Chapter 2 Part 5
After Rufus had left, Reid and Elria questioned Philia about her circumstances.
Rufus was not only the daughter of the tribal chief governing the Seven Islands of Serios, but she had also formed a pact with the ‘Guardian Dragons’, placing her at the center of immense expectations. To say that these expectations were a matter of national pride would not be an exaggeration.
Serios and Vegalta shared a long history and had established friendly ties. Precisely because of this history, Serios took immense pride in their summoning magic. The distinct magical languages enabling conversation with magical beasts, specialized ecosystems facilitating their coexistence, and a magical beast-taming technique, which was arguably the root of summoning magic, were all significant cultural and technological features of Serios.
However, their focus on these unique aspects meant other areas of magical advancement had been slower. Their use of magic tools paled in comparison to Vegalta, who had diversified their technology of magic.
Given this backdrop, the weight of expectation on Rufus was significant. If she could prove her capabilities in the summoning magic her country had prided itself on and outshine Vegalta’s magic, it would affirm her country’s standing as equal to Vegalta.
But that was a heavy burden for a young girl. Furthermore, Rufus’s determination and the intensity in her eyes revealed more than just the weight of these expectations.
Lost in thought in her room――
“――What’s got you more spaced out than usual?” Reid asked, holding a teacup filled with milk tea.
“Mm… I was just thinking about Rufus.”
“The <<Dragon Princess>>, huh? She did seem rather precarious, even to me.”
“You felt it too, Reid?”
“Yeah. I caught a glimpse of the mock battle. She seemed more obsessed with winning than the actual battle. There was a hint of desperation in her moves, as if there was no room for mistakes,” Reid mused, rubbing his chin.
“I get the national pride part. But if victory was her sole aim, she could’ve summoned her ‘Guardian Dragons’ as leverage. She must’ve known about you, just as we knew of her from Vegalta,” Reid continued.
“…Do you think youthful arrogance played a part?”
“If that were the case, she would’ve flaunted her ‘Guardian Dragons’ from the beginning. And would someone that arrogant appear so troubled?” Reid spoke with a grim expression.
Rufus looked almost tearful, her visage strained and desperate. Seeing that face was what made Elria restrain her anger.
“Seriously… it reminds me of the old times.”
“…The old times?”
“Yeah. In Altein, it was common for children to become soldiers. They understood that this would reduce the number of mouths to feed. Their eyes held the same desperation, willing to do anything for survival. Rufus’s eyes mirrored theirs.”
“So, you’re suggesting Rufus is undergoing something similar?”
“Who knows. Times have changed, and only she would know her reasons,” Reid sighed heavily, a hint of frustration in his eyes.
“It’s just that… she probably came to this academy carrying that heavy burden and resolve,” Reid continued, gazing into the void.
Elria realized just how perceptive Reid was about people.
He had an uncanny ability to see right through to a person’s core. His astute observations had never missed even the smallest of details. As a result, while fulfilling the role demanded of a ‘Hero’, he also led many as a country’s general, gaining deep trust from those he commanded. That was something Elria had been slightly envious of.
Elria admired him for this. While she excelled in disseminating the technology of magic, she often secluded herself in her research. It was only much later she understood that her admiration had evolved into romantic feelings.
“Speaking of which, Elria.”
“It’s been a while since I’ve heard that squeal of surprise from you.”
“I-It’s just that you caught me off guard by suddenly calling my name…!”
“I’ve been addressing you by your name as I always do, haven’t I?”
Choosing to ignore Reid’s puzzled look, Elria vigorously shook her head, attempting to dissipate her blushing face.
“S-So, what did you want to say…?”
“I’m rather curious about that little one,” Reid said, directing his gaze to Elria’s lap.
There, a small, pure-white puppy was playfully rolling about. And as Reid observed, it wiggled its tiny legs, revealing its soft white belly. Noticing Reid’s attention, the puppy let out a small whimper.
“Is that the magical beast you’ve summoned?”
“Yes. It’s worked hard for me, and I’ve put it through quite a lot.”
Elria brought her fingertip closer to the puppy, and it playfully nibbled on it.
The last attack had significantly drained Shehri’s ‘soul’. Though ‘drained’ might sound severe, it essentially means the creature had undergone a painful experience and felt discomfort.
As an act of apology, Elria allowed it to take some of her magic power.
If it was left unattended, the magical beast might sever the contract.
“Because a magical beast’s body is composed of magic power, making it small like this is more efficient.”
“It’s so small that it hardly seems majestic…”
Holding Shehri’s paw, Elria stretched it out for Reid to see.
While it retained traces of its original wolf-like appearance, it resembled more of a dog in this reduced size.
“Do you want to pet it, Reid?”
“…Can I? If it detonates because of my magic power, I might be so traumatized that I’d be bedridden for days.”
“It’s okay. While a magical beast’s body is formed from magic power, it turns into matter resembling a real creature. Touching it should feel like touching any ordinary dog.”
“I-In that case, I might try…”
Reid hesitated before slowly extending his hand.
When he felt its soft belly, Shehri wiggled as if tickled.
“I haven’t petted a dog in a while…”
“Do you like dogs, Reid?”
“I’ve always been fond of animals, be it dogs or cats. But they often avoid me or flee when I approach them, making it challenging for me to touch them.”
With his guard dropped, and smiling in a way that was unlike him, Reid continued to pet Shehri’s belly.
“Mm… Then, do you want to try holding it?”
“Would that be alright?”
“Yes, it’s safe. I’ve blunted its fangs and claws for now.”
Elria presented Shehri to Reid. The magical beast wagged its tail energetically while sticking out its tongue. But just as Reid was about to embrace Shehri――it lunged and playfully bit Reid’s face.
Stunned, Reid didn’t react.
After a moment, Shehri yipped, seemingly unimpressed by the taste, and returned to Elria’s embrace.
“It… might be grouchy after the mock battle.”
“Right… I wouldn’t appreciate unfamiliar hands if I felt that way…”
Reid looked crestfallen.
On second thought, the <<Mana-Eater Wolf>> was a magical beast sensitive to magic power. Perhaps it avoided Reid due to his unfamiliar magic power.
“…Maybe animals avoid you because of your magic power, Reid.”
“Could that be the case!?”
“Y-Yes… animals, with their keen senses, can detect magic power through their sense of smell or hearing, and that’s how they gauge the presence of others…”
Reid’s eyes flared with realization, but then he sighed deeply, looking even more dejected.
“Well… I suspected as much… Like, when I was camping, the wild dogs fled upon seeing me, or a bear abandoning its den when I sought shelter. Even magical beasts steer clear when I’m around…!!”
“You lead quite the adventurous life.”
“Haa… If it’s because of my magic power, there’s little I can do…”
Reid slumped on the floor, visibly upset.
What should she do?
This wasn’t a problem Reid could easily overcome. And though Shehri might stay put if Elria asked, Reid could be hurt more if he sensed the creature’s reluctance.
It pained her that he loved animals yet couldn’t interact with them.
Desperate for a solution, Elria delved deep into her thoughts. After all, she was once revered as the ‘Sage’.
Just as she had once revolutionized the world with the technology of magic, she believed she could devise the best solution now.
Upon contemplation, an idea struck her.
Gently placing Shehri on the sofa, she quickly cast a spell and then lightly tapped the dejected Reid on the shoulder.
“What’s the matter…? I’ve pretty much given up, so if you have comforting words――”
But when Reid glanced up, he froze.
Before him stood Elria, now adorned with white cat ears. Tastefully, she had also sprouted a tail, which she wagged gracefully.
“If you can’t pet animals, then you can pet me.”
With confidence radiating from her face, Elria made her declaration.
Without any hesitation, she proudly showcased her fluttering cat ears and wagging tail.
Upon witnessing this, Reid turned away, struggling to contain his laughter.
“You… Your solution is rather… bold, isn’t it?”
“W-Why are you laughing…!?”
“Well… it’s just so like you to come up with the idea of growing cat ears and a tail, and to then present it with such unabashed confidence…!!”
Reid struggled to stifle his laughter.
Somehow, this was not the reaction Elria had expected. She’d imagined Reid gratefully stroking her head. Disappointed, she puffed out her cheeks.
“……So, are you not going to pet me?”
“I will, I will. You’ve always had a cat-like quality, so this look suits you perfectly.”
Chuckling, Reid tenderly stroked Elria’s head.
Getting the petting she had hoped for, Elria playfully moved her ears.
“So, what should I do now?”
“…Given that I’m now a cat, perhaps I should sit on your lap?”
Reid sat down on the sofa, and Elria promptly positioned herself on his lap. She adjusted slightly to find the most comfortable spot, then nodded in contentment.
“It feels comfortable.”
“Thank you for that.”
“Can Shehri join us?”
“Of course. You’re light, and there’s space for a dog or even more.”
“In that case, come here, Shehri.”
At Elria’s beckoning, Shehri barked softly and joined them on the lap.
“But you know… from the outside, it probably looks kind of stifling…”
“On the contrary, you could say it’s cozy. It’s twice as cozy with both Shehri and me.”
While she nestled into Reid, Elria playfully raised Shehri for him to see.
“You can continue petting me until you’ve had enough.”
“Alright, alright. Thank you.”
With a wry smile, Reid gently stroked Elria’s head. His big hand felt strangely nostalgic. It resembled the hand of her father, who always gently caressed her.
Elria last saw her father when she was heading to the royal capital. Even then… with his usual gentle smile, her father had lovingly stroked her head.
Remembering such a nostalgic image of her father, Elria softly wagged her tail.