The screeches of the pickaxe stopped.
The shock of the impact transmitted from the tool to his arms, and Rubar’s eyes dyed with the colour of despair.
It was over.
It was all over.
The pickaxe that he had grasped every night for a year now felt heavy in its loss of meaning.
It dropped from his stiffened fingers.
Azayu called out from behind.
“…Let’s get out of here, Rubar. We’ll think of the next plan.”
As if there was such a thing.
They didn’t even know how the massive stones of the tower were put together. It was said that removing just one stone could cause the entire thing to collapse; that was the Tower of the Silent Sinner. Who could have imagined that the stones continued even underground.
Firm fingers held onto the silent Rubar.
“What are you going to do by staying here. The Prince is in the tower, bearing with it all by himself, you know!”
Although Azayu had to have known what the earlier screech meant, the willpower had not left his voice.
Had this not been a tunnel too low to stand, his fist would certainly have flown at Rubar’s face.
Each time Rubar complained, Azayu would scold him.
Sometimes they would cry together. Sometimes they would fight. And together they had come this far.
It was by toadying up to the foolish nobles that hung around Queen Akka, and by staining his own honour as a general that Azayu was now here.
“Sorry. You’re right.”
Strength returned to Rubar’s eyes and Azayu smiled in relief.
Rubar had, these men had, over the past year dug again and again.
The moonstone in Rubar’s helmet illuminated the tunnel.
While glancing at the clumsily made reinforcement beams, Rubar tried to cheer himself up.
None of them had ever dug a tunnel before. It was all a work of trial and error. At first it felt impossible. But in the end, they had made it as far as the tower. Because it was surrounded by stone he hadn’t managed to rescue the Prince. But they had still made it as far as the tower. No matter what the obstacle, nothing would begin unless you gave it a try.
This was the last time he would see this place.
Rubar engraved the sight into his heart.
At the dead-end, Rubar could hear the sound of bellows overhead. It was the sound of the Head Chef of the barracks sending air into the tunnel for them.
Upon climbing up the ladder, the man’s round face greeted them with a smile.
“Rubar-sama, Azayu-sama, thank you for your hard work.”
This chef was a precious companion who had toiled through pains and joys together with them. Whenever Rubar left the dark and stifling tunnel, this man’s affable smile had always given him relief.
But today alone, Rubar instead widened his eyes in shock.
There was a kitchen table in front of the Head Chef, and above it shone a rectangle. Within it was a room illuminated by orange light wherein cried a woman wrapped in a white cloth.
“…Is this a dream? Or is this an illusion?”
“No, I can see it too, Rubar.”
Azayu muttered a reply.
Although he was a man who few things could perturb, right now his voice was hoarse.
The quietly crying woman noticed their voices, and raised her gaze to meet them.
The moment he saw her dark eyes, Rubar stiffened. It brought to mind the bedtime tales his mother had told him as a child, and the witch that appeared in them.
In Ii’Jibro, all children grow up being told “If you do bad things, the witch’s companions will take you away, you know?”. During the years until he realised it was just a tale to discipline children, Rubar had been terrified of the witch and strove to be a better child than anybody else.
He already knew a long time ago that there was no such thing as a witch. But despite that, to think that she actually really did…
The witch’s drowsy eyes looked at Rubar, and then at Azayu.
Her tightened lips told of her bad mood.
The witch opened her mouth.
“Oooi, you lot drink as well.”
Rubar reflexively covered his nose.
The witch stank too strongly of liquor.
“What the hell is with this drunkard witch…”
He had been taught that the witch was an eerie woman clad in tattered black clothing. Her eyes supposedly shone in the dark, and at night she would go from house to house and collect the bad children across the country. When she found a naughty child, she would lock them up in the gourd at her waist. She was supposed to be a terrifying person like that.
He had never heard of a half-naked witch grumbling over her drink.
The dumbfounded Rubar moved towards the Head Chef. And when he did, the chef took a cup from the kitchen table, and held it out to Rubar. His breath smelt a little of liquor.
“Head Chef… You’re drinking too?”
“Hehe,“ laughed the chef. “This wine is pretty good.”
“It’s wine with frostsnow grass. Course it’s good. Come on, you lot drink too.”
The witch reached out with her honey-coloured arm, and began pouring liquor into the cup that the Head Chef had forced on him.
Rubar looked down at the cup filled to the brim.
Unlike the fruit wines he knew, this liquor was clear like water and didn’t smell acidic either. He gulped. Having been in the dry and dusty tunnel, his throat longed for it. But because it was a witch’s wine, he couldn’t drink it without hesitation.
Suddenly he heard a bang.
Raising his head, he found the witch’s clenched fist on the kitchen table.
“What’s with you. You don’t want to drink my wine? That’s finee, that’s finee. I’m just an idiot woman who couldn’t save a single child after all.”
Just as he thought she was angry, the witch started to bawl instead.
Rubar was bewildered.
Azayu lined up beside him.
“Lost her child, huh… Although she’s a witch, still, how pitiful.”
The witch’s teary eyes glared at Azayu.
“HAHH!? I didn’t lose anything!”
And so she went back to being angry. What an energetic witch.
Learning forward, she grabbed Azayu’s collar.
“Or rather, just now you implied that I had a kid, didn’t you. DO I LOOK OLD ENOUGH TO HAVE A KID TO YOU!?”
He apologised with an entirely bewildered expression.
The witch then hung her head.
“It’s fine. It’s fine, you know. I’m not worth apologising to.”
Having gone back to crying once more, the witch started shaking Azayu by the collar.
Just as he raised his hands to pull her off, Azayu frowned. He was probably hesitating to touch her bare shoulders. How very like the serious Azayu.
Due to the same problem, Rubar was troubled with how to remove her from Azayu and ended up just standing there.
As he was being shaken by the witch as she pleased, the helmet slid from his swaying head. It hit the kitchen table with a clank, before bouncing into the witch’s dwelling.
They heard the sound of water.
When Rubar timidly tried to peer in, her black eyes fixated on him.
“Hey, what are you peeking at. Pervert.”
“P-, Per- …you’re wrong! Azayu’s helmet fell in. Could you get it for us?”
Although she was different from how he pictured, she was still a suspicious witch, so how could he think of her in such a way.
Rubar frantically shook his head and gave his excuse.
“R-, Right. My helmet fell over there. By no means was he looking with rude intentions.”
Azayu gave his support, still grasped by the collar.
“Hehehe, Boss Rubar is still such a child, isn’t he.”
And then the tipsy Head Chef sabotaged them.
The witch’s eyes became sharp.
“What. If you want to look, then just say so. I’ll show you as much as you want. Although you might not even want to look at the body of a woman past her prime like me.”
Muttering something, the witch moved her hands to her cloth.
The cloth had just barely covered the region from her breast to the base of her legs, and it was only held up because the corner was folded inwards. Just a little pull of her hand would be enough to undo it.
“W-, Wait! Don’t be hasty!”
“He’s right. Calm down. It’s okay. There’s still hope!”
Rubar frantically tried to persuade the witch, and then wondered what the heck Azayu was talking about.
“You think? You really think so? Really?”
The witch’s hands stopped, as she looked their way.
“I certainly do!”
“Of course! As long as you wish hard enough, you shall find the way!”
Rubar quietly stole a glance at Azayu. His always calm companion was apparently even more confused than he was at this moment.
Perhaps their heartfelt persuasion worked, because the witch let go of the cloth.
Rubar sighed with relief.
“Witch. Azayu’s helmet is by your feet. Sorry, but could we trouble you to pick it up?”
Dealing with a drunk was always tiring, but this witch was on another level.
Once they had Azayu’s helmet, Rubar was going to run away.
Hearing his request, the witch finally looked down.
After giving a carefree yawn, the witch squatted.
Before long, the witch appeared with a happy smile.
“Now then, a quiz. Was what you dropped this worn out torch-helmet? Or was it this key to the Tower of the Silent Sinner?”
Silence descended upon the room.
Both Rubar and Azayu, as well as the slightly tipsy Head Chef had their mouths hanging open, and their gazes nailed to the key in her right hand.
“Huh? What’s wrong?”
The witch tilted her head in questioning.
“T-, That key…”
“Aahh, bad. Bad. You have to properly say which one, or I won’t give it.”
‘Goodness me’, shrugged the witch.
Rubar grasped her right hand.
Thoughts about the witch’s skin were long gone from his mind.
“It’s the key. The key. Azayu! Head Chef! It’s the key.”
“Yeah. It’s the key.”
“It’s the key, isn’t it, Boss.”
The two of them agreed with Rubar’s happy words.
“With this, the Prince can be saved. We can save Prince Hinoki!”
He unconsciously put strength into his grip.
“Ow-, hey, it hurts.”
The witch struck Rubar’s arm with Azayu’s helmet.
“Aah, my apologies.”
He softened his grip a little, but still kept a hold of her hand. He couldn’t risk her running away.
But why did the witch have a key to the castle? It was supposed to have been together with the Prince in the tower.
“Witch. Did you meet the Prince?”
“Right. This key should have been with the Prince.
The witch slowly widened her eyes.
“The kid with this key was a prince?”
Her black eyes focused on Rubar’s face. And then she immediately sobered up.
“You guys are going to save that boy?”
“You’re allies of that boy, and not his rotten stepmother?”
Rubar said so, firmly. The witch pressed her lips together, and letting go of the helmet, she gripped Rubar’s hand back in return.
“Thank goodness… So you had allies too.”
Perhaps because she was too relieved, the witch squatted powerlessly. With his hand still being held, Rubar tiptoed and fell forward onto the table.
“Witch, I’ll fall as well.”
The witch let go of his hand. The key was now in his.
“It feels like a weight’s been lifted from my shoulders.” she said.
Leaning his elbows on the table, Rubar looked down at the witch.
The tub by her feet was filled with clear liquid.
“So you were able to enter the tower? Was the Prince doing well?”
He always walked past the tower pretending to do something else, and had strained his ears to hear if the Prince was saying anything.
Sometimes he heard singing, but he never saw the Prince.
“Seemed like it. Incredibly so. What do you think that boy said when he first saw me? ‘You are too far past your prime to tempt me. Try again.’”
Azayu burst into laughter.
“How very like him”
“Yes, truly. It seems the Prince is doing well.”
The Head Chef’s eyes filled with tears as he agreed.
Rubar turned to look at the two.
“Now then. Let’s form a new plan. The secret messenger should have just about reached the Desert King by now.”
Things were about to become busy.
To free the Prince with the few forces they had, they would need a detailed plan.
It was still too early for optimism.
It would probably be no easy feat to release the Prince safely.
Perhaps somebody would lose their life at some point.
Perhaps it would be Rubar himself.
It would probably be even more difficult than when they dug the tunnel.
Rubar gazed at his right hand.
The key was in his hand now.