Chapter Five: The Sound of a Look
The next day a letter of polite apology arrived from Emil.
Riz immediately replied with the following contents: that she didn’t mind and he didn’t need to apologize and that she’d like to go and see the painting of the holy mother they spoke about before.
Emil didn’t seem enthusiastic, but he appeared to feel guilt for involving Riz in his own love affairs. And so there was a reply that if she still wished to then she could come five days later.
Riz obtained a promise to meet, aware she was being high-handed.
And then, five days later, it was a clear autumn day suitable for going out.
As promised in the letter, Riz visited Emil’s mansion.
The place was in the western part of the capital, the Einora district, where middle-class aristocrats, wealthy merchants, and businessmen lived.
No one accompanied her. Today’s objective was to ascertain the transformed painting.
If this reached Virma’s ears, she would have probably been forbidden from going out.
The matter at the teahouse was transmitted to Virma on the same day. It was the maid who was brought along to the teahouse who told her. Because of that, it seemed like Virma’s evaluation towards Emil dropped greatly and she had presented the remaining four paintings, excluding the lime, in silence to Riz.
But Riz didn’t plan on redoing her fiancé selection. She wasn’t in love, but Emil had many concerning points. For some reason, she strongly thought that she shouldn’t throw him out here.
It was an extreme lack of sense for an aristocrat’s daughter to visit the mansion of someone of the opposite gender without attendants, but this was for the worst case scenario. That if the work Emil possessed was a distorted painting and if there was a demon hiding there.
She couldn’t thoughtlessly bring along another person when she thought about this worst case.
There was uneasiness. Even more so because she couldn’t bring John.
Emil was reluctant for John to come to his own mansion. If she forced him to agree, it felt like he’d be hurt and he would hide the work.
In the art gallery, when she explained that she was going to check the painting, she had tried asking “Do you have a familiar? If you do, then I’d like to borrow that” but was curtly refused.
There were some humans who had sharp intuitions. The reason was that, in the case one of those people saw the familiar, Riz would be condemned to be under demonic possession.
Judging from his displeased expression though, she also felt like he was just being ill-tempered. However, he seemed busy these past few days. After getting the words “I’ll come for you when I feel like it”, it didn’t sound like she had been abandoned.
“Welcome, Miss Riz.”
Emil appeared to personally greet her when she descended from the carriage.
Looking at his face, Riz was shocked. He looked worse than the time they met a few days ago.
“This is an embarrassing and humble mansion, incomparable to the splendor of the Milton house.”
“Not at all.”
Certainly, it might be somewhat inferior to the Milton family’s mansion— Riz refrained from giving her impression. She had that much discretion at least.
It was a three-storey brick mansion with steeples placed on both sides. A standard middle-class aristocrat’s building.
There was a garden in the front and a small greenhouse to the right. On the left was the stables and the servant’s cabin. It didn’t seem like the garden was maintained much; the flowers in the flowerbed were left withered.
Riz entered the entrance of the mansion while being led by Emil’s hand.
The number of servants that greeted them also appeared small. For a mansion of this size didn’t they need five more people for the bare minimum?
The management of the house was the wife’s duties, but it was the steward who actually educated the servants and gave them roles. Emil’s stepmother seemed to be the second wife and so she might not have obtained the trust of the steward yet.
Riz peeked at the side of Emil’s face. There were dark circles under his eyes and his cheeks were also a little thin.
“You seem to have had a hard time. Are you well?”
“Mm, I drank a little too much with my knight colleagues last night. You’re a kind lady to be concerned about me.”
Her concern was dodged with a smile. It seemed like he had no intentions to answer honestly. She felt there was a distance between them even more than when they were at the teahouse.
His bad complexion wasn’t because he drank too much. There was no smell of alcohol from him.
It might have been that there really was a demon hiding in the painting and cursed him.
Perhaps she shouldn’t have planned to take it slow and she should have brought John along?
Riz bit her lip while she proceeded through a corridor together with Emil in silence.
There was also something Riz wanted to know, apart from checking on the painting.
The point of why Emil wanted to show the painting only to her.
During the time he asked for her consultation on his painting in her personal room, he acted like he was jealous of John even though he wasn’t in love with her and tried to invite her to his own mansion.
However, at the teahouse his attitude underwent a complete change and he tried to put distance between them. Even in his letter, she could tell his desire to show her the painting was fainter than before.
What was the reason for his change of mind?
It was likely Emil would be on guard if John accompanied her. In order to sound out his motives it was best she met him alone. That was what Riz had decided.
Had she been mistaken?
“The painting is in the study and I will escort you there. Ah, my stepmother and her son are absent, so you may be at ease.”
“If my stepmother and my younger stepbrother were here, I wouldn’t be able to speak with you leisurely.”
Riz was puzzled because she thought they would greet his family first. She wasn’t going to blame him since she also came here, keeping it secret from Virma— but did he also aim for a time when his relatives were absent?
It was Emil who specified this date.
A sense of discomfort and surprise spread through her chest like a fog.
From Emil’s personality she didn’t think he would try to force a relationship between a man and woman here.
Riz didn’t understand. What was he thinking?
Her gaze ran through the corridor while she increased her caution.
So far she hadn’t felt a strange air, but she did think it was a plain corridor.
On the wallpaper she could see faint square traces of sunburn. It appeared there were paintings adorning these walls before. They must have been removed recently.
It happened just as they arrived in front of a reddish-brown study-looking door.
A madam in a sandy satin dress appeared from a room further in the back.
Emil, who had been about to open the study door, stiffened entirely and muttered “Rachel”.
The madam approached Emil, all the while staring at him.
After she came in front of them she turned green eyes towards Riz. It was the face of a beautiful and extravagant woman in her thirties. Because Emil had called her by name, Riz didn’t realize immediately that she was his stepmother and so she was late in her greeting.
Rachel snorted like she was looking down on her and at that Riz returned to herself.
“I see you’re a girl with no manners. Can you not do a proper greeting?”
“Rachel, enough. —Didn’t you have plans for the theater in the afternoon?”
Emil broke in with a voice that had thorns.
“I am your stepmother and so I’d like to ask you not to call me by name. Yes, I was about to head to the theater from here. However…”
Rachel raised the corner of her red lips and sensually touched her earring.
“Because you were so interested in knowing my schedule several days ago, I wondered if there was something.”
“Oh? You’re curious about me?”
“Of course. Now then… this girl is Riz Milton, am I correct?”
“Yes, I will introduce her officially one of these days, so please act as if you didn’t see her today.”
“But that would be boring. Do you not think so?”
Riz was troubled when Rachel sought her agreement.
She could tell at a glance that Emil and Rachel’s relationship was volatile.
“… Pardon my manners, Lady Rachel. As you’ve said, I am Riz Milton. Please forgive my abrupt visit. I wished to meet Lord Emil so much that I pushed to come.”
“A noble family’s daughter is unexpectedly lacking in education, I see. Even if you came under secrecy, you should have at least prepared a present, no?”
“Rachel, what are you saying? It’s best you stop affronting her.”
“Oh my, what was it that was an affront? It is she who has gone against etiquette. Furthermore, if she is to be your wife then naturally she would be my daughter too.”
There was an edge to Rachel’s smile.
Rachel’s words were harsh, but Riz was the one at fault. She pinched her dress and did a deep curtsy.
“You’re correct, Lady Rachel. Please scold me.”
“See, take a look. —Even if there are no shortcomings with her rank, she is a feeble girl with no manners. We are the ones suffering a loss with this marriage. She should be thankful we reluctantly accepted this.”
“—Miss Riz, please enter the study first.”
Emil quickly opened the study door and pushed Riz inside. The door was closed right after that. For a while Riz heard talking voices, but they eventually ceased and then the door opened again.
Emil came in with an exhausted face. It seemed he drove away Rachel.
“I apologize sincerely for my stepmother.”
“Not at all.”
She didn’t feel any anger. On the contrary, she felt some pity for Emil. It was true this was a thoughtless visit but, if it had to be said clearly, that feeling was on her side as the higher ranking aristocrat.
Based on the Carotion house, the visit of Emil’s fiancée would not be regarded as a problem. It was Rachel’s attitude that was lacking courtesy to the extreme, even if her words were the truth.
“At any rate, where is the painting that turned into a mummy?”
Riz changed the subject, because the matters of families weren’t a fun subject for her either.
She looked around the entirety of the study. Because she had been focused on the corridor until Emil came in, she had barely looked around the interior.
There was a large bookshelf against the left wall. Over at the back window was a massive oak desk. In the center were long couches and chairs for a single person. There were tables. Easels. Stools. At a glance, everything had a dignified atmosphere.
“You may have noticed, but this room only looks superficially impressive.”
Emil smiled bitterly. Riz had thought that.
Even though it may have just been cleaned, there was a smell particular to rooms where people don’t often go into. It was a damp smell of mold. This room wasn’t used much.
Among aristocrats there were some who lined up specialized books, which they hadn’t read, on their bookshelves in order to maintain an appearance. It appeared that the Carotion family was like that.
There was no bookshelf on the opposite wall. Decorative curtains were fastened to the left and right with tassels and, in the center, twelve large paintings varying in size were adorned on the wall. The paintings were unified only by their gold-colored frames.
Riz went in that direction. Emil came with her too and approached the wall of paintings.
“It’s this painting.”
The one Emil pointed at was a work that was at the center of all the paintings.
Riz’s breath caught.
Indeed, it was a drawing of a mummy-like emaciated holy mother.
The conversation resumed after she sat down on a couch and the shock passed.
“Is your body alright?”
Riz was worried over by Emil, who looked to be in a condition even worse than hers.
Her heart was beating a little faster but it was fine at this level.
Emil asked a servant to prepare herbal tea.
In a little while, a familiar woman carrying a silver tray with a cup on top appeared.
If she remembered correctly, it was Colette, Lola… no, Loretta.
Perhaps Loretta remembered the events at the teahouse because she paled when she saw Riz. She placed the cup on the table in a hurry and left the room with unsteady steps that made her look as if she were about to fall down at any time.
Emil stared at Loretta’s back with an indefinable expression.
Riz took a sip of the herbal tea and sighed in relief.
It was delicious, but for some reason it made her long for John’s tea.
Having calmed down, she broached the subject.
“Was this painting really one of a beautiful holy mother at first?”
Her line of sight went to the group of works on the wall. In the center was the painting of a mummy that was similar yet not similar to a holy mother. Beside that was an oil painting of a musician; the composition was of a man playing a violin in front of a bonfire in a forest at night.
“That I cannot prove this is painful, but yes I swear to God and upon my sword.”
Emil said that with a serious look.
It could hardly be a lie then if a knight would swear upon his sword. However, because she hadn’t seen its state at the beginning, it was honestly hard to believe. Even if he wasn’t lying, he could be mistaken.
“It’s natural for you to doubt me, Miss Riz. But when I was gifted this painting there were my knight colleagues, Rachel… my stepmother, and the friend I mentioned before beside me.”
He recited the family names of the people who had been there. There was the Gilball house, the Aubanrain house, the Garon house… They were all famous nobles that even Riz, who spent her days unrelated to high society, knew them.
She adjusted her view of the Carotion family, no, more like Emil.
He held social connections with the sons of houses that had status. It was proof that he himself was an excellent person.
“They also saw the painting at that time. How about I introduce you to them in the near future?”
There was no lie in Emil’s expression. It also wasn’t possible for all of them to coordinate their stories. So, seeing him speak with ample confidence up to now seemed to show that it was true beyond a doubt.
“Exactly when were you gifted the painting?”
“Let’s see… I apologize, but I don’t recall the date clearly. About a month ago, maybe.”
“When did the holy mother transform into a mummy?”
“Yes, within a few days of it being on the wall.”
“Please tell me in more concrete details. How long of a period is soon?”
Emil blinked, not seeming to grasp the question’s point.
“For example, did the holy mother change gradually through several days? Or was it normal in the morning, but became a mummy after one night?”
“Ah, that’s what you mean… This isn’t exact, but it was about several hours.”
“Yes. After this painting was put in the study, my friends and I moved to the lounge— the room my stepmother came out of earlier. Because it was a gathering of men, well… we cut loose a little and drank alcohol.”
“There are many knights who get out of control and are arrested at bars, isn’t there. Even though they’re on the enforcement side.”
“Miss Riz, I’d appreciate if you spoke about that with some more discretion but, well, you are correct.”
Emil gave a wry smile and rubbed the back of his neck.
“The door to the lounge was open.”
“… For a reason I hesitate to let reach a lady’s ears.”
“It’s fine. Please tell me.”
“…… It’s because everyone drank large quantities of alcohol. So, um…”
“I understand. Because everyone was frequently going to the washroom, it was annoying to close the door each time and so it was left open.”
“You are very sharp.”
Riz was given a large sigh.
“From the lounge, the corridor is in full view. While we were drun… enjoying the alcohol, the people who entered the study were my father, my stepmother, and my friends. Ah, Loretta too. My father only went in to retrieve a cigar and Loretta went in to clean. My stepmother seemed to have been searching for my father. My friends went in to steal my father’s cigars. Of course, I told them they could do that.”
“How long was each person in the study?”
“My father was there for a few minutes. Loretta was there for, at most, ten minutes too, since it’s not a place that’s really cleaned. My friends were also there for a few minutes. My stepmother, who went in last, screamed and that was when we learned the holy mother had transformed. I believe you will ask this and so I will answer ahead of time, but no one was carrying anything suspicious.”
In other words, he meant that no one secretly switched the painting?
It wasn’t a size that could be hidden underneath clothes.
And, because it was a panel painting, it was impossible to fold, bend, or roll up.
“I see. May I ask other questions?”
“Huh? Yes, of course. Please go ahead.”
“I’d like to meet the artist who drew this painting.”
Emil re-crossed his legs with a troubled look.
“… That would be difficult.”
“According to my friend, he was a traveling artist. After he completed the painting and received the reward, he disappeared off to somewhere.”
“What is the artist’s name?”
“I heard he was a man named Brad. I have tried searching here and there at inns when I am off duty, but he appears to have already left the capital.”
Emil told her this with regret.
“After the painting transformed, did you ask anyone to appraise it?”
“I intended to ask, but… my stepmother opposed that.”
“She was obstinate and asked what would happen if other houses knew about this inauspicious painting.”
“I see. In that case, why is it still decorated on the wall even now?”
“It was to show you today. I also thought about disposing of it, but I am a religious man and the thought crossed my mind that this may be bringing about a warning to my house.”
Riz moistened her mouth with the herbal tea. She didn’t feel that it was out of place, but she was a little curious. Before, he had said he wasn’t interested in curses.
“May I also show this to John? He is an appraiser and I can have him swear to never disclose this.”
Emil’s smile disappeared and he was unwilling.
“No. I apologize, but I will refuse that.”
“That I showed you this is my own way of settling things. As to whether or not you would still marry into a house where such an inauspicious event occurred.”
“… To break the engagement isn’t something to be decided on by me alone.”
“Yes, I know. However, there are other questionable rumors behind my family.”
“Matters concerning the madam?”
Riz panicked when she accidentally said it clearly.
However, Emil didn’t find fault with her impoliteness. He gave a small laugh.
“Precisely. I believe you already know, but I am on bad terms with my stepmother.”
She could more than imagine that after seeing the exchange from earlier.
It was said that Rachel had a son related to her by blood. Emil was the son of the previous wife; moreover, he was an adult. She probably couldn’t love him like her own child.
“But, Sir Emil, the other day you said the painting’s transformation was a bad prank from your friend.”
“Yes. That is what I thought.”
Riz returned her herbal tea to the table and stared at Emil.
Emil answered without pause, as if these were lines he had decided on in advance.
“I said he switched it when he went to the washroom, behind the backs of my other friends and me. However, when I thought about it more carefully, no one who entered the study was carrying anything suspicious. Perhaps you question whether there was one more painting hidden in the room? No, when my stepmother found the painting that transformed into a mummy, she searched the study while crying out that it was clearly someone’s horrible prank.”
“It wasn’t hidden anywhere, was it.”
“Yes. The number of paintings decorating the wall also hadn’t changed. We also removed the frame to check it.”
Emil put on a serious expression here.
“The friend who gifted the painting also insisted that it was absolutely different. He said that although he hated me, he wouldn’t do such a disgusting prank. Therefore— I’ve come to think that it may really be a curse.”
“Who was the friend who gave you the painting?”
“A man called Grajas, my childhood friend. You also saw his face once at the teahouse.”
Riz was a little surprised. That listless man with an awful complexion?
“A man I don’t wish for you to meet ever again.”
“He is an audacious person. And because I have a selfish desire that wishes to confine you and your beauty away somewhere.”
He smiled. It was a dazzling and shady face like the one she saw when she first met him.
At times like these, Riz wondered if a woman accustomed to these tactics would enjoy this conversation?
Riz couldn’t even show an insincere smile.
After keeping silent for a while, she resumed her questions.
“Thank you very much for speaking to me honestly. Um, may I look at the painting one more time?”
“Yes, of course.”
Emil stood up first and extended a hand to Riz.
“In the end, I believe I should not have shown you such an inauspicious painting.”
“If the curse were to catch onto you, I wouldn’t be able to contain myself. At the very least, if I could be the only one to be cursed and killed—“
“There is no curse. Don’t be worried.”
Riz took his hand and approached the wall. She felt his shoulders jerk faintly.
“… What do you mean?”
Emil asked suspiciously.
After Riz looked at the painting of the mummy she turned to face Emil.
She had already discovered the answer as to why the holy mother turned into a mummy.
What she didn’t know was the reason for setting it up as a curse.
“It’s Loretta’s work, right?”
“Rather, isn’t it the plan of everyone here—“
All of a sudden the door to the study was slammed open.
The people who appeared were Grajas and Loretta.
Regarding Loretta appearing, Riz had somewhat predicted that because the other woman hadn’t shut the door completely when she brought the herbal tea. Riz hadn’t known whether that was deliberate or not since Loretta was honestly flustered when she saw Riz.
However, in the case that it was an intentional action then it was probably to eavesdrop. That was what Riz thought.
It was unexpected for Grajas to be there too though.
Riz met eyes with Loretta.
There was a clear sense of guilt resting in Loretta’s eyes. She looked like she was about to cry.
“Hey, hey, why would Loretta do such a stupid thing.”
“I’m afraid I do not know the reason. However, she would have the best position to carry it out.”
“I’m the one who presented that painting, so you should be suspecting me not Loretta.”
Riz was glared at with strong eyes by Grajas. They weren’t the eyes of a man who was jealous of his friend and gifted a cursed painting.
“This is an authentic cursed painting. The greed of the Carotion family’s evil woman, Rachel, polluted the holy mother.”
“Lord Grajas, you wanted the setting, ‘Lady Rachel’s greed became a curse’, didn’t you.”
For an instant Grajas was pressed into silence as if he was overwhelmed.
“… What do you mean by setting?”
“I can see the situation somehow or other now. Don’t marry into a cursed house… in other words, this was a trick in order to have my side quietly refuse the marriage? If a curse was brought up then even if the engagement was broken it would not become my harm—“
“It’s not a trick. I’m saying it’s the curse of that stupid stepmother and her son!”
Emil stopped the red-faced Grajas with a low voice.
“… Grajas, enough, stop it.”
“Why!? I haven’t said anything wrong. Your father was deceived by the allure of that evil woman and his fortune was sucked up. You’ve been forced to clean everything up. Made to marry a woman you don’t even love in order to rebuild the Carotion house! Right!?”
“Any house is pretty much the same. Hey, you, Riz was it? Or was it Rita? Whatever, if you don’t want to be cursed then don’t marry this man!”
“Grajas, I said enough!”
Emil’s face twisted and he tried to drive Grajas out from the study.
Emil, who was holding onto Grajas, turned around at Riz’s murmur.
“Indeed, there is a curse. There is no mistake.”
Even Grajas, who had been laughing, looked at Riz with doubt.
“But what’s cursed isn’t the painting of the holy mother.”
“It’s the painting hanging beside it: the musician.”
Riz pointed her finger at the painting that was adorned on the wall. The composition of a man playing a song in a night forest.
“It’s a distorted painting.”
The instant she announced that—
Tick. A sound like the hand of a clock was heard.
Emil and the others, whose eyes were wide, froze.
It was as if time had stopped. Even the air seemed to have solidified.
Riz slowly looked around.
At the entrance of the study… a figure emerged from behind Loretta who was like a statue.
Riz quietly called his name.
“My lady, you said there is a distorted painting here?”
Where did he hear that from? John approached her while smiling.
As usual, he was dressed in all black and had three pocket watches. One of those was open and in his hand.
“… John, did you stop time?”
“That expression is not accurate. It’s not possible to do something such as stop time around the world.”
“But Sir Emil and the others are like statues.”
“I’ve only placed this room temporarily into a divine serenity.”
“A divine serenity…”
“If I said it was a frozen space like inside a painting, would my lady then understand? A portrait depicts a living person, yet the person inside the painting is not alive. It is that state.”
“… Aside from small powers such as manipulating fire or placing suggestions, John, your main abilities are being able to create a space like a painting and to manipulate dreams. Also… you can make that strange skeletal knight appear? Can you use as many abilities as there are pocket watches?”
“Impressive of you to analyze my abilities in this situation. Well, you are correct though.”
He spoke as if he were exasperated, but his mouth was smiling.
It wasn’t that Riz wasn’t shaken.
She was simply so surprised she couldn’t scream.
“I can only sustain this serene space for several minutes at most. Now then, my lady, before we examine the distorted painting I will ask you to explain the mystery of the holy mother becoming a mummy. For you to ignore me and bravely enter a man’s home alone, you must have solved that a long time ago, no?”
John approached the wall while saying that with prickling sarcasm.
“Did you listen to the entire conversation between me and Sir Emil?”
“Yes. It was a very interesting conversation. It seemed a painting transformed within several hours.”
Honestly, where did he hear this from?
It couldn’t be that John could also hide in paintings, right?
Riz observed the painting of the mummy carefully while thinking that.
It was a painting that was said to originally be a holy mother. However, what was reflected in Riz’s eyes was a dark-colored painting of a mummy like it was wiped in mud.
As she stared at it John whispered into her ear from behind.
“Quick, give me the reason for the transformation of the painting. If you cannot solve it then I will punish you.”
It was a voice that didn’t permit her to turn around and chilled her as if she were touched by a cold air.
“If I do not act like a demon at times then you will push your luck. Perhaps I should bite this pale back?”
The center of her back was pushed by a finger. Fear and confusion ran through her spine at the same time.
“Tell me the answer.”
“The answer is… At first, I thought it was caused by the peeling of pigment instead of the painting being switched.”
“That the special characteristic of tempera painting was used.”
Riz faintly thought that she was glad her voice wasn’t trembling.
The mummy painting was, according to the regulation of the Royal Fine Arts Agency, a No. 30 size.
Like a portrait, the mummy of the former holy mother was drawn in the center. The background was a drab red curtain.
Sunken cheeks. Patchy hair. Small gold coins were buried in the middle of the jet black eye sockets. The mouth was slightly open, as if a sigh was leaking out. The teeth were also black; it was literally ‘decayed teeth’. Things like ants were crawling out from those black teeth.
“What is the special characteristic of tempera painting?”
It seemed like demons loved testing people.
No, it was surely because this man was happy as long as it was a topic on painting.
“Tempera is a painting medium consisting of mixed pigment and egg yolk. It’s hard to dissolve in water and it also barely deteriorates. Even though you can repeatedly apply paint, it is hard to do a thick coat. And so, rather, I thought this painting was painted thickly on purpose in order to have the pigment peel off.”
“Give more details.”
“If used correctly, tempera paintings can last longer than oil paintings. So, after the first layer was finished a fixing solution mixed with drying oil would be painted on. Then, on top of that, a second layer of thick paint would be drawn. Like this, it would be the same situation as doing a watercolor painting on top of something oil-based or another paint.”
John didn’t reply but she felt him give a sign that urged her to continue.
“If you gave it an impact from the back or shaved it lightly then the second layer… cracks would enter the pigment on the surface and it would peel off. In this case, even if someone had no aptitude for painting, it could be crafted easily if there were instructions.”
In particular, this room was moldy and damp. Boards would have been easy to bend.
“After the painting of the holy mother was adorned on the wall, there were many people who entered and exited the study. I thought that someone among them saw a suitable time to carry this out.”
When everyone saw it at the beginning it was a beautiful colored holy mother. However, all of a sudden, it changed completely. Even just that for people who knew nothing… the witnesses would have felt that it was inauspicious.
“But that was not the case?”
“Yes. There wasn’t enough time. For the people who entered the study, the longest was at the most ten minutes. This painting is a No. 30 size, so it’d be too much to shave down.”
“Even if the people who entered the study cooperated and alternated with each other?”
“Impossible, I think. If it was scraped then pigment fragments would scatter everywhere.”
Riz shook her head.
“Replacing the painting was impossible too. It’s a panel painting and so you can’t roll it up. If you bent it then it’d make noise. I was troubled over that… but then I understood there was an extremely simple way to do it.”
John asked in amusement.
“You wouldn’t need to scrape or hit the board at all.”
“Simply, you just overlay a canvas on the panel painting.”
The painting of the mummy she was looking at right now had been drawn on the panel painting.
On top of that, the canvas where a holy mother was drawn on was overlaid. That was all.
Emil explained that they “removed the frame to check” in order to guide her to the fact that it wasn’t replaced. However, they only checked after the painting had changed to a mummy.
“After everyone saw the painting of the holy mother the person who entered the study removed the frame. They took off the canvas of the holy mother and restored it to being a panel painting of a mummy. A canvas can be folded or rolled.”
It was highly likely that Loretta was the one who carried it out.
Because it was said she entered the study to clean.
Naturally then, she would be carrying cleaning tools. If she had brought out a large panel painting then someone in the lounge would have noticed, but a rolled up canvas could dodge eyes.
“Someone familiar with paintings would notice this level of trickery right away. But…”
“The people in this mansion, or rather those friends of his, do not appear knowledgeable in the fine arts.”
Riz nodded. Even just from seeing the fake bookshelves, she could tell that the Carotion family gathered paintings and books just for show.
Canvas or panels; watercolors or oil. If someone knew those differences, this would have been revealed much sooner.
“That’s why the ‘someone’ who set this up— Sir Emil and others thought they could deceive his friends. Me as well. No one should have had professional knowledge and could only appreciate art at best, and so after a while they would testify that there was a curse.”
“However, it would be difficult to cheat the eyes of an appraiser. Thus, he denied me accompanying you.”
But the problem was why such a trick was done.
“For him to make these plans on purpose to have me annul the engagement.”
Riz didn’t feel love for Emil, but this made her feel complicated.
“My lady, demons have sensitive noses.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that men and women haven’t changed since the olden days.”
“John, speak plainly.”
Riz turned her gaze to him.
“That was my intention. A man and a woman.”
John smiled wryly.
“Even in deciphering paintings, the first portion to examine is the line of sight of a person’s gaze. Now, in this place that has become still as death as a painting, shall we examine the gazes of the people who have turned into subjects?”
Riz looked at Emil and Grajas’ faces.
Grajas was looking at Emil with a worried expression.
But Emil was looking in another direction.
“She’s also… looking at Sir Emil…?”
“Even some as obtuse as my lady can understand the situation somewhat, yes?”
He said one too many words. But, certainly, she understood now. This was a look of love.
“During these several days, where my lady worried endlessly, I also investigated the Carotion house.”
“You were busy because of that?”
He raised an eyebrow in affirmation.
“Sir Emil himself is an excellent man, but it is difficult to say the Carotion house is secure. The madam, as the second wife, is quite the spendthrift and from the start this was not an affluent family. She must have panicked over the decreasing fortune.”
It seemed exactly like what her sister, Grace, told her.
“The madam was deceived by the sweet words of an irresponsible ‘friend’ and tried her hand at the shipbuilding industry, despite not having knowledge. The sea is equivalent to an untouched treasure house and you should wipe out the pirates and investigate the ocean’s resources before everyone notices its value, but I believe someone as wise as you understands— she was coaxed with that sort of feeling.”
It was a massive failure though, he continued.
The reckless plan to monopolize the blessings of the ocean evaporated like dew and they ended up being saddled with a large amount of debt.
“The Carotion house hid their true state of affairs at all costs and accepted the engagement with you.”
“I think my mother knew the situation a long time ago.”
“Yes, I believe so.”
The Milton family decided that they wouldn’t waver if the debt was just that extent.
More importantly, they considered what they would obtain.
The breadth of the Carotion house’s… of Emil’s personal connections.
If the other side felt guilt then the Milton house would appreciate that even more. The Milton house stood in a superior position.
The Carotion family should have put a collar on their madam. No matter how bullish of a woman Rachel was the unreserved manner of her speech couldn’t match Virma.
Virma was a woman capable of acting like a cute “silly woman”.
Marriage was a game. It wasn’t Riz’s strong point, but if she became Emil’s wife then she would need to learn to be sociable. Eventually, she’d need to drill the contents and list of aristocracy into her head.
“The madam has likely noticed Sir Emil’s secret love. I believe you can imagine, but he was probably threatened to have his cute lover sold somewhere if he didn’t marry. This woman called Loretta is a former slave. The madam purchased her on a whim to serve herself.”
And so, Emil, Grajas, and Loretta cooperated to make plans for this cursed painting.
Maybe that Katie was also a collaborator? She took on the role of being Emil’s lover.
There was a curse. In Emil’s heart and in Rachel’s heart too.
“Now then, it is about time for this serenity to be broken.”
John said that and closed the lid of his pocket watch with a clack.
Air breathed back into the closed off space.
“—When were you here?”
Emil blinked his eyes and raised his voice in surprise as he stared at John.
“I believe there are more important points over my appearance.”
“What? No, wait. Where in the world did you appear from? You weren’t here just now, so how?”
“After having deceived my lady, what did you intend? Please do tell me.”
John stared at the flustered Emil and spoke.
Emil wiped away his expression.
“… What are you talking about?”
“I am talking about love and curses.”
John tapped the frame of the mummy painting with the knuckle of a finger, as if he were knocking on it.
“Emil, you are drinking poison, aren’t you.”
Maybe it had finally gotten annoying, but he even started calling Emil without titles.
“Does the plot go like this? A painting decorating the mansion was cursed by a greedy stepmother. In the end, the curse ate into you and you ‘died’. And then you and that woman called Loretta over there eloped intimately together. How is that?”
“What are you… saying?”
“The truth. That man there, the one who gifted the painting; you have contracted syphilis. And so, if you are to die either way in the near future, you would tarnish your name to pitch in and help your close friend. This is what you thought, yes?”
Riz turned her eyes to Grajas. Syphilis? That he looked unwell was because of that?
“You acted the role of a man jealous of your promising friend. However, you tried to bring it around to how the identity of the real curse was the madam’s greed. It really is a human-like ideal fraud. Incidentally, Emil, who prepared that poison?”
“Katie did— ah, no.”
It seemed Emil spilled that unintentionally and he panicked.
“You should not drink anymore. A little more and it will be a lethal dose.”
“That’s impossible! She’s helping us—“
This time it was Grajas who spilled that. The two men looked at each other and shut their mouths tightly like scolded children.
“Stupid humans. That woman loves Emil. Thus, she would not wish to hand him over to that woman called Loretta over there no matter what, no? To the extent where she believes it would be better to kill Emil.”
John crossed his arms in exasperation.
“At the teahouse, while that woman pretended to look down on my lady, she was actually focusing on that woman over there. Come to think of it, Emil, you had quite a stiff attitude towards my lady because your cute lover was beside you, hm.”
“John, stop being sarcastic.”
“This isn’t sarcasm. I am speaking the truth. Emil’s face always had a sense of guilt and him going out of his way to show you the cursed painting was to make you think you were not responsible for what would happen. Because you were more of a serious and splendid woman than he thought.”
“I am saying Emil was becoming more and more pained at using you, my lady. As a result, he became a man who couldn’t tell whether he was being insincere or sincere.”
Emil had an indescribable expression at John’s words. Riz could tell that she herself had a complicated look. Ah, right. He was this kind of demon. He spoke without any reservation in front of the people themselves.
“The best actor is that woman called Katie. Even while kindly offering to cooperate, she would kill the man she loves. Perhaps she wanted to laugh at the woman who would be left behind? No, perhaps it is resentment at not being chosen. The malice shrouding the card may have been this. Well, it doesn’t matter.”
“This is the truth.”
The heartless demon turned his eyes to the wall of paintings.
“If my lady is unharmed and I have obtained paintings then I couldn’t care less whether others die or live.”
He stroked the frame of a painting, showing an expression that was much gentler than the one he had for humans.
Riz remembered something important as she watched that action.
“John, the distorted painting!”
There was a distorted painting among the decorating paintings.
“The oil painting of the musician! There’s a symbol of a tainted church, Saint Cekate, and the Demon of Foresight, Vorrga.”
It was everything she learned from John. The moment she puffed out her chest the color of John’s face changed.
“My lady, you… If Vorrga’s symbol was there why did you not say so sooner!”
“I said it just now.”
“Too slow! There is no need to search for it, a demon would obviously be hiding there, and it would decidedly be that one!”
It happened the instant John shouted.
The canvas depicting the musician was ripped up by itself.
Loretta, who had been dazed this entire time, screamed. Emil and Grajas stood in front of her to protect her while showing shocked expressions.
What leapt out of the painting was a lion with bright red fur.
It soared through the air and landed on the table for a moment.
There were seven eyes on the face of the lion. And all seven of those dark and stagnant eyes turned to Riz’s direction.
Riz couldn’t move.
The lion gave a resounding roar— Vorrga jumped and tried to bite Riz. Those ferocious fangs were covered in drool. They came right before her.
Riz couldn’t even close her eyes. She was going to be attacked. Riz accepted that. But then.
“Do not put your hand on what is mine, you low beast.”
John grabbed hold of the lion’s head casually with one hand and slammed it to the floor.
He stepped on its torso with a foot and then grasped its mane— unbelievably, the neck was twisted off. The lion gave a final death scream, turned into black smoke, and then disappeared. It all happened in a flash.
“It’s somewhat a shame to have crushed it. It was a demon of use.”
John tucked his disheveled hair behind his ear with an elegant motion.
Riz admired that even while being shaken.
Demons had supernatural strength.
“—Miss Riz, he is…”
She came back to herself at Emil’s dry voice. They were all staring at John with pale faces.
After a while of silence, Riz said this firmly.
“It’s okay. Don’t worry. He’s my demon.”
“Demon, Miss Riz… Are you serious? You’re possessed by a demon?”
Emil asked her this in a hoarse voice while protecting Loretta and Grajas.
“Yes. John is no different to being my partner.”
Emil and the others were speechless. Riz also felt John’s strong gaze. For some reason, her cheeks grew hot.
“… My lady, shall I kill them?”
John asked this enticingly. Emil’s face twisted and he placed a hand on his own chest.
“If you’re going to kill someone then kill me alone! Let these two go.”
“Lord Emil, please wait! It’s because I was greedy that so many people were involved and I sinfully dreamed about a future with you! I should take responsibility and die.”
Loretta cried out while trembling. When she did, this time it was Grajas who raised his voice.
“Kill me. Either way, it’s my fate to die sooner or later. Come on, demon, I’ll give you this body!”
The three of them insisted on themselves to be the sacrifice.
“Then I guess I’ll have you all die.”
They snapped their mouths shut at Riz’s voice. John suddenly laughed.
It wasn’t legal but, occasionally, acts of fraud were necessary.
And then one month later.
Emil Carotion’s health worsened due to a curse and he had a safe “unnatural death”.
T/N: Hands up, who expected any of this to happen. I was surprised by all the reveals here, especially how Katie, Grajas, and Loretta went from side characters to being filled out like this. Also, RIP to the extremely short-lived Riz/Emil ship LOL.
Note1: Riz uses the word “伴侶 (hanryo)” to describe John. The reason it raises eyebrows is because it has a HEAVY romantic implication, essentially your other half, mate, or spouse. That being said though, she’s still not explicitly saying that and you can read “hanryo” as something like an ambiguous companion or partner. Using my translator liberty, I went with partner because I hear married couples call each other partners more than I do companions.