Chapter Three: The Forest of Colors
Several days passed without anything in particular happening.
During that time, Riz came down with a fever, was restless, received visits from Hine, and other small events happened; however, she didn’t have any dreams of John anymore. When she asked Hine, he told her that John was diligently working at the art gallery. It was somewhat anticlimactic.
Riz returned to her normal life after her body recovered.
One day, when she was reading an instruction book for ladies, given to her by Virma, in the study on the first floor, the entrance hall suddenly became noisy.
Lifting her head from her book, she looked over at that presence.
It seemed like people were arguing.
The voices were Virma and Hine?
Riz stood up from her chair and exited the study.
Perhaps it was because the personalities of the calm Hine and lively Virma contrasted each other that they got along well, and they interacted with each other moreso than their other relatives. It was unusual for them to seriously argue.
Going through a corridor decorate with house plants, Riz went to the entrance hall.
There were portraits of family members on the walls of the corridor and lavender leaves used as air fresheners.
The study was built in the left wing of the mansion, with a sitting room being on this side too.
When she arrived at the entrance, Virma and Hine were there as she expected.
She thought about greeting Hine, but even an outsider could tell there was a stormy atmosphere between the two.
Even the servants and steward waiting at the walls were staring at them with nervous appearances.
When Virma noticed Riz standing there, the corner of her eyes tightened.
“Riz, go back to your room!”
Virma couldn’t be opposed at times like these.
Riz nodded and immediately obeyed.
She returned to her room and sat on the couch by the window.
As for the reason for the argument, she would ask Hine himself later. Virma was generally the cause.
She asked a servant to bring a book for her to read.
Riz concentrated on reading for a short while before someone opened Riz’s door.
A servant would never open her door without permission.
Looking over, the person who appeared was her second older sister, Grace. She was a year older than Riz.
Inwardly, Riz was puzzled.
She didn’t have much of a relationship with her two older sisters.
And ever since Riz’s fiancé was decided upon, Grace had been in a bad mood.
She herself also had a knight fiancé. Because he had been ordered to guard the prince who was studying abroad in another country, he was to return to the country two years later. The marriage had been postponed until then.
As a result, Riz would be married first and she seemed to be angry at that.
Grace came up to Riz and stopped with a hand placed on her hip.
She was wearing a gorgeous, deep crimson dress. Its lace was conservative, but in exchange there was an ample use of embroidery on the skirt.
Riz had a cream-colored dress. Because she hated moving, she chose one where the volume of the skirt was somewhat small.
Grace had a figure that was very similar to Riz, but the color of their hair was the exact opposite. Grace had black hair like a night sky. Riz thought it was a beautiful color, but Grace seemed unhappy and was envious of Riz’s silver hair.
Among the three daughters, it was only Grace who didn’t inherit Virma’s beauty.
The expression of having cute features applied more to her. That also might have been a reason that made Grace deliberately shun Riz. However, she was close to their eldest sister.
Considering that point, it seemed it wasn’t just a matter of appearances. In the end, she must not like Riz’s personality.
“You don’t know anything, yet you’re so carefree.”
The first thing Grace opened with was to criticize Riz.
“You leave everything to other people and then just skim the cream off the top?”
“What are you talking about, sister?”
Riz tried to stand up but she was stopped by Grace’s intimidating eyes. Her only choice was to sit again.
“The art gallery.”
Grace turned to the side and spat that out in a strong tone.
Riz especially loved the profile of this sister of her’s. Her long curly hair was also lovely and it made her think of the maidens drawn in fantastical paintings. Even her expressions were full of life.
It was much more attractive than her own dead eyes.
“Uncle said he was leaving the art gallery to you.”
“Why is our uncle always spoiling you alone?”
Due in part to being charmed by Grace’s profile, Riz couldn’t follow the conversation.
Grace returned her face to Riz, who was taken aback, and clicked her tongue.
“Stupid child. I’m saying our uncle thought it was sad you were shut up here and so he said he’d make you the owner of the art gallery. And then mother exploded.”
“… Is that what happened.”
“Is it because this favoritism is natural that you aren’t happy? You’ve been pampered from long ago by our uncle, after all.”
Grace raised her chin and sneered.
“In any case, you’re thinking it’s because our big sister and I bullied you, right?”
That was how Riz replied but that was probably half-correct.
It was because of her sister’s strong wishes that it was decided for only Riz to live at their grandparents’ house when she was young.
Her sisters were extremely spooked when they saw Riz speaking to things that weren’t seen by anyone. And then Virma became concerned about Riz who was ostracized. This made her sisters push her away even more. It was a vicious circle.
Now, she could understand her sisters’ feelings. Riz had been an obstacle that monopolized Virma.
It was their father eventually who decided on Riz recuperating at their grandparents’ house.
It wasn’t that she was unloved, but as the head of the Milton house it was a matter of course to prioritize the tranquility of the healthy older daughters over the sickly one.
“By the art gallery, do you mean the one in the Houro district?”
Riz returned the conversation to the original topic. Her sister’s abuse would continue if she was left alone.
“Yes. Where else is there one, other than that? What in the world is uncle doing too.”
No way, did Hine seriously do something because of her request from before?
She wanted him to give up on that ominous building. Even now she thought so, but… there was the problem of that dream. It seemed like, while she was troubled over what to do, Hine moved first.
“I’m to be the art gallery’s owner?”
“Don’t get conceited. It’s not permanent. It’s only during the time our uncle goes abroad.”
“Uncle is going overseas again?”
From time to time Hine would cross over the seas and walk around searching for works of art. There were cases where he would return in about a week, but also others where they would not hear from him for half a year.
Riz could read the situation now.
Because she was soon to be married the art gallery could not handed over to her completely, but at least her wish could be granted for a few months. Was that not Hine’s plan?
“If you’re surprised then be surprised, if you’re happy then be happy. Hey, why don’t you react a little? You’re not interesting at all.”
“Where? That’s the part about you that I hate. You’re always unconcerned, like we haven’t even entered your sight.”
“I don’t intend that though.”
“Being unaware makes it even more nasty.”
If she talked back then she’d only be bullied even more. Riz gave up.
When she was young she often hid herself and cried, because it hurt to be ostracized by her sisters.
However, now she was able to distinguish clearly how there were things in the world where nothing could be done. Human relationships were a prime example of that.
Rather than putting in the effort to be liked by someone who hated her, she wanted to treasure the people who accepted her all the more.
To be blunt, Riz thought it was stupid to spare time to those she had stormy relationships with. She would choose to live comfortably, whether or not that would narrow her horizons or limit her friendships.
She had a life where she didn’t know when she would die and so she wanted to have meaningful days.
Even though, due to this thought being the basis for everything, she thought of her own marriage as a burden.
“You really aren’t cute.”
It seemed like Grace’s expectations were dashed because Riz didn’t show a single hurt look.
Grace dropped a sigh.
“I can’t settle down when you’re in this mansion. Our big sister has married out too.”
“If possible, I’d like to return to our grandparents’ mansion.”
This was the truth.
Grace spoke coldly.
“You only want to return because you simply don’t want to get married.”
“Isn’t that a waste of a man on you?”
“I’m not good with dazzling men.”
An exasperated look was sent to Riz.
“Do something about that personality. You can only make use of being called a beauty in the present. After you marry, his eyes will be drawn to many things.”
For a moment, Riz though that would be fine still.
She didn’t know if she could love a man who was too dazzling.
“Well, still, no matter how excellent your husband is, there is a bit of a problem with his house.”
Grace’s expression changed and she smiled meaningfully. It looked like she wanted Riz to take a bite.
“What is the problem?”
“Think on it normally, in the first place there is no way a man with a promising future like Sir Emil would wish to get married to you when you won’t inherit the Milton house.”
“But the other side is eager. Isn’t this strange?”
Who was she angry towards? Grace spoke with a sharp voice.
“The mistress of the Carotion house is the second wife; she is also a stage actress who climbed up. Even though she had no experience she tried her hand at business and it seemed like she built up quite a large amount of debt.”
“I see, so they’re eyeing our assets.”
“Exactly. You’re just a source of money.”
Riz didn’t know the amount of the debt, but it must have been pocket money to the Milton house— if not then Virma wouldn’t have chosen Emil.
Grace herself might have realized their mother’s thoughts.
Did she come to reveal the true state of affairs to make Riz anxious?
“If you look at it in the long run, it will be Sir Emil who will lose out, sister.”
“Because I can’t imagine myself five years later.”
Grace had a puzzled expression that said she didn’t understand the meaning.
After they stared at each other, it seemed like she was able to understand. Grace looked down, clasped her hands, and pressed her lips into a fine line. It was an expression that was holding in anger.
However, Grace didn’t spit it out.
“… Anyway, right now it’s about the art gallery matter. Mother is greatly opposed to it.”
Riz was relieved when the topic changed.
“Mother won’t approve of that, will she.”
“That’s right. A child like you, knowing nothing of the world, wouldn’t be able to manage it.”
That was the same reason Riz thought. Virma was overprotective.
“But I don’t want you here.”
Grace talked quickly.
“So, just for this time, I’m going to help uncle.”
“Don’t misunderstand, because I’m not on your side.”
I hate you so much I don’t even want to see your face— is completely what Riz thought she wanted to say, but this conversation betrayed Riz’s expectation.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Guess. I’m telling you to get out from the shade a little and toil under the sun.”
“Eh, I don’t like the sun.”
“I’m telling you to go to the art gallery!”
“To think you’d drive me out of the mansion at last with force.”
“What’d you say!?”
“That was a joke… Sister, on top of being hard to understand your insults are cutthroat, but could you possibly be going soft for me, right now?”
“Are you insane!? Have you been listening to me?”
Grace’s face twisted with deep disgust.
But the corner of her eyes were a faint red.
“Go outside and return to being a human! Don’t just stay cooped up in the mansion staring at those depressing paintings!”
“I am a human by nature. Besides, I think there are only paintings in the art gallery.”
“Don’t talk back!”
Riz was surprised, much more so than when she heard about the art gallery.
“What’s wrong, sister?”
“A kind big sister is scary. Are you an imposter?”
“I’ve told you already that I hate how you say those things with that blank look!”
“For a kind person to treat you kindly is a matter of course and so it gets taken in stride, but when a terrible person suddenly becomes kind that difference from their normal attitude really gets you in the heart, doesn’t it. I’m feeling that.”
Even though Riz was complimenting her, Grace growled lowly like a beast. She glared at Riz as hard as she could and then left the room with rough footsteps.
Riz looked absently in the direction Grace left, feeling like a storm had passed.
Even though she felt like she had been pretty abused, wasn’t Grace trying to say that she was going to lend Riz a helping hand?
Moreover, when she entered the room, she didn’t make Riz stand. Grace always stopped her. Riz had thought this was so Grace could look down on her, but perhaps that wasn’t the case and she was being considerate of Riz’s body.
—Humans couldn’t change immediately.
In the end, Riz wanted to treasure the people she loved more over breaking her heart for people who disliked her.
But maybe it was good to try working hard for about thirty minutes of a day.
That was what Riz thought.
It was unclear as to what method Grace used, but she seemed to have succeeded in pacifying Virma who had been arguing with Hine in the entrance hall.
Virma appeared in Riz’s room with a sour expression after what seemed like an hour since Grace left.
“Riz, I need to speak to you.”
Riz sat beside Virma on a couch; her mother placed a warm hand on her knee.
Strangely enough, when she was beside Virma even the cold room became softer, as if a light were turned on.
Riz stared at the beauty that was once praised as the flower of high society. Virma’s hair was the same color as Riz, but her eyes were the bright blue of a summer sky.
“There is no mistaking that this was your plan… No, I mean just now, you saw that Hine came, yes? He’s still downstairs too. I wonder if you’ve heard about it from Hine. The matter about the owner of the art gallery.”
“Art gallery? What are you talking about?”
In any case, Riz tried to feign ignorance.
Virma’s expression became even more stern, but Riz ignored that.
“You see, it’s a sudden story but that boy said he was going to be heading to Soarer country for several months. That there was a massive auction market related to the fine arts being held over there.”
“Oh, how wonderful.”
“During his absence, he said he would like to entrust his art gallery to someone he could trust. Because it’s a building he just purchased, it seems like he doesn’t want to let it go right away. However, if no one is placed there then someone might break in, right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“So, Riz, I would like you to refuse by all means, but Hine said he would like you to accept the art gallery for a short while.”
“Oh my. An inexperienced person like me managing the art gallery? I’ll do it.”
Just to be safe, Riz placed both hands on her mouth and took a lady-like pose, but it was futile.
“Show a little more hesitation!”
Her cheeks were pinched by an angry Virma with both hands.
“You’re a child I can’t drop my guard with. Just who exactly do you take after, I wonder!”
After Riz tried to point at Virma in silence, she was pinched even tighter and it almost felt like her cheeks were going to be bent the other way. Her mother was strong.
“In the first place, when did you get Grace to be on your side?”
“No, I’m also confused about that. She suddenly became soft on me.”
Virma furrowed her brows deeply and pressed a hand to her forehead.
“Why are my daughters all children who have one or two peculiarities… Perhaps Grace, in her own way, regrets how she came to bully you.”
She took her hand off her forehead and pierced Riz with her blue eyes.
“Riz, asking you to understand that girl’s feelings would be too insensitive. However, if there are ten people then there are ten hearts. Even in a family, you cannot understand someone from one to one hundred.”
“That girl’s feelings are more immature than yours. I’m truly grateful for how you let her insults pass, even when you’re hit with them, but I’m also apologetic.”
“I understand that it’s not like you aren’t hurt by it.”
“If you cautioned my big sister, mother, then she would hate me even more, so you just watched over us, right?”
“No, Riz. That girl doesn’t hate you. Honestly.”
Riz wondered about that.
There were times Grace cared, but the time Grace hated her was longer. Wasn’t that the case?
“Isn’t my sister flustered after I came back to this mansion? About how I might steal my sister’s place again.”
Virma looked sad.
“You’re right. Yes, that may be the case. But, Riz, that’s not all.”
Virma held Riz’s hand.
“It was I, your mother, who called you back to the capital because I wanted to find you a good partner. However, Grace also wanted to see you.”
When Riz reflexively said “No way”, Virma hung her head.
“That child is also flustered because, with your marriage being settled, she believes she’s running out of time to fill up the chasm between you two.”
Virma’s fingers pressed down harder around Riz’s hand.
“Grace is the most contrary person in the Milton family. She’s not jealous towards you, but towards your fiancé.”
“Aren’t you mistaken…”
“When she was small she seriously pushed you away. But now that child boasts about you to everyone.”
“My sister does?”
“I believe it was an event that happened just half a year ago, before you returned here. Grace’s friends were invited to a tea party. At that time, those ladies saw your portrait which decorated the corridor and they compared yours and Grace’s appearance without ill will.”
Riz felt like there was sand stuffed into her mouth.
Grace hated her own appearance and she especially hated being compared to Riz.
“If you’re a young lady around that age then everyone will care, even a little, about their personal appearance, so that’s precisely why I think that topic needs to be treated with care. And yet to talk about that lightly, in addition to compare, is an act that can only be said to have a lot of ill will. I think it’s best to keep those worthless people away from my big sister.”
“Riz, don’t be upset without expression. Calm down.”
Virma showed a gentle look.
“Don’t worry, that child wasn’t hurt.”
“Wasn’t she just acting like she wasn’t hurt?”
“I thought so as well and was about to jump out from the shadow of the door, but…”
“Shadow of the door? Mother, could you have possibly been peeping on my sister and her friends from some room?”
“Of course. No, anyway, putting aside your mother, Grace replied ‘The real thing is more beautiful than this picture!’ easily. She also said you were the cleverest and most beautiful of the Milton family.”
Riz caught her breath. Her sister said that?
Was Emil’s information told to her not out of harassment but as a warning?
Her sister’s kindness was too warped.
“Grace is contrary, you are a bundle of trouble pretending to be reserved, my oldest girl is a spendthrift, and my son has wanderlust, but you are all my treasures.”
“Mother, I don’t feel complimented.”
“That wasn’t supposed to be a compliment. But I still love you all.”
Virma asserted this.
“I understand, mother. To summarize, the story you’ve been telling me with a neat expression was also told to you by Grace, where everything was bundled up as she liked. For a long time, I’ve bullied Riz but I really regret that, so before she gets married please give her freedom, mother. Please grant the helpless and innocent Riz her selfish wish… is what was said and you were deeply moved and carried away by that. Afterwards, you noticed my sister’s scheme, regretted it, and came to me, roused to set me up. Did everything match up?”
“Dear child, is this the first thing you say after listening to your mother’s words just now? What a waste of being deeply moved.”
Riz’s cheeks were pinched again. It hurt even more than before.
As Virma stood up like that Riz also got up, losing to the pain.
“Listen well, Riz. I will not permit you to stay in the art gallery all day long. You will still be living in this mansion and you will also take your meals here.”
“In the morning, as we have been doing, you will be training for marriage with me. Don’t look away. If you think you feel even a little strange, then come back immediately. Also, you will be taking maids along with you, no exception.”
“Mother, there is also a manager at the art gallery so I will be fine.”
Virma ignored her.
“Now, Hine is waiting for you below.”
Virma continued to mutter complaints under her breath until they reached the entrance, such as how crazy it was to have an art gallery in a dangerous place like that or how she should perhaps set fire to it.
Riz thought on how there was no mistake their mother was the cause of the peculiarities of the three girls and eldest son.
Riz left the house at once along with her uncle, Hine, who had been waiting in the entrance.
Two maids kept close under Virma’s instructions, but nothing could be done about that.
“Even though you’re called the owner, John is responsible for all the management, reception, and organization, so you don’t need to do anything, Riz.”
Hine said this mischievously as they climbed into the waiting carriage. The two maids were in a carriage behind them.
“You understand me well, uncle.”
When Riz expressed her thanks, he burst into laughter.
“Yes, for as long as time permits, you can shut yourself in the storehouse and stare at paintings as much as you want. That place doubles as an art studio, so you can make an effort in your studies.”
“Uncle, thank you.”
Although she was still troubled over how she would separate her uncle from the art gallery that was surrounded by that suspicious fog, she was honestly grateful for this result.
She hoped she could remove the cause of that sinister presence before Hine returned home.
“No, Riz, you don’t have to be so meek. You probably heard this from my sister, but it’s true an auction market will open in Soarer country.”
“John told me that though.”
“… John did?”
Riz was surprised.
“He is also well-informed about foreign countries and has an eye for discovering buried talent. That’s a reliable young man.”
Riz sunk into thought while making acknowledging noises as Hine talked on happily.
Was this timing a coincidence?
After the day Riz had her inexplicable dream, her health had collapsed a little.
It was only yesterday that she was able to get up.
As time passed, she started to think it had been nothing more than just a dream, but she hadn’t found her painting of the fish yet.
The servants had been asked to search throughout the mansion.
If she met John directly, would the truth be made clear?
Unlike last time, they went towards the art gallery without changing carriages.
The one they were riding now wasn’t a carriage used by the mansion. When she asked Hine why, he told her that an old carriage was purchased so that they didn’t have to bother with changing them.
Finding out that this was also John’s suggestion made Riz strengthen her suspicion.
After a while, the carriage arrived at the art gallery.
There was an abnormal fog that filled the area, but Hine and the maids didn’t seem to notice.
A single man stood in front of the art gallery.
It was John.
“Did you come to welcome us?”
Hine approached him with a smile and spoke.
“Yes, Mister Hine.”
John also showed a smile and answered. He was also dressed completely in black today, but the shape of his collar and tie was slightly different. The three pocket watches had no change from before.
Riz was a little irritated at him when he didn’t look over even once.
John and Hine walked towards the entrance of the art gallery beside each other. Riz and the others followed them.
When they entered the lobby, John suddenly turned around.
The eyes behind those glasses faced the maids who were standing in attendance at Riz’s back.
Following that, Riz turned around and saw that her maids seemed somewhat strange. Hine also seemed to notice that and was surprised.
“What’s wrong? Did you two get sick from the carriage?”
“No, not at all. My head hurts suddenly.”
John spoke gently to the ashamed maids.
“Is it not better to return to the mansion and rest? It is likely the art gallery’s air… I believe the smell of pigment does not fit with their constitution.”
“Aah, I see. Occasionally, there are people who feel sick from the smell of paint, huh.”
Hine nodded with comprehension.
“But this is troubling; I cannot let these women return alone. Riz, you should also go back to the mansion—“
“Please entrust the lady’s care to me.”
Today, John was throwing a lavish banquet of smiles.
Hine blinked as if he was enthralled. The maids, who were holding their foreheads, also stared at John vacantly. There was no life in their eyes.
“This lady appears to love the art gallery very much. Do you not think it would be sad for her to return to the mansion after merely arriving?”
John brought his face closer to the hesitating Hine.
“For my lady to arrive here means the matter of her being the owner was permitted, does it not?”
“Aah, yes, that’s right. My sister, Virma… I didn’t think this girl’s mother would approve.”
“Then I believe it would be best for my lady to accustom herself with the art gallery as soon as possible. Of course, I will assume responsibility and escort her home when it comes time.”
Hine hemmed and hawed, conflicted, and so John showed an even larger smile.
“Please be at ease. My lady will never be in any danger, since I am here.”
Hine’s expression softened at those words that had no guarantee anywhere.
“—You’re right. It’s safe if you’re here.”
“Mr. Hine, you may escort the maids.”
“I’ll do that. Riz, I’ll see you later.”
Riz, who had been dumbfounded by their conversation, came back to her senses.
“Riz, don’t worry. You can trust him.”
This was strange no matter how she thought about it.
Hine was obeying everything obediently. He had a gentle personality, but he wasn’t naive enough to trust in another person to this extent.
It was also unnatural for the health of the maids to suddenly collapse.
Riz’s room also smelled of pigments, but the maids were still alright. She couldn’t be convinced that they couldn’t stand it now at this time.
Could they have been placed under a suggestion?
She glared at John.
However, he flawlessly ignored Riz’s eyes.
Perhaps so that she wouldn’t have needless questions, he quickly put Hine and the maids on the carriage and turned them away back to the mansion. It was a splendid skill.
Riz saw them off and then turned stern eyes to John again.
“Was it your doing that made the maids suddenly feel sick?”
“Don’t dodge the question. My uncle was also quite obedient. Leaving the management of the art gallery entirely to you, making me the owner, all of that was your work, right? Did you control my uncle’s mind?”
“Oh, what, that was simply a light suggestion. Rest assured there are no side effects.”
He answered with an unruffled expression. He wasn’t shy about it at all.
“The problem isn’t about whether there are side effects or not. Don’t manipulate people’s minds.”
“If you honestly felt displeased about my actions then should you not have complained before I placed them in the carriage?”
Riz grit her teeth in opposition.
The reason she saw them off while suspecting that it was John’s work was because she wanted to talk alone with him, about the dream and her painting of the fish. It would be best if she had just imagined everything. If that was nothing more than a dream, John was a normal human, and that her painting just went missing because of her own negligence—
She had this faint hope, but now she was convinced.
John was a demon.
Also, that what happened wasn’t a dream and that it had occurred in reality.
Looking again at the carriage Hine and the others were riding, Riz noticed something. It was the same carriage as the one she rode in her dream. Hine had said that John was the one who suggested purchasing an old carriage.
“Humans are vexing. It’s tiring to need to put on a public face of being just for every trivial setting.”
John let out an annoyed sigh.
“Now then, my lady, let us go searching for distorted paintings.”
As if he switched over his mood, he spoke in a pleased voice and fixed the position of his glasses with a hand. Then he turned to walk to the passages.
Riz didn’t move and continued to stand still in her spot. John noticed that she wasn’t following and returned with a puzzled look.
“What are you doing?”
“You can’t possibly want me to pick you up?”
They stared at each other for a short time.
“… Then you want me to apologize for the matter of the suggestions earlier? I refuse.”
In truth, she had thought about that a little, but it was an absurd story to request a demon to respect a human’s common sense.
Riz held out a hand to hide how she was holding back a sigh.
John looked down at it with suspicious eyes.
“It is nothing but a hand.”
What exactly is this? Was the expression he had.
“John— you’re a demon?”
“It is late to ask that. Are you still half asleep, my lady? I am clearly a demon.”
There was no hesitation. It made her seem like an idiot for doubting.
“You made a contract with me.”
“And what about that?”
“Give me your hand then.”
“Are you going to cut it off?”
What was he saying with a straight face?
“If you’re owned by me then I’d like you to act in a way that’s more like that.”
“More like that?”
A gentleman would escort her.
Maybe in his own way he was doing his best, but his actions and words were strange here and there.
Her broad-minded uncle, Hine, seemed to overlook things to a certain extent, but if her overprotective mother, Virma, were to see this then she could be banned from coming and going to the art gallery.
“I am the daughter of an earl so, when outside, I want you to treat me like that.”
“I see, so a servant through and through.”
He didn’t have to be a servant, she just wanted to him act like a normal gentleman… is what she thought, but him being a servant might be more convenient.
Since it didn’t seem like his mood was harmed, she decided to leave this misunderstanding alone.
John kneeled on the spot, took Riz’s hand, and dropped a light kiss.
There was no change in his expression, but she felt a presence as if he were saying “How was that?”.
He didn’t need to kneel and she just wanted him to take her hand and walk, but pointing out his mistakes became tiring. Basically, she was too lazy.
In any case, as a reward she scratched him under the chin.
Riz was reminded of the hunting dog that was raised at her grandparents’ house. It was clever and very attached to Riz.
John rose up, fixed his collar with a fingertip, and then started walking.
It seemed like the thought of taking her hand didn’t occur to him.
It would be fine for her to train him in time. Riz pitched that thought.
This time she followed after John into the passages.
However, she wanted to settle things first over searching for distorted paintings.
“John, I want to go to the storehouse first. And I want to talk about the future.”
John, who was walking ahead of her, turned around and stopped. He crossed his arms like he was thinking a little. His appearance fit very well with the art gallery.
“Very well. For the time being, my lady is this art gallery’s owner. Well, the majority of the work will be done by me though.”
He said one word too many.
But could a demon manage an art gallery?
“John, will you be alright? My uncle, Hine, won’t be coming back for several months. If you don’t sell a single painting in that time then you’ll definitely be thought of as suspicious.”
“There won’t be any issues. I’ll just put a suggestion on any of those nobles and have them buy—“
“I do not think there’s much difference between a suggestion and using the art of swindling though? Both result in selling things at high prices.”
“Don’t call it swindling.”
“Suggestions, in a sense, are like compulsions; the other person has no choice but to accept. But in the case of being good at talking, you aren’t taking over a person’s consciousness. You’re just making good use of words, putting them in a pleasant mood, and casually fanning their desire to buy. The responsibility is ultimately on the person themselves.”
“Do you mean a legitimate swindle that is as close to being illegal as possible? That full responsibility is on the other person, no matter what happens.”
“I’ve told you to please stop calling it swindling.”
They entered the storehouse that was set in the middle of the passages while having this conversation.
It was a larger room than she had imagined. There were dark brown shelves on the walls to the left and right with canvas and other materials put away on them.
There was a large cabinet against the back wall and there different sorts of pigments and brushes were lined up.
In the center was a large work table, a round stool, and an easel to be used within a room. Various documents and tools were piled on top of the work table.
A panel painting was placed on the easel and Riz took a peek out of curiosity, but an incomprehensible abstract painting was drawn. No matter how favorable of a perspective she looked at it from, it was terrible. Not pursuing it any further, Riz sat down on the stool.
John came beside her and leaned against the work table.
“Customers do not pass through here. Your uncle basically used this only as a storehouse. He also didn’t stay long in the art gallery except for when a patron came.”
“Then, originally, you did most of the work, John?”
“Yes. The person who was previously employed was a hindrance and so I had him quit.”
So, like she thought, that was the real story.
“It can’t be that you killed them?”
“Could you stop speaking about me as if I were a murderer?”
He had a displeased expression. Despite being a demon.
“I am not a beast and so I will not indiscriminately kill people. Furthermore, I am presently hiding in the human world as an appraiser. Why would I go out of my way to take noticeable actions?”
“Did you cast a suggestion on your predecessor, like on my uncle and the others?”
That was more than inhuman enough of an action.
“Don’t put a suggestion on good people.”
“Are you telling me to beat them until they listen?”
“No. Do something with words.”
“Aah, swindling then.”
“Stop it with the swindling.”
She wanted to tell him off, but the demon seemed to have learned from their earlier exchange and quickly changed the topic.
“I don’t dislike managing the art gallery. I am confident that I can operate it better than you, so you may entrust this to me.”
Honestly, John was an intelligent and genteel young man just from his looks, yet his manner of speaking was devastatingly outrageous.
“My lady’s duties is to look for distorted paintings for me.”
Riz nodded with reluctance.
“John, do you know why the air around the art gallery is stagnant?”
“I am the cause. What about it?”
Riz was dumbfounded at that unexpected answer.
“You’re the cause?”
“I buried accessories that were blasphemous in the surrounding grounds.”
Riz wanted to scream when she was given that explanation calmly.
What had been the point of her being troubled up to now!?
“… Why would you do that?”
“It should be obvious; it was to gather more distorted paintings. If Mr. Hine was stained with this miasma, he would find distorted paintings even easier— I understand, I will dispose of those accessories today.”
John said that helplessly after seeing Riz’s face. He was an utterly outrageous demon.
She adjusted the way she was sitting and then realized she forgot to confirm an important thing. It was because she kept on being dragged into John’s pace.
“Do you know about my painting? The painting of the fish I was holding when I met you.”
“That already belongs to me.”
“I took it as a substitute of our contract.”
“That painting became proof of our contract?”
“Don’t answer so flippantly.”
“I’m saying it is, so isn’t that enough?”
“It isn’t because you just wanted it?”
“You’re persistent, my lady.”
Those chilly words were tossed at her. It was absolutely suspicious.
He said he was involved with paintings for revenge, but didn’t this demon also have the qualities of a collector? He was animated when it came to talking about paintings.
Were all demons lovers of paintings? Or was he influenced by someone else?
“What kind of person was your previous contractor, John?”
“An incurable good-for-nothing old man.”
They stared at each other for a few seconds. Maybe thinking she didn’t hear him, John repeated “a good-for-nothing old man” once more.
“His outward appearance was terribly good. His speech and manners was also courteous and he was praised by everyone as being a sincere person, but he was outrageous. In private, he had a dirty mouth, was sly, and was distrustful. However, his knowledge concerning the fine arts was plentiful and his passion was also real.”
“I understand so many things now.”
It resembled John’s characteristics. His appearance was wonderful and he generally spoke courteously, but he would suddenly become sloppy. He uttered many things that lacked common sense, but he was well-versed in paintings. There was no doubt he was greatly influenced by his previous contractor.
“This could also be said of my lady but, for whatever reason, a human who wishes to contract a demon is not normal. That itself is something like a ‘distorted painting’.”
Those words that were released with indifference unexpectedly gouged deeply at Riz’s heart.
That may have been the case.
Regardless of whether they valued their lives, or were doing it for a loved one, decent people wouldn’t take a demon’s hand.
“Any other questions?”
Putting a lid on her dark emotions, she looked at John.
“Will my uncle and the maids who had suggestions put on them really be alright? One of the maids in particular is serious and deeply religious. Will the suggestion have any effect on her consciousness?”
“None. I guarantee this. The suggestions earlier were nothing more than a temporary distraction.”
John threw his gaze into the air as if he were choosing his words.
“What you’re most concerned about must be the point ‘Is being put under a suggestion by a demon itself a considerable betrayal to God?’. It’s bothersome to explain, so I will tell you the conclusion only. First, there is also no problems there. But if, for example, their purity was to be scattered then God’s forgiveness will be given.”
It was a strange feeling to be told about God’s way of love by a demon, but for now she nodded. Just in case, she would sprinkly holy water on them later and have them go to a church.
The issue with the fog drifting around the art gallery was also solved.
Although it still seemed to be on the level of a verbal promise but, for the time being, she was bound in a contractual relationship with John. She also didn’t have to worry about Hine going mad from the fog.
The last remaining problem was about herself.
Riz proposed a contract because she didn’t want to die, but she was someone who was to be married one of these days. Was it alright for her to make vows of love to God while being possessed by a demon? Would this not inconvenience her fiancé as well?
It wasn’t an engagement she desired, but her mother, Virma, was eagerly hoping for it. It would be hard to refuse without a very good reason.
Riz didn’t trust this demon. Her interests just happened to be in agreement.
It must be the same for him too.
She needed to cut off her relationship with this demon somehow before the day of her marriage.
“So then, John, I want to confirm things about the contract with you. Can we change the contents of the contract?”
“I told you to support me until I die, but I want to take that back. Is it okay to have the contract period be until you find the demon you want to take revenge on? I wanted a contract with you, John, to protect my own life. As compensation, I would help with your search for demons lurking in distorted paintings. Right?”
It hinted at being in equal positions to the end.
A ruthless color appeared in his eyes behind his glasses.
“Throw away those overly optimistic thoughts. Did you forget my warnings? You have been involved with me and the contract has already been established. If you are trying to twist that then you will not remain safe.”
“Established… Just by handing over the painting of the fish?”
Rather than handing over, it was more like it became his at some point in time. She didn’t think that involved the contract; it was just John wanting to add it to his collection.
“You misunderstand. I carved my emblem into your ear. Do you not remember even that?”
Riz unconsciously pressed on her left ear.
He had pulled on her earlobe in the dream. At that time, she felt a sharp pain and then heat.
That was the contract?
“Then, John, what are you going to do after you find the demon you want revenge on?”
What he sought in Riz was her eyes that could see through to demons hiding in distorted paintings. They would become unnecessary when his goal was achieved.
However, John had an exasperated look.
“I will clearly continue to collect distorted paintings.”
“Why, you ask… Then why do humans eat?”
“… John, are you saying that, for you, collecting distorted paintings is as important as eating?”
Riz felt like she was going to be overwhelmed for the rest of her life.
Could she get married without any problems?
“It’s not just because you want to collect paintings you love over revenge, right?”
“Who said you couldn’t combine hobbies with profits?”
John said this coldly and then grabbed Riz’s arm and pulled her up from the stool.
“Now, my lady, move. We are to examine the paintings in this art gallery.”
“Wait a moment. Let me rest some more.”
It was probably because she was nervous until she came here that her chest hurt a little.
However, John pulled Riz’s hand and exited the storehouse room.
This demon was a slave driver.
“At present, there are two hundred and thirty-eight paintings being displayed in this art gallery.”
“Rough sketches have also been included. Oil paintings count for the majority while there are less than twenty watercolor paintings. Because a single artist sends many pieces, the number is great. Mr. Hine said that over half are works of up-and-coming artists, but there are many works of master painters displayed as centerpieces.”
“No masterpieces means no publicity.”
“Yes. Mr. Hine looks dull, but surprisingly he appears to be capable. Perhaps, conversely, it is good to be seen as harmless? He may be suited to being a swindler.”
If only he didn’t say these last words.
Riz surreptitiously furrowed her brows.
“In the meantime, we still have yet to conclude our appraisal of ‘The Late Hours of Silence’. We were interrupted by a low-class demon in the middle of it. Shall we begin with verifying it?”
She gave up on a break.
Riz walked beside him towards where “The Late Hours of Silence” was adorned.
“What happened to ‘The Moment of Liberation’ after all that?”
“I have taken custody of it so that no other demon will conceal themselves there. I told the painter that I wanted the painting immediately and obtained permission to cancel its exhibition.”
… In this regard, she could only turn a blind eye to a suggestion being put on the painter. The truth couldn’t be told to them and it couldn’t continue to be exhibited.
“Incidentally, my lady, why don’t you obtain the degree of being an appraiser with this opportunity?”
“The title of being a painting restorer is limited to men, but the exam for an appraiser can be taken even as a woman. Of course, it will be a challenge, however with my guidance—“
“Master John, I place myself in your care!”
“You jumped right on, I see.”
To acquire techniques, there was no other choice than to take on a religious vocation or be an apprentice at a studio somewhere. Originally, either degrees were things only obtained by monks.
However, the world changed. At the end of numerous sacrifices brought on by war, the world of art bloomed. Even women began to learn the techniques of painting, although they weren’t permitted to do religious paintings or portrait paintings.
But for Riz, who would be sick in bed after just pushing herself a little too hard, entering a studio or training at a church would be difficult. Her dream, which she had been forced to cast away, had come back into her hands.
Her heart was beating hard enough to feel pain.
“Even if you look at me with such feverish eyes— My lady?”
“John, I’m so happy my vision is spinning.”
Riz felt dizzy and then collapsed.
Riz had a happy dream.
It was a dream where she was wholeheartedly painting a mural.
Not obsessing over technique, Riz moved her hand boldly.
Red trees, blue trees, white trees.
The leaves were multicolored like a rainbow.
A young girl played a harp in this forest of colors. It was that kind of composition.
Riz was called by someone and she turned around.
Then she gave a heartfelt smile, with her dreams, to that person.