taking the moment to enjoy themselves as the exhaustion of the day ebbed away. Their lunch was interspersed with small talk and chatter, jumping from topic to topic as they shared stories and laughter.
For Asta, he noted that Shirou he seemed especially fond of his family, sharing some stories of his children and all their misadventures and misbehaviors, filled with only what could be described as a parental fondness.
By the end, they managed to clean their plates, with most of the heavy lifting being done by Asta alone.
"Man, that was delicious!" Asta let out a content sigh, sitting back and rubbing his stuffed stomach. "Thank you again, Mr. Shirou!"
"It's the least I can do." Shirou replied, sipping on his tea.
For a moment, all was peaceful as the two sat there contently.
"Why are you a Magic Knight, Asta?" Shirou asked suddenly.
"Hmm, what'd ya mean?" He asked, half listlessly, the food slowly lulling him in.
Shirou smiled patiently, repeating the question for him.
"Why did you wish to become a Magic Knight?"
"To become Magic Emperor of course!" Asta answered.
Shirou did not answer immediately, looking away wordlessly. Asta looked at him worriedly before he felt the air around stir. He looked back at him, eyes gleamed golden and staring with such scrutinizing intensity that Asta couldn't help but lock up under his gaze. Any sense of drowsiness within him evaporated like water when met with the scorching heat of the desert. He sat upright in his seat, awake and at attention.
"Asta… of the Black Bulls… I was wondering why the name sounded familiar…"
Shirou whispered to himself with Asta catching it faintly.
"You're the initiate that made quite the uproar at the Magic Knight entrance exam at the colosseum." He said, more of a statement than a question. "The so-called Magicless Magic Knight. The one that dreams of becoming the Magic Emperor."
"Not dream, sir. I will become the Magic Emperor!" Asta answered passionately.
"Despite possessing no shred of magic whatsoever, you still intend to aim to be the Magic Emperor?" Shirou emphasized.
"There's no rule that says someone without magic can't become the Magic Emperor!" Asta declared back.
Shirou said nothing, opening his mouth with a raised finger only to stop himself. For a moment Asta thought he was going to correct him but instead, a thoughtful look crossed his face. His hand idly reached up, rubbing his chin as he was deep in thought. After a moment of pause, he said this.
"Actually, you're not wrong."
"W-wait! Seriously?!" Asta couldn't help but exclaim with disbelief, all clearly depicted in his widened eyes and loosely hanging mouth.
For all that Shirou had been a nice companion, he'd grown used to defending his ambition, which left him lost when they weren't contested. It appeared, however, that his face was amusing, considering the noble's stifled chuckles.
"The Magic Emperor, despite its lofty title, is still considered part of the five ranks just like that of Junior Magic Knight, Intermediate Magic Knight, Senior Magic Knight, and Grand Magic Knight. With the rank of Magic Emperor being at the very top. As such, it is a position that any Magic Knight can achieve with the sole requirement that they must be a Magic Knight first and belong to one of the nine Brigades. Never was it explicitly written or outright stated that someone without magic could not claim the position."
Asta leaned back, absorbing the information. A sense of budding hope swelled within him having learned about this. He was one step closer...
"But..." Shirou began, eyes the color of tempered bronze piercing through Asta's unguarded hope.
Asta felt something pressing against his shoulder, a cold pressure that sent a chill running down his spine. One that made him almost forget to breath for a second there, a breathless gasp leaving his lips. This feeling reminded him very much of the first time Captain Yami confronted him during the selection process and the aura he exuded. One that belonged to that of someone greater than him, judging him to see if he was worthy.
"That won't mean it'll be easy, for nothing in life worth striving for ever is. It is said that for every generation of Magic Knights, only one could have the privilege of holding the title. To be called the Magic Emperor is to be known and recognized as the strongest mage within the Kingdom. And it's not just yourself that you'll have to contend with but many others that too wish to claim the title as the strongest as their own. Including that of the Captains. Some of whom that are no doubt beyond your league. And that's not even mentioning the fact that one was must eventually surpass the previous Magic Emperor in order to be proven as worthy."
An image of Yuno popped into Asta's head. He was right, there was his rival and no doubt many others that have the same aspirations and drive as the two of them.
"I can only imagine what you've been through, Asta, the discrimination for simply being born without magic. I doubt it'll stop now, if anything, it'll only grow harder. The road ahead of you will be long and arduous and you'll face many obstacles, including that of the very system that you wish to be head of. To be the Magic Emperor means to be recognized by all within the Clover Kingdom as the strongest and the one to be worthy. You'll face opposition and adversity at every possible opportunity. Many will object and call into question your abilities, citing you as magicless, and thus useless. For someone without a hint of magic to call their own, being raised to the position of Magic Emperor, is something considered in inconceivable to most. I have little doubts those of the higher-ups and noble caste will do everything in their power to stop you from achieving it. The thought that a magicless bumpkin as the Kingdom's strongest and protector would make their heads turn at the mere notion. There might even be a possibility that they'll even pass some legislation just to stop you out of spite. If so, then it would be impossi—"
"So what?" Asta interrupted.
Shirou looked at Asta, his eyes marred with many emotions but the one that shined greatest of them all was determination.
"I've heard the same things for as long as I can remember. I can't use magic so it's impossible for me to have something like a grimoire, yet I got one right there! There's no way I can be a Magic Knight, well you're looking at the proud new member of the Black Bulls! They say that it's impossible but you know what I say? I say that the impossible is just the possible that just hasn't been done yet! The Magic Emperor is the strongest? Well, I guess I just have to become strong then! Stronger than I am, stronger than anyone else. Strong enough where they'll have no choice but to acknowledge me as the Magic Emperor and then I'll make them eat their words!"
Then, as Asta's impassioned declaration was processed by the older man, he couldn't help but smile. It was a small thing yet one that was ephemeral, capturing all of him. Tender, filled with the wistfulness of a childhood dream. Tired, worn by the cruelty of fate. Content, he may not have reached that impossibility, but he'd settle for his small slice of heaven. A whirlpool of emotions and memories alike, seamlessly meshing and translating a life well lived. A smile that was completely human.
Asta distinctly noted the ache in his chest and the blurriness of his sight, yet he was captivated by the truth of the simple action before him spoke of.
For but a singular moment a shared understanding passed between them.
Before him was a man, who wasn't unlike him. He too, had once held an impossible dream. He too, had once chased an impossible fate. He too, had longed for another to believe in him. Yet, he'd failed. Or perhaps, he'd simply outgrown his past. All the same, it didn't change the message that smile represented.
I believe in your ambition, Asta. No one believed in me, so I'll believe in you, who likewise lacks supporters.
It was the message of one dreamer to another.
Shirou leaned comfortably back in his seat. With his head tilted back, his eyes remained fixed to the expansive and tranquil blue sky above.
"The Magicless Magic Emperor, huh? That'd be quite the sight. Then, I'll be rooting for you, Asta."
For a moment, Asta didn't know what to say. He knew that his aspirations were lofty and didn't truly begrudge those who didn't outright believe in him. How could he, when they had been right to do so until he'd obtained his grimoire?
Asta was stubborn, but not an idiot. Yet, to receive this much support from a stranger, no matter how kind... it boggled him. He understood it was more than surface platitudes, the kind that Sister Lily employed to keep the children from the orphanage in check. This... This was closest to Captain Yami. The weight of another's expectations and the responsibility to meet and surpass them. But, at their core, they were different. Captain Yami believed in his strength and will. Shirou... he believed in his spirit. That he had the emotional strength to endure and grow, until the impossible was possible.
And Asta... didn't know how to feel, except for the thankfulness that spilled from his blurry eyes.
Even as that indescribable smile disappeared, replaced by worry and shock, he would never forget the new weight that rested on his shoulder... nor the new lightness in his chest, that made carrying it easier.
"You bet! Just you wait Mr. Shirou, I'll be the next Magic Emperor!" He said, smiling his greatest beaming smile yet.
He held out a fist in front of him, a gesture Shirou recognized as he brought his own forward and the two bumped fists. One of a shared promise and comradery.
From there, Shirou stood up, idly stretching.
"Well, I suppose now is as good of a time as any. Shall we be on our way, Asta?"
"Yes sir! And thanks for the meal Mr. Shirou. I'll help carry everything back to your house, so lead the way!" He said, standing.
"Thank you for the offer but I can manage. Besides, don't you have somewhere more important to be, Asta?
Asta looked at Shirou weirdly, confused by the question. Where else should he be?
Shirou's genial smile remained, yet, there was slyness hidden underneath it.
"I would suggest you start moving your legs, Asta, lest you make Noelle madder than she's no doubt already is."
It took less than a second before the realization dawned on him and Asta went white as a ghost as he quickly remembered his predicament.
"She's going to kill me!" He shouted with shrunken, panicked-filled eyes.
"THANK YOU AGAIN MR. SHIROU, BUT I'M SORRY MR. SHIROU BUT I NEED TO GO RIGHT NOW BEFORE I DIE, I'M SORRY, GOTTA GO, THANK YOU FOR THE MEAL, SEE YA, BYE BYE!"
Asta let it all out in one breath, leaping over his seat and leaving with such speed that he practically left a dust trail in his wake.
Shirou watched him go with a smile and a twinkle of amusement, waving goodbye to the young man.
Nero, who was silent and watching throughout all of this, kept its slanted gaze on the man as he slowly grew further away before disappearing from sight.
With his mind whipped into a frenzy, Asta all but ran up and down the entirety of the castle town, searching desperately for any sign of Noelle but luck wasn't on his side. Which only further fueled his drive out of fear and desperation.
But as he ran and ran, his mind swallowed further by a frenzy of fear and over imagination, a singular clear thought pierced through the turbulent veil like an epiphany.
His frantic running slowed to a jog before his steps came to a full stop. Asta whipped around, looking back in the direction where he came from. His eyes were wide and searching.
'How'd he know about Noelle…?' Never once during their entire time together did he ever mention her by name.
Before he could have any time to ponder further on the realization, he felt something. A dark and menacing aura loomed behind him. Shivering, Asta whipped around and paled at the sight of Noelle standing there.
What frightened him the most was that, unlike what he'd thought, Noelle did not look angry. In fact, she was smiling. A closed eyes smile that stretched across her face. Yet, Asta got the distinct feeling that she was the furthest thing from happy.
"Asta… there you are…" She said with a deadly calm.
"Did you know how long you have left me waiting? Alone?"
"N-noelle! H-hi! There you are… I-I…" Asta stammered out, trying to find his words but they failed him in the face of absolute doom.
"Would you believe me if I said I was looking for you this entire time?"
Noelle had no answer for his weak excuse. As she approached the shadows lengthened across her face, her closed eyes tightened as her smile grew menacingly. Asta shrunk back in fear.
"I'm sorry!" He bowed on four, head planted on the ground.
"Not yet you're not." She said ominously.
Then, he was given the biggest dressing down in his life. Not even the one that he'd gotten from Sister Lily back when he was a reckless kid could compare. By the end, after Noelle had vented all her grievances towards him, did the situation move forward.
"I'm sorry." He said again, repeating himself for the umpteenth time already.
"If you're really sorry then you can start by proving it with your actions. You can start carrying all of those." Noelle pointed a lithe finger towards a small pile of bags and boxes.
Her closed eyes and smile grew sharp as she leaned over the kneeling teen.
"What was that?" She asked all too sweetly, looming over Asta.
"I—I… yes ma'am!" He snapped to attention, picking up all her bags.
"That's what I thought." She smiled smugly, tossing back her ponytails as turned around.
"Come servant, we have much more shopping to do."
Asta followed her, sighing internally. And so, for the second time today, Asta was stuck carrying things.
The next hour or two saw the two Black Bulls doing some more shopping, or more accurately, Noelle was as Asta acted as her pack mule to carry everything. Near the end, they were nearly done and a good thing too. For while he had immense pride in his physical endurance and stamina, being forced to carry all the bags and accessories all by himself without any magical assistance for nearly an hour plus without rest was starting to wear at him.
Their final destination was a small weapon shop located near the edge of the town. On the outside, it looked mundane and basic, a store that advertised its wears with some weapons on display to intrigue and entices bystanders and customers alike to come in. A large glass window covered almost half of the store's outside, giving a glimpse as to what could be awaiting them inside.
"Leave everything outside." She said, knowing that Asta couldn't carry everything with him into the store.
"Are you sure? What happens if someone tries to steal one of your stuff?" Asta looked at her weirdly, puzzled that she would suggest such a thing. It was like she was practically asking to be robbed, especially with the amount of stuff she had purchased.
"Please, as if any self-respecting noble would dare try such a pedestrian thing as to steal in broad daylight." Noelle sniffed before a thoughtful look crossed her face. "But, on the off-hand that you're right, keep watch like a good boy."
She wagged her finger and pointed at the pile. With her piece said she walked in, followed by Asta with his arms crossed and a pout on his face.
A soft chime accompanied their entrance as the door opened. As they entered, any lingering exasperation within Asta vanished as he immediately set his sights on the interior of the store. His mouth opened, whispering a small 'Woah…' at the impressive displays before him.
Rows of shelves lined the store, displaying their arms for all to see and touch and interspersed to where customers would walk around freely without hinderance. More could be found lining the cobblestone walls on racks and display cases, brandishing a diverse arsenal of swords, axes, lances, shields, armor, and everything in between. Sparkles of light seemed to bounce off their immaculate form, as if they were all freshly forged.
"Welcome valued customers!" A voice called out.
Turning, the two Black Bulls were greeted by the sight of a large round man coming from the corner of the store. The man flung out his hands invitingly, welcoming them with a wide smile that was either enthusiastically cheerful or greasily greedy. Asta was betting on the latter.
"Come in, do come in! Peruse my good store. I can assure you they are all but the finest quality!"
"Thank you." Noelle greeted with a polite imperviousness, her eyes already wandering and giving the shopkeeper a passing attention. "I'll be taking a look at what you have to offer."
"But of course my lady, please do take your time." He said, rubbing his hands together expectantly.
Noelle did not waste any time and walked through the room as inquisitive pink eyes sought out what caught her interest.
Asta did much the same, looking here and there for a bit but he mostly kept to the window, keeping a watchful eye out for Noelle's stuff. He kept an open ear out as he listened in, watching from the sidelines as the Silva royal walked and examined the various weapons on display. He saw how she took them from their rack, inspecting them with a critical eye. For some she took hold and gave a few practice swings, others she tested the weight of and their measure, a few she looked at and disregarded outright.
As she was making her way through the store, assessing the weapons available, the fat shopkeeper kept close to Noelle despite how many times she tried to distance them. Every time she picked up a weapon the man would sing nothing but praises for the weapon, of its making and how it could be hers for a reasonable price.
The silverette listened with a bored countenance, her attention focused solely on what was in front of her. Something that incensed the man at the blatant disregard for his presence. And one that only grew, as in time, she looked over practically all of his weapons he had to offer. By the end, naked disappointment was clearly written across her face.
"Is this all you have to offer?" Noelle asked, dismissive.
The shopkeeper's smile strained, struggling to hold his tongue. Both his pride as a merchant and weapon dealer was insulted by a little girl in his eyes and he sought to rectify that.
"No. Please, follow me." He answered, motioning with his hand to follow.
He walked them over to the back corner of the shop where the counter was. Noelle stood there as the man walked through a door that lead into the back. After almost a full minute he emerged from through the drapes, bringing with him a new weapon.
It was a longsword, almost equal in length to Asta's first blade. It looked to be made to be wielded in one hand with a sharp double-edge blade taking a silver shine and finished. Its crossguard looked to be crafted entirely of gold and had finely decorative carving etched into it with glimmering diamond-shaped sapphires lining the whole of the hilt. The grip was covered into a fine wrapped leather with engravings that ran down the handle and crossguard, ending with a large bulbous pummel at the end which housed an egg-shaped ruby.
At first glance, it appeared to be quite the weapon, both functional and well-crafted. One fit in the hand of a noble and one that would no doubt cost a fortune to obtain.
"This here is my best work! Handcrafted and forged by the great Lonius Vetar, the once vice captain of the Aqua Deers. Not only can this weapon cut through stone and steel like a hot knife through butter but it is also enchanted. The blade will never dull and can be washed off easily! I can assure you that this is the highest quality blade in my shop, nay, dare I say it, in the entire capital!" The shopkeeper said, mustering his best sales pitch.
She picked up the weapon, looking it over as her hand roamed the blade.
Noelle said nothing, scrutinizing the weapon with an intensity that the fat shopkeeper mistook it for interest.
"And it can all be yours for the simple price of 500,000 yuls."
Asta nearly choked on his breath when the man laid out the price. That was twice the amount compared to the necklace from before and one that the magicless teen couldn't imagine spending on anything.
"This is the greatest weapon your shop has to offer?" She said, with the weapon owner nodding eagerly.
Silently, she held the weapon over the counter before letting it fall unceremoniously onto the wooden counter. A dull ring rang, echoing the frozen shock of the boastful merchant, as he found himself the target of a thoroughly unimpressed customer.
Never before has Asta seen Noelle look as insulted as she did at that moment.
"I shall admit that is at best an artful but utterly wasteful decorative piece that one can hang on their wall or mantle to show off, and at worse, an ostentatious pathetic excuse for a sword!"
The shopkeeper's frozen smile slipped off, revealing his true attitude. He glared nastily at her, having had enough of her haughty attitude.
"And what does a simple child like you know about proper craftsmanship?" He sneered, leaning over the counter imposingly against Noelle's petite height.
The two locked eyes. If Noelle was intimidated, none of it showed. Instead, her lips crinkled into a thin smile, as if she was the cat that caught the canary. She had faced worse and stared down death once before, the ire of a simple shopkeeper was insignificant compared to that of the killing intent of the Diamond Kingdom mage. Slowly, it was the shopkeeper that was pushed on the defensive.
The silence stretched and even the quiet that'd suffocated the shoddy excuse for a weapon's shop, one befitting of the gallows themselves, wasn't enough for the huntress who'd found such satisfying prey. With a viciousness that was often restricted to lethal exchanges, her eyes froze into chips of ice and an equally sharp smile feasted on the merchant's ever-increasing fear. It was only as the man's skin reached a pale reserved for marble, that she decided to grace him with an end to his torture.
"Firstly, the blade itself. While the edge is undoubtedly fine and the magical enchantment keeps the blade sharp the same cannot be said for its durability."
She then lightly tapped against the flat edge of the blade, the action producing a dull metallic reverb.
"Disgusting. A hollow blade, to match a hollow design, only overshadowed by its truly soulless craftmanship. The sword's hollow finished, which would be used to help distribute the weight of the blade is countermanded by the blade's length which will no doubt make it cumbersome to wield in actual combat. Furthermore, it does not possess enough metal to be sturdy nor durable enough should it ever clash against other blades. I'd wager that with a few powerful strikes the blade will either chip under the strain and crack entirely. And that's not mentioning the added weight distribution of the sword for the blade's edge and tip is weighted, which further ruins the balance of the entire weapon and makes wielding it awkward and will no doubt make the wielder expand more energy recovering from every swing than actually swinging it, especially for a sword that is to be wielded with one hand."
With a swiftness as sharp as her judgement, she retrieved the fallen junk metal and grabbed hold with both hands. She gave it a few swings to demonstrate her point, all the while fixing him with a very unimpressed glare.
"Tell me, has this excuse for a sword ever even seen the fires of a skilled forge, or was it simply cast in a mold before encrusted with all these useless decorations?"
The insult would've surely warranted a displeased remark by the owner of said weapon, if he weren't afraid to move an inch, paralyzed under the eyes of the young woman, whose gaze reminded him of a particularly cruel taxonomer.
Reversing the grip on the handle her finger traveled upwards in disgust, pointing to the golden hilt and aforementioned jewelry next.
"Gold has many values but in the fielding of forging swords, it is severely lacking. The gold again adds to the problem of weight distribution, for while it can act as a sufficient counterbalance, it is not enough. And combined with the present flaw of the sword, it disrupts the delicate equilibrium of the weapon and makes it unreliable in heated combat. Furthermore, gold is far too soft to hold a blade, especially one that's been magically enchanted. It's brittle enough where with enough use it'll chip against its own edge, making it worthless as that could lead to a loosening of the guard and blade. It would not be surprising if the blade were to fly off the handle during a swing with how loose the blade is fixed to the sword guard. And that's not even mentioning the possibility of using it as a guard for actual protection. It's brittle enough to break if stuck directly by an attack."
She then gestured to the beautiful gems lining the weapon and immaculate detail that decorated the sword.
"Tell me, do these rubies and sapphires do anything besides being a worthless decoration and inflating the ridiculous price of this mangled excuse of a weapon. They are more liable to get the wielder killed just so whoever can poach off with the jewels. And let's not forget about the intricate silver engravings that no doubt required time and expertise to apply. Do please inform me on what tactical advantage that such engraving adds to the weapon, I must wonder."
Stunned silence took over the store as Noelle finished her appraisal of the weapon in her hands.
The silverette turned back to the owner who was sitting there with wide eyes and his mouth agape in complete bewilderment by the sharp and accurate appraisal delivered by the silver-haired royal.
Noelle quickly went in for the finish.
"Perhaps, this travesty of wasted resources would be redeemable, if it held a hint of tempering. While it may be polished and sharpened, they can't hide the sins of the blacksmith. It may be hard, but its durability is poor. All it would take is a sudden change in temperature or even just a particularly heavy impact, and it would shatter like porcelain!"
Maybe, it was foolishness or perhaps some misguided outburst of pride in his wares, that allowed the greedy man to finally exclaim some meager response, not that it served him well.
"B-but, the enchantments! The magic—"
"It is a clustered mess, overlaid on the edge, poorly optimized, and not even permanently applied! Tell me, what do you know of magic, to believe that this would be suitable to sell not only a Mage Knight but also to anyone with an inkling of expertise!"
Again, the man was silenced, as he found himself facing the horrid realizations that this cruel beast in human skin was right. Had he been fooled to take a shoddy piece into his shop, only on its nature as magical? As if reading his thoughts, the object of his latest nightmares once more spoke, venom soaking each word.
"Perhaps, you didn't know better, so I'll tell you. None! And this enchantment you speak of, is the work of amateurs, only clinging to the edge, fading as we speak and susceptible to magic, torn to shreds at the first contact with real magic. But what more could you expect, from the same people who thought such a poorly balanced sword, lacking in any counterweight and further burdened by useless decorations, would fool anyone?"
Once more, the room was thrown into complete silence.
Asta, who'd so far only been a bystander to the absolutely amazing sight of his fellow Black Bull applying her apparent expertise on blades, was of much the same thought. And, it was reflected on his star-struck eyes that shone with astonishment and awe alike, making his wide eyes all the more reflective and expressive.
Even now, Asta couldn't help his amazement with his silver-haired companion.
Many a time, he'd found himself discretely noting the common trend of nobles to be... well, nobles. To act high and mighty, lacking the knowledge or strength to back their words and arrogantly point out their superiority when they were the ignorant ones. Since he'd first noted as such, he had come to know a few upper-class citizens who hadn't fit that mold, Noelle among them, but this only served to further cement his thoughts that he had much to learn. Perhaps, even from his rich friend, who likely knew more about how he used his sword than himself!
Noelle possessed a sharp eye for steel, one that not even the shopkeeper could hope to deny or discredit.
"Shall I go on?" She asked with a tone of airy condescension and smug superiority.
The man sputtered, trying to find his words to rebuke her but little came of it as Noelle then took the time to point to each one she visited, describing and pointing out the various glaring flaws and inadequacies in the weapons. Her sharp tongue was as an effective weapon as one of Asta's Anti-Magic blades.
All the while, the man was forced to take the brunt of Noelle's scathing criticism, silently fuming at the cheek of whom he originally thought was nothing more than some highborn uppity minx that was on display as she lorded over him.
"You think you know better than me you cheeky brat?!" The shopkeeper snapped, shouting at the top of his lungs. His face was an angry purple, fuming with rage at the blatant disrespect.
He slammed his arms against the counter, rising from his seat and leaning forward to grab a hold of her.
"H-hey!" Asta, seeing that a confrontation was all but inevitable, rushed to help.
However, it wouldn't be necessary.
Noelle acted the moment the store owner began screaming. In a graceful motion, she grabbed her wand from her holster and with a flourish summoned her grimoire from her pouch before her. The three leaf clover grimoire opened, glowing a brilliant steelish blue as it flipped through its pages as she pointed her wand into the air.
"Arma Magic: Display of Noble Arms!"
The air shimmered as the flow of mana swirled and condensed. Blue motes of light lit up the air, glowing and expanding before taking shape.
The weapon seller prepared his own grimoire in case of an attack only to be taken aback by what he saw.
"W-w...what…" The fat merchant trailed off.
Hovering in mid-air, just above them, were a dozen or so weapons, comprised entirely of swords. Ones that made those within the shop look like kitchen knives in comparison.
They were peerless in their quality, reflected by their beautiful but deadly design. These noble arms, they took different forms and sizes but they were all weapons truly worthy to behold. Asta was by no means an expertise, but even inadequate as he was even he could discern the weapon's potential with a mere glance.
Light bounced resplendently off their sharp sheen with an almost otherworldly glow, reflecting a peerless shine and quality that was unmatched by any of the weapons in store.
The shopkeeper's eyes darted from Noelle and the magical swords with his mouth agape but no words could be heard. Noelle said nothing for she needed none, her display more than demonstrated the gaping difference between them.
Not even Asta could hold back the smile as he watched on, emerald eyes glittering with light at the magnificence before him.
The shopkeepers eventually shook out of his stupor, glaring at Noelle with a twisted face. One torn between shame and humiliation but also a hint of begrudging admittance. Noelle had him beat and they both knew it.
"If you're not going to buy anything then do kindly get out of my store!"
"We were planning on leaving anyhow. Come Asta, let us take our yuls elsewhere."
Noelle flicked back her hair in her usual haughty fashion and turned around, walking away with her head held up high. Asta quickly fell in a step behind Noelle and the two walked out through the door.
Collecting what was theirs they walked away. Once they were far enough the two began laughing, the incident still clear and fresh on their mind.
"You sure showed him, Noelle!" Asta said, smiling.
"Hmph!" Noelle huffed in her usual fashion, a hint of red dusting her cheek at the compliment but one she accepted nevertheless. "But of course, Bakasta. As if I, a member of the royal houses, would allow a lowly charlatan like him to get the better of me."
"Still though, were you able to at least get what you needed?" Asta asked.
Noelle hummed, mulling it over for a moment.
"While much of the weapons in the store were subpar they were those that I found adequate. Overall, I would say yes. I'll be sure to put the design and references to good use in the future."
Noelle smiled, rose-colored eyes twinkling with excitement at the prospect. A look that found Asta staring at a touch longer than normal. He quickly shook his head, nodding along as the two went on their way.
By the time they were done, it was late into the afternoon. The sun was slowly setting, cresting over the horizon as the warm bright light of the sun dimmed and the sky took a soft orange glow, a prelude to the coming night as Asta and Noelle's afternoon journey near its end.
Slowly making their way up the center, Asta's eyes sparkled with child-like wonder as they reached the Clover Castles, located within the elevated most part of the capital with its large pristine walls and a series of towers all along the top stretching the outer edges of the palaces.
During the time they were making their trek up to the gates, Noelle began lecturing him on proper etiquette, on what to do and more specifically, what not to do, proper manners, and so forth. All of which bore Asta out of his mind as they trudged along but he endured it. She had wanted him to be on his best behavior, especially when they were to be meeting proper royal nobles.
As they neared the gates the two noticed a figure standing in front of the pearly gates, waiting for them.
Both Asta and Noelle's eyes widened but for entirely different reasons. The emerald-eye teen quickly set down everything running ahead, earning an indignant "Hey!" from Noelle.
"Mr. Shirou!" Asta exclaimed, running and skipping forward with an outstretched hand to greet the man.
One that the man happily reciprocated.
"What are you doing here, sir?" He asked, happy but also curious to see the one-armed noble again.
"Why, I live here of course." Shirou answered with a playful smile. He pointed with his thumb behind him, to the three interjoined royal castles.
Asta blinked, looking back and forth between them. The true meaning behind his words didn't quite grasp him as of yet.
"W-wait, really?! Wow, what a coincidence! We happen to be here as well! Wait! Oh! Are you a servant or something living in and working for them? Is that how you knew about Noelle!? Wow, that's so cool! They must be really nice to hire you since you know…"
Before he could go on any further Noelle appeared behind him.
"You imbecile!" Noelle shouted, smacking him upside the head.
Asta hissed and reeled from the hit. He instantly crouched with his hands clutching the back of his head in mild pain. What really got him was the genuine anger behind it. It was hardly the first time the easily riled royal struck him but where before she typically did so due to embarrassment or being flustered, here her anger was true which only confused him further.
Before he could say anything, he felt her hand pressed against his head, keeping him down and his head bowed.
"M-my apologies for his uncouth casualness, Father!"
Asta stopped struggling against her grip, his eyes widening from what he just heard.
'Father?! Wait...! That means...'
"Now, now, Noelle, that's no way to treat a teammate and friend." He heard Shirou say, softly chiding his daughter.
Her hand immediately let go as Noelle stood straight, squeaking out a quick apology to her father. Free from her grasp, Asta looked back to Shirou, his eyes still wide and his head spinning to make sense of what he just learned.
"Mr. Shirou! You're Noelle's dad?! How come you never told me?!" He blurted out, pointing a finger at the one-armed noble.
A single brow hiked on Shirou's face. "You never asked." He answered simply.
Asta opened his mouth to object only to quickly close it. He crouched slightly, rubbing his chin idly as he thought it over.
"Huh, you're right." He accepted easily.
A short laugh rang out, as a fourth voice joined the conversation, amused by the quick turn of the junior knight.
"It seemed you weren't exaggerating after all, Shirou. The young man is quite the expressionist. Yami chose quite the new recruit, wouldn't you say?"
From behind Shirou, another figure appeared, drawing Asta's eyes and attention. The man appeared middle-aged, slightly older than Shirou himself, with soft short messy blond hair and twinkling purple eyes. He was a fancy-looking fellow, with his long luxurious red robe that covered much of his body with the upper portion of it decorated with white fur. A golden necklace hung from his chest alongside a gold medal with a green cross, positioned on the left side of his chest over his heart while the other, a shield with gold and red colors, was positioned on his right side. Lastly, located just above his left eye was a blue six-pointed star.
"Hello, my young friend." The stranger greeted amiably with a raised hand.
"Who is this flamboyant guy?" Asta asked aloud.
Hearing this, it was Shirou's turn to laugh.
"Flamboyant! That's the first time I've heard that. Seems you need to step up your wardrobe, Julius."
"I prefer the term stylish, thank you very much!"
The two joked back and forth, laughing all the while, which only made Asta more curious as to who the man is and his relationship with Shirou.
Shirou reigned his chuckles in, his eyes crinkling with amusement for what was to come next.
"Asta, I'm almost disappointed. For the one that intends to be the next Magic Emperor, it would behoove you to not even recognize the man you must first surpass in order to become said Magic Emperor."
One could almost see the dots slowly aligned above his head as his eyes slowly and dramatically widened, darting back and forth between Shirou and Julius.
"I— T-that me-ans...you're t-the…!" Asta stuttered, pointing a shaking finger at Julius.
"Asta, meet his majesty, Julius Novachrono — the current Magic Emperor." Shirou introduced.
"So, I hear you're aiming to replace me, huh?" Julius stepped forward, never once losing his smile.
Asta once again found himself at a loss for words, his head struggling to keep up with every new reveal. His eyes darted back and forth between his idol and the man he came to respect, a hundred questions buzzing within his little noggin.
"H-how… Mr. Shirou, how do you know the Magic Emperor?!" He asked, finding his voice momentarily.
"The two of us go way back. In fact, you might be interested to know that before I ascended to the rank of Magic Emperor, I had to contend with this guy here for the spot." He answered, patting Shirou's shoulder.
Asta spun his head back to Shirou so quickly it was a surprise that he didn't suffer any whiplash from it.
Julius chuckled, amused by his lack of words.
"Indeed, for the man before you is none other than Shirou Emiya-Silva, Patriarch of the Silva Royal Family, and the one known as the man that rivals the Magic Emperor."
By this point Asta's brain had all but overloaded, unable to process all the revelations thrown at him all at once.
"The man that rivals the Magic Emperor. Bleh! What a mouth full." Shirou rolled out his tongue, showing what he thought. "Also, contend is a misleading word. I never wanted the title in the first place and you know it."
"True, but that'd never stop the rumor mill from spinning their tall tales. And you and I know everyone loves a good story and rivalry."
"You really need to stop listening to all the gossip going around, Julius."
"But where's the fun in that!? I need something to alleviate my boredom. Besides, that's what makes it all the more fun, separating the gossip from the facts."
As the two bantered and joked back and forth, Asta slowly recovered and it was here that a small part of Asta noticed something off. That there was someone excluded from it all, Noelle.
Noelle was being atypically quiet, watching the trio and staying back. Almost as if she was hesitant. Something that Shirou rectified, realizing that he had ignored his daughter for a bit there.
"Noelle, welcome home dear."
"Lord Father. Your Majesty." Noelle curtsied, her voice demur and formal. "It's an honor for you to come and greet us so, and…"
"Now, now, none of that. There's no need for formalities between family."
Shirou closed the distance between them, bringing her into a hug as he kissed her forehead tenderly. Noelle stiffened for a moment, almost as if she was unsure of herself by the sudden affection and warmth.
"How are you, my little fairy?"
"I-I'm doing fine, father..."
Her stiffness relaxed as her hesitation slipped away, giving away to warm ease as Noelle returned the hug.
"That's wonderful to hear! Your mother and I were a bit worried but it's good to see you in good health, Noelle. How's the Black Bull treating you, dear? I know Yami can be a bit cavalier at time and chafe at authority but I know he'll treat you right."
Separating, his hand reached out, finding its place on Noelle's head as he headpat her.
A small, content smile stretched across her lips as she leaned in, taken in by the warm, soothing touch.
Asta looked on silently. It was a whole new side to Noelle that he didn't know existed. One that had him strangely captivated at the endearing sight in front of him.
Feeling another's gaze on her Noelle quickly snapped out of her stupor, blushing pinkly to find Asta staring unabashedly at her. She quickly untangled herself from her father, fighting to recover her regal bearings all the while glaring at the countryside teen.
Before it could devolve into the usual fluster and antics between the two, Shirou spoke up.
"So, Asta." He said, drawing himself back as he became the center of attention.
Standing tall and proud, he welcomed the two Black Bulls with a warm, inviting smile.
"How'd you like to stay over for dinner?"