My wish must have been heard, because the hard click of footsteps became audible, and a beautiful, slender woman appeared.
She wore a chic blue dress under a blue robe, high heels on her feet, and her black hair was elegantly arranged.
She turned to scrutinize us, one by one, eyes narrowed through her monocle. Her red lips curved into a smile.
“Oh, my. Something very amusing is happening, I see.”
It was the Head Wizard, Lady Irene von Artmann. At her entry, Lutz and Theo visibly panicked, and a tiny groan escaped their lips.
Lady Irene turned her sweet smile on them.
“You must have excess energy to be causing disputes in the corridors. If that is so, then I should have created a body building regiment with no breaks. Shall we rectify that promptly upon our return? Well, my fool apprentices?”
“Please forgive us!” the two apologized immediately.
They stood and bowed with a practiced agility that even those who were athletically inclined might envy. You guys, what was your occupation again? In spite of myself, I watched with a sense of detachment.
The meeting hadn’t even begun yet, but I already felt exhausted.
“You too, Klaus. Put away your weapon,” I ordered, looking at him. He reluctantly sheathed the sword, an unhappy look on his face.
To draw a sword inside the castle when it wasn’t even an emergency was clearly an issue.
“Good grief! No matter how the times change, men will remain children. How troublesome. Do you not think so?”
After a single cold glance at the group of guys, Lady Irene smiled gently at me. The difference in warmth was impressive.
I’d break the boys’ hearts if I agreed with her, so I hesitated and dodged the question with a noncommittal smile.
Lady Irene looked down, her eyes growing wide when she saw the black cat in my arms.
The human-friendly Nero displayed no signs of being frightened despite being stared at, and looked up at Lady Irene with head slightly tilted. When he meowed at her, Lady Irene broke into a grin.
“What a dear! Princess, are you raising him?”
“Yes. His name is Nero.”
She reached out with the arm not holding the books and tickled him under the chin with the back of a finger. He didn’t hate it, and allowed the affection.
It felt a little awkward taking advantage of Nero’s cuteness, though.
“Er, Lady Irene. I apologize for bringing personal baggage with me, but might I have permission to take him inside with me?” I asked timidly.
She nodded readily.
“I would not mind. We are to share a table with acquaintances of yours only, and this one seems very docile and of the well-behaved sort. I trust he will not make trouble.
“Quite the difference from my fool apprentices,” Lady Irene added with a bit of poison to her words as she gave Lutz and Theo a sidelong glance. The two of them kept their gazes fixed to the floor, their mouths shut.
“I expect neither of you have a complaint?”
There was no longer a question mark at the end of that sentence. Even though it was disguised as an inquiry, wasn’t it closer to an command?
The two straightened their backs, their voices overlapping as they spoke in unison, their answer united. “None at all.”
Their attitudes as they desperately tried to not incur her wrath was a refreshing change.
I could understand why Lutz, with his slight build, might refuse to take any part in the bodybuilding regiment. But strapping Theo, too? Interesting.
For now, however, let’s give precedence to the guests who are waiting.
The unexpected situation continued, making us late, but we herded ourselves to the room.
The room was 46 square meters, paintings hung on three of the walls, and the ceiling was decorated with fine ivy details. Beneath the hanging splendor of the chandelier, Georg and Michael stood from their seats.
Next to him, Michael said in a small voice, “The one from before.”
“Yes. He’s the one you saved.”
Michael watched as Nero stretched in my arms and looked up at him with great interest.
“He looks well, I’m glad.”
Michael’s voice and the look in his eyes were very gentle.
I smiled. “His injury has been quick to heal, and the truth is that he can already walk.”
I said it to ease his mind, but, for some reason, Michael’s face became stiff. He held his breath, looking as if he had swallowed something odd by accident.
The hand he had stretched out to touch Nero stopped midair and withdrew.
His strange behavior made me concerned, so I peered up at him, but he averted his face.
He kept his head down, and I felt confused.
Did I do something wrong?
“Princess, shall we begin?” asked Lady Irene.
“Oh, uh, yes.”
I took my seat.
Since they were meeting for the first time, the boys went around making self-introductions. Even through that part, Michael never once looked in my direction.
I’m a little…no, I’m in a lot of shock.
I fought against the urge to look down, and addressed the main point. “Well then. Lady Irene, if you would be so kind, I would like to hear your thoughts regarding the medicine I handed over to you.”
You have things you need to do first before you can even be sad, I sternly told myself.
Lady Irene spread the cartridge that had been placed on top of the mahogany table. The pill had been broken and powdered.
“When I tried to take a closer look at the refined material, I noticed it had a slight tinge of red. From the feel of the material, I believe it is bark.”
Georg stared at the medicine fixedly, repeating her words back. “Bark, you say?”
“It is much too coarse to have originated from leaves or roots. You could make it into a paste by adding a binding agent to the clump of spices. The smell is weak, and the taste quite bitter.”
Lady Irene opened a thick book she had brought.
“Bark-based medicine are not very common. What I am checking in our own kingdom is…”
She turned the book in our direction.
On the page she pointed to with her pale finger, there were various illustrations of trees with comments written on them. A tree which bloomed tiny yellow blossoms, a tree bearing big shiny leaves, and then, a tree with yellow bark on the inside. Lady Irene politely explained their uses one by one.
“However, each characteristic is different. Even if we comb through the trees and shrubs one by one, what we have in our hands is a pill that has already been processed, so any comparison would be difficult. The current situation therefore leads me to say identification will prove a challenge. ”
Done with her general explanation, her eyebrows lowered and she gave a small sigh.
Theo raised his hand.
“Can’t we trace it with magic? Wizards borrow nature’s strength, so they should be proficient at finding the powers of their same attribute.”
“True. For example, if they are a water attribute wizard, they can locate the source of a river. If they are a wind attribute, they can sense the flow of currents in the atmosphere or read the weather. And if they are an earth attribute wizard, then they may be able to find the original environment or its species. However, as you and I both know, there is no earth attribute wizard in the palace.”
In the rural areas, it seems like there do exist wizards who make a living doing the work similar to a doctor. However, since they are not under the patronage of the kingdom, their strength can easily be guessed.
But even if they tried to do it, there was a big possibility it could end in failure.
“Aren’t there any other choices apart from painstakingly following every clue?” asked Georg.
It was overwhelming, but at this point, there was no other method.
New information might just come rolling in from there. We can’t give up. Let’s hope for the best.
For now, we dissolved the meeting, and everyone stood from their seats.
I was thanking Lady Irene for her time and making friendly conversation, when someone spoke to me from behind.
“Umm, Miss Marie?”
I turned to find Georg standing behind me with a nervous look on his face.
What’s wrong with you, Georg?
A seizure? Chronic spasms? If that’s the case, should I call the grandfatherly court physician for you?
“What is it?”
Looking away from me, Georg mumbled hesitantly. “Uhh, umm…”
His femininity is so high—!
“If–if you don’t mind, would you kindly guide me to the greenhouse?”
“To the greenhouse?” I repeated.
I wasn’t mocking him. It was just a little surprising that Georg would show an interest in plants, but he impatiently opened his mouth and started to justify himself.
“Err, well, that is, I have nothing to be ashamed of! I’ve heard mention of the abundant number of rare medicinal plants cultivated here, and merely wanted to see them at least once!”
Somewhat overwhelmed, I took a step back.
Georg noticed me pulling back and cleared his throat, apologizing in a small voice. He shook his head in order to let me know not to mind him, blushing in embarrassment.
I was surprised by his force, but I assented.
To Georg, who was helping Master Julius, anything valuable was…didn’t it come down to a natural response regarding procurable items that can become goods?
The greenhouse has a strict no entry policy when it comes to outsiders without authorized access, but it should be okay since it was Georg. When I looked to Lady Irene for her opinion, she nodded magnanimously.
Permission granted, I turned to Georg.
“Very well. If you are fine with me—”
“Wait a minute!”
I was going to nod and smile, but before I could even do that, a pale hand blocked my view. The next moment, a body pushed itself between me and Georg. The hem of the black robe made from a fine fabric lightly flapped like an afterthought.
All I could see was the back of his head because his back was turned to me. But even though I couldn’t see his face, I knew who he was from the peculiar color of his nearly-white silver hair.
“If he needs a guide, we’ll do it.”
How did this come about?
And why the need to even wedge himself between us?
It was perplexing, and one question rapidly followed another. Theo came to stand next to me. He peered into my face, a gentle smile on his face.
“Princess,” he said, “don’t you have to return the cat to your chamber?”
He looked at Nero in my arms.
Nero must have been weary; he was sound asleep before I realized it. It certainly wouldn’t be very kind to drag him with me here and there.
“You’re right. Then, can I bother you two?”
Lutz looked back at me with a smile. He nodded. “Of course. Leave it to us.”
Suddenly, a face popped out of Lutz’s shadow, and I looked at Georg.
“Well then, Georg, do you find this arrangement agreeable?”
Georg’s brows were knit together, and, after a long hesitation, he nodded. “Yes.”
I switched my focus to Michael who was still sitting down.
“Michael, will you be going with him?”
He looked up with a start.
“Y-yes? What, what was that?”
It seems like he hadn’t heard a thing.
“Georg will have Lutz and Theo guide him to the greenhouse, but what about you?” I explained patiently.
“I,” he said hesitantly, chewing on his lip.
His wandering gaze, which seemed so indecisive, settled on Lady Irene, who was collecting the books she had set on top of the desk.
She noticed him and asked, “Something the matter?”
Michael spoke desperately, stumbling over his words. “Er, excuse me, Your Excellency… If you would be so kind as to, um, spare…a moment?”
I stared at him in shock. I hadn’t expected him to say that, but all Lady Irene did was blink mildly. Behind the monocle, her jet black eyes gleamed with intelligence as she considered Michael.
His shoulders shook as she stared at him, but even though he was trembling, he did not look at away.
She looked down and sighed.
“Come,” she said to him as she gathered the books in her arm and began to walk away. Belatedly returning to his senses, he followed Lady Irene as she left the room.
I mulled over it as I saw him off.
Until this moment, I thought he would continue to hide it.
“What is the matter with Michael?” asked Georg, confused.
I didn’t know how to answer to him.