“How are you feeling today, Fuu-chan?” Hikaru’s chirpy voice penetrated the last seconds of Fuu’s deep and dreamless sleep.
Fuu groaned as Umi threw the shutters open and light flooded the room, “Oh, I think I feel a lot better today, Hikaru-san, thank you.” She tried not to think about what she’d been dwelling on all night before she fell asleep. “Umi-san, the sunlight is really quite bright, would you mind possibly closing one of the shutters?”
Umi looked quite sheepish and then closed the shutters again, “I am sorry, Fuu. We just wondered, there is a public bath at the back of the inn, would you like to go there with us and freshen up? Alhana is lending us some towels and stuff so we can go in there, as long as we promise to do our own laundry this afternoon.”
“That sounds lovely,” Fuu said, “I think I even feel like I can manage the stairs today.”
The girls made their way down, slowly for Fuu, to the back of the inn. After a short walk down a nicely maintained garden, they found a walled spring with a divider down the middle – obviously for separating the male and female guests.
“It’s a shame it’s not hot!” Umi gasped at the cold as she poked one toe into the water.
“I’m sure I can sort that out, Umi-chan.” Hikaru said, “I am the Magic Knight of Fire, after all.”
Hikaru, ever the daredevil, jumped into the cool water and laughed from the temperature shock, pushing her palms below the surface and concentrating her power into them. Umi and Fuu watched with amazement as the water began to steam a little in the fresh spring air, and they happily jumped in after her.
“You guys have proved to be pretty amazing over the past two days,” Umi said, sighing in contentment as she slid lower and lower into the now-hot spring, “I haven’t used my magic at all.”
“I don’t know, Umi-chan, you are pretty good with cooking,” said Hikaru, very rosy-cheeked from her body suffering the change in the cold water to hot.
“I agree, Umi-san,” said Fuu, doing the same as her blue-haired friend, “My, I think this might cure me completely. Do you know when our allies from Autozam might come to pick us up, Hikaru-san?”
Hikaru shook her head, and her long red hair splayed out further in the water, free from its usual tight braid, “I’ll communicate with Lantis again after we’re done in here, but I think we will be staying another night. They have to get authorisation from Eagle’s father to take the ship out for this kind of thing, after all.”
The girls spent several hours soaking in the hot spring, later joined by Alhana and Laurana, who were delighted by the gifts these girls kept bringing to their business. The five of them spent their time in there speaking of boys, clothes and hair – something that even the girls of New Cephiro seemed to be interested in. Fuu remained sulkily quiet throughout this, although Laurana seemed to be respecting Fuu’s wish about her time with Ferio by talking plenty about her other encounters. Fuu couldn’t help but recognise her fake cheerfulness, however.
Later on, Alhana showed Umi and Fuu some cookery techniques to show off at New Cephiro Castle, while Hikaru and Laurana took care of the laundry as they’d first promised – the chores seemed to be reduced since the treat of the hot water – and nobody seemed to mention the whole Ferio thing ever again during their stay.
That night, Umi and Hikaru made up beds on the floor in the room allocated to Fuu, as tonight Fuu was fully healthy again and they could stay up until ridiculous-o-clock in the morning as they normally did in their sleepovers back on earth, talking quietly and giggling amongst themselves. Most often, Fuu was blushing as the other two teased her about Ferio, but now Umi was quite open to taunting about her relationship with Ascot.
“Fuu, weren’t you trying to ask me something this morning about Clef?” Umi asked, brushing off a joke from Hikaru.
Fuu looked sheepish, “Yes, I was just wondering how he felt about you being with Ascot.”
Umi blinked a few times in surprise, eyes wide, “Why do you say that?”
“Yeah, wasn’t there something going on between you two when we arrived in Cephiro the second time? Before we abolished the Pillar System.” Hikaru added, agreeing with Fuu.
The Magic Knight of Water paled, and almost seemed to freeze for a few moments. She finally moved and tipped her head forward, letting her hair fall over her face, “I…I don’t know. I never got any firm signals from Clef, you know? I thought he was being nice to me because I saved his country.”
“Umi-chan,” Hikaru said softly, reaching out to rest her hand on Umi’s upper arm comfortingly, “we’re sorry, we didn’t mean to bring this up.”
Fuu sat silent on the bed, a sympathetic look on her face, unable to think of anything to say. It wasn’t necessarily fair of her to deflect from her own emotional turmoil by bringing this up with Umi.
“No, it needs addressing,” Umi said, then she looked at her two friends, her face flushed and her eyes red and tearful, “I thought I would be with Clef, but he never returned any of the hints I gave him. Ascot was somehow so much easier to talk to and be around, and he’s a lovely guy, so I thought it made sense to call him my boyfriend.”
“Do you love him, Umi-chan? Because I love Lantis.”
Fuu smiled, “You love everyone, Hikaru-san. It’s not a bad thing, but I don’t think it helps Umi-san very much right now.”
Hikaru sighed, and turned back to Umi.
“I don’t know if I love Ascot, but I definitely like him a lot,” Umi said, focusing on nothing in particular, and nodding as if she were trying to convince herself, “I think it would work out.”
“It’s not what you ultimately want, is it, Umi-san?” Fuu asked.
Umi looked up at Fuu, the one Magic Knight who had never had any doubt in who she might end up with in Cephiro. She never had any kind of confusing signals from more than one guy, “It’s easier for you, Fuu. You never had to choose between two people.”
Fuu bit her tongue, and nodded as if she had accepted the statement, “You’re avoiding the question, Umi-san. You have to figure it out before someone gets hurt. You should speak to Clef, but you should also be fair to Ascot.”
Hikaru looked from Fuu to Umi, and then said, “I’m sorry, Umi-chan, but Fuu-chan is right. Everyone deserves to be happy, even if the path to that happiness involves some disappointment.”
“Can’t I have both of them?” Umi cried, burying her head in her knees.
There was a long pause, and Hikaru said, “Well, that’s probably not unheard of in Cephiro.”
Normally the three of them would laugh over something taboo like that, but Hikaru had brought the conversation to a close with something nobody could follow.
Fuu sincerely hoped that Ferio wasn’t worrying about her, though she did wonder if he would know that she was in the same village as Laurana. Of course he couldn’t know for sure that they had returned to the site of their original village, but he must have some sort of fear in the back of his mind – surely Lantis would share this piece of information with him. One of Cephiro’s larger settlements, Aueria by the Sea was a well known landmark amongst the residents of the castle, even if he didn’t know Ferio had grown up here.
Hikaru had indeed spoken to Lantis, and the girls knew that they needed to leave as early in the morning as possible in order to meet up with Geo and Zazu in the NSX. It was several miles to the agreed meeting place, and they didn’t want to have to rush. Besides, they didn’t really know the terrain very well, and there was always the chance that some monsters remained, or at least the odd unfriendly native creature.
“At least we can call on our magic,” Umi comforted them as they got ready the next morning – another dip in the spring with their hosts was in order – and then she sighed, “It’s just a little worrying that we don’t have our armour or indeed our swords contained within it, unless we specifically ask Clef for it.”
“Let’s just only worry about that if the need arises, Umi-san,” Fuu suggested, opening her tiny atlas to the back pages, “Do you think this map I put together will be useful to us? I know it’s not exactly right, but it should help us.”
“Is that what you can see from the castle?” Laurana asked, seeing the page open as she entered the room to collect the last of the Magic Knights’ bedlinen for washing, “We don’t really know what New Cephiro looks like in our little secluded village. Just this southern peninsula.”
Fuu nodded to her with a polite smile and presented her with the book, “I was going to give this to Prince Ferio and Master Mage Clef, but it’s not a big deal for me to get another one back at home, if you would like it as a token of our appreciation. It contains extensive maps of our world, as well. I’m sorry that you won’t be able to read the writing, though.”
So much for the map helping them out, thought Fuu, but at least she was giving Laurana something interesting, unique and personal.
“Are you sure, Miss Fuu? You don’t need it, and you…you really want to give something to me, after what I’ve said to you?”
Fuu tipped forwards in a polite Japanese bow, hiding her face as she replied diplomatically. “Laurana-san, I am indebted to you for healing me so quickly and providing shelter and food for myself and my companions, despite our conflict. We can’t change the past.”
Laurana mimicked Fuu’s politeness with a curtsy and said, “Thank you for your kindness, Miss Fuu. I hope I will find some closure.”
Hikaru, Umi and Fuu could do nothing but smile as they left the Aueria Inn, waved off by Alhana and Laurana and the rest of the residents of Aueria by the Sea. They had been filled with dread at the beginning of this trip to New Cephiro, but were genuinely glad and quite warmed by most of their experience with the friendly Cephiran people – just as they had witnessed in their previous visits.
“Lantis said to walk towards the forest,” said Hikaru, “The fields are pretty flat and open here, so we should be able to see it after a kilometre or so walking north, I suppose.”
“We’re speaking in kilometres?” Umi asked, incredulous, “Just what kind of time are we likely to get picked up by Geo and Zazu, Hikaru-chan?”
Hikaru shrugged, “I’m not really sure, but they said they knew what they were doing, so I don’t think we should complain when we are getting rescued in a spaceship for free!” She smiled to her friend, raising an eyebrow, “You have become high-maintenance again, living in the castle, Umi-chan! Remember the first couple of times we were here, you learned not to be so afraid of dirt and hard labour?”
Umi pretended to be quite offended, “Well really, Hikaru, I don’t think a lady like myself, dating a court summoner, should have to expect anything less than luxury nowadays. And really, we can’t expect the future Princess of New Cephiro to have to walk kilometres on end! She should be treated like a delicate flower.”
“You’re so silly, Umi-chan,” Hikaru giggled.
Fuu was conspicuously pensive and silent.
The girls walked for another two hours, stopping for a little while along the way to take drinks and admire the scenery; they were on a fairly narrow piece of land at the moment, with straggly mountains on one side – Clef had called it the Compass range, Fuu recalled – and the sea stretching out on the other side. This was the opposite sea-facing side of the peninsula to the one they had arrived on.
“Is this where we’re meant to be?” Hikaru wondered aloud, looking to her right as she sat between Umi and Fuu. The forest Lantis had mentioned was coming up soon on their path, and the three of them started to think they could hear a distant roar of engines. Hikaru suddenly stood, pointed her finger in the air and launched another Arrow of Fire into the sky. The engine sounds grew louder, and slowly, slowly, over the next couple of minutes, the girls began to be able to make out the strange shape of the NSX.
The spaceship was something of a work of art, with its rarely used main weapon, the Laguna cannon, seemingly held on to the ship by an array of strong wires, making the lower half of the ship look rather like a strangely constructed harp. The girls had theorised during their more tired moments that the cannon might collect energy from those wire strings, or perhaps it was just ornamental.
“Hikaru, is that you?” came an excitable voice, seemingly channelled straight into Hikaru’s mind.
She grinned widely, much to the surprise of her two companions, and shouted back at the spaceship – she had not quite got the hang of telepathy – “Yes, Zazu, it’s us, the Magic Knights!”
The ship came in lower and lower over the mountains, and Umi and Fuu wondered if they should start running for cover, as nobody was quite sure where the NSX would land, or indeed how it would manage to land at all. Aerodynamic it definitely was, but not particularly designed for parking anywhere other than its specially designed hangar in Autozam.
As it transpired, Geo had decided to hold the NSX in a static hovering position just metres from the ground, and Zazu emerged from some kind of maintenance hatch on the side of the ship on a small platform. He waved them over and helped the girls climb up onto it with him, before sending some kind of telepathic message back to Geo, who pulled the platform back up into the ship and started to make his slow ascent back up into the sky.
“Course set for New Cephiro Castle,” Geo said proudly, as if this was the greatest mission he had ever taken part in. He noticed Umi and Fuu looking around in amazement while Hikaru sat talking casually with Zazu, “Of course, you girls haven’t been inside any of our fleet before, have you?”
“It’s like…” Umi started, looking around in wonder.
“I think it’s like Mobile Battleship Nadesico,” said Fuu, earning a laugh from Hikaru and a blank look from Umi, “It’s a sci-fi comedy anime about a large spaceship that carried mecha pilots, Umi-san.”
Umi sighed and looked amused, “I guess you two are much geekier than I am.”
“Speak for yourself, Umi-chan, I’ve only watched it because I have three older brothers. Fuu-chan is the one that spends her spare time playing RPGs and writing computer programs.”
“Thank you for your support,” Fuu said, finally laughing. After looking over Geo’s shoulder at the various electrical instruments comprising the large dashboard of the NSX, she sat down next to Hikaru. Umi soon joined them for the rest of the journey to New Cephiro Castle – although, the journey seemed to last just ten minutes or thereabouts. It could have been faster, but Geo was careful to stick to a self-imposed speed restriction over New Cephiro in order to not distress the residents.
The girls hugged each other and then Zazu – much to his delight – when the castle came into view. By this time of the day, the sun was just beginning to set, and the sea off the coast behind the large island of central northern New Cephiro was glittering in the warm sunlight.
“Ahh, our world is so beautiful!” Hikaru said with glee as the three of them rushed to a window to view it.
“‘Our’ world?” asked Geo, beginning to pull the NSX up to the portal at the front of New Cephiro Castle, “This isn’t your world, Magic Knights.”
“One day, it will be,” Fuu said, with such confidence and authority that even she believed her own voice. The other passengers looked at her in surprise, but Umi and Hikaru couldn’t disagree with her at all. As a result of this revelation, the last few minutes of the docking procedure was held in silence.
Clef had apparently seen them approaching, because the Master Mage and several of his companions had come to the front portal of the castle in order to see the Magic Knights off the visiting nose of the Autozam ship. Geo powered down the engines and released a metal staircase down from the deck they were on, down which Zazu escorted them to the floor of the castle.
Surprisingly, Umi was the first to be swept off her feet by a normally-shy Ascot, and held tighter than she had ever been before, “I thought you weren’t coming back, Umi, after we only decided to be together on your last visit.”
Umi giggled, but also felt like she could cry, and wrapped her arms around Ascot’s neck. For now, she was purposely avoiding Clef’s gaze. “You’re so silly, Ascot. We saved Cephiro twice, remember? Something like this can’t kill us.”
Hikaru and Lantis were stood together, less publicly affectionate, perhaps because they had been happily communicating for much of the time the girls were stranded in Aueria. Lantis had a smile on his face, however, and he sent a smile and a nod in the direction of Zazu and Geo.
“Where is Ferio?” Fuu asked, worried by his conspicuous absence, but also apprehensive about seeing him.
Her question was soon answered by the sound of boots hitting the marble floors of the castle corridors from some distance. The owner was running, as the sounds were fairly close together and were increasing in volume. Suddenly, the green-haired Prince of New Cephiro emerged from the nearest corridor, sweeping his fiancée off her feet and skidding to a halt mere metres from the main cannon of the NSX.
“Fuu,” Ferio said breathlessly, setting her down so he could hold her close, “I was so worried about you.”
“I’m okay,” Fuu whispered, a smile plastered on her face; she was either going to bring this up straight away or not at all, “A friend of yours called Laurana nursed me back to health in Aueria.”
Ferio tensed, and pulled away a little to look down at her face with one eyebrow raised, “That’s cold, Fuu.”
Luckily for the two of them, the other people in the atrium were slowly dispersing; Fuu acknowledged Hikaru saying something about meeting up the next morning for breakfast, and then everyone was gone. Even Geo and Zazu had retreated back into their warship with promises of returning in the morning – in a smaller vehicle – to see Eagle.
“Why did you bring up a girl’s name?” Ferio asked as they made an awkward stroll back to his chambers, “Right when I was so happy to see you?”
“I wanted to see what your reaction was,” said Fuu, shrugging, “And what do you mean ‘a girl’? You don’t remember her? Laurana. The innkeeper’s daughter.”
He looked sheepish and said, “She was perhaps the girl training to be an apothecary? It was a little while ago now.”
“You know I’m talking about her. The girl you were in love with, Ferio.”
Ferio stopped in his tracks, and Fuu turned to look at him when she heard his footsteps cease. She displayed one of her best indifferent facial expressions as he stood looking the most surprised he ever had.
“Why are you telling me this, Fuu?”
“Because Laurana is a lovely girl, and she doesn’t deserve anything that happened to her,” Fuu heaved a heavy sigh and looked at the floor, “You left her without a word, and then you started flirting with me. She thought you were dead.”
The prince was completely lost for words, still unsure of why Fuu was doing this to him, and the matter-of-factness with which she was dealing with the news. He supposed he had first fallen in love with this girl for her intellect and slightly cold common sense. What had he first called her? Tricky. That was it.
“I’m telling you because I know, and I wouldn’t be able to keep it from you forever,” Fuu explained more softly, touching his arm in comfort and glad that he didn’t snatch it away, “If I didn’t do it now, I would be holding on to it forever, and it would be eating away at me.”
Ferio exhaled deeply, having trouble processing this information, “We should talk about this later, Fuu. Can I please show you what I’ve done while I was waiting for your return? It’s why I was late.”
Fuu relented; she nodded and linked her arm through Ferio’s, giving it a reassuring squeeze, although mostly for herself, “Is it a nice surprise?”
“I thought so,” said Ferio almost hopelessly, opening the door to his lounge.
When Fuu first looked in, she was met with pitch blackness. However, she realised that Ferio was slowly willing those light-producing glass spheres on, and there seemed to be a new, small table in the middle of the room, placed in front of the sofa. This new table was holding two plates under what seemed to be painted terracotta food insulators – like tagines. Fuu suddenly felt very bad about everything she told Ferio since she had returned to the castle, and she turned to look at him in almost shame.
“Don’t apologise, Fuu. I’ve already said we’ll talk about her later. Let’s just enjoy this evening together.” He took her hands and held them tightly. “I promise there’s a good explanation.”
“Eagle!” Hikaru called, sneaking less than carefully into the chamber where her beloved friend slept eternally, “Eagle, I’m sorry I haven’t come to see you for a long time. I thought I should, because I think the portal is starting to fail.”
“Maybe it’s because you are making a choice about it in your heart,” Eagle suggested, his voice coming to Hikaru telepathically. She looked surprised, and he continued after a small mental laugh, “It is very nice to see you, Hikaru-chan. Thank you for coming to see me.”
“We’re making a choice?” Hikaru asked, still concentrating on the first words he had spoken, “You mean, we’re deciding to live in Cephiro?”
“I feel like you’re struggling between yourselves, you three girls from another world, struggling to decide whether you wish to stay on your Earth, or come to live with your loved ones in New Cephiro. The portal is failing because you all feel you need to make a decision sooner rather than later. You made New Cephiro a place where everyone’s hearts together cause consequences, Hikaru-chan. You have to be careful what your hearts want, and how strongly they want it.”
Hikaru was still and silent for a few minutes, furrowing her eyebrows and thinking hard about this. Then she nodded, and reached over to rest her hand on Eagle’s, “Thank you, Eagle. That makes a lot of sense. I should speak to Umi-chan and Fuu-chan about it,” she noticed that Eagle’s skin wasn’t quite as pale as it used to be, and that he might be putting even the tiniest bit of weight back on, “Are you getting a lot better, Eagle? You seem to be looking healthier.”
She felt him laugh again, and he said, “Yes, Hikaru-chan, thanks to yourself and everyone in New Cephiro, I am getting a lot better at the moment. Maybe it is because you are all loved up, hmm?”
Hikaru went red, knowing exactly what Eagle was thinking, “Well, Fuu-chan and Prince Ferio have just got engaged properly, and-”
“Engaged, Hikaru-chan? What does that mean? Isn’t it some kind of Earth tradition?”
She nodded, and then added, “Well, Ferio- Prince Ferio, really wanted to do something like this for Fuu-chan, because he wanted it to be really special and original, and… I think he’s been discussing it with Lantis and Ascot, anyway.”
Eagle laughed again, and moved on, “Yes, young Ascot has found himself a lovely young lady too, hasn’t he? Umi. She must be a handful for him, but they say that opposites attract.”
“Do you have something like marriage in Autozam, Eagle? Where two people get together for the rest of their lives, and then they might have children, and live together, and share their money and possessions?”
She imagined him nodding, “Yes, although in Autozam we call it geedzeco. It is a legal standing, nothing more, and certainly not nearly as romantic as what Prince Ferio is proposing to Fuu.”
Hikaru mused about this for a moment, and then sat watching Eagle in silence rather than responding. She couldn’t imagine a world where there wasn’t so much romance in everything.
…did Eagle just move slightly?
“Lantis! Lantis! Where are you?” Hikaru called, checking around in that courtyard again – Lantis’s favourite spot in the castle, “Lantis, I think Eagle is starting to move! This is very important!”
“Above your head, Hikaru,” Lantis said softly in his deep voice, something that would normally make Hikaru go slightly weak at the knees – much like Ferio’s effect on Fuu – but this time she had more important things on her mind.
“Lantis, come with me!” Hikaru demanded, holding one of her tiny hands out, upwards towards Lantis in the tree, “Let’s go and see if Eagle is waking up!”
Lantis leapt down with rather more purpose than he’d had before, and he picked up his small girlfriend and started to sprint down the corridors of the palace towards the room where Eagle was kept.
In fact, upon Lantis’s arrival with Hikaru, Eagle appeared to be opening his eyes very slightly; perhaps he was doing this so slowly to guard against the bright lights of the room he was in. Upon seeing two blurred figures with black and red hair, he smiled slightly and said – with his voice, this time, not through telepathy, “It’s good to see you both.”
“Geo and Zazu will be very pleased with their visit later this morning, no doubt,” said Lantis, bearing the biggest and most genuine smile displayed on his face in years. Hikaru giggled at this thought and voiced it to him. Lantis looked bewildered, and Eagle laughed quietly.
“So, the beautiful land of Cephiro has healed me,” Eagle mused, looking up at the ceiling. At some point in the recent past, Clef had conjured some kind of magic mirror so that Eagle could see outside the castle at whatever was going on outside the window at Ferio’s end of the corridor – it was the best view of Cephiro for miles around, after all.
“New Cephiro, Eagle, we did tell you,” Hikaru corrected, looking up at Eagle’s mirror, “Our country is so beautiful, I’m hardly surprised that it has helped you so much, so soon.”
Eagle raised his eyebrows and looked a little sad, “Hikaru, please be careful how you speak about Cephiro– New Cephiro. You are speaking as if you have decided to stay here, and I’m sure you wish to return home at least a few more times before making that kind of commitment.”
Hikaru looked surprised and covered her hand with her mouth in realisation. This was exactly what Fuu had said earlier without thinking.
“What’s going on, Hikaru, Eagle?” Lantis asked, “Are you thinking of staying here? You need to be more careful, like Eagle says, before you get permanently stuck here against your better judgement.”