Teo Keh couldn’t calm down, and paced around the pavillion.
Although the thick pavillion was blocking the sun above his head, the temperature inside the pavillion was still quite hot.
However, Teo Keh neither opened a window, nor pulled up the hanging curtain that covered the entrance, and merely traced a circle on the floor, as though following the pattern of the carpet with his foot.
―――――They still haven’t? They still haven’t found him?
His forehead ran with sweat, and his prided moustache had lost its lustre.
Teo Keh had served under the first king of the Kingdom of Yohk’Zai, Tenuhg, before he had revived the country, and had supported him.
When Tenuhg had revived the country he was 31, but at the time Teo Keh was only a youth in his teens. However, seeing through Teo Keh’s exceptional talent for politics, Tenuhg appointed him as prime minister when he was only halfway through his twenties.
The newly revived young country continued on vigorously to absorb ten odd clans, and two small countries in its surroundings, and in a flash had risen to become a great nation that controlled almost all of the Zaharya.
Tenuhg was a hero. At the very least, he was a hero to Teo Keh and the citizens of Yohk’Zai.
Tenuhg possessed a tenacious body and powerful vitality that matched his status as a hero, and he continued governing Yohk’Zai as a strong king, until he died at 71 years of age in the bed of his favourite, and 48-years junior, concubine.
However, a hero does not necessarily have heroes as children.
The 46 year old successor of Tenuhg, Iyoh, was merely a kind-hearted man.
Had he been born to a commoner in the city, he would probably have lived a fortunate and happy life.
Unfortunately, Iyoh was born as the son of Tenuhg. There was no way that a recently risen, and still unsettled country was suitable for a kind and gentle ruler.
The result was that in only four years, the kingdom was meeting its decline.
Had Iyoh been a fool who hadn’t noticed the disaster of his nation, or an unrepentent man who had grown cocky from becoming the king, the situation may still have been better. However, he was neither of these things. Lamenting his own weakness, unable to bear the pressure, growing thinner in a flash, and then finally succumbing to illness and leaving this world too son.
His reign had only lasted 4 years and a few days. It ended when Iyoh had just turned 50.
What was worse, was that Iyoh had no son.
Naturally, there was a dispute over the successor. It seemed that a struggle for the throne would break out between the two son-in-laws of Iyoh, and the sons of Tenuhg that were the younger half-brothers of Iyoh. You could say that they were on the eve of such a war.
Teo Keh could not believe their stupidity.
If it became an internal war, then even the dissatisfaction of the affiliated clans and nations would turn towards them. To him, it was obvious what future a scattered and separated country held.
While days went as he continued to kick away and reject invitations to each faction, one day, he recalled a certain servant woman that he had driven out from the palace a long time ago.
Despite being a servant who did the laundry, perhaps as a prank of god, when she was 14, of all things, she began a relationship with Iyoh.
By the time Teo Keh had realised it, she was already with child.
A child with a woman of no standing. What’s more, Iyoh was not an adult yet.
Teo Keh gave the woman money, and expelled her from the castle.
And like that, Teo Keh told Iyoh that she had happily accepted the consolation money, and left after having an abortion.
However, the truth was different. She did not abort the child.
Teo Keh had been prepared to even use force to make her do so, but the woman cried and clung to him.
She didn’t want power nor riches. She just wanted to give birth to the child conceived between her and the person she loved. She wouldn’t cause trouble for Iyoh or anybody else. She just begged Teo Keh for permission to give birth.
Seeing the crying woman holding her belly, Teo Keh couldn’t bring himself to do it.
After promising to never name the father, and to live in a faraway land, he let the woman go.
Had that child been a boy… thought Teo Keh.
It was the child of a woman he had driven from the castle himself.
He knew that he was being selfish. However, he had no other plans left.
And so Teo Keh followed the woman’s footsteps, and discovered that she had given birth to a boy.
Whether it was fortune or misfortune, the woman had passed away ten years ago. Hearing that the boy with Iyoh’s blood was working as a member of a desert merchant group, Teo Keh secretly sent soldiers to find him.
But this was the result.
The ray of light that he had found after much trouble had had his merchant group attacked by bandits, and by the time the merchants were located, their remains were buried beneath the sand.
When Teo Keh received the news, he began planning the escape of his clan to outside the country.
However, no matter how they dug up the sand, they couldn’t find a man like him. The only bodies they found were those of men in their prime, and in the end, they couldn’t find the man who should have been 35.
Though out of character, Teo Keh wanted to thank god.
However, the circumstances being what they were, he couldn’t predict the result, and their time was limited. What’s more, the only clue were the earrings that Iyoh had given the woman. Inherited from his mother, they were earrings made of the blue rock lip’se, that he had never parted from in these past ten years. If they hadn’t been taken by bandits, then they should still have been hanging from his ears.
Teo Keh prayed. He prayed with all his heart.
After continuing his silent prayer with his eyes closed, when he parted his eyelids again, he doubted his eyes.
“…Again? Give me a break…”
And then, he doubted his ears.
“Woman… What are you doing?”
What he saw before him was a strange, strange, scene.
As though a rectangle had been cut from it, a certain part of the pavilion scenery had changed, and inside it, was a woman with honey coloured skin, but in an appearance that was basically naked, she was standing there with bubbles dripping from her, clenching tightly a pink object.
“Well, I’m cleaning the bath. Problem?”
“Cleaning the bath? Is that a bath over there?”
“That’s right. A bath. What are you doing? You don’t seem to be stranded, do you.”
“I am not stranded but… What exactly is going on? Are you a user of the dark arts?”
Teo Keh noticed that his own voice had trembled when he asked the question.
“Huh? Dark arts? As if I can use something like that. Isn’t this something that you did?”
When he accidentally raised his voice, the woman’s shoulders trembled with a start.
The woman looked frightened, but in the next moment her expression turned angry.
“Hey! Don’t raise your voice like that. I don’t know what’s going on either! I mean, just last night a stranded man appeared, and now there’s a full-bellied and arrogant old man. What’s going on…”
Her vigour was only there for the beginning, and her voice quickly wilted. Seeing the confused and frowning woman who seemed like she would cry at any moment, Teo Keh became flustered. He was fundamentally somebody weak to the tears of women after all.
“S-, Sorry… I got a little excited, didn’t I? Apologies.”
After giving her face a wipe with her slender, bare arm, she tightly pressed her lips together.
Seeing that she wasn’t going to start crying, Teo Keh felt relieved.
“But still, what on earth is this?”
It was a scene that seemed stranger the longer you looked.
This space had suddenly appeared in the dark red pavillion.
This space that opened from his hips to above his head looked just like a painting floating in the air.
However, a painting where the person in it moved, and talked. And what’s more, where the person was a woman in a strange appearance.
Teo Keh stared hard at the woman.
Her pale skin was similar to the people of the north, but despite that, her facial features were quite flat.
The clothing she was wearing was also quite strange. A light blue cloth covered only her chest and hips, and only a string covered her shoulders. As for her legs, everything from the thighs down were laid bare. Despite that, this woman showed no signs of embarassment, and was calm.
“Heyy, could it be that you’re troubled for water?”
“…Water? My water supplies are not particularly troubling, but…”
Teo Keh frowned. While tilting his head and wondering why this woman thought he was troubled for water, he suddenly gasped.
“Did you say that something like this had happened before? You said “again” earlier, did you not?”
If his memories weren’t mistaken, that was her first line.
The woman had experienced this before. And that person was somebody in need of water.
Teo Keh was agitated enough that it felt like the bottom of his guts would jump up.
“What type of person… What type of person was the one that you met!? Was he not wearing a pair of blue earrings!?”
It felt like he was being pulled by a fine thread.
Teo Keh leaned forward in excitement, and tightly gripped the silver frame of the rectangular hole.
“Y-, Yes. He was, but?”
It really was him!
To he who hadn’t believed in the gods even a little, in this moment his faith had taken a 180 degree turn.
“Ohhh! God! I thank you. What were the earrings made of? What kind of design were they? Please tell me in detail.”
“I don’t mind, but…”
Seeing Teo Keh’s breath getting more and more wild, the woman leaned backwards, and raising her arms, she showed her palms to try and calm him down.
“Um, well… could you not get mad?”
Perhaps feeling guilty about something, the woman suddenly looked away from him.
“W-, what’s the matter?”
The woman took something from a clear, rectangular shelf that was attached to the wall, before slowly presenting it to Teo Keh.
Teo Keh’s eyes widened.
Those earrings were undoubtedly the ones he had been looking for. Tenuhg had given these to Iyoh’s mother, the queen, and after she passed, they were passed to Iyoh, and from Iyoh they were passed to the girl that he loved, and from her, they were inherited by the child she had given birth to; it was unmistakably those pair of lip’se earrings.
But something had happened, and those earrings were only half their original size.
“Ohhh, ohhhh, what a thing to have happened.”
Receiving the earrings from the woman, Teo Keh shut his eyes.
The place where it had been cut was more beautiful than he had ever seen it. The one who had cut this was surely a person of great skill. If there was a person like that amongst the bandits, then…
Teo Keh conjectured that the prince had died, and sank to his knees defeated.
He, no, Yohk’Zai, had lost their hope.
“Umm. I’m really sorry about this. I didn’t think that you’d get this depressed. Um, it wasn’t on purpose, you know? I have no idea how it happened either, after all. To think that it would disappear once you brought it out of the bathroom. Nobody would have expected that, right?”
Hearing the woman’s words, Teo Keh lost what he was going to say next.
“It disappeared. When I tried to take the earrings out of the bathroom, the parts that went past the boundary of the door disappeared! Ah-, don’t ask me “WHY!?” okay? I have no idea either, after all.”
The woman frantically tried to explain, in an anxious voice. It was an incredibly unbelievable story, but the woman didn’t seem to be lying.
If this was true, then it was something for Teo Keh to celebrate.
“Then the one who was wearing these earrings was safe then?”
Teo Keh gulped.
“Yeah, he was. For a stranded person, he was pretty lively.”
When he bent his body through the window, the woman took a step back as though overpowered, and quietly nodded.
“And what of that person? Where did they go?”
“Where? …Ah-, if I remember correctly, he said that he was headed to an oasis town in the east. And the place that we met was the Zaharya. He said that he had left the desert, and certainly, that place was more a wasteland than a desert, but sand flew in from that window and it was pretty rough cleaning it up, so maybe he had only just left the desert, huh?”
“Did he have a ruba?”
“A ruba? What’s that?”
Teo Keh couldn’t answer the woman’s question.
From the woman’s reaction, there didn’t seem to be a ruba with him.
Had he been pulling a ruba along, the woman’s reaction would have probably been different after all.
With his eyes shut, in Teo Keo’s mind he projected the dizzying map of Zaharya. Zaharya was huge. There was probably no merchant stupid enough to walk through it during the day without a ruba, nor sufficient water or food. For a man to go by foot from the place of the bandit attack, walking only at night, it would take him 3 or 4 days to leave the desert. After that, walking for a whole day without stop, he would reach a major trade route. If he sought help on a trade route with many merchants coming and going, then there was no mistake that he would be reaching the oasis town around now.
“Girl! I thank you. Because of you, the lives of the innocent people in this nation may have been saved. No, rather, we will save them.”
“Ha-, hah… That sounds like a lot of work. Ummm, please try your best.”
The woman’s mouth twitched in bewilderment.
She didn’t know about the circumstances of Teo Keh’s side after all, so it couldn’t be helped. Teo Keh lowered his gaze to the earrings in his hand, before fixing his stance, and looking at the woman.
“I am the prime minister of Yohk’Zai, Teo Keh. Won’t you give me these earrings? I am willing to compensate as much as you want for them.”
There were a clue towards the prince that he had finally found. Teo Keh couldn’t help but feel that if he parted from these, the ray of hope that he had finally found again, would once more be lost.
“Eh-, that’s totally fine. To begin with, it was something I traded for water after all.”
Teo Keh was on guard, wondering if she would complain for an extravagant sum, but the woman readily agreed.
“What do you wish in return for this? Gold? Jewels?”
When Teo Keh said this, the woman frowned, and then sighed.
“I see. It wasn’t good to take something for free, right? …Ummm, well then, please bring me any old rock lying around.”
More than admiration, what Teo Keh felt was astonishment. What a greedless woman.
“Are you fine with that? If you so wish, we could receive you with an appropriate position in our country, you know?”
When they were too unselfish, it instead made you uneasy.
“Eh? I don’t need something like that.”
Teo Keh’s eyes seemed like they would fall out of his sockets. He couldn’t believe the words he had just heard. For a powerful nation such as Yohk’Zai to treated as “something like that”. She had a different skin colour, but he thought she was otherwise a regular woman, but as expected, she might really have been an employer of the dark arts. Teo Keh suddenly found the woman fearful.
“I-, I will immediately pick up a rock. Please wait a little.”
Teo Keh who had now wanted to end negotiations before the woman changed her mind, hurried outside the pavillion after leaving those words.
The sun was said to have been born from the breath of the Goddess Shawa, and in the Month of Onse, it relentlessly scorched the ground.
Teo Keh produced a cloth from his pocket, and after wrapping a rock that was small enough to fit in his palm, he picked it up and returned to the pavilion where the woman was waiting.
“Is this fine?”
He pulled off the cloth and showed her the rock.
Seeing the stone with a reddish-brown lustre, the woman nodded in satisfaction.
When the woman casually reached out for it, Teo Keh called out to stop her in a panic. And when he did, the woman exaggeratedly snapped her hand away.
“What are you doing touching a fire stone barehanded? It isn’t my business if you burn yourself, you know.”
The woman tilted her head in confusion. Teo Keh was bewildered. If she didn’t even know of fire stones, then what did she know of?
“In the Onse Month, stones baked by the sun of Shawa will turn into fire stones. You said that that was a bath, didn’t you? Try filling it up with water, and putting this stone in it. With a bath of about that size, this stone alone should be just right to heat it to bath temperature.”
“Is that true!? Woww, so convenient.”
The woman’s eyes suddenly sparkled.
What did “This’ll cut down the gas bill!” mean? Seeing how extremely happy the woman was, perhaps even employers of black magic have their own worries. Or so he thought, as the existences he had thought of as nothing but fearful and abominable, suddenly felt closer to him.
“Our trade is complete. I thank you, Miss Magician.”
Teo Keh folded his arms and expressed his thanks.
“Ah-, wait, hang on.”
The moment he heard her call out to stop him, Teo Keh’s face stiffened.
As expected, was a fire stone not enough for compensation?
“Could I ask you a little something?”
It seems that the rumours about employers of the dark arts wanting information on occasion, were indeed true.
Just what kind of classified information would she seek? Teo Keh braced himself.
“That person you’re looking for. How long has he been wearing these earrings?”
He involuntarily let out a foolish sound.
“I had received information that he had worn them ever since his mother passed away ten years ago, but…”
What did she plan on doing after asking about something like that?
That the employers of the dark arts truly were an entirely different existence, was something that sank deeply into his heart.
Having come this far, I’m suspecting that there was only one earring. Plurals and singulars are rarely specified in Japanese, and I kind of didn’t think too much about it. Thinking about it again, there was mn, probably only one earring.