Shirou's mind was a jumbled mess, and he felt a sense of emptiness inside him. Instead of heading back to Ector's estate, he went to a small river near the town.
If he had accepted Artoria's pledge of loyalty and become king in her place, he could have been trapped in a singularity or an alternate reality. Thankfully, he had managed to avoid that fate and escape.
Shirou knew exactly what he wanted. He couldn't stay in this era for long, he was just a passerby. More importantly, he lacked experience in governing a country. He could count on one hand the number of times he had been a leader in the past. In fact, the closest he had come to being a leader was when he acted as a substitute physical education representative in elementary school. That was only because the physical education teacher was ill every day.
The only other instance in which Shirou had acted as a leader was when he led the criminals in the All the World's Evil and united the city of sin. However, beyond that, he had no experience in leadership. He had always been led by others.
Therefore, even if he were to set aside his strong desire to return to his own time and accept Artoria's pledge and become king, it would be a disastrous outcome for everyone involved. What did he know about the art of kingship? At most, he could have made a few laws, given some empty speeches, and perhaps manage a plot of farmland. The reality was that he just wasn't suited for the role.
"Oh, bewildered youth~~~~~!" Merlin's affectedly gentle voice echoed through the air, causing Shirou to turn his head in annoyance. As he did, he laid eyes on the flower-lined path, and Merlin himself, strolling leisurely with his staff in hand.
"Do you find yourself burdened with doubts and confusions?" Merlin asked, his smile seemingly mocking yet inviting. "You can always confide in Merlin and bring a smile to his face!"
"You—" Shirou said seriously, "deserve a good beating!"
He continued, "Let's cut to the chase. Did you have a hand in all of this?"
"Ah..." Merlin let out a sigh, his voice tinged with a touch of aggrievement. "Why must you always harbor such suspicions about me? Am I truly that insufferable?"
Shirou shook his head, "Not exactly. But it was undoubtedly your doing, wasn't it?"
"That's no fun. Why do you always paint me as a villain?" he asked, sounding helpless. "Don't I look like a good person?"
"Not in the slightest. You're a swindler through and through."
"I don't have time for your games. Tell me, did you do it?" Shirou pressed.
Merlin scoffed, his denial swift and dismissive. "Of course not. I wouldn't waste my time on such mundane matters."
Shirou regarded Merlin skeptically and asked, "Really?"
Merlin gestured to his eyes, "Come on, look into my eyes. What do you see?"
"I see eye boogers," Shirou remarked. "A huge chunk of them!"
"What eye boogers! You're making that up! I take hygiene seriously, you know?" Merlin protested, a hint of indignation in his voice. Realizing that arguing would lead nowhere, he swiftly shifted gears. "But didn't you perceive the sincerity that nearly overflowed from my sparkling eyes?"
"Sincerity...?" Shirou fell silent.
This guy has no shame.
At that moment, Artoria and Kay rushed over.
"My king!" Artoria called out to Shirou as soon as she saw him, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Shirou felt a sudden pang in his stomach.
"Artoria... I'm not the king, you are!"
"No. You are the king," Artoria locked eyes with Shirou, her blue gaze unwavering. "You're the one who pulled the sword from the stone. According to King Uther's decree, you will inherit the name of Arthur and become the king who rules Britain!"
"It was Kay who encouraged me to pull the sword out! it was just an accident!" Shirou pointed an accusing finger at Kay.
Kay coughed a few times and awkwardly looked away, pretending to admire the clouds.
"Nevertheless, you are the chosen king of Britain," Artoria said earnestly. "I am willing to serve as your first knight if you will have me."
Shirou smiled wryly. "I'm a passerby, Artoria. My home is not in Britain. Eventually, I'll leave and return to where I belong. How can I be the king of Britain? Besides, you are the child of King Uther, and royal blood flows through your veins. You are the rightful heir to the throne. I am just an outsider."
"Britain needs a true king, not merely a child born into royalty," she responded with unwavering conviction.
"And how can you be so certain that I am the right one?"
"Because I have seen it!" she said confidently. "Your regal bearing and the way you effortlessly bring smiles and joy to the faces of those around you are the best proof of a true king!"
Shirou couldn't help but interject, "But that was just a dream!"
Artoria responded with conviction, "But you have the ability to make dreams come true! I truly believe this. Initially, I had intended to learn from you, but I soon realized that I was too ignorant. The only true and correct answer is for you to become the king!"
He felt a bit helpless. When had Artoria become more persuasive than him?
"My brother has already told me about your homeland, Avalon, the legendary land where the ideal king appears. I should have realized this sooner. You are the king to whom I will pledge my loyalty!" she declared earnestly.
"Don't speak for me...I..." Shirou started to refute, but before he could finish, Merlin pulled him aside.
"What are you doing?" Shirou asked, looking at Merlin.
"You're leaving, aren't you?" Merlin asked. "If the tyrant Vortigern conquers Britain, you won't have any chance of returning. You'll be left with no other option but to take a knife and end your life, hoping for a fresh start," he warned.
"What are you trying to say?"
Merlin licked his lips and said, "You must become the king and defeat Vortigern,"
Shirou glanced at Artoria, then lowered his voice to speak to Merlin. "Do you think you can deceive me? I come from the future. Do you really believe I don't know what will happen to Britain? Are you trying to trick me?"
Merlin looked helpless. "I'm not trying to deceive you," he insisted. "I'm doing this for your own good. If Vortigern conquers Britain, there'll be no way for you to go back."
"Even so, why do I need to become the king?" Shirou questioned.
"Artoria is immature and can easily be defeated by Vortigern."
"Does that mean I'm mature?" Shirou retorted. "I can honestly say that I have no leadership experience. If I become king, I'll most likely fail!"
Merlin chuckled, "Hehehe... young man, excessive modesty is just another form of arrogance!" He looked as if he couldn't be fooled.
Shirou was so angry that he felt as though he might spit out blood. He realized that he should never have planted that field in the first place.
"I'm telling the truth!" Shirou protested, feeling helpless.
Merlin replied with a wink, "I understand, I understand~~~~~!" He gave Shirou a look that seemed to say, "You can't fool me."
You don't understand anything!
"Now, you are left with no other choice but to ascend the throne," Merlin stressed. "If you refuse, chaos will befall Britain. The kingdom has long awaited the arrival of King Arthur. The people view Arthur as their spiritual pillar, and without his presence, they will be left disillusioned and disheartened. If you flee, their hopes and expectations will be crushed. The stability of the northern front will falter, and it will provide an opening for Vortigern to launch his invasion. This will inevitably lead to the downfall of Britain, and your cherished dream of returning home will also be shattered."
"But didn't Artoria also draw the sword?" Shirou asked, "If I don't ascend the throne, couldn't she become the king instead? There's no rule that says the first person who drew the sword has to become king, nor is it necessary for me to ascend the throne!"
"Artoria is a woman, and Morgan has already arrived," Merlin said. "As someone from the future, you should be aware of Morgan's character. If she finds out that Arthur is a woman, chaos will engulf Britain in an instant. I'm not saying that you have to keep the throne forever, but you must take it up for now,"
"Huh, what do you mean?"
Merlin explained, "You can temporarily take the throne, and when the time comes for you to return home or when Artoria becomes more capable, you can automatically abdicate and return the throne to her."
"You can do that?" he asked, surprised.
"Of course!" Merlin replied. "There are many ways to do it! And let me tell you, if you want to return home, you must defeat Vortigern and unify Britain. There is no other way,"
"Is that true?" Shirou inquired, still unsure.
Merlin clicked his tongue in displeasure and then pointed to his eyes, saying, "Look into Merlin's honest eyes. Don't you see the truth?"
"You want me to believe you?" Shirou questioned skeptically.
"No, I'm openly deceiving you," Merlin replied, candidly. "But you will believe me."
Shirou laughed, and his smile was sunny and bright.
Merlin joined in Shirou's laughter, but suddenly, with a "thud," Shirou punched Merlin in the stomach, causing him to fly back and fall heavily to the ground.
"Ouch...it hurts so much!!!" Merlin groaned, clutching his stomach as his face turned pale.
Shirou wiped his fist and spoke angrily, "Did you really think I wouldn't hit you?"
Merlin continued to clutch his stomach and pointed angrily at Shirou, saying, "You...you're so sneaky! You actually lowered my guard with your smile!"
Shirou smiled brightly and sweetly, relishing in Merlin's defeated tone. "Thank you for the compliment. I am indeed sneaky and cunning, as everyone says,"
Artoria watched the scene somewhat bewildered, while Kay suppressed a chuckle. 'Yes! That's right, hit him! It's boring to hit the stomach, hit his face! Hit his face!' he shouted silently in his mind.
Once Merlin had recovered, he reluctantly explained the temporary king plan to Artoria and the others.
Kay felt conflicted. On one hand, he was happy for Artoria, but at the same time, he couldn't help feeling that it was unfair for her to have trained for fifteen years, only to end up as someone else's bride. He was afraid that he might say something offensive, so he kept silent, lost in his thoughts.
But Artoria was brimming with excitement. "I don't understand. If someone was able to remove the Sword from the Stone, that person must be the rightful king. How can they just be a 'proxy'?"
"That's the way it is, Artoria," Shirou replied calmly. "I am destined to leave Britain, and this is the best solution. But don't have high expectations of me. I know I don't have what it takes to be a king."
"That's not true! I have complete faith in you, my king!" she insisted with conviction.
Kay raised his hand and interjected, "May I ask a question? How should Artoria behave before Guinevere departs?"
Merlin answered, "For the time being, Artoria can serve as his knight and learn what it takes to be a king."
As Kay pondered Merlin's words, he remembered the dream where he and Shirou worked together seamlessly, feeling a sense of mutual understanding. He nodded in agreement.
Kay believed that a king should embody the qualities he saw in Shirou. He felt that Artoria had much to learn, and this was an opportunity for her to gain the necessary knowledge and experience.
Shirou couldn't help but speak out, "Hey, what kind of image have you guys imagined me as? I'm not cut out to be a king. Please don't expect too much from me!" Even though he didn't know what kind of impression they had of him, he sensed from their expressions that their expectations were too lofty.
"Artoria, apprentice knight," she declared, "I pledge my unwavering loyalty to you. My sword is forever at your service!" With one hand on her chest, she knelt before Shirou, her beautiful face radiating with determination.
"If you wish to become a knight, then so be it. But before that..." Shirou extended his hand and delicately released the fastenings of Artoria's hair, the golden strands cascading down her back like a waterfall of light. With a soft smile, he spoke to her with genuine sincerity. "Artoria, you have reclaimed your true form as a woman, and it is only fitting that I refer to you as such."
As he spoke, a gentle breeze swept by, lifting Artoria's hair and causing it to dance in the wind like strands of pure gold. A look of astonishment crossed her delicate and beautiful face, and she stared at Shirou in wonder, her eyes shining with a light that seemed to come from deep within her soul.
Next 136 Chapters are up on my Patreon: patreon.com/bcloud