Chapter Two: The Midnight Clandestine Meeting
After dinner the maids prepared Riz’s bed and left the room.
The time was around nine at night. It was later than the time she usually slept.
A yawn leaked out but her mind was clear. Riz rolled over on top of her bed and lay face down.
The full-blown social season was about to begin. For the majority of aristocrats who were busy playing at love it was the time for victory or defeat; however, it had no relation to Riz who would grow dizzy with just one dance.
She was exploring solutions here and there to save John when a small clunk echoed.
Riz adjusted the front of her gown and got down from her bed, placing her feet into her indoor slippers. She wondered if the window was making noise because of the wind, but there was good weather today and the night was warm. Did a bat stop on the window frame then? Or did a squirrel get lost?
After some thought, she lit a candlestick and approached the double casement window. She flung open the curtains and window as hard as she could, but there was no squirrel or bat. There was no wind either.
In the moment she tilted her head in puzzlement, thinking it was her imagination, her candlestick’s fire suddenly went out.
Her surprise was so much that she dropped the candlestick.
Riz crouched down and picked up the candlestick.
At that instant, something brushed against her cheek without warning. The faint moonlight shining in from the window revealed its identity. It was a black feather.
Riz also picked that up and spun it with her fingers. A crow might have entered the mansion.
Right after she was convinced her back suddenly prickled. The moonlight was abruptly blocked and a dense shadow, darker than the night, fell on top of her.
Riz raised her head with stiff movements.
“How careless, my lady. If I was a burglar, what would you have done?”
A man intruded into the room, a bit constrained, from the window. For a second, she felt like there were large black wings on his back, but maybe it was an illusion?
The candlestick that should have gone out suddenly lit with fire this time. She could clearly see the figure of the man who stepped down with both feet onto the floor of the room. Riz came back to herself and straightened her back.
“Are you… John?”
No matter how she looked at him, it was Riz’s caretaking demon, John.
“Do you think there is a demon besides me who would creep into your room?”
“I don’t think so, but you’re really John?”
“My lady, you’re quite distrustful.”
She brought the candlestick close to his face and stared all around. She couldn’t believe it. Riz even believed it was because she thought about him too much and maybe a hallucination appeared.
He seemed to find the fire of the candlestick too bright. Narrowing his eyes a little, he gently grabbed Riz’s wrist and moved the candlestick away from his own face.
“Without me you truly seem like you will easily die.”
“What time do you think it is right now? Why are you not sleeping?”
John’s gaze became sharp.
“Naturally, you were sure to take your meal and drink your medicine, correct?”
Riz unconsciously averted her eyes. She left about half of her meal. Her medicine… crap, she forgot to drink it and it was placed on a small table.
“I reminded you extensively too.”
“Humans grow by repeating mistakes.”
“Do not preach the human ways of life to a demon.”
She felt the signs of a lecture and quickly searched for another topic.
“Wait, John, you should have been restrained. Did you escape? Moreover, how did you come to this room? It’s not on the first floor.”
“I flew here from the church.”
“I don’t know where to start commenting.”
“What is there to comment on?”
She was replied to with a serious face.
“You said you flew but… when it comes to you, it’s different from the metaphor that you rushed over here as if you flew because you were worried about me, right?”
“I do not understand the meaning of a line being drawn with ‘when it comes to you’, but well I actually flew through the sky.”
She had seen many religious paintings that drew black-winged demons. Was it similar to that?
Riz unconsciously looked down at the feather she still held in one hand. Was this John’s feather and not a crow’s?
He extended a hand and plucked the feather from Riz’s fingers.
“What are you surprised about? I am a demon, and so I have one or two wings.”
“You have two wings?”
“To be precise, I have four.”
“Four wings? Like a butterfly?”
“Something like that. Perhaps.”
It seemed like he was annoyed at answering and gave a noncommittal response.
That was what she thought, but then her chin was softly lifted up with the tip of the feather.
“Do not divert the subject. You didn’t drink your medicine, did you?”
“I’ll drink it later.”
“This is why my lady is…”
John threw away the feather and wrapped his arms around Riz’s back and underneath her knees all of a sudden and lifted her up. Riz startled and she was already clinging onto his neck. The candlestick barely avoided being dropped.
He walked at a brisk pace and set Riz down on the bed. He also sat on the edge and took the candlestick from her to place on the small table beside the bed.
Because her medicine had been abandoned there, John’s eyes became stern for an instant but he didn’t lecture her.
Riz was inwardly relieved and changed her posture to lie on her side.
“Seeing you like this, you are a picturesque person.”
John said this, sounding appreciative, and stared at Riz.
“Like a dozing goddess which would appear in a religious painting. No, perhaps I am mistaken, it would be the Maiden of Stars.”
She tried to sit up but was stopped by his gaze. Riz felt awkward and squirmed.
John continued to observe her much like a painter looking at a model, no, it was a more heated look.
“I know you flew in the sky, but how did you get out of that Fig Tree Room?”
When she asked, he blinked as if he woke from a dream. Then his eyes returned to their usual chilly gaze, like a winter day enveloped in silence.
“I placed a substitute sculpture in the chair and exited normally from the entrance of the church.”
He answered indifferently and picked up the ends of Riz’s hair which spilled from her shoulders and spread across the bed.
“Tell me in more detail.”
“Greco did not seriously wish to confine me. For now.”
She silently prompted him to continue.
“In the first place, the start of it all was the ‘death’ of your previous fiancé, Sir Emil.”
“I heard about that from Father Greco too, although just a little. Did you get an explanation too, John?”
“A general outline.”
John removed his hand from Riz’s hair and piled up cushions beside the headboard before he seated himself again like he was leaning against them. She absently thought on how this was a married couple’s distance before hurriedly drowning that out.
She threw out her next question before he sensed her disturbance.
“Father Greco took you away when you were waiting at the carriage stop after mother and I went into the church, right?”
“Yes. I thought it would take around an hour and so I intended to go to a tea house until you ladies returned to the carriage. It was there Greco appeared. He conveyed that there was a private matter and so he asked me to follow him.”
“Were you close with Father Greco from before?”
“No, not at all.”
After he gave an immediate answer, he crossed his arms as if to reconsider.
“Simply, Greco is one of my previous master… Petron’s disciples. In particular, he has a talent for painting and was favored by Petron. There were opportunities for us to meet frequently.”
“That gentleman knows your true identity.”
“Rather, it was seen through. To be honest, that man doesn’t think highly of my existence. Normally, despite being superficial, he has an unexpected delicate side. He wanted to try and keep me away from Petron, but it was Petron who wished to make a contract with me in the first place.”
“… May I ask the reason why Father Petron wished to make a contract with you?”
He raised an eyebrow when she hesitantly asked.
“Did you not know? The majority of cardinals are contracted with a demon. Thus, it is not like Petron alone had fallen specially.”
“Wait. My ears are rejecting the shock of this unexpected fact.”
Her headache, which had finally settled, seemed to return.
“Aren’t you personally contracted with me?”
“My case is a bit unique. Why would even the clergy want to make contracts with demons?”
“I believe you will understand if you consider it for a while. It is to protect themselves.”
“They’re making demons guard them?”
Riz was dumbfounded. What sort of reason was that?
“It is not a strange story. Churchmen are especially targeted by demons. Causing a holy person to fall in and of itself strengthens their powers of wickedness.”
“Opposing demons with the power of demons. That sort of thing?”
“Yes. For you see, humans detest sullying their own hands.”
In addition, John continued with a serious expression.
“Demons appear even in the Bible. In other words, the Bible recognizes the existence of demons. That is the reason demonic symbols are placed in the church and the justification for the clergy to use demons.”
It sounded like nothing but sophistry, but it seemed that the cardinals were really overlooking that controversy.
“Has the conversation strayed? —In any case, while Greco doesn’t hold any favorable feelings towards me, he is doing his duties to his teacher, Petron. For some of the clergy, contracts with demons are an open secret; however, as you would expect, it would be terrible if all the priests and believers were to know. If the truth was to be revealed, then it would result in all of Petron’s achievements being questioned. That is why, as long as it is not something outrageous, Greco will tolerate my existence.”
“But you were restrained today.”
“It appears I was fooled.”
“It’s not like you to follow someone else obediently… Were you threatened with anything by Father Greco?”
They looked at each other for several seconds. John averted his gaze, abashed.
“John. Tell me.”
“He said there was a significant matter with the art gallery issue. If it’s about the gallery then it’s related to me, is it not?”
Riz stared at his profile. Even though he must have felt her eyes, he didn’t look at her.
“Were you worried about me and the art gallery?”
“More or less.”
He nodded with a tone that sounded as if frustrated him to admit it.
“My lady is my master after all.”
He was a surprisingly loyal demon. It was sort of funny and sort of ticklish. She wanted to thank him, but she also felt somewhat embarrassed.
Riz got up and reached out to John’s tired face.
She removed his glasses and, when she gently moved her fingers in circles above his eyelids, he stirred as if bewildered. The reaction was like that of a cat unaccustomed to people.
After she smiled at his expression she looked back at her own actions and was shocked. How shameless to have touched the face of a man who wasn’t her husband.
Riz intentionally met his eyes in order to gloss over her actions.
“I’m your master, so I need to spoil you from time to time.”
John looked hard at Riz. Or, that was what she thought, but he suddenly grabbed her wrist and pressed her hand to his cheek like he was telling her to stroke him more.
If he had been a cute child then she could have touched him as much as he wanted, but John was a demon— in addition, a calm young man who had no connection to being cute. She couldn’t assertively pet him all around just because he asked for it.
“The act of touching is meaningful.”
He put a smile on his lips as he kept his cheek pressed to Riz’s hand.
“Even in sacraments, a saint will place their hand on the head of their apostle, no? The laying on of hands is said to be a prayer, a joy, and a healing.”
“Is it also a joy and a healing to a demon?”
He quietly released Riz’s hand.
“To a demon… a human’s body temperature is too hot.”
Riz looked at her own hand and opened and closed it. Realizing that this action was being watched, she strangely became embarrassed.
“So— as a result of following Father Greco, you were confined under the charge of murdering Father Petron?”
“Yes. I did not think I would be sat down in the saint’s chair though.”
“Is there any problem with your body?”
Because he answered so briefly, maybe he thought it was hard to understand, and so he immediately added to that.
“The saint’s chair is equivalent to a torture device on demons. It is a troublesome product where you’ll be bound by simply sitting in it, but it is not like you will be destroyed.”
“How did you escape from that chair? Did Father Greco release you?”
“That was how it concluded. However, even without borrowing that man’s power, I would be able to escape on my own. Once it becomes night, my powers become more.”
It was faint, but it seemed like he was sullen. His voice was heavy with force.
“I wonder why Father Greco let you escape?”
“That is because he wants you and I to search for the demon who killed Petron.”
John’s expression tightened.
“Most of the cardinals know the fact that I am a demon. Because of that, I was more or less suspected immediately following Petron’s death, but I told them I was not the offender.”
“They believed you?”
“It was a demon’s oath. Thus, the charges on me were completely cleared. In addition, in order to protect Petron’s honor, the adoptive relationship was not cancelled and I ended up inheriting some assets.”
“Land and a mansion. The rest are types of art. Petron lacked any interest in money.”
The management of the art gallery was entrusted to John, but it wasn’t like he served at Riz’s mansion.
It seemed like he normally lived in the mansion bestowed to him.
“The cardinals, and those equal to Greco, have a policy to tolerate me as long as I do not harm humans. However…”
John furrowed his brows and lightly poked Riz’s forehead with a finger. It didn’t hurt but it made her frown. He then gently stroked the area, maybe as an apology.
“The ‘sudden death’ of your ex-fiancé appears to have caught the attention of some priests.”
“Some? People who don’t know about cardinals being connected to demons?”
“Yes. Those people took Sir Emil’s death as a starting point and looked into my lady’s art gallery.”
“… Then they saw that you, the former suspect of killing Petron, were at my art gallery.”
“Precisely. Those who have vaguely noticed my true identity seem to be among them as well. There are also those who have a strong disgust towards binding themselves to demons, even knowing the circumstances. In particular, these thoughts are concentrated from the First Church to the Fourth Church.”
“The priests have that sort of faction, I see.”
He sighed along with his words. It seemed like he was discovered by troublesome people.
“Father Greco had to pretend you were restrained in order to convince those people for now, right?”
“Greco must have inwardly thought that it was an unncessary act towards their actions. But, on the contrary, this time the priests who have raised their voices wish to purge the demons from the church in this opportunity.”
The whole picture could be seen.
The cardinals and Greco wanted to maintain the status quo, but a group of priests with their own thoughts were trying to dig up the truth of Petron’s death. In order to calm this commotion, it was necessary to prove that the true culprit of Petron’s death— was not his adopted son “John” but another person.
“But, John, even if you successfully caught the demon who killed Father Petron wouldn’t the conclusion be what those priests want?”
“Do you mean that there are those who would advocate— in the end, it hasn’t changed that a demon killed Petron, and so that this tragic event does not occur again we should thoroughly eliminate all demons? Perhaps so, but Greco and the others will claim the opposite. That the demon was left unchecked and this calamity could not be prevented. In that case, evil should be converted with the power of perseverance and a virtuous mind while being monitored in the church…”
“In order to advocate that you cannot be the criminal then.”
“Greco may just simply want to protect Petron’s honor, but the real intention of the cardinals must be different. Perhaps something such as how they do not want to let go of their useful contracted demons, even if there is some risk.”
It looked like they were pawns to be used for the convenience of the clergymen’s positions.
“Before I slipped out of the church, Greco deliberately told me about several areas where suspicious events occurred.”
“Is he telling us to search there?”
It was hard to think that he found these for them out of the kindness of his heart.
“Yes. If we are fortunate and demons are discovered then my safety can also be guaranteed. However, in the case that these investigations fail, then I should be prepared for an unavoidable execution.”
“In order to protect the honor of the entire church, they plan to cast away Father Petron as a last resort, huh.”
“It seems he can postpone things until Christmas next month. During this time, he said he would suppress the other priests.”
“Where are the unusual areas you heard from Father Greco?”
“Regarding that, could you come to the art gallery tomorrow?”
“Of course I can go, but is something there?’
“The demon who killed Petron moves its house from one to another… it changes distorted paintings. Apparently, it seems to wander between studios and art galleries. Greco sent for rough sketches from studios he thought were particularly suspicious. I was entrusted with those and they are stored in my lady’s art gallery.”
John’s voice rang with irony.
From this talk it seemed like Greco had been searching for that demon for a long time. If she didn’t think that, then things wouldn’t add up. Just looking casually into the art studios within the royal capital would take several months. So then why didn’t he tell this important information to John much earlier?
Was it really in order to protect Petron’s honor rather than to protect John?
He might have also thought about wanting John to continue acting as a human for as much as possible and to live quietly. However, due to the commotion of the priests, it was necessary to make urgent countermeasures and so he ended up unwillingly supplying the information he wanted to keep covered if possible. Perhaps it was something like this.
“… Okay. If I look at those paintings, we might grab some sort of clue.”
“Most likely. If we were to discover a distorted painting where a demon hid, then the painting itself would be sealed and we could hand it over to Greco.”
“John, I will definitely find that demon.”
It was a little annoying to be led around by Greco and the others, but it was to protect John. She also had no intentions of letting the art gallery go without a resistance.
“No, I would like you to check the rough sketches, but could you leave the rest to me?”
“I can help too.”
Even if she was in poor health, she wasn’t going to be a burden. In the human world, her own status was useful. John should know that too.
“I don’t want to lose you.”
Nowadays, life without him was unthinkable.
—John would be fine even in a life without her though.
“If you aren’t by my side then I won’t be happy.”
She knew he was taking care of her because of their contractual relationship. But, even then, she had no doubts that he had a devoted side.
If that sort of person was in trouble, then she should also fulfill her obligation and lend a hand.
—Was it just because of their contractual relationship? Really?
The desire to help him, was that thought simply nothing but an obligation?
Riz was flustered at the voice of doubt in her own heart. On the other hand, John looked over at her with a bewildered face. But then he suddenly showed a cold expression.
“By your side? Until you find a ‘good man’?”
“I never dreamed that a mother and daughter would come to church to find a man.”
“How do you…”
Did Greco secretly tell him?
“Do you want to marry that much? Do you not care who it is as long as he is a good man?”
“I prefer good men over bad men.”
Amazing. The air became chilly.
“If you have a husband, you would love them more than me.”
“What are you saying? Even if there are replacements for husbands, there’s no replacement for you, John.”
“For you, what degree of priority would a husband be?”
“If we’re talking about stairs then five steps.”
“… And me?”
“The second floor.”
“But my room is on the second floor.”
John had a strange look on his face as if he didn’t know how to respond to that.
A short silence passed. By now, Riz realized that she blurted out something stupid.
“… John, I’m going to sleep now.”
Her voice was high.
She had never had such an embarrassing experience apart from when she obtained a valuable painting.
“Right, you should sleep.”
For some reason he also spoke as if in a hurry.
Riz pulled the cushions to her and lay down like she was burying her face there. John placed the blanket over her body. Was he heading out? She didn’t mind him staying until the morning though.
“So far as it goes, I am restrained in the church even now and so I do not wish to be seen by too many people. My lady, can you make it to the art gallery alone tomorrow?”
“Come after you properly take breakfast. Is nine o’clock acceptable?”
“Then I shall await you.”
Suddenly, she felt like her head was stroked. Moreover, although she didn’t think this possibly happened, she also felt a light kiss dropped on her.
The opening and closing of the window sounded. Riz hurriedly raised her head, but John’s form was no longer anywhere. For some reason, it felt like she had been left behind.
Riz’s gaze wandered around. A single black feather fell on top of the bed.
The moment she picked it up it disappeared softly like fleeting snow.
The next day was an oppressive, cloudy day.
Riz used their mansion’s exclusive two-wheeled carriage and headed to the art gallery at the designated time.
The eeriness that had been there the first time she saw this place was completely gone. It now had a stately appearance.
The entrance door was locked, but John had already arrived and was waiting for Riz.
It looked like he spent the night here and there was a new painting on the easel. This time it was… what was it? Some kind of ghost painting? There was a sinuous white thing that was drawn.
On the work table in the drawing room-cum-storehouse was a plate with bacon and half-eaten bread, cheese, fruit wine, and other things. There was a shirt that looked changed out of casually placed on the chaise.
When Riz looked at that, he grabbed the shirt and moved it to the stool. Then, as if it was along the way, he covered the easel’s drawing with a cloth. After that, he prompted her to sit in the chaise with a gesture.
She couldn’t feel last night’s strange atmosphere in John’s attitude. For some reason, while being relieved, there was also a feeling of regret.
“Your health does not appear to be bad.”
John smiled after he stared at Riz for a while once she sat down in the chaise.
“I’m fine. My health’s been good these days.”
She tried to say it was thanks to him, but faltered. It seemed like the foreign medicine he prepared was right for her. It wasn’t unnatural for her to tell him that, and yet for some reason it got stuck in her throat.
“That is good then.”
John responded curtly and then approached the work table, picking up five drawings set beside the plate of bread. He returned back to the chaise holding them.
“These are the rough sketches entrusted to me from Greco, and these holy paintings have a connection to some strangeness.”
“Just five? The number’s surprisingly small.”
“I thought the same, but I heard in actuality that there are more studios where suspicious events have occurred. However, the studios and art galleries that have these five holy paintings appear to have similar abnormalities. Furthermore, all of them are within the royal capital or managed by the churches in the surrounding area.”
Riz accepted the five drawings that were held out and stared closely at them.
Three were watercolor and the last two were drawn in charcoal. Their width was around the length of her fingertips to her elbow.
John sat down beside her. He crossed his legs and peered at what Riz had in hand.
Being in a position where they were unexpectedly glued to each other nearly made her hands, which were holding the drawings, tremble. Riz tensed her shoulders and acted as if it was nothing. Her eyes concentrated at her hands to the point of being unnatural.
“What do you think of these rough sketches?”
“Have you fallen asleep, my lady?”
“I’m not sleeping.”
She returned that in a stiff tone. Just who’s fault was it that made her act out of character and feel nervous? But she felt like she would lose if she said that and so Riz chose silence.
However, John read too much into her attitude and seemed to misunderstand.
“My lady, could you possibly be afraid?”
Right away, she couldn’t understand the meaning of the question.
“There is some pause to be given at your eyes but you are, in outline, a young lady of age. Searching for the demon who killed Petron must be a terrifying topic, no? If you make a single mistake, you yourself might be killed.”
“Me? I didn’t think about that.”
“Think about it.”
An exasperated look was given to her, but it was true that until it was pointed out she hadn’t given it a single thought.
“But you’re here, John, so what do I need to be cautious about?”
His eyes went round. For her, just seeing him being surprised made her surprised.
“If you’re saying the demon is far stronger than you, then I’ll hire exorcists in the city and crush it with all my strength. But that’s not the case, right? Since you’ve been chasing it up to here alone, that means you’re surely stronger.”
“… Yes, most likely.”
“Then there’s no reason for me to fear that demon.”
“I am also a demon though. Haven’t you thought that when a crisis approaches you might be betrayed or abandoned?”
When Riz answered that she hadn’t thought about that, he showed an expression like he was looking at something strange, and recrossed his legs.
“What is with your straightforward trust in me?”
“If you ever want to betray me then tell me in advance. I’ll prepare myself.”
“That is not the issue at hand.”
“John, if we’re talking realistically, killing me would be extremely simple and you don’t have to bother yourself with an act of betrayal. If you stop my medicine for a few days and then have me run around like that then Death would visit with a friendly manner.”
He had a face which said he didn’t like that.
Riz secretly had this thought that he seemed to enjoy caring for her. Didn’t he seem to be enthusiastic about a bad hobby like taking the time and effort to make something that easily dies live? It was the sensation of safekeeping a rare painting. Once his interest waned then it might be the beginning of her ruin.
“Fool. Why do I have to give your soul to Death? If a demon is not greedy then they also lose their charm. I’ve taken all of you.”
“By taken, you mean it’s a done-deal?”
“What are you saying at this point? It was decided at the stage of our contract.”
Riz laughed without thought.
“There is still more. It is also my right to drive out your husband from your room, yes?”
“They would be in the way.”
“And what if I said no?”
“It is the original way of a demon to take joy in doing things that displease people, no?”
It was a dim delight that filled her chest.
This wasn’t a lawful conversation. It was a ghoulish conversation. The god of this country would probably never forgive Riz for swinging from joy to sorrow at the words of a demon. She would surely fall to hell, but hell itself was where John’s world was.
—In that case, it would be fine.
“So, we just need to check these five paintings, right?”
When she returned her gaze to the rough sketches, John’s arm went around her shoulders. The distance which was close from the start became even closer and Riz nearly crushed the drawings.
“Read the distortions with your Holy Eyes. Is there any drawing that feels strange? I will prioritize investigating from the art gallery with the drawing you’ve selected.”
Hearing John’s voice by her ear made her comfortable to the point where she wanted to flail her arms and legs without any meaning. Even though she thought it was a colder voice without inflections, there was a softness concealed in its core. That’s why it slowly soaked into her body and the reverberation of it lingered forever. Somehow, it seemed like a bad idea to feel this way. She couldn’t explain it well, but it was extremely bad.
“The first drawing is a farmer using a hoe. The second drawing is a lion encountering a deer. The third is a drawing of a flock of geese flying above a hill road…”
Even she didn’t know whether she was concentrating on John’s voice or concentrating on the drawings.
“The fourth drawing is a preacher standing underneath an olive branch. The last— is a drawing of an innkeeper chasing after an adulterer and his wife fixing her disheveled clothes.”
The first one she zeroed in on was the drawing of the preacher. Olives were plants with profound familiarity in the Bible and, being symbols of peace, they were often depicted in religious paintings. There were also the symbol of a goddess.
“By the way, what are the suspicious events that happened in the art galleries and studios?”
Riz asked this while she compared each drawing and searched for anything that stood out.
“Faith in religious paintings.”
She raised her eyes at John’s concise answer. But then hurriedly returned them to the drawings. Close. Their distance was really close. To the point where she could clearly feel his body temperature. Didn’t this mean she was being conscious of him? He had a masculine, yet delicate cheek and an intelligent mouth that was pressed tightly together. She wanted to look over there once more.
Riz shook off the temptation and desperately stared at the drawings.
“Are they possibly paintings of Virgin Mary’s crying, stigmata appearing on saints, and other types like that?”
“Generally those things.”
“Those are usually fakes that were artificially set up, right? Such as using the properties of a pigment that will melt in heat, or two layers of drawings…”
Miracles could be easily produced as long as a person had the technique and knowledge.
She wanted to say it was fine if those abilities were used for good, but that was never the case.
People’s thoughts became distinct and deft like a polished blade precisely when they were doing bad things. It was evil that was always in a crisis and struggling to the death. The gentleness that was born from good often dulled the mind and heart.
“As my lady says, the majority of them are shams designed so as to raise the reputation of the studio and church there.”
“Is it impossible to judge whether the works these five rough sketches came from are artificial?”
John affirmed this by lightly tightening the hand that was around Riz’s shoulder.
What was with this demon? She was trying hard to forget their too close distance, and yet she was disturbed every single time. She just had to say the single phrase that she wanted him to move away, but she didn’t want those words to come out of her mouth. The moment she held back her sigh, her eyes were drawn into a certain drawing.
It was the one depicting the flock of geese flying over a hill road.
“Hey, John, don’t you think all the geese are looking in the same direction?”
The sharpness in John’s eyes behind his glasses increased.
“Their gazes are looking down.”
“It’s like they’re looking at the hill.”
There was a flower girl walking on the hill.
“They’re looking at the flower girl…?”
Riz stared at the face of the flower girl for a while together with John. It was a red-haired girl. The flowers in her basket were all red roses. There was a field next to the hill.
“… Let us head to the studio where the artist who drew this painting is.”
Hesitation was born at John’s words. She couldn’t say with confidence that this drawing was definitely suspicious.
“If you try to force a meaning, can’t the same be said about all these drawings?”
“However, this rough sketch is the one you are most bothered about, is it not? I believe in my lady’s instinct.”
He said something that made her happy. It seemed that the pleasure in her voice could be heard, because the corner of John’s eyes softened.
“Your knowledge is still shallow, but those eyes of yours are real.”
It was a rather rude statement, but it was also an honest evaluation. Riz returned her gaze to the rough sketch.
“Where’s the artist who worked on this painting?”
When she asked, John reached out a hand and turned the drawing of the geese over. There were scribbles there.
“They are in the Kiwee district outside the city. There is a painting studio under the Church of St. Walham of the Third Church. This ‘J.L.’ is the artist’s name.”
“Kiwee district? My mother’s friend should have a holiday house there. I’ll try asking my mother for help to get us closer to the studio.”
“Ah, is it time for a bribe to make its appearance?”
“John, please at least call it a deal or transaction.”
“I believe the result is the same though.”
“It’s an issue about the process.”
“Even if the process is different, the scent and weight of money hasn’t changed.”
Being told those words with clear and intelligent eyes was something that stabbed her in the chest quite well.
“I understand. You are saying appearances must be kept, are you not?”
Her demon was too free.
“Since you are a poor talker, I will raise this topic with the madam.”
Riz suffered a considerable blow. Even from a person she sympathized with as being a destructively unskilled speaker had similar thoughts about her. She wanted to believe that she was just a little bit better.
“The madam is overprotective, is she not? If we do not make up a special reason, I believe she would not let you go outside the city.”
What could they say to get permission to head outside?
“Therefore, please entrust this to me. I will persuade her well.”
He stroked Riz’s shoulder as if to soothe her.
Riz wanted to groan. She was troubled over whether or not to leave it to John, but her greater trouble was this state of being right up against each other. Right now, wasn’t she in a position that was completely leaning against his chest?
To distract herself she poked at the pocket watch that hung down from his vest, but she was lightly scolded with a “Come now”.
“These are different from normal watches. If someone other than me opens the lid then they will have to pay the consequences… If you desire a watch then I will select one used for women at some date in the future.”
No, she wasn’t pestering for a watch.
“My lady, why have you abruptly furrowed your brows?”
“John, I think it’s finally the end for me.”
“The end of what?”
“My heart’s throbbing.”
Riz pressed down on her chest with a hand and John showed a stiff expression.
“Is it hard to breathe?”
“In what way?”
It was a terrifying tone as if he was interrogating her.
She hesitated over whether she should be honest, but she eventually lost to his piercing gaze.
“… John, could it be that you tried to put a suggestion on me?”
“Suggestion? What are you saying all of a sudden?”
“My heart becomes weird whenever I hear your voice from a close spot.”
He stared doubtfully at Riz.
“Against my expectations, you’re speaking in a soft voice. Moreover, as far as I’m aware, you have the most handsome face and you’re intelligent.”
“My lady, what are you saying?”
John was trying to stop her in a hurry, but she tapped on his chest with her fingertips.
“You have a lot of knowledge about art and you’re reliable. But, whenever the chance arises, you take away my calm. Even though I definitely don’t dislike it, why is it that whenever you’re close I feel butterflies in my stomach?”
When she looked back at him with some irritation, he was speechless.
And then he looked at her as if he was seeing something pitiable.
“… Are you seriously asking me that? Are you jesting with me?”
“Does my face look like I’m joking?”
“It is hard to tell since your expressions do not move even a little bit.”
“You can’t tell that I’m this flustered?”
“Where? Your eyes are as dead as usual.”
He pressed the back of his hand against his mouth and held back a laugh.
“My lady, I would also like to ask whether or not you placed a suggestion on me.”
“Even though you are a lady lacking this much expression, with eyes as stagnant as a bog, and detesting the light from the depths of your heart like a mole, I’m also seeing you more and more as the ‘Maiden of Stars’. There is a limit to strangeness.”
“Stars aren’t only silver, right?”
“Yes, that’s right. They are red, blue, and white.”
“My hair isn’t red or blue though.”
Riz knew she was a boring person lacking in color. The moment she was about to become dejected John stirred and and scooped up her hair with one hand. Her silver hair. If it didn’t have this color then she probably wouldn’t be called the “Maiden of Stars”—
“However, my lady is full of all manners of color.”
John gently gripped Riz’s hair with a careful motion.
“Red, blue, white. You have the color of many stars held in your heart.”
Riz felt like that voice fell into her heart with a tremendous resonance and sparkled.