It was the busiest meal Ritsuka had enjoyed had in a while. The staff of Chaldea were pretty split down the middle in calling the large room the “cafeteria” and the “canteen,” but all of them were enjoying the meal that Emiya had prepared. The staff were scattered around the great room in small groups that were obviously pre-existing relationships from before the bombing, laughing and smiling despite obvious fatigue and strain. In that place that was filled with all the surviving staff, aside from Romani and Da Vinci, there was abundant space for the Servants to be isolating themselves.
The two Cus were sitting across from each other, arguing about some designs on a piece of paper as they crossed parts out and redrew them.
Sasaki was peacefully inhaling the scent of after dinner tea while the group of female staff were looking over at him periodically and gossiping.
Gilgamesh apparently had his meal delivered to his room. Ritsuka had heard someone saying the guy who delivered it had lost a bet.
And Medea was eating the rice based paella dish with such refined manner that she could give classes on etiquette. Her atmosphere made it hard for anyone to approach her. The fact that she was still wearing the hood didn’t make it any easier.
The Saber Trio had taken seats near Ritsuka, Mash, and Medusa. Lily seemed incredibly worn out and was doing her best to lethargically eat her meal after the training session that Altoria had put her through. Artoria said she preferred the simple setting as opposed to a troublesome invitation and was concentrating on the food. And Altoria had gone off somewhere grumbling about something. So, Ritsuka was having conversation practice with Mash and Medusa.
The topic… was something as boring as how the Japanese school system worked.
“-And the teacher for the next subject will enter the classroom, call it to order, and begin teaching.”
Ritsuka halted his explanation and waited. Both Mash and Medusa were listening carefully, but they were not engaging. So Ritsuka said, “This would be a good time to ask a leading question to keep the conversation going.”
“Oh, I’m sorry senpai! I was just so absorbed in what you were saying.”
“There’s no need to make me feel better, Mash. I know I chose a poor topic for the training…”
“Not at all, Fujimaru-sama. I’ve never really learned anything about human teaching methods, so this is all completely new to me.”
“For me as well, senpai. I was not taught in a school setting, so I’m finding this information to be fascinating as well.”
Ritsuka tilted his head and asked, “So, what, you were homeschooled, Mash?”
“Well… I’m not sure it could be called that…”
The heavy thump of a fully armored Altoria taking her seat at the table interrupted the conversation, as did the presence of what was on the girl’s plate and the wafting scent of deep fried chicken. Deftly using a pair of chopsticks, Altoria bit into the first piece of meat with the satisfied face of a conqueror.
“Is that karaage,” asked Ritsuka, recognizing the fried chicken on Altoria’s plate.
“Where did such a dish come from,” asked Artoria in astonishment.
“From the kitchen. I had the keeper of that place produce it after I complained about the so called meal he created.”
Ritsuka instinctively looked over to the serving counter and saw a slightly disgruntled Emiya standing there with his arms crossed. Now that Ritsuka thought about it, that guy had his arms crossed often. Was it to show off his muscles?
“Was there something wrong with your paella,” asked Mash in a slightly worried tone.
“Yes. It was rice,” replied Altoria without hesitation after swallowing another piece of chicken. Dang, it smelled good.
“Hold on, Alter,” said Artoria, as though some blasphemy had been uttered. “I will not allow you to go free after claiming that there is something wrong with eating fresh rice!”
“This is why you are a failed king,” said Altoria in triumph before following up with words meant to be an eternal truth. “Rice is a side dish! I will never accept it as a main dish!”
“What,” exclaimed Artoria, shocked at the stance of her counterpart. Ritsuka however gave thought to the opinion.
“I can definitely agree that plain rice is incredibly lonely without proper accompaniment. After all, even onigiri is lacking without flavored fillings.”
“As expected of the one who summoned me, you are a man of proper culture,” said Altoria, nodding to herself. Artoria however crumpled in her seat like the foundations of her reality had crumbled.
“I’m not sure what culture you’re talking about, Altoria,” said Ritsuka awkwardly, trying to move forward on the topic to prevent a misunderstanding. “But as a proper Japanese I will never claim that there is a time when rice is unwelcome. Even without seasoning, rice has a characteristic taste all to itself that can change from breed to breed. There is a reason why it is said that we Japanese have a second stomach for rice, for no traditional Japanese meal is complete without it!”
Ritsuka ended up in a pose with fingers held up not unlike a buddha statue, leaving a deep impression on the gluttons at the table as though he were the divine savior of… that single meal.
Artoria had a surge of energy as she lifted herself up and said, “That’s right, Alter! Throwing away delicious rice is an act of atrocity!”
Obviously feeling a touch of shame, Altoria defended herself with an excuse.
“I did no such thing. There is still some of that rice dish here. On the side. The side! As a side dish, like it should be. No matter what, I will not accept it as the main course!”
“That in itself is fine,” said Ritsuka with a peaceful smile on his face that was oddly compelling. “Rice is suitable to forming any part of the meal. As long as it satisfies the one eating it, there is no wrong way to enjoy rice.”
Once more, the Saber gluttons at the table looked at Ritsuka with awed eyes. The table returned to a peaceful atmosphere, where Lily said, “I think I’ll go ask Emiya for a bit of karaage as well…”
Artoria tensed for a moment before Altoria said, “There is no more. Emiya prepared all of the thawed meat for this one serving.”
Lily and Artoria both deflated again in disappointment. Altoria continued on by saying, “However, as a reward for surviving my training session, I will present a single piece to you, Lily. Rejoice at the magnanimity of a king.”
So saying, Altoria placed the smallest piece of karaage on Lily’s plate. Lily thanked Altoria and instantly put the piece of meat in her mouth, uttering the word, “Delicious.”
“Alter, what about me,” asked Artoria hopefully.
“You have done nothing to earn my gift, failure king. Eat your rice and drink your tears.”
Instead of deflating again, this time Artoria counter attacked. I guess she couldn’t stand the idea of her existence being denied so much?
“That is a complete injustice, Alter! Favoring one aspect of ourselves over the other! Hand over some of that karaage!”
As Artoria moved to stab an outlying piece of meat from Altoria’s plate, Ritsuka said in a low and clear voice of admonishment, “No fighting at the dinner table.”
“But Master-” complained Artoria, righteous fury in her eyes. But Ritsuka has already accepted that all servants were screwballs that occasionally needed to be reminded about common sense.
“Altoria was the one who specially requested her meal. The food is on her plate. Therefore, she is the only person who gets to decide if and how it gets shared. Stealing food from her plate is nothing but bad manners. Artoria, I will personally ask Emiya to prepare some karaage for tomorrow’s meal, so please let it go at just this.”
“I… understand, Master. I apologise for disturbing the peace of the dinner table.”
“Not at all, Artoria. It’s expected that there will be the occasional squabble between siblings.”
“Who are siblings,” asked Artoria and Altoria at the same time.
“But Altoria, please do not tease your counterpart too much. I was able to stop the two of you before you pulled out your swords, but Chaldea can’t survive a battle between the two of you. And please try to get along during meal times at least. My nation has a saying that there is nothing as frightening as a grudge over food. I don’t want to see such a grudge be born in front of me.”
“…Very well, I agree to keep the peace as well. As a proper tyrant, I understand that order must be maintained.”
Ritsuka nodded and said, “I’m glad.” Then he concentrated on breathing normally while he tried to allow his racing pulse slow down again. Everything nearly went to hell over some fried chicken! Once more, Ritsuka promised to himself to keep a watchful eye over everything the Heroic Spirits did in his presence.
“Thank you for settling things so peacefully, Master,” said Lily with a smile released from tension beside Ritsuka, causing him to reply with, “Ah, no, it was nothing.”
“Fujimaru-sama,” asked Medusa from Ritsuka’s other side with some worry in her voice, “Now that the matter is settled, may I ask what this Onigiri is? I assume it is some kind of anti-demon weapon.”
Ritsuka’s mind blanked for second before he started parsing the question. He quickly realized that Medusa had interpreted the name for rolled rice balls as kanji an 8th grader would come up with.
“Ah, no, Medusa. Onigiri does not read as ‘Demon cutter,’ it’s just the name of a rice dish. You roll the rice around a flavored core, salt it, and wrap it with some seaweed. You can think of it as Japan’s version of the sandwich before western culture reached our shores.”
“I see. But does it have to be served with seaweed,” asked Medusa.
“No,” replied Ritsuka in wonder. “Why do you ask?”
“Because… I hate seaweed.”
“Ritsuka,” said Altoria from the other side. Ritsuka turned his head and replied, “Yes, Altor-nmm!”
Ritsuka chewed the bit of karaage that was precisely thrown into his mouth in a surprise attack and asked, “Thank you for the treat, Altoria, but what did I do to deserve it?”
“A tyrant has no need to justify their actions. You are simply required to accept it, and nothing more.”
“Well.. alright. Mash? Why are you smiling like that?”
“Ah, no, senpai. Sorry if I distracted you…”
“It’s nothing of the kind,” said Ritsuka to the girl sitting opposite him. “I was just wondering if something good had happened.”
“Something good… Yes. I believe… that this is the most interesting meal of my life, senpai. Thank you for it.”
“Ah geez, Mash. If you thank me like that, then I’ll be the one left speechless,” said Ritsuka, blushing slightly.
And from afar, Emiya watched over the groups of people enjoying their meals, smiling contentedly as old meal time memories he thought he’d left behind so long ago floated up in his mind.
* * * * *
“Hey, I brought your share,” said Romani as he dropped a bowl of paella on the desk next to Da Vinci. Romani always was troubled over what pronoun to call the Heroic Spirit, but Da Vinci never gave much heed to his troubles. Which was why Romani usually tried to avoid using pronouns or just referred to Da Vinci by name.
“Hmm? Oh, thanks,” said Da Vinci offhandedly, mostly ignoring the deposited food, and going back to looking at the screen they were studying. It was security footage of the summoning rituals performed by Gudao. It was completely normal and beneath Romani’s notice, and he would have ignored the footage… except that Da Vinci was completely focused on the video.
“Is there something in there that’s interesting to you,” asked Romani as he bent down to look more closely. It was just a close up of Gudao as he did the ritual. The light of the summoning played across his features, but that was all he could see.
“Hmm? Oh, Romani,” asked Da Vinci, just noticing who was there. Then Da Vinci switch from contemplative mode to interactive mode. “Yeah, there was something in the rituals that was bugging me, but I didn’t quite catch what it was. Until I watched them all back to back. Let me just…”
Da Vinci manipulated the video and brought it to just before one of the rituals started and said, “Okay. Watch Ritsuka’s face carefully.”
Da Vinci hit play and the video rolled. What Romani saw was, “Nothing unusual as far as I can see. No ticks, no distortions, nothing symptomatic of an underlying condition…”
“And no pain,” concluded Da Vinci. To Romani’s quizzically upturned eyebrows, Da Vinci continued, “When a mage taps into their magic circuits, the switch over from normal function to channeling magecraft is accompanied by the pain of using such biologically abnormal aspects. Ritsuka is a complete novice in magecraft with underdeveloped magic circuits. So, how can he be able to channel this much mana without flinching?”
“So… you’re saying that because there are no signs of abnormality, that in itself is abnormal?”
“Precisely,” said Da Vinci, who switched to another screen on the monitor which held Gudao’s personnel folder shown on display. Da Vinci continued, “Ritsuka’s father’s line is nothing interesting. Novice craftsmen of magecraft tools that springboarded to moderate success with his father qualifying to study at the Clock Tower. During his time in England he apprenticed under the Sunderland family in their workshop-”
“Even I’ve heard of the Sunderland produced Mystic Codes,” said Romani as a footnote.
“-And courted their eldest daughter. The two married with consent from the family, and went back to Japan. The Sunderlands occasionally visit the Fujimarus in Japan, but the Fujimarus have never returned to London to visit.”
“Well… it’s a long flight,” thought Romani aloud.
“Yes, it is,” said Da Vinci. “It’s hard to get any further from England than Japan. And the Sunderlands are one of the families that have all of their members involved in magecraft, not just the heirs. Being such a pre-eminent fabricator family, they can’t afford to not raise as many mages as they can for their workshops. But Ritsuka’s mother? They let her get married and move to the other side of the globe instead of absorbing Fujimaru Hitoshi into the family?”
Finally catching on, Romani asked, “You think they exiled her? Gudao’s mother?”
“If that were the case, would the main family bother visiting her in Japan? I think it’s more likely that an opportunity arose for them to hide her away with her romance with Hitoshi, and they took it. But then arises the question of, why?”
Romani looked back at the video that was still playing and then back at the open folder. He asked, “You think Gudao’s potential ability to channel mana painlessly is connected with his lineage? With his mother?”
“No clue,” said Da Vinci frivolously while picking up the bowl of paella. “But it’s an interesting hypothesis, nonetheless. Would you mind taking a closer look at Ritsuka’s body in the future to see if there’s any abnormalities? Whoa! This is tasty!”
“I know, right!? We should have had Archer take over the kitchen a long time ago!”
* * * * *
“Hmmm. It would seem that that girl has refused my invitation,” said Gilgamesh who sat at a table with two servings of paella on it that had grown cold. There was the hint of loneliness in his voice that immediately disappeared once he pulled the handle of a sword from thin air while expressing his thoughts to an empty room. “I said to you once before, that some things are beautiful because they cannot be obtained. But, perhaps there is worth in the attempt. It will be interesting to try and endeavor against certain failure. For now… Let’s see, about how much output should I use for reheating rice…?”
The nameless sword that later became a legend burst into flame as the King of Heroes held it above his main dish, it’s low output of magical power being used to imbue heat back into the cooled dish. When the smell of the paella began to permeate the room again, Gilgamesh returned the treasure sword back into the void that held his limitless treasures, drawing forth a jewel encrusted goblet of gold and a bottle of wine.
“My fourth favorite vintage should be suitable for this new beginning. After all, it’s not like I normally have such an open invitation to stay in the world of mortals.”
Popping the cork, Gilgamesh poured his win and allowed it to breath as he took his first bite of the paella.
“Oh! That mongrel may be unsightly, but he does know how to prepare a meal. Perhaps I’ll allow him to be a kitchen slave after this is all over. Though… I suppose that’s what he’s been made into already! Fufuhahahahahahaha!”