So, King Arthur, Alexander the Great, and Gilgamesh go to get a drink together…
Or rather, Iskander gets a drink and brings it to Saber, and Gilgamesh kind of saunters in as well with all the haughty boredom you’d expect of a housecat. It’s as much of a contrast to Saber’s cool, dutiful reluctance as it is to Iskander’s buoyant companionship, and it’s pretty clear as soon as you have the three of them sitting down to a dialogue that this is going to be a conversation that’s a study in parallels and differences.
They are all kings, after all, which is why Iskander wanted them all to hang out on equal grounds, though picking the Einzbern manor as his choice of venue is a bit questionable seeing as it’s only been hours since Kayneth and Kiritsugu trashed the place. They find a quiet courtyard and settle on that as the stage for their alcoholic truce, with a frazzled Waver and a wary Iri looking on from the sidelines.
You could cut the tension in the air with a knife, but that’s clearly what Iskander is perfectly bent on doing. He’s not even upset when Gilgamesh insults his local wine and brings out, instead, a much more satisfactory and ancient brew from the same golden gates that produce his weapons (really makes you wonder what else he keeps in there… if it doubles as a cellar as well as an armoury, does he occasionally whip out an aurochs leg to chew on? Ah, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to).
They get to discussing, naturally, what brings them to the Grail War, as Servants must have some kind of wish of their own to catch the Grail’s attention. We know that Diarmuid’s is simply to redeem himself, and Caster’s intent on reuniting with Jeanne d’Arc (which he’s convinced he’s already done in finding Saber, which she remains unimpressed with), but now we can add some more known motivations to our heroic list: Iskander (to Waver’s verbal shock) wishes to be human again, to get his physical form back so he can have another crack at conquering the world. Gilgamesh has no concrete desire, he simply cannot stomach the thought of anyone else winning since the Grail is, according to logic that again reminds one of a pampered cat, already his.
Saber, naturally, is disgusted with both of them, since her wish is much more selfless—she wishes to turn back time and save her kingdom from the destruction that it suffered, erasing her own mistakes as a king. It seems noble enough as a goal, but oh boy does it spark some scrutiny.
To make a long story short, essentially Iskander can’t believe that she’d willingly go back and cancel out all the decisions she made and effectively sacrifice herself in the process. Saber’s all ‘but isn’t it the king’s job to fight endlessly for the good of the kingdom?’ and Iskander gets so uptight he stops chugging wine and faces her straight with the accusation that she was so focussed on being a perfect martyr for her people that she never actually led them.
And isn’t it a king’s duty to lead? To take care of their people and support and guide them through hell or high water, and to be there for them if it was the king that caused said colloquial disaster? Otherwise, what are they but a figurehead? Be you peasant or warrior, you want a leader you can trust and look up to, and you can’t really do that if all you see is a cold and constantly self-sacrificing mask. It’s enough to make Saber balk and flash back to a devastating battle, seemingly the only one left alive, looking over the ruined, bloodied landscape with her hair down and a look of defeat in her entire posture. In the end, had she been failing her people from the very beginning, even though she’d been trying so hard?
The extent to which she’s shaken is also enough to amuse Gilgamesh out of his shiny silence, declaring that her conflict is not only hilarious but delightful since it makes her look like a virgin about to be deflowered. Thanks, Gil. Though I feel like this is an interesting point to study, as uncomfortable as it is—obviously Gilgamesh has a thing for that, seeing as a key part of his legend is terrorising the townsfolk by sleeping with all of their brides before their new husbands can (which leads to him getting punched in the face by the man who would later become his best friend and unfortunately-now-absent morality chain, but that’s another story), and the skeeziness with which the line is delivered cements him as an utter douchebag, so it’s important for characterisation. But it’s also not the first time Saber’s been spotlighted as virginal, since Caster calls her ‘his holy virgin’ as well and covets her (though clearly in a different way to Gil) for that reason.
Which I wouldn’t have picked up on if I didn’t now know more about the weird otaku culture around purity and unattainability in their female characters. Come to think of it, within the Fate/Zero cast Saber is the only perceivably ‘young and pure’ one that isn’t actually a child; Iri and Aoi are mothers, as is Maiya as we later learn, and she’s also having that ol’ unexplained affair with Kiritsugu, which has salacious implications even if we have only seen them kiss. We don’t know what Sola’s story is and frankly it’s none of our business, but it’s pretty clear that she’s making eyes at Diarmuid. Saber, by comparison, has chemistry here and there but no specific love interest and as of this conversation it’s clear that her One True Love is the kingdom Brittania. She’s merely coveted and prized by other characters.
Is reiterating her pure purity deliberate, and a kind of pandering to the people ingrained in that culture, to set up for the Fate route and remind fans that only you, through the eyes of the visual novel, can ever touch her, and even when the story isn’t in indulgent self-insert mode (which, granted, is most of the time, but let it never be said that this franchise doesn’t know who it’s selling to. I mean Prisma Ilya exists) she fits perfectly into the mould of the innocent but freely sexualised there-to-covet waifu?
Though of course, it’s Gilles de Rais and Gilgamesh, two of the most overtly awful characters in the show, who do this, so it could be a condemnation of that behaviour. If you relate to either of them, you may to have a long hard look at your life choices. That may, unfortunately, be reading too much into things, but hey, at this point that’s what I’m here to do, and I can only hope someone somewhere took that message away.
In any case, all discussion Saber’s flaws and virgin face are mercifully put on hold when the Assassins appear. Iskander offers them a place at the table to have their motivations put under the microscope as well, but as a group they not-so-politely decline. Alright then, wine has been spilled. It’s time for stuff to get real.
And oh how it does. As a perfect example of how Iskander is the leading kind of king, his Noble Phantasm is revealed to be an endless desert of friendship. More specifically, a Realty Marble shaped after the battlegrounds he covered in life, staffed by a literal army of soldiers strong and renowned enough to each be a Heroic Spirit… but they all swear sole loyalty to Iskander, and they all band together to fight the now meagre-looking crowd of Assassins in the most spectacular curb-stomp battle I’ve ever seen. They wipe the sandy floor with them, and all Saber and the others can do is look on in wonder.
“It’s the king’s duty to shoulder their burden alone,” says Saber’s logic. But what kind of loyalty, or any kind of relationship at all, does that create? “The king should never be alone, and neither should they leave anyone alone,” replies the logic of Iskander, the man who flies off into the night after the battle expressing his complete disappointment in Saber.
Gil just dissolves into glitter with a smirk and a snide comment, the self-absorbed king who does whatever he wants with his title. Martyr, leader, party boy. Is any one better or worse than the other? It’s certainly left Saber feeling crushed and questioned, looking as tragic as we’ve seen her yet as she remains alone in the garden.
At least the Assassins are out of the running, for real this time. Maybe now Kirei can finally leave and stop bothering everyone. Right..?