Chapter 12: Closeness and departure
The two kings landed in the perpetual snow that surrounded the Einzbern residence. They were quite close to the gates, therefore they reached them on foot quickly.
This time, when the two homunculi that stood guard appeared, they did not attack them, instead, they simply escorted them inside. The monarchs were informed that the head of the Einzbern family was unfortunately very busy at the moment and could not properly greet them; since neither Arturia nor Gilgamesh were interested in seeing Jubstacheit, they didn’t comment on it.
Arturia asked about Illya, and the servants told her she was studying in the usual living room. She thanked them with her normal politeness and immediately went there, followed by Gilgamesh.
As she opened the door, she only had the time to see a flash of white hair and hear a cry of, “Arturia!” before a small figure jumped into her arms to embrace her tightly.
Illya had recognized her footsteps and, overjoyed, had instantly run to her.
However, she was an eleven-year-old girl – who had also grown in the few months in which they hadn’t seen her – and she was therefore not light… that, combined with the speed she had gained by running towards the door, was quite a weight. Arturia was strong, but she was petite, and she would have fallen backwards with that ‘assault’… if behind her there hadn’t been Gilgamesh, who promptly caught her before she could hit the floor.
The King of Knights felt surprisingly strong arms going around her hips from behind to steady her, while at the same time smaller arms went around her shoulders from the front to hug her closely.
Automatically, her own arms went to hold the little girl, who didn’t seem to want to let go in the foreseeable future. All the while, Arturia was distinctly aware of the muscular chest of the man she was leaning against… and who didn’t seem to want to let go any time soon, either.
However, the position was not the most comfortable one for her, who was not used to physical contact with any person, let alone two at the same time.
Therefore, she steadied herself and gently leaned forward to put the girl back on the floor. As Illya slowly began to let her go, she felt the King of Heroes’s grip – somehow reluctantly – releasing her as well.
Now that she was in front of her, Arturia could observe the girl. The white-haired daughter of Irisviel looked fine and healthy, and she seemed to have grown a little bit. She was currently smiling widely at her and, even if she was no longer embracing her, she still held one of her hands. While looking excited and happy at seeing them again, she also seemed slightly scared and doubtful.
Arturia understood immediately. She gave the girl a small, sincere smile, and squeezed her hand gently.
“I had promised we would come back, Illya, and we have kept the promise.”
The smile finally reached the girl’s eyes and she embraced the King of Knights again.
“I’m so happy to see you, Arturia!”
Releasing the woman, she did something neither of the two adults expected: she turned to Gilgamesh and, since she couldn’t reach higher, embraced him around the waist.
“I’m happy to see you too, Gilgamesh!”
Both kings were too stunned by her actions to either stop or reprimand her. Oblivious to their reaction, Illya grasped one hand of each of them and guided them to the couches. She made them both sit down on one sofa and then snuggled in-between them.
With a very excited expression, she asked, “Please tell me about your trip! How was it? Did you find what you were looking for? Why did it take so long? What did you see? And–”
Arturia gently held up a hand to stop her flood of words and gave her a caring smile.
“Please be patient for a while, Illya. I have some presents for you first.”
Arturia made her bag magically reappear – she had taken it with her the same way she always had Excalibur, something that required a little more mana but was the safest means of transport – and gave Illya the several gifts she had bought for her, while Gilgamesh was looking at them.
He had been silent ever since they had entered the room.
He had immediately caught Arturia in his arms when she had been assailed by tornado-Illya… and that fact alone had made him stop in his thoughts. She was surprisingly slim and light for being such a strong and awe-inspiring warrior – something he had already noticed when they had first received their human bodies –, and he had actually enjoyed the feeling of having her in his hold protectively.
The other thing that had taken him by surprise was the little girl’s behaviour. Even though she knew who he was, she had gone to embrace him anyway – it was the second time it happened –, and had even said she was happy to see him. He would normally be appalled if anyone dared touch him, but… he had to admit to himself that he had not felt disgust nor any unpleasant feeling when she had hugged his waist.
Musing over it, the King of Heroes remained sitting on the sofa next to the other two with an oddly thoughtful expression on his face, observing the blonde woman giving the young girl presents with the same care a mother would to her child.
The two kings went quickly back to the routine they had been used to at the Einzbern Castle the previous time they had been there.
Arturia was very pleased to see that Illya had dutifully continued her studies and improved in her mastery of magic. The girl asked her shyly if she would continue to help her, and Arturia gently scolded her for thinking that she would actually say no.
Their lessons began again, at first with Arturia asking Illya to summarize everything that she had learned in her absence and then continuing with new teachings. It was no longer only Arturia reading books aloud however, because the King of Knights encouraged the girl to read as well.
At first timidly, but soon with growing confidence, Illya began to read the lessons aloud, sometimes stopping to ask for explanations on certain parts or to repeat certain passages again. There was a slight variation, though: Arturia made sure to include different books in the girl’s ‘program’, books about geography, history, maths, technology, physics, science, biology, art, literature, languages… She wanted Illya to have knowledge not only about magic, but also about the world that was around her. The wider her culture was, the better.
In the meantime, Arturia had spoken with Jubstacheit again and, without giving him any details – Gilgamesh, who had been in the same room, had almost smirked openly at her elusiveness –, had explained that she needed to begin to stock mana. Jubstacheit had immediately presented some precious gems she would need for such a process, and Arturia had accepted them with concealed disgust.
The head of the Einzbern family was probably convinced that she was preparing the future Grail ritual and was planning to use Illya as the vessel. Even though the King of Knights strongly disliked deceitfulness, she was aware of the fact that she had not been the one to mislead Jubstacheit… he had misled himself with his greedy and selfish desires, and she would simply avoid correcting him. For the time being.
Several months passed, in which the daughter of Irisviel grew and learned a great deal under the King of Knights’ attentive guidance.
Every morning Arturia collected mana in the gems she had been given by Jubstacheit, stocking a huge amount for the moment in which it would be needed during the eventual summoning.
In the evenings, after Illya was put to bed, the two kings were usually together in the living room.
Arturia had picked up the habit of reading for the two of them again, but she no longer chose books about history, mainly because they had already read everything that they needed to know about the Grail.
She began to read aloud some famous literary works, because she wished to understand more about the culture of the world they now lived in. She would then be able to be a better and more solid teacher for Illya that way.
A few months later, Illya caught a mild cold. She didn’t give it importance, quieting Arturia’s worried enquiries quickly… but that didn’t help in the slightest. Not taking care of it immediately made her sickness worsen, and soon she was in bed shaking with a high fever.
There was no true reason for anxiety. The Einzberns specialized in healing magic; therefore, they could look over Illya with ease and ensure her recovery.
But lowering the fever was a long process nonetheless.
The whole time while the young girl was sick, Arturia did not leave her bedside. Her face maintained a blank expression to hide her deep worry, because fever and a cold were dangers she could not shield Illya from. The King of Knights was helpless in such a situation… and she was fully aware of it, the fact not making her feel better in any way. There was nothing she could do to help the little girl.
Arturia did not sleep and did not rest, never leaving her side in quiet watchfulness. She did not say much while looking over the girl, whose fever finally began to come down.
In the middle of the second night after falling ill, Illya woke up, looking around disoriented and groggy. She found Arturia’s worried green eyes on her, and she instinctively reached for her hand, grasping it in her weakened hold. Her dark red eyes were slightly unfocused but pleading.
Her voice a bit hoarse, she said, “Please don’t leave… Please… Please don’t leave like mommy and daddy did…”
Arturia’s heart almost broke for Illya. She gently squeezed the small hand with hers and murmured, “I will not leave you, Illya.”
Comforted by that heartfelt promise, the girl soon fell asleep again, this time resting more peacefully.
The whole time, Gilgamesh had been in the same room, on a sofa he had made the servants bring there. He had seen the brief exchange of words and observed Arturia the whole day without saying a word.
But as soon as the girl was asleep, he spoke up.
“You should get some rest as well, Arturia. You would not be helping the girl by becoming sick yourself.”
She didn’t look at him while replying, “I am not leaving her side, Gilgamesh.”
He sighed in annoyance. “I didn’t say you should leave. The little girl is obviously lost in her sadness and needs a reliable, comforting presence next to her. But you are allowed to sleep, King of Knights… you are no longer a spirit, or have you forgotten?”
Arturia’s eyes slowly shifted from Illya to the King of Heroes, and she measured him with her gaze. Eventually she sighed in an almost imperceptible way, settled herself more comfortably in the chair next to the girl’s bed and, still holding her hand, closed her eyes.
Gilgamesh stared as her face slowly relaxed as she drifted off into slumber.
He smirked slightly as he observed the sleeping woman and girl who were holding each other’s hand. Arturia obviously cared about the daughter of her former Master, and the girl had become deeply attached to the King of Knights. It was not difficult for him to see that the two were good for each other because Arturia knew what being almost broken felt like, having experienced it, and therefore was probably the right person to help Illya overcome the loss of her parents. She understood the girl, and the bond that had been created between them was growing stronger every day.
Just as he had expected… Arturia was a special woman. Able to draw people to her, bind them to her… and without any cruel or malicious intent, but with the loving and pure nature of her soul.
In the next few days, Illya began to slowly get better. She was given strict orders not to exert herself, and she complied, knowing that it was her carelessness that had made her become sick in the first place.
Arturia kept her company, talking to her about London and Japan, avoiding tiring her with any of her studies and making her stay relaxed.
One evening, the King of Knights felt more tired than usual. After tucking the still recovering Illya to bed and reading her a chapter from the volume she had bought for her in England, Arturia went to the living room.
For once, she was not holding a book in her hands as the evening entertainment, but a cup of chamomile tea. She sat down, slowly sipping on the warm drink. She had had a slightly sore throat that day and she hoped she was not getting ill; perhaps Illya had infected her with her cold. She frowned; being sick herself would not do anyone any good, therefore, it was best to prevent such a thing.
As she was drinking her tea in the silent company of the King of Heroes, she was struck with a thought. In London, they had met Waver Velvet, the former Master of Rider during the war. Even if she had not realized it earlier, such a meeting was… strange.
She had to wonder about it. How was Waver still alive?
From what she knew, Gilgamesh had fought against Rider and had won… so how had Waver survived? He had always been in the company of the King of Conquerors…
But then, how…? Gilgamesh was very unlikely to just let the boy stay alive.
She addressed the King of Heroes.
He looked at her.
“During our stay in London, we met Waver Velvet. I know that you defeated Rider, and that his Master was always with him. How did he survive?”
Gilgamesh sipped on his glass silently. He had had to renounce to his favourite drink during their stay in London because it was not allowed in the library – and Arturia had made sure he respected the prohibition –, but he had begun to savour his red wine again during the evenings in Germany.
He would not have tolerated answering questions coming from anyone… but he had realized some time before that giving a reply when she was the one asking was never too bothersome.
“Rider asked for the honour of challenging me as a fellow king… And I granted it to him. However, he was defeated easily. His Master… he assisted to the final moments of his Servant, and displayed true loyalty to his fallen King.”
He paused shortly, while observing the way his wine was reflected on the glass.
“His devotion to Rider, however foolish, was steadfast, commendable and… worthy of acknowledgement.”
Arturia stared at him, her eyes slightly disbelieving.
She realized that perhaps, perhaps she had been too hasty in judging him. It seemed that he kept proving to her that there was more to him than what she had been able to see.
He had known loss and true sadness, and he was much wiser and insightful than what he let on. At the same time, he was arrogant and probably had some cruelty in him, too. But the way he had behaved towards Waver… it proved that he could recognize loyalty, also in people he usually considered ‘mongrels’, and he could even respect it.
Maybe… maybe there was some honour in him.
Arturia’s considerations lingered on him for a while longer… with more amicability than usual, and with a slightly softer expression in her eyes.
He was not as chivalrous and principled as someone like Lancer. But, at the same time…
She voiced her thoughts.
“You are an honourable person in your own right, King of Heroes.”
A surprised expression appeared on his face. Had Arturia just… given him praise?
The King of Knights stood up, with her empty teacup in hand. She turned away from him and headed to the door. Before leaving, she looked at him over her shoulder and said, “Good night, Gilgamesh.”
As the door closed behind her, he felt strangely content.
It was the first time she had wished him good night.
After Illya was completely healed, the usual lessons with Arturia resumed.
Gilgamesh was always on one of the couches of the living room in which they studied, and was as silent an observer as he had always been. However, the King of Knights found it more difficult to ignore his presence as she usually did… because she could feel his eyes on her the whole time. She would normally have paid no attention to it, but his gaze was different from what she would have expected from him. He seemed to be… pensive.
One late afternoon Illya fell asleep in front of the living room fireplace, and Arturia put a blanket over her form. Gilgamesh was on one of the couches as usual, twirling an empty wine glass between his fingers.
The woman took out a book about the Roman Empire and was about to begin to read aloud as usual, when he suddenly stood up.
He threw his glass into the Gate of Babylon and then looked at her.
Of all the things she could have expected him to say, that was something she had never considered.
What had he just…?
He was… leaving?
Arturia would never, ever, admit it aloud, but she was shocked by his words – which echoed hers from a long time before – and, even if she tried to hide it, it showed on her face.
He noticed, of course, and, with a slight smirk, walked towards her and leaned down to her eye level.
“You didn’t think I was going to be around forever, did you?”
Those words hit her hard… because they were quite true.
During the four and a half years after the end of the Fourth Grail War, she had become used to his constant presence around her. At first, she had been wary of him, but then she had simply accepted his company as an observer. And especially in England, they had become… well, not friends, that was never going to happen, but… they had gotten a better understanding of each other. She had come to take his presence around her for granted.
But she forced herself to see the truth – he had always said that he was going to be around only until she amused him. That meant he must have found her no longer interesting… and it wasn’t her place to try to understand his reasoning.
She was not hurt by the fact that he wanted to leave… not really. She found it… unexpected, especially after everything they had shared about their past, and all the details about the Grail… and yet he was leaving, just like that.
Arturia could not help it – she lowered her gaze.
However, she snapped it up again when she heard him chuckle.
“Oh, don’t be so down, King of Knights. I haven’t told you where I’m going yet… nor did I say I wasn’t going to come back.”
Her green eyes met his red ones, and she could see that he was looking at her with something significant but well-hidden in the depth of his orbs… that was strange, coming from someone like him.
In that moment, the fire cackled and a few sparks landed on the carpet, dangerously close to where Illya was sleeping. Arturia had to break his gaze to get up and put a metallic cage around the fireplace to protect the little girl. Then she went to the window, and looked outside. It wasn’t too dark, and the snow made the remaining light a bit more prominent.
When she felt Gilgamesh come towards her, she turned around to face him. Their eyes met again, and Arturia waited patiently for what he was going to say.
He came closer to her.
“I’m going back to Japan for a short while. I want to keep an eye on what Kirei is doing… that mongrel could prove to be a nuisance if not properly disciplined.”
Then he smirked at her.
“I’m not leaving because you no longer… entertain me, Arturia… I know you were thinking about it in that pretty head of yours. On the contrary…” and his voice lowered, “as soon as I’ve assessed Kirei’s situation, I will come back to be around my precious treasure again… so the Einzberns shouldn’t even think about keeping me out of here.”
Arturia almost snorted, deciding to ignore the way he had referred to her.
“As if they would ever do that, King of Heroes.”
Gilgamesh gave her another of his smirks. And then he did something unexpected: he leaned forward and put his hand on her cheek.
Arturia’s eyes widened at his actions and she was shocked into complete stillness. She contemplated the idea of slapping him away… but before she could decide, his hand moved.
With startling gentleness, it slowly began to caress her cheek and he came even closer to her. His eyes never left hers as his other hand landed on her waist and slowly pulled her to be in his arms. From her cheek his palm, ever so slowly, began to caress her neck with infinite care.
Arturia’s eyes were hypnotized, completely lost in his burning ones.
As his hand arrived on her shoulder, however, he stopped and took a step back from her, ending any contact there had been between them. His eyes were still on hers, but he didn’t try to do anything else.
He turned around abruptly, going to the couch to take his coat. Arturia had not even noticed that it was there. He walked past her to go to the door and obviously leave, when she decided she had to say something.
He stopped, turning his head to look at her over his shoulder. She turned around to face him… and she allowed herself to give him a slight smile.
“Have a safe stay… I will see you soon.”
The King of Heroes turned to face her as well and walked back with a few quick steps. As he was in front of her, his hand went up again to cup her cheek, with the same tenderness from a few moments earlier. He returned her smile, with a slightly more arrogant one of his own, as his lips murmured her name.
The next second, his hand’s warmth left her cheek; he turned around once again and left the room.
As she watched him from the window while he was leaving the Einzbern Castle, Arturia did her best to ignore the still lingering feeling of his hand on her now flaming cheek.
Absent-mindedly, she realized that he had left without saying goodbye to Illya… the King of Knights allowed her lips to curve into a sudden smirk.
Oh, the King of Heroes was in for an earful when he would come back… and she was going to enjoy the show of the arrogant man being put in his place by a little girl....