This time, her familiar’s report also didn’t contain anything worthy. She had gotten used to it. That feeling of resignation had become a part of her life, just like waking up in the morning or going to sleep at night.
Still, it was a part she couldn’t give up.
Floating in the air, she looked at the world.
The man she had been searching for was somewhere out there, she believed.
※ ※ ※ ※
On a large desk in the hall closest to the castle gate, cloths of various colors were lined up. The beautiful cloths were wound up into rolls, and the court ladies were exploring the heap of them with light laughter. From young to old, they picked what caught their eyes and tried the cloth on themselves and their companions. There were quite a lot of people, and men also checked out the ones in dark colors.
These cloths came in all kinds of materials and colors, and had been brought here by wholesale shops that travelled through various countries. Four times a year, these shops came to the castle and showcased their best products. Those in the castle, if interested, could choose what they liked, have their measurements taken, and order garment. Most of the women really looked forward to these days.
Sylvia was no exception. With high spirit, she came to call Tinassha, who was reading a book in the lounge:
“Hey, Lady Tinassha, let’s go and take a look.”
“I just bought some clothes recently…”
“Now now, don’t say such things… There are a lot of exotic cloths from foreign countries too.”
The black hair witch closed her book with some hesitation. She took a drink from the cup nearby.
“Let’s go! I’m curious about Lady Tinassha’s measurements.”
Still, she reluctantly stood up like a child being brought to the doctor’s. She was wearing a short white dress she had bought the other day. Her slender legs peeked out defenselessly from under the hem; they had been attracting the eyes of the men passing by since the morning. Her beauty couldn’t possibly be of a human, and her slender body, unlike when she had been in the form of a little girl, had soft curves on it. Sylvia was secretly curious about the measurement of her thin waist.
In contrast to the cheerful Sylvia, who was pulling her along, Tinassha went to the cloth selling room with heavy, dragging feet. Suddenly, a man stopped her in the hallway.
It was her contractor and his attendant. Sylvia went straight towards them, but Tinassha followed behind a bit reluctantly as if she felt some kind of bad premonition.
Oscar gave the document he was carrying to Razar and turned to his guardian.
“I was about to send Razar to call you. Just the right time. Let’s go look at the cloth.”
“I don’t care about clothes…”
Tinassha had already been worn out. Oscar patted her head.
“I’m interested in your measurements.”
She shouldn’t have come – Tinassha regretted furiously.
“Lady Tinassha, your waist is so small!”
“Would be nice if you had a bit more in the chest.”
They weren’t in the same room with the court ladies, but in a room reserved for the royal family; there were only high quality fabrics here. Tinassha, completely exhausted after having her measurements thoroughly taken, was sitting on the couch. Oscar and Sylvia were peering into the piece of paper on which the artisan had written down her measurements and freely spoke their minds about it. Listening to them made Tinhassha feel even more tired.
“What kind of figure I have is my own business…”
“Well, won’t you choose some cloth?”
Oscar ignored her complaint and picked up a roll of cloth in front of him. He seemed to be especially interested in the fine black silk that would match her hair.
“First of all, take this one…”
He casually gave the artisan waiting nearby the cloth. Tinassha watched with cold eyes and stood up.
“I will pay myself, so please let me choose for myself.”
“I don’t mind… I ordered this for myself.”
“…Please just do as you like.”
Tinassha hung her head in resignation, but she remembered something and came to Oscar’s side and pulled at his sleeves.
“If you make a wedding dress or something on your own, I’ll curse you…”
Oscar roared with laughter at her words as if remembering the suffering she had once experienced.
※ ※ ※ ※
“Eh, Lady Tinassha didn’t come?”
Several days after the measurement-taking, Razar peered into the lounge and asked Doan. The witch should have always been here in her free time.
“Haven’t you heard, Razar? She said she needs to return to the tower for two days to air out her magical equipment.”
Razar started to say, and wondered what kind of expression he should make. It had been three months since Tinassha came to the castle; asides from the magic lake campaign, she had never left the castle for more than one day. What she usually did was attend the magicians’ lectures, practice in the training ground, read books, make tea for Oscar and get teased in the process. It was actually quite peaceful.
But, now that she was not here…
“Isn’t it peaceful?”
“It certainly is.”
Doan replied without raising his face from the spell book he was reading.
Tinassha’s protective barriers worked no matter where she was. And it didn’t really matter if Oscar hadn’t been protected in the first place.
So Razar agreed with Doan. Yet he’d failed to realize that this peace did not apply to him.
Two hours later, for some reason, Razar was on the back of a horse, exiting the castle via a back gate.
“Let’s stop! Lady Tinassha will get mad if this comes out!”
“Isn’t that why I’m going now? It’ll be troublesome if she’s here.”
“Can’t your recklessness be cured at all?!”
“It’s just once in a while, so it’s alright. If you have objections, then just stay here.”
Razar hung his head at his master’s cold words, but still urged his horse to follow.
This came about one hour ago. Oscar had been looking over reports from various places in the country in his office, but the last one had caught his attention. It all started when he had called out to Razar:
“Look at this.”
“What is it?”
Putting the tea leaves jar on the tray, Razar had taken the document. Since Tinassha had left, he had been making tea today, but the taste had always seemed wrong no matter what. She had told him the secret was to ‘steam it for the right period of time’, but he couldn’t quite get the trick.
Razar looked at the document he had received. It was about a mystery case in some village. The village had been near a dense forest, and since last week cases of people frequently missing had started to occur. The disappeared had been then found dead in the forest two or three days later with their bodies completely dried up.
“What is this?!”
“…I’m, on the other hand, not at all.”
Razar had replied, feeling an incredibly bad premonition. But Oscar had acted as if he hadn’t heard a thing.
“There’s been nine people dead already. It’s not that far from here.”
“Still not interested!”
“Shall we go and take a look?”
“Please listen to me…”
Razar had put both hands on the office’s desk and dropped his shoulders in resignation.
Before Tinassha had arrived, it had been well known that Oscar had had a bad habit of sneaking out of the castle and going somewhere. And that was not for strolls or sightseeing as some other princes do. No, he had always gone to places where demons had been said to appear, or historic ruins full of traps. Against his better judgement, Razar had come along every time, and had always felt like his lifespan had been shortened after each.
The witch they had met in one of such conspicuous places wasn’t here right now. Oscar, who had taken teasing her every day as an amusement, had seemed to find a way to take advantage of her absence.
Just imagining how dangerous the place they were heading to was and how angry the witch would be after finding this out, had made Razar turn pale. From the bottom of his heart, he wished he could also have few days off as well.
The village of Vairu was located near a mountain to the northeast of the castle city. Right outside the village was a thick forest connected to the mountain. The densely-grown trees covered up the gloomy forest even during day time.
Oscar and Razar arrived in the village before dusk. They concealed their identities to avoid troubles, and spoke to the villagers as investigators coming from the castle.
The first man they talked to was chopping wood in his garden. When they called out to him, he stopped his work, stacked up the wood and sat down.
“The first guy said he was searching for something in the forest… He didn’t say what, but he was in a strangely good mood. Then as I started wondering about how he suddenly disappeared, he turned up like that.”
‘Like that’ probably meant a dried up corpse. Razar, standing at the back, was getting more and more dispirited. Something awful had definitely happened. If possible, he wanted to return before getting involved, but from his experience up until now, he very well knew that it was impossible.
After talking to other villagers, Oscar, as expected, said:
“Well, shall we go into the forest?”
It was as lighthearted as ‘Shall we have some tea?’. It was exactly as Razar had feared, which made him cry:
“If anything touches the barrier, Tinassha will know. We have to dodge everything coming our way.”
“Rather than that, please just let her know.”
It was a bit better than becoming dried-up corpses, Razar thought.
It was somewhat easy to walk in the thick forest – was it because the villagers had been coming here often? But due to the unnatural deaths happening recently, almost no one came anymore.
They walked deeper into the forest, leaving marks here and there on the trees in order to mark their path.
“How big is this forest?”
“According to the map, at least ten times bigger than the village.”
“Searching the whole of it is absurd.”
“Villagers died here. It’s within walking distance.”
Not knowing what would happen, the two of them checked the map while heading to the east, where villagers had often gone to. It seemed that there were medicinal herbs there, which could be sold to magicians for a good price.
When they reached the area, one hour had passed since they entered the forest.
“From the look of it I can’t really tell which are medicinal herbs.”
“They all look like wild grasses.”
The two of them had no magic, so naturally they didn’t have much of an impression of this place. The area was a bit more clear – that was all they could tell. Villagers and magicians would know the useful plants, but all they could do was to try their best to not step on them. But it was impossible; in fact, they just tread the place with long strides.
“If they were blooming, it’d be easier to tell.”
The area was completely green.
Looking around restlessly, Razar discovered small white flowers a little to the right from the clearing and walked towards it. When he got close enough and looked down at them, he realized that they weren’t flowers.
The plant looked like a lily of the valley, but its drooping stalk was heavy with pearls instead of white flowers. Doubting his own eyes, Razar knelt down and touched a pearl with a finger. It felt hard.
“Your Highness! It bloomed pearls!”
“Are you stupid?”
He got a flat response. Oscar turned around and looked at him, who was a little away from the clearing.
“No, it’s real…”
“If it’s real then it’s even more stupid.”
Razar saw Oscar drawing Akasshia. He shrugged, wondering if he had made such a slip of the tongue.
But these certainly were real. When he was about to speak that out loud, he felt something coiling around his leg and looked down.
A vine was twinning multiple times around his ankles. It raised its tip and hissed just like a snake.