Chapter One: The Black Iron Star
Time passed— it was her seventeenth birthday.
And Riz was facing an unexpected situation.
It all started a week before her birthday.
She was urged by her mother, Virma, with “Here are five paintings. Now, choose the painting you love from these!” and, when she did just that, for some reason her fiancé was decided upon.
Nothing made sense.
The five pieces together were about half the size of the Book of Hours.
From the point of their three-color printing, she could tell they were manufactured by the latest printing technique.
The paintings were all unified under fruits: there was a pear, lime, grape, apricot, and apple.
Why was that connected to choosing a fiancé!? Riz was flustered on the inside.
The painting she chose was the lime.
At that time she simply thought that she was being made to decide on the kinds of baked sweets that would be given to her relatives on her birthday. She was too naive. She shouldn’t have made light of Virma’s ability to surmise and act.
On the occasion when she had been ordered to return to the capital’s mansion, she had thought something was going on.
It would be a lie if she said the word marriage hadn’t crossed her mind.
However, it was a topic she wished to avoid.
Noticing Riz’s own lack of motivation towards marriage, Virma must have taken the trouble to prepare those paintings.
When Riz was involved with paintings she lost all discrimination. Oil paintings, watercolor paintings, frescoes, in any case she loved all paintings.
If a book of pictures was opened, her expression would become enchanted. If she was looking at a wall painting, she could easily sit there for an hour.
Because her body was not strong by nature, Riz had recuperated in a gentle climate, living with her grandparents, until last year.
Even now it was still hard to say she had a healthy body.
That was precisely why, before her youthfulness was lost, a decent family for her to be married into had to be found— she could understand Virma’s impatience.
The first thing men of a high rank wished for in their marriage partner was whether or not they had a healthy body. There was a duty to leave behind descendants for the continuance of the house.
On that point, the majority of aristocrats would remove Riz from being a bridal candidate. Even if she was the daughter of an earl who was receiving the current monarch’s favor.
In that case, the target would be the second son, an entrepreneur or a court knight.
Meaning, someone with something to boast of, wealth, and future promise. Or someone with solid connections inside and outside of the country.
If a person didn’t want to be greedy, and narrowed it down to one of those, then they could be attracted to the house name of those who announced themselves.
“—Sir Emil is the second son of the Carotion family, and he has been appointed as the unit commander of the third military squadron of the Order of Holy Lion Knights. Even the Holy Knights of the Royal Academy of Gricos at this royal capital are being instructed by squires who are acting as temporary officers.”
Virma’s amiable voice resounded in a garden smelling of autumn flowers.
This vaunted garden was made with Virma herself handing out instructions to workers.
She carefully selected the plants to trees and was even particular about the colors of the flowers. There was a beautifully trimmed green carpet, flower beds were lined up, and round topiaries were arranged. Passing beyond the ornamental, pointed brick arch established in the middle, a long dinner party table was placed there.
Right now, Riz was sitting there together with everyone. She was the leading actor, more or less, of this birthday.
“Yes, the Carotion was given recognition for their distinguished services in the barbarian invasion that occurred two hundred years ago. They were the first to receive the honor of being called knights—“
Virma’s talk continued.
Her birthday parties so far, besides Virma and her sisters, only invited the relatives she knew.
If the number of invitees were to increase, the greetings alone would put a burden on her body.
However, a slight change was seen in the members this time.
In place of her absent father, her “marriage candidate” was participating.
“Of course, Sir Emil, you personally are a wonderful knight as well. You noticed the shadow of an assassin creeping up on the second princess and brilliantly captured—“
While listening to Virma’s voice, Riz took a peek at the face of the young man past the arranged baked sweets on the long table that came after the main dishes.
The age of her “marriage candidate” was in the late twenties. He had neat, short hair of a chestnut color and bright blue eyes.
And quite a shady— er, she meant a refreshing smile. Just by being a man of the Knight Orders he had a built figure, even while being slender. His indigo blue aristocratic clothing, with subdued decorations, was made of very good fabric if she looked closely. His cravat pin and cufflinks weren’t flashy either but they were elaborate.
As expected of her mother; a nice man was chosen as a candidate.
But she couldn’t understand.
Because she was unfamiliar to the circumstances of the aristocracy, unfortunately she couldn’t judge the exact standing of the Carotion family. However, at the least, Virma’s introduction shouldn’t have been a lie.
A commander at this young age. Earned an advantageous merit to establishing himself in life. A handsome man. His taste in clothes was also not bad.
Wasn’t this property too fine?
Even if he was the second son, why did this young handsome knight, with seemingly nice points and personality and a promising future, appear in front of her? He should have many admirers.
Putting aside her health problem, Riz was a delicate beauty if she kept silent.
Long silver hair and pale skin like brushed snow. Damp eyes that were praised as black jewels and the color of the eyelashes that bordered them was faint, like trembling feathers.
Even Riz’s family, who were used to seeing her, had times when their gazes were held by that beauty.
However, her nature was that of an introverted, undisciplined young lady who wouldn’t want to move one step unless it was for a painting.
Fundamentally, her expressions were dead. Shade was heaven and the sun was hell. Her uncle Hine, who she liked best amongst her family, had even declared that Riz’s blood was made of red pigment.
That Riz preferred a shut-in life was somewhat influenced by her environment up to then.
Bullied by the village children, who knew no restraint, for being like a ghost, she was always desperate not to cry. And she tried not to let it be found that she could see things others couldn’t.
As the years went by she ended up not seeing the appearance of fairies, but by that time she could no longer smile brightly like a normal girl.
Troubled and feeling like she couldn’t keep going on like this, she had practiced making facial expressions in her mirror many times, but it was a futile struggle. No matter how one looked at it, when she grinned she could only see herself as a creepy, smiling witch.
Since then, her serious and dull expression persisted.
“—Riz, come now, don’t be embarrassed and only continue to look down.”
Riz’s consciousness returned to reality at Virma’s call.
“Forgive us, Sir Emil. This child is, if I may say so as her mother, a deeply modest and humble child.”
Her mother showed a gentle smile, but the gaze she threw over here was sharp like a raptor. “Don’t space out and quickly show this man your entire life’s worth of charm!” is how those eyes clearly threatened Riz.
Mother, please don’t ask for the impossible.
This man was too dazzling. His smile was even shadier than her mother’s.
“Yes, Madam Virma, simply being able to meet the rumored lovely Maiden of Stars, Miss Riz, makes me a lucky man. She truly has a beauty that is enough to stop one’s breath and closely resembles the Madam, doesn’t she.”
Virma’s cheeks darkened like a young girl at Emil’s spoken flattery. Although, inwardly, she seemed to click her tongue and say “Praise me more, boy!”.
Riz turned a tepid look to Virma.
“Even the brilliance of gold and silver are overshadowed in front of Miss Riz. Does it not make your employed jeweler clutch his head?”
“Sir Emil, oh my! But it is true that our tailer groans. They have said that no matter what veil is placed on top of this child, it cannot hide her beauty.”
“That would be the case, wouldn’t it. I can understand.”
Today Riz was wearing a light beige and white dress.
It was a new work that just arrived at the mansion several days ago and even the craftsmen were satisfied at its completion. The upper arm was thin, but the cuffs opened widely. Lace was used abundantly around the cuffs, arms, and the drapes of the skirt. Around her neck was a jeweled choker; one of Virma’s collection. Riz was given it due to it being her birthday.
“If possible, Miss Riz, would you grant me the honor of seeing you reflect me in those eyes of yours?”
Riz returned her gaze to Emil and tilted her head.
“We are already looking at each other right now.”
“I would like to ask for a longer time.”
Emil smiled happily.
Riz furrowed her eyebrows. He was completely shady.
For casual words to come out in large drops like this meant that he was very accustomed to women, didn’t it?
Virma showed a face full of anxiety that seemed to say “I’m begging you, answer well!”.
I know, mother. I’ll do my best.
“You’re asking for a longer time, but it’s necessary to blink in order to maintain moisture in our eyes and so we cannot keep them open forever. I think the limit would be one minute at most, so should I take that to mean that you would like to stare at each other for that duration? According to one theory, men and women blink at different rates and, apparently, during times of nervousness the rate of blinking increases. In addition, in order to prevent foreign objects from entering, it seems that the speed of blinking is faster when closing than opening. By the way, there is a report that says we blink around twenty times in one minute and that we blink over one hundred million times in our lifetime. However, isn’t there a difference in this depending on one’s age—“
“RIZ!! Child, you’ve been filled with Dr. Commons’ strange knowledge again, haven’t you! I apologize, Sir Emil, this girl’s attending doctor is an eccentric… no, he’s very inquisitive and loves to talk. She must have learned that while meeting with her doctor.”
Virma forcibly cut in.
Who was Dr. Commons? They didn’t have that kind of attending doctor at home.
“Because Riz is a serious listener, the doctor also seems to get deep into talks! But why don’t we talk about something more enjoyable right now. You understand, yes, Riz?”
That it was better to change the topic was something painfully conveyed from Virma’s expression, which Riz felt nothing but fear from despite how Virma was smiling.
The other relatives at the long table looked at Riz with despairing eyes. Her uncle, Hine, and her two older sisters seemed to be doing their best not to burst into laughter.
She had to do something. Riz searched for another topic.
“Do you like limes?”
“Excuse me? Limes?”
Emil gave a confused look at the abrupt topic change.
“I was wondering if, perhaps, Sir Emil is an astounding lover of limes.”
Here her uncle, Hine, placed his head down on the long table.
Her sisters pressed handkerchiefs to their mouths and looked down.
“Or maybe you have a lime field? Or did you have an experience with a lime that changed your life?”
“Strange. Then I wonder why a lime was drawn on mother’s painting.”
“Pardon me? Painting?”
She stared intently at Emil’s questioning face.
The reason why Riz chose the lime in the five kinds of paintings was because she liked it somewhat. If she had chosen another painting, would another man have been chosen?
“Is it because Sir Emil’s name is similar to our family’s name? But that has no connection to limes… Ah, wait. Like I thought, the name is the correct answer, right, mother? ‘Emil’ read backwards is lime—“
“RIZ, DEAR CHILD!! You’ve thought of something interesting! Yes, this child loves fruits very much!”
Virma explained with teary eyes.
Mother, in my own way, I’ve tried to follow through with all my feelings though.
It was the first time in several months that she had talked to someone like this about things other than paintings.
It was a mistake to expect glittering, romantic talk by an introverted young lady.
In the first place, this man was just too dazzling.
If the conversation were about the research on the durability of tempera paintings or about methods of drawing with decaying food then she was confident she could stay up all night talking, but that was probably absolutely not allowed.
“Miss Riz is a lady who enjoys an abundance of topics, aren’t you. I cannot predict the next conversation and it’s quite interesting.”
Emil said this while chuckling.
“Y-yes!! Riz is a sociable child who loves talking!”
Mother, didn’t you just lie earlier and say that I was a deeply modest and humble child? And that I was a serious listener.
“If this is correct, Miss Riz, I’ve heard that you are deeply knowledgeable about the fine arts.”
Riz leaned forward at Emil’s question.
If he was alright with that topic then she would welcome it.
“Do you prefer eggs or milk for tempera paintings? I believe that eggs are the way to go in the end.”
“I find that deep yet vivid coloring irresistible. You can paint over it and it’s resistant to deterioration. It isn’t very suited for murals, but I think it’s the sovereign of colors in the art world. I’ve even thought about running a chicken farm—“
“It’s about time for you to see Dr. Commons! You have a slight fever, so you mustn’t strain yourself!”
“No, today I am feeling unusually well—“
“YOU HAVE! A FEVER!!”
“Sir Emil, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming today for my daughter. Yes, we will be sending a gift of thanks.”
Virma concluded the birthday party with a smile that brook no dissent. Her mother’s eyes were dead even more so than Riz’s normally were.
At the edge of Riz’s sight, she saw her sisters laughing while holding their handkerchiefs to their mouths.
After the birthday party, everyone was convinced that the “marriage interview” with Emil was a failure.
Even Riz herself honestly thought so. Virma stayed in her room for three days and wouldn’t come out.
However, after three more days.
A sealed letter arrived from the Carotion family requesting a formal engagement with Riz.
“So, Riz, you’re sulking and escaped to my place?”
“I’m not sulking.”
Presently, Riz came to visit at the mansion where her uncle, Hine, lived.
“When my big sister, Virma, tried to settle everything, you shook her off, right?”
Hine held out a cup of hot chocolate to Riz who was sitting on a couch, holding her knees.
She accepted it with both hands and, after taking a sip, spaced out.
Hine gave a wry smile upon seeing that and sat beside her.
Hine’s mansion was built three blocks away from the mansion in the royal capital, Sprarugle, where the Milton family lived in the summer. It was distance that even Riz, who was unused to going out, could come and go if she used a carriage.
The previous owner was an elderly lady who didn’t like extravagance. So, the mansion itself was small and even the decoration of the windows was subdued. It was a two-storey building with a flat roof; more than half of the red brick walls were covered with vines.
For all that it wasn’t flashy, there was a warmth and comfortableness.
“… Did the books in this room increase from before?”
The position of things in Hine’s study changed each time she came; mainly, the books stacked on the floor though.
“Ah, I obtained a rare art book at the book market. Want to see?”
“Later is okay.”
Hine was an art dealer, though he wasn’t a legitimate trader with approval from the Royal Fine Arts Agency. The main clientele was naturally the aristocracy; they uncovered diamonds of talent in the rough, buried in the streets, and focused their energy on cultivating and supporting them.
The Quito Ezira Empire, once the large-scale religious war ended fifty years ago, prospered in its culture and art and developed in various fields.
Countless precious cultural heritages were destroyed in the wars over whether the Old-Verse Bible, which included the Psalms and tenets of God, or the Bible, which emphasized compiling biographies of saints and the Gospels, was the real scripture. The Renaissance there lead to the art revolution of the present.
In this long history, these “Holy Wars” repeated many times without learning.
Scholars agreed that these wars happened for a reason. That someone who set it up existed underneath, and that it was none other than God himself. Art existed as a mirror to religion and, if that culture were to decline, the people’s faith would also become impure.
They said that was why history was shaken by that hand and turned towards a new age.
Riz didn’t know if the assertions of the scholars were correct or not, but in the royal capital, Sprarugle, even when people were taking holidays during the Spring Restoration Festival, the Seven Day Summer Festival, the Golden Autumn Festival, and the Winter Cruciform Festival there were galleries opened here and there on the streets. It was even likened in jest to be a sleepless nation of art by other countries.
Because it was a country where both the old and young admired works of art, unofficial art dealers like Hine were overflowing in the royal capital. It was an opportunity to get rich quick for artists of common birth. For merchants too.
Decorating with paintings, without knowing their worth, was the slogan of the nouveau riche. Even those who were prestigious were knowledgeable in the field of art. It was said that if a person wanted support from the aristocracy, they shouldn’t spare on any investment.
It was not an exaggeration to say that Riz held an interest towards paintings because of Hine.
Concerned about Riz, whose body was weak and who was kept confined in a mansion, Hine gifted her an art book as a distraction. That was the beginning.
Paintings were good. They didn’t lie.
Unlike the illusionary fairies, paintings were clearly visible in everyone’s eyes. They remained unchanging even after many years. Riz thought it was an art that celebrated permanence.
“… Riz, do you hate Sir Emil?”
Hine, who sat beside her, asked this while smiling and copying Riz, pulling both his feet up onto the couch. She scrutinized his face; it didn’t look very similar to Virma.
It was a slightly sleepy-looking and sweet face. His light brown eyes changed to gold when seen in a bright place. His hair, which was the same color as his eyes, also shone like an ear of rice.
“Is he a man you can’t stomach?”
“I thought he was dazzling. I don’t really know if I hate him or like him.”
“You don’t want to get married?”
“If that’s possible.”
Riz didn’t think of herself as having a serious illness, but just running around for a bit caused dizziness; she would also get a fever and then be laid up in bed for a long time. Could a person as frail as her be someone’s wife and build a happy family?
She remembered hearing that many women who married knights cooked by themselves without relying on servants. Riz was skilled at playing musical instruments, but she had no talent in cooking.
“It hasn’t sunk in that I’m getting married.”
“Well… I’m probably not persuasive, seeing as I’m single, but it’ll work out somehow better than you expected.”
Hine looked amused. She wondered why her uncle didn’t have a wife, even though he was popular.
“Still, the speed when it comes to my sister’s actions…”
Riz hung her head.
Ever since the sealed letter arrived from the Carotion family, Virma achieved a full recovery. She flung off the mask of being an elegant madam and, as soon as she shouted “I’ll make this marriage go through…!”, she immediately prepared a reply and began to contact the jewelers and artists they were the patrons of. Due to that, the mansion was like a hen house that was attacked.
As for her sisters, they dropped prickling, sarcastic remarks partly because Emil was a fine property and handsome man. They insisted “There has to be a hidden side!”.
Riz’s personality and preferences were different from her sisters and the period she lived away from them was long. Thus, their relationship was still bad. She had an older brother in the Milton family too, but he was currently studying abroad in another country.
Unable to endure a second longer, Riz had watched for an opportunity and escaped the mansion.
It may have been rather reckless to leave without permission or an attendant.
“I wonder if it will work out.”
“If it doesn’t?”
“You’ll flee the country with me.”
A divorce from the woman’s side wasn’t allowed unless there were exceptional circumstances. The law was fundamentally made to be beneficial to men, because politics were the realm of men.
“If that happens then you won’t be able to work in Sprarugle either, uncle.”
“I don’t mind. There’s an infinite number of wonderful paintings abroad.”
Realistically, she knew it was impossible to run away but she was happy at Hine’s consideration.
“It’s a good thing to travel to various countries. Your sense of values can also be overturned. Conversely, you might also re-confirm the goodness of your motherland.”
“There’s an interesting country to the north called the Ria Empire. There’s a lot of magicians there, to the point where it’s called a nation where everything is an illusion.”
“Magicians? By that do you mean those people who, just by swinging around something that doesn’t look like anything but a mere stick, can make mountains of poisonous candy with unknown expiration dates, ignore the structure and mechanisms of life to change people into cats and dogs, and who are dangerous beings equal to being a Final Secret Weapon?”
“W-well, I think you’re roughly correct, but don’t hold any hopes or dreams.”
What kind of fairy tale was that?
“But, no, there really is a strange country like that. I’m not lying, so please stop with those scornful eyes.”
Perhaps because he was clearly suspicious, Hine waved both his hands in a panic.
“In other words, I’m saying there are places we can live that isn’t this country. So, don’t push yourself to the last stage too much.”
“Mm, thank you, but you’re bad at cheering people up, uncle.”
“Riz, it’s good to hide half of the things in your heart.”
Hine was a little dejected but he immediately showed a smile. Getting off the couch, he looked down at Riz.
“How’s your body?”
“I’m fine today.”
“In that case, would you like to come with me to the art gallery? I’m exhibiting new paintings.”
When she answered immediately, Hine elegantly extended his hand.
After placing her hot chocolate on a small table, Riz took that hand and stepped down onto the floor.
Hine had an art gallery. It was said that he purchased it just before Riz came to the royal capital.
Its location was in the southern part of the royal capital, Houro— a section at the boundary between the slums and shopping district.
It was a miscellaneous area and lively but, unfortunately, it could not be said to have good security. Virma had forbid Riz from approaching that place.
Because of that, today was the first time she was visiting the art gallery.
It seemed that Hine was bringing her there, prepared to face Virma’s anger. He must have been concerned and wanting to give Riz, in her gloom, a change of pace.
Leaving the mansion while being pulled by Hine’s hand, they climbed into one of the mansion’s carriages.
After being shaken for a while they arrived at the shopping district and transferred into a two-wheel carriage. This was because there was a fear of being targeted by the group of thieves that made this area their territory. The carriages owned by aristocrats and for personal use had elaborate decorations and were luxurious, so they could be told apart at a glance.
“My art gallery was reconstructed out of a separate villa.”
Hine puffed out his chest and said that. Generally, art dealers with money to spare were like Hine and would purchase a mansion and exhibit works there. Because it also doubled as a place to nurture one’s own artists, depending on the conditions, they would lend out rooms like aristocrats who were patrons and also sell works.
Additionally, aristocrats also opened their own mansions to the public for exhibition purposes.
The arts required a lot of capital. It was common for art dealers to develop young artists recommended by aristocrats. Of course, there were calculations hidden underneath. With a noble patronage, there was value to an artist beyond their actual ability and the price of their paintings would also be dragged up. The shadow of unlawful business deepened the more active the art world became.
Illegitimate art dealers were fundamentally forbidden from holding auctions, but that was to the end on the surface only. Fearing the backlash of prominent aristocrats, the Royal Fine Arts Agency was in a situation where it could not act readily.
“Look, it’s right there.”
When they arrived at the Houro district, Hine stepped off the carriage first. He took Riz’s hand and approached the art gallery. It was a building that was like a long horizontal, built out of dark bricks. The stained glass windows all had long and narrow semi-arched shapes.
Riz’s steps naturally slowed.
“What’s wrong? Do you feel bad?”
She shook her head left and right at Hine as he peered at her face in concern.
But inwardly she was not calm.
What was that?
It was a crucible of chaos. That was the expression that floated first into her mind.
It was hard to breathe. It was dark. It also smelled. And she could clearly see a roiling black fog in their surroundings.
“How is it? Isn’t it a pretty good building? The strange thing is that, even though it’s built so solidly, I was able to purchase it from the previous owner at an extraordinary value.”
That meant it was a property with special circumstances. Riz swallowed those words down.
Rather, didn’t this mean the previous owner was desperate to relinquish it? She also desperately held back those words.
Her uncle was a gentle and mild man, but for some reason he had the annoying talent of being drawn to strange things. This could also be said for the paintings he bought.
She returned her gaze from the happy Hine to the art gallery.
“It’s very amazing.”
“Its scale is small, but don’t you think it has a church-like atmosphere? Like something solemn.”
Buildings and stores at the boundary of the slums were often solid structures like this. And they also had an appearance reminiscent of a church, similar to this art gallery.
The reason was simply to frighten thieves. Even the boldest of thieves would hesitate to commit an act that would be held in contempt by the gods.
“The instant I saw it, ‘I have to buy this place!’, is what I felt.”
Hine stared at the art gallery, spellbound. Riz was unable to reply.
Aristocrats loved buildings that had passed through eras over new buildings. She could understand their meaning, but… the air in their surroundings was absurdly stagnant.
No, the stagnation gathered on this art gallery.
Riz was troubled. Was it better for her to tell this fact to Hine? Or should she keep it in her heart?
As she grew, mysterious things had disappeared from her eyes. Fairies too.
However, if this wasn’t her imagination, inside the black fog there seemed to be walking skeletons, with blurred outlines. Riz hurriedly averted her eyes. She clearly saw things wrong.
“I’ll specially gift you a painting you like as a celebration for your wedding.”
Hine didn’t seem to feel a thing and, while matching Riz’s walking speed, he proceeded forward.
The people that came and went on the street also didn’t seem particularly concerned.
“It doesn’t have to be a painting either, if there’s something you want just tell me.”
Riz nodded, but her attention was concentrated on the art gallery’s entrance.
That door could only be seen as a lid to hell.
“Is this in the middle of an exhibition?”
Riz tilted her head when they came up to the main entrance. There was the presence of many people inside the art gallery.
Hine chuckled beside her.
“I didn’t say? I hired a temporary manager last week.”
“He’s actually a young man with extensive knowledge. Even though he’s young, he has a painting restorer and appraiser license. He’s also well-versed in art history.”
“… I see.”
There was prickle in her heart. Riz also wanted to be a painting restorer and appraiser, if it was allowed.
“However, there is a regrettable problem. Even though his restorations are perfect, he can’t draw an original painting at all. And he’s a poor talker, even more than you, Riz… er, I mean, he’s not accustomed to serving customers, although his appearance is good.”
“Did you meet him in your travels?”
“No, he appeared here at the beginning as a customer. It seems like he also started standing on his own as an art dealer. He told me the paintings I managed were all extraordinarily lovely, so he really wanted to ask for help.”
Ah, her uncle was moved by kindness.
Would this person really be okay?
Riz went inside together with Hine, who was in a good mood. The stained glass windows were built only on the side of the main entrance, which also served as a lobby. There were several gentlemen who looked like customers.
Inwardly, she had been trembling with fear as to whether or not a painting of hell awaited her inside but, unexpectedly, the air wasn’t stagnant. As they progressed through the lobby she concentrated her eyes. There were dull-colored tiles for the floor. To the left and right were statues of lions, facing each other. In the corner there was a round table decorated with flowers and a visitor log was placed there. The ceiling was a fresco of an astrolabe.
“The center is a storehouse and the exhibition room is in a shape that wraps around that. I guess you can say the passages are the exhibition room. The attic is a break room and office, and the basement is also a storehouse.”
When they opened the main door that was set in the lobby, just as Hine explained, all sides of the passages were used as exhibition room.
Riz held her breath.
There were no genuine art galleries that existed in the place she recuperated at. Perhaps there was one in the neighboring village, but her grandparents didn’t allow her to go that far. The only opportunities she had to tocuh a real painting was whenever she was invited to an aristocrat’s mansion or when a painter was invited.
It was stunning.
Closely packed up to the height of the ceiling, paintings of various sizes adorned the walls to the left and right.
Taking into account the preservation of these paintings, this passage— the exhibition room had no windows. The only light was from lamps which were contained in small niches, and so it was rather dim.
“You can only go into the central storehouse through a door that’s in a back passage.”
Hine pulled Riz’s hand while laughing at her as she stared around at the paintings dreamily.
The smell of pigment drifted strongly. Then there was the unique smell of oil. And also the sharp scent of fixing agents.
“There’s quite a lot of works, right? Currently, I’ve called out to the painters I manage and had them draw works in accordance with the Seven Day Summer Festival. There are also works of deceased people though. Here, take a look, as we walk forward the atmosphere of the paintings change.”
“In order, Sunday of the Dawn, Monday of Divergence, Tuesday of the Unheard Horn, Wednesday of the Lost Sheep…”
In “Sunday of the Dawn” there were many paintings with bright color tones. Illustrations of a maiden playing with animals beside a spring seemed to be popular. From Monday it gradually became disturbing. There were spiraling towers, which represented the devil, ruins, and other things of that sort. Tuesday had a complete change and there were many compositions with prophets and angels.
It happened when they came to Wednesday.
Riz stopped her eyes on a certain oil painting.
It was according to the regulation of the Royal Fine Arts Agency, No. 20. Larger than shoulder width, it was about two arms spread wide.
It was a multicolored painting that could be seen as an icon, but a deformation was noticeable.
“Ah, that’s a good painting. The artist also said that they put in their spirit.”
Hine explained. It was a work that simply expressed the theme, Wednesday of the Lost Sheep.
A nude woman, with a thin cloth wrapped around her chest and abdomen, raised both her hands to the heavens beside a spring. In the sky, angels and a sheep were flying.
No, perhaps the angels were trying to bring back the sheep that escaped to the sky? Red flowers bloomed at the feet of the nude woman.
“It seems to be a painting depicting salvation.”
Certainly, the composition could be received as angels bringing mercy to the earth. Flowers that bloomed at the feet represented blessing.
It was a good work, but defects could also be seen.
The color scheme was somewhat simple. The texture was also rough here and there. On the other hand, the texture was drawn cloyingly. The enthusiasm of the painter was conveyed stronger than the world of the work.
The artist would probably grow from here; they would improve dramatically if they were nurtured well. That was the atmosphere.
And yet why was she so bothered by something?
A mysterious unease spread in her heart—
“Does that painting please you?”
Riz was startled at suddenly being asked a question from behind.
It was an unfamiliar voice of a young man.
When she turned her body around, there stood a single man with a calm expression.
Even though the lights of the passage hadn’t disappeared, abruptly, she fell into a sensation of twilight closing in.
“Ah, John! You came at a good time.”
Hine, who was beside Riz, turned around and showed a smile.
When she unconsciously murmured, perhaps he heard that because the man called John looked at her with eyes that seemed to observe her.
He seemed around the age of early twenties. He had an austere appearance, like the male attendants serving at the mansion, but she could also feel a glamorous atmosphere. John had a black tie, black vest, and his long jacket was also black.
However, there were three pocket watches suspended on him: one on his vest and two on his jacket buttons. Each one had designs engraved of beasts, birds, and flowers, and if she looked closely at the color of the chains they were also slightly different.
His hair was also black. And the eyes behind the glasses were a black iron.
They were eyes like the starry sky and Riz inwardly sighed in appreciation. There was an impression of some inhumanity, but he was an intellectual and handsome young man—
“I will be troubled if you have fallen in love with me on sight.”
The air froze.
It was a pleasant voice, irritatingly so.
“May I suggest looking at the paintings rather than me?”
The young man continued in a cold voice which had no inflection.
“I am not selling myself. No matter how much money you have, you cannot buy me.”
“Wha, John! How are you fine with saying such extreme things!?”
Hine broke in, flustered.
“How, you ask. It is because there are many clients who wish to buy me along with their paintings.”
“I’m sorry about that! But you have to look at who you’re saying that to, because Riz isn’t a child who’d make that request!”
“It is young girls who are even more passionate about making advances on me though.”
The young man refuted him indifferently while fixing the position of his glasses with his fingertip.
Hine’s face became stiff, but when he noticed Riz’s gaze he paled.
Riz was aware that there was a deep furrow between her brows.
“Uhhh, um, Riz! He’s John Smith! The temporary manager I explained to you earlier!”
“Ermm, John, this young lady is my niece, Riz Milton. A beauty reputed to be the Maiden of Stars!”
“The Maiden of Stars.”
John stared intently at Riz with eyes that held absolutely no emotion.
Her eyebrows right now were probably carving the deepest furrow she’s ever had in her life.
“I am also not for sale, so matter how much you stare at me you cannot buy me.”
“Hm? Did I look as if I wanted to buy you?”
He answered in a tone that was slightly surprised. As if he were saying… it would be troubling if she had that misgiving.
In this case, it felt like being ridiculed with “Who would want to buy you!” would have been better instead.
“I have not the slightest of intention to buy you. You seem to be enchanted by me, however I was simply observing you and wondering which part of you is a Maiden of Stars, nothing more.”
Even Riz, who knew nothing at all about sociability, could tell.
This was outrageous.
“I expect it’s only the color of your hair. However, why does everyone liken silver hair to stars or moonlight? Does it not seem like a bundle of spider silk or like silver paint was poured on your head?”
Everything was outrageous.
“In the first place, the color of stars are not necessarily silver. There are red, yellow, and even blue ones. It is said that reddish stars are aged.”
The assessment of John which she heard before entering the art gallery was too kind. Far from being a poor talker, he was a devastating one.
Just his quiet way of speaking gouged into her spirit even more without hesitation. The person himself was probably unaware though.
“N-no, Riz! He’s definitely not trying to look down on you! He’s an intellectual, so don’t you think he has a unique perspective? Some customers have accepted him, saying that it’s good!”
“Are those customers perverted?”
It was only Hine who was flustered.
Riz couldn’t erase the furrow between her brows still, but this John man was unruffled.
“Oh, I know, what if we have him choose a painting! And how about I make that a gift for your wedding celebration?”
Riz secretly let out a sigh.
Due to John her awareness deviated into an unexpected direction, but her problem right now should be the abnormality of this art gallery.
While keeping John at the edge of her sight, she spoke to Hine.
“Huh? What about the art gallery?”
Hine blinked his eyes with a confused appearance.
“I don’t want just one painting. I want this entire art gallery.”
“W-what? You want to become this gallery’s owner?”
She knew it was an unreasonable request.
But this art gallery was frightening.
She wanted to give it up as soon as possible.
Riz didn’t know if it was a problem with the site or whether there was another cause, but the surroundings around this building was too stagnant. If a sensitive human was locked in here for a long time, wouldn’t an abnormality be caused?
She was also anxious about the exhibited art works. She wanted to check everything for whether or not there were other strange things.
“Do you like this art gallery that much, Riz?”
Hine smiled in a troubled way as he stroked her hair.
No matter how generous he was to Riz, he probably wouldn’t listen to this selfish request.
And it wasn’t her real intention to explain the circumstances and scare him. No, maybe it was just painful to say “I see fairies” and be thought of as lying again.
“… I’m sorry, I said something unreasonable. Uncle, I’d like this painting.”
At the very least, so that this painting which strangely bothered her wouldn’t be sold to anyone, Riz felt that it was better for her to keep it. That was what she thought, but someone interrupted.
“Unfortunately, I have purchased this painting.”
John pushed the corner of the oil painting in question with his index finger.
“Purchased? Aren’t you the manager?”
“From the start I came here as a customer. I purchased it before I was employed.”
Riz turned her gaze to Hine.
Hine nodded while hesitating. It seemed true.
Basically, at an art gallery, the works continued to be exhibited even after being booked by customers. They would be delivered after the exhibition period ended.
“I’ll give you the money, so I’d like you to sell it to me.”
“This is troubling. I am also drawn to this painting.”
John showed a smile for the first time there.
“What is your reason for being drawn to this painting titled ‘The Moment of Liberation’?”
Before Riz could answer, Hine raised a hand lightly and chided John.
“John, even if she’s my niece, you can’t address her so impolitely. It goes against etiquette. This girl is the daughter of an earl.”
John placed a hand on his chin and pondered.
“Miss, what is your reason for being drawn?”
He didn’t understand. He just added “Miss” on.
However, Riz didn’t mind and she shook her head at Hine, whose eyebrows lowered.
She returned to face John who was waiting for an answer.
“Even though it’s a holy painting, there’s something unconvincing about it.”
“Is it holy, I wonder. Which parts?”
Was that the wrong answer? She unconsciously put herself on guard, but there was no ridicule in his eyes. There was a quiet heat, like that of a scholar diving into research.
“It is a painting that is valued enough to be displayed at an art festival. However, it is not a masterpiece. A masterpiece doesn’t stop at just causing admiration in those who appreciate it. It shows history, tests sensibilities, delivers knowledge, speaks to the heart, and kindles a spark. However, Miss, you are not appraising it as ‘holy’ with that meaning, are you?”
She understood what he wanted to say.
A “masterpiece” produced a kind of faith. Even if it was not a religious painting, there were many things that made a person feel “holiness”.
“No. I meant it literally as a religious holiness.”
“The interpretation for that is?”
He cut in without hesitation.
That reminded her that John held the licenses of a painting restorer and appraiser and, on top of that, he seemed to be well-versed in art history. Even though he was this bad at talking.
However, was she being tested?
Thinking that, Riz tensed her body. She also felt herself get faintly excited.
It was the first time she was appraising a painting with someone on an equal level.
Refreshing. Her awareness also sharpened.
Now, she would unravel this painting.
“The way the angel flying on the left side is holding their flute. The flute is an instrument where a breath passes through and sound is born. When it makes a sound, peace is disturbed. Because of that, it has an important meaning in religious paintings. Other harmony, or things like that.”
“This angel is holding the flute horizontally. It is clearly making a sound… I think it expresses the stability of heaven and earth.”
“The angel beside that one has one hand pointing up and the other hand pointing down. It should be demonstrating that God is staring at the earth. That the nude woman is not wearing clothes means purity or it’s a symbol of innocence. The flowers at the nude woman’s feet are blessing that she is not corrupt.”
John readily nodded.
It was a simple reaction that didn’t make her think she was acknowledged. Riz was cautious.
“… That’s not all?”
He affirmed that.
Riz was flustered.
Did she miss something?
But there wasn’t anything to note in particular about the wings of the angels. The spring beside the nude woman also wasn’t impure.
The trees also had no peculiarities.
“Have you noticed it?”
It was frustrating, but she didn’t know.
But something was strange. Riz recalled the instinctive sensation she had when she first saw it.
She must have been caught by something.
There was an unknown distortion in this painting.
Even though it was holy, there was a sinful smell.
“Look closely. The eyes do not deceive. It is only the narrow mind that interrupts.”
John pointed at the nude woman with a fingertip.
Riz still didn’t understand. Where was the problem?
His fingertip moved, as if caressing the nude woman. He wasn’t actually touching the canvas, and yet it was a sensual finger. From the chest to the waist to the thighs. Like a stroke, it swayed from left to right—
She was struck with an insight.
The thin cloth wrapped around the nude woman’s body formed a spiral. A spiral represented the devil.
“The nude woman has both arms spread wide.”
A shiver went down her spine. This was it. Even though it was in her eyes, she missed it!
“It’s a tornado.”
Like a toast, both arms were opened to the left and right. And then there was the shape of the cloth around the body.
If she tried pulling out just this section then it was an inverted triangle— expressing a tornado.
Meaning it hinted at an outburst of disturbance. This was a blasphemy to the heavens, because tornadoes also disturbed the heavens.
“There is still more. The tip of the nude woman’s cloth has fallen on the ground, hasn’t it.”
“It’s glued to the ground… Cloth is a symbol of reason and it’s grasped by the devil.”
Now that it was like this, the red flowers blooming at the nude woman’s feet held a completely different implication.
It wasn’t a blessing. It was the color of fire. The flames of hell were burning.
“One more thing. Your attention should be on the sheep’s corner.”
“This is also a spiral.”
Riz felt a feeling of numbness.
The mask of a pure sheep trying to go to heaven was torn off.
It’s true identity was the devil. And the one who released it was the nude woman. She pretended to be pure, but was sinning with the devil.
It switched secretly into that sort of blasphemous painting.
“The problem is that this artist drew this unconsciously.”
Suddenly, a memory of a distant day passed through her mind. “Blasphemy” that was drawn unexpectedly.
—It was a distorted painting.
John smiled as if he heard the voice of Riz’s mind.
Even though it was an elegant expression that felt tranquil, her spine trembled. She abruptly thought of how it was a beauty like that of a demon’s. For some reason, as she talked with him, it was like the voices of the other guests were brushed aside…
“Miss, would you like to see the other paintings?”
Riz was unable to resist the offered hand. She gently placed her fingers on top.
After that, she was shown around the exhibition room by John Smith, but Riz stopped the viewing due to her poor health.
In truth, a light headache had started, but the main reason for refusing was another one.
It was because of the vague unease she felt upon seeing the painting of the nude woman called “The Moment of Liberation”— and how she discovered several other works evoking the same sensation.
John seemed to seeking that exact reaction of Riz’s. When Riz concluded her appreciation of the paintings, he looked disappointed.
He was a likeable young man with abundant knowledge if it was restricted to topics about painting. During their viewing, he explained the exhibits in a way where the main point was easy to understand.
But Riz was a little scared of him.
Like the paintings that lead to uneasiness, she felt an unknown distortion from him.
The moment she parted from him, as he looked reluctant, and exited the art gallery she was unknowingly relieved.
It was after she returned to the mansion that she realized how, in the end, she didn’t obtain “The Moment of Liberation” and couldn’t keep Hine away from the art gallery.
Upon returning home, there was another battle scene waiting.
In the entrance, with both hands on her waist, stood an expressionless Virma.
Her escape from the mansion and, in addition to that, her art gallery visit, which should have been forbidden, seemed to have already been found out. Virma stared down at Riz, emanating an anger that was enough to make the servants waiting at the walls rigid.
“For an unmarried daughter to go to the place with terrible security without bringing along any guards… If anything happened it would have been too late!”
Perhaps to try and soothe Virma’s anger, Hine broke in with an amiable smile. However, it had the opposite effect.
“Wait, sister. I didn’t let Riz go alone and, in the first place, I invited her to provide a distraction. Riz didn’t do anything wrong. Besides, it’s not as dangerous of a place as you make it to be, sister…”
“You shut up!!”
Hine shook at Virma’s menacing look.
“Riz will collapse at even the slighest change in the air! Even if she is a girl without any feminine hobbies, or shame, and has dead eyes, this girl is a weak lady!”
As she sent a glare at the shrinking Hine, Virma touched Riz’s forehead with a gentle hand, opposite to her ruthless eyes.
“Aah, see! Look, isn’t that a fever. It’s because she went to a terrifying place! Oh, how sad, how lonely she must have felt in a strange land.”
“Mother, I wasn’t particularly lonely.”
“Don’t back talk!!”
When Riz stealthily exchanged a look with Hine and he signalled, ‘We can’t go against the queen”, they were noticed.
“Riz, child, you haven’t reflected on your actions at all, have you!? For a month you are forbidden from leaving this mansion!”
By nature she didn’t go out much. With the bothersome tea parties and dinner parties settled without her attendance, she rather wished for this withdrawn life.
“From now on, you will be training for marriage with me, your mother.”
“It is a matter of course. If you have time to hold a brush, you should do embroidery!”
She knew Virma was right, but she felt increasingly depressed all at once.
Properly speaking, an aristocrat’s daughter was entrusted to a high-class cloister for several years where they received a lady’s education.
However, Riz had been recuperating in the country for years.
She learned the basics of sewing and etiquette from her grandmother and tutors. But maybe it was different from the guidance of a strict cloister and, when compared to ladies of any age, Riz seemed to be lacking knowledge as a lady.
“Even if you know the names of painters in detail, you don’t know a single popular poet, do you. We can’t do anything about horseback riding and dance, but you have to at least be good in embroidery.”
Virma placed a hand on Riz’s cheek and told her that she had to learn the knowledge of being a mistress of the house for the place she married into.
“But I’m not confident in being able to act like a lady while being a wolf in sheep’s clothing like you, mother.”
Her nose was grabbed by Virma.
“A woman who cannot feign friendliness is not a lady! Listen well, Riz, next month the people of the Carotion family will gather and we will have a dinner party. There, the official engagement vows will be exchanged.”
“… Yes, mother.”
“The wedding will be around a year later. It’d be better after you become eighteen, I’d think.”
That Riz’s feelings weren’t settled was notice.
The setting of this period must have been Virma’s consideration, in her own way.
“Now, go to your room.”
Riz obediently returned to her own room. Borrowing the hand of a maid, she changed into an indoor dress.
Sitting deeply into a couch, she took a break with hot chocolate.
She told her maid that she was going to rest a bit until dinner and had her go to the next room.
Riz rubbed the seat of her couch meaninglessly with the pad of her finger. On the wine-colored fabric was embroidery of the same color. The couch, of course, but also the round table, display shelves, curtains, and everything provided in this room was selected by Virma.
Because of that it didn’t really feel like her room. The wallpaper had a calm lily pattern and the wooden furniture was all made out of cherry wood. It was a wood that changed into deeper hues along with the years, but perhaps becasue they were all new there was a somewhat cold impression.
The bedroom, which was divided by a wall with its door removed, was overall a darker color than this side. Of course, from the dresser to the candlestands, everything was new. Even the mansion maids were distant towards Riz and it was hard to say she had opened her heart here.
If it was allowed, she wanted to stop the marriage and return to her grandparents’ village.
But that thought was simply too naive. She was living as a daughter of an aristocrat. Marriage was also a duty.
If she really wanted freedom then she could abandon her status. However, how was someone like her, who knew nothing of labor, supposed to make a living? It was also impossible to aim for painting.
Riz could draw paintings herself. She thought she was good enough at least for the aristocrats, who loved art, to request one finished piece because they wanted to decorate their mansion.
However, it was just at that degree. Even if her ability alone was excellent there was no meaning.
If one talked about skilled people, then there were countless of them.
It was the person that had technique, talent, and passion who was a true painter. They were hard workers who did not give up.
Gender was the trouble more than the presence of talent. When a woman drew a religious painting or a portrait painting, she would become the target of criticism.
Female painters were permitted still life paintings and landscape paintings. Even in a studio, at most they could become an assistant. Also, something like instructing the children of a respectable family as a tutor. There were no other activities.
Riz had more of a desire to research and discover hidden masterpieces than to succeed as a painter. She also admired the artisans of pigments.
But what she wanted most was to be a painting appraiser or restorer. Maybe she would risk her life and disguise her gender to take the test…
The moment her fantasies expanded to that point, the face of John Smith appeared in her mind.
Her brows naturally drew together.
The man who had both qualifications of a painting appraiser and restorer. Someone she didn’t really want to be involved with.
For some reason, his eyes evoked a strange uneasiness. Like a distorted painting.
A sigh leaked out. What she was unable to have her way with wasn’t just her marriage.
And what was she to do with her uncle’s ominous art gallery? The person himself seemed to like it and so it was painful for her to bring up disposing it.
Riz got up from the couch and went to her bedroom.
Her business was the closet that was set in the back wall. Normally, the door there was hidden by the drapes of the curtain she lowered.
There was a step at the entrance of the closet, which made it somewhat lower than the room.
Inside was a collection of paintings and art books she had gathered up to now, and a complete set of painting materials she was storing. Because the smell of pigment would be heavy, she didn’t hold her brushes in this place. There was also no window.
She took a cylinder from the wall shelves.
There was a painting inside.
Riz sat down on the floor, which was covered by a deep crimson carpet, and carefully spread out the canvas.
It was the painting she received from a traveler, who had eyes the color of the dawn, when she was young. It was also Riz’s most cherished treasure.
There was a single fish swimming in a bright starry night. It was a painting that, while bringing holiness, was also bewitching somewhere.
Riz murmured under her mouth, “Daughter of the Fish”.
The traveler called Riz that. Daughter of the Fish. It was not about the constellation.
If she remembered correctly, at that time the traveler—
As she tried to remember his words she lied down beside the painting and closed her eyes.
T/N: Happy Birthday to me! LOL I’m surprised I managed to get this out on this day, but anyway please everyone love this heroine with me and the exchanges she has with the male lead, John Smith. Can you imagine trying to talk to two people like this? Anyway, next chapter is my favorite because… spoilers: contract time!
Note1: I wanted to mention this because it’s lost in the translation but the word used for “silver” in the prologue can also refer to the metal silver. It’s written as “shirogane” in hiragana. Care to guess what this chapter is called? It’s “kurogane” in hiragana, which is an old way to say iron (or black iron). Putting aside the obvious parallel of “shirogane” and “kurogane” (white/silver and black), kurogane can be written in many different ways but the chapter titles are in hiragana, so they’re purposefully hiding this from us.
However, in this chapter itself, Riz describes John’s eyes with 黒銀. This isn’t actually a word (it’s more a name) but it can be read as “kurogane” as well and literally translates to “black and silver”. So, I took the liberty of joining up the description with the chapter title because if you look up images of black iron, doesn’t it look like it has a silvery shine? Like a starry night sky.
Note2: I don’t think the symbolism holds true in reality and it’s just being used in their universe. However, they do refer to actual painting knowledge. I thought it was neat to read about tempera painting, which uses a permanent fast-drying medium made out of egg yolk or milk.