The Mines wagon was just that. It was just like a farm wagon, although it had box sides instead of a simple flat bed. Most of us sat on the floor, leaning against the sides, but agile Brigitte stayed perched on the side, where any rational person would fear getting pitched over onto the road from the incessant jostling.
Everyone was worn out, so there was very little talking.
As we neared the end of a ride that had mostly occurred in silence, Ryuu had the balls to tell me, “I don’t need to thank you for saving us. It was your fault that we lost in the first place.”
“Mr. Kowa, exactly how do you imagine that?”
I think of him as “Ryuu” because that was how he was called in the narrative of Isenai, but Tiana had always addressed him by family name. It was considered courtesy in Orestania to use a commoner’s family name if they had one.
“It was your fault we had to tell you to leave. If you hadn’t been untrustworthy, we would not have been shorthanded. We could have beaten that thing with your help!”
I assumed ‘that thing’ meant Jurmat. I had been astonished to learn that he was the culprit who separated the party and performed the petrifications using monster mimicry. The flame weapon he had used on Arken may have been mimicry as well.
I had come to believe it had been Trisiagga doing these things, but it seemed Jurmat had been tougher than my battle with him would suggest. Trisiagga had not done that much better against me, but I had been lucky with her. She’d been caught by surprise twice now.
For most of the time that Tiana was in the hero’s party, she had held her tongue when Ryuu got stupid, but I couldn’t do it. Possibly because Arken wasn’t there to take him aside and explain why he was wrong.
I snapped when he blamed their problems on me. “I can only take responsibility for things only up to the point where we parted ways, Mr. Kowa. The consequences of your actions afterward are your responsibility.”
“We were short-handed because of you!”
“You were short-handed because of you, Mr. Kowa. I did not fire myself.”
“You were fired because of what you did!”
“I was fired because you overreacted!”
“Does that precious king of yours agree that I overreacted? I had Arken send a report home about you!”
I had been listening to abuse all day, but when he spoke so casually about Uncle Owen, it was the last straw for the Tiana side of me. I sprang up in the moving wagon, hand on my sword’s hilt. Her side of me was ready to draw, but I simply demanded, “Speak with respect when you speak of His Majesty, commoner!”
Ryuu started to stand, but a giant hand landed on his shoulder and pressed him back to his seat. He turned to glower at Graham, but the big man was now angry at him too. “He’s my king too, Hero. You will call him ‘His Majesty’.”
Graham’s attitude toward me had improved after watching what I had willingly gone through during the two unpetrifications that he witnessed, but I was a little surprised that he was backing me up. Wasn’t this the guy who called me ‘Vampire Bitch’ not that long ago?
Ryuu’s lips pressed together for a moment, but he relaxed and nodded.
“Sorry,” he said… to Graham, before turning back to me. “What was His Majesty’s opinion about your firing? Of course, he supported me, right?”
After staring him down a bit longer,– while wondering how he could so arrogantly put words in the king’s mouth, and from where exactly he was getting the words he was putting there,– I relaxed and sat, thankful the wagon hadn’t hit a bump bigger than what I could handle while I was standing. “No. He said you lack leadership skills, Mr. Kowa.”
“Lack leadership skills?” he echoed with astonishment.
“I refuse to debate my king’s words, Mr. Kowa. He said what he said, and that is all the discussion his words require.”
He scowled at me for several seconds, then said, “What is going on, Tiana? You’re like a completely different person.”
A chill ran up my spine for a moment. Can he tell? He’s a fellow Earther, after all…
I decided to pretend his words didn’t bother me. “Last time I was with you, I was bound by my oath to follow you and respect your commands, as directed by my king’s command. This time, my king has sent me here to rescue you, not to follow you. I am not obliged to defer to you this time. Perhaps that is the difference you see. I am the king’s knight, Mr. Kowa, not your underling.”
“You’re also a lot more powerful than you used to be,” Brigitte noted, her eyes narrowing slightly.
But Graham, who had once seen the old Tiana as a nuisance, surprised me by defending me. “You’re talking like a fool now, Brigitte. We watched her take down a dragon, remember?”
I saw Ceria’s eyes sparkle after he said that. I also saw one of the Mines employees up in the driver’s box glance over his shoulder at me in astonishment.
My sharp hearing can be fun sometimes. I overheard him as he leaned close to his partner driving the wagon and whispered, “So she’s a real one?”
“Shut up and don’t make eye contact!” was the reply.
Brigitte grumbled, “Well, Ryuu actually finished it off…”
“The thing was already dying,” Graham retorted. “What is it with you women around Ryuu?”
Ryuu’s frown deepened as he contemplated me. “So you were holding back all that time while you were with us, weren’t you? Were you only going to get serious when I got into trouble?”
Brigitte humphed. “I bet the idea was, if she actually used her strength, she’d be doing it all and you’d never get stronger. That’s right, isn’t it?”
She had directed the question at the end to me, like a challenge.
The fact was, Tiana had indeed held back to make sure it was Ryuu’s show, as she had been ordered. She hadn’t held back quite as much as these guys now seemed to think, but I wasn’t going to tell them that. It would require explaining that I had leveled up and more importantly, explaining the means by which I had leveled up.
I simply answered, “The king ordered me to support Ryuu.”
“I feel like the longer we know you, the more fake you turn out to be,” she grumbled.
“Fake?” I retorted, a little hurt.
“When we first met you, you gave all of us the impression that you were a clueless young thing who barely qualified as a fairy knight and was magically inept. Then, every once in a while you would let clues slip that you were more powerful, like defending that halfling village all by yourself. And saving our ass when that dragon turned out to be too much.”
I remembered that the fan discussions about Tiana online had been the same. They had started out with things like, ‘she’s just a weakling harem character’ to ‘wait, why could she do that? Wouldn’t she have to be awfully strong?’ and evolving to the point where they were saying, ‘maybe she’s actually super-strong and the king has her secretly acting as Ryuu’s bodyguard?’ Finally, they reached the point of, ‘Maybe Tiana is the real hero, and Ryuu’s just camouflage for her?’
Frankly, Robert had been one of those people thinking that last one.
Uncle Owen had indeed specifically ordered her to stay back and let Ryuu get stronger, but not let him get killed. So I couldn’t contradict Brigitte now.
I told her, “The augurs say he is vital to the kingdom’s future. It was my job to keep him alive until he was strong enough for the future. That’s all I will say.”
Really, they could keep sulking as much as they wanted. I knew they were mostly just trying to come to terms with the fact that the person they drove out had just saved them.
We crested a hill and the town walls came into sight. This was a different gate than the one where I first entered the town. It faced neither toward nor away from Orestainia, but instead opened toward the hills. The lines of sight were nowhere as long as the other directions.
In fact, it was only a hundred paces or so to the gate when we came over the top. Which gave us little warning of the small army that was waiting there to receive us.