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At this rate it would definitely mould.
Looking at the blue mantle hanging from the line, Izumi’s features curved into a frown.
The mantle given to her by the man lost in the desert――――in other words, by King Huuron――――was thicker than expected.
But the desert was hot in the daytime, and freezing in the night. Perhaps something like this was to be expected.
At any rate, the mantle was certainly thick. Had that been the only thing, then Izumi wouldn’t have worried.
Embroidery decorated it in the same colour as its cloth, and its craftsmanship was clearly finer than anything she had ever seen.
It spoke much that the first thing she thought was ‘looks expensive’.
Up until now she had received two bottles of the finest liquor, three balls of hahanero bags, and then even a map, so surely it was no big deal to receive a mantle that was just a little fancy…?
Izumi didn’t think so at all.
The mantle was simply that splendid.
Perhaps she would meet a poor person next.
Selling it would probably net a fortune. But it was still technically the mantle of Yohk’Zai’s king. Perhaps selling it would garner unwanted attention.
And thus she concluded that it was still best to simply return it.
However, this was not the same as wanting to meet him herself. The reason she didn’t mind people seeing her naked is because she had been sure that she would never meet them again. Now that she knew that wasn’t an absolute, she started to care a little more about her appearance.
Izumi glanced at the vinyl bag in the corner. Her newly purchased bathrobe lay inside.
This time she would be prepared no matter when her window might connect to a strange world.
Perhaps she would be able to relax more this time.
Which left the current problem. While safely blow-drying the mantle from a distance, she wracked her brains wondering how she could return this to King Huuron.
The hot air continued to leave the dryer.
Suddenly, the cry of “Fire!” overlapped the sound of the machine.
Did the shout come from this world, or did it come from the mysterious world beyond her windowsill? The quickest way to determine it was simply to open her window.
Turning off the drier, she ducked past the mantle on the line and then opened the window.
And it was connected to the inside of some house she didn’t know.
Ochre dirt walls. A kitchen seemingly carved from stone. Warm furniture made of wood. And finally, two people in white-coloured clothing.
The two of them hadn’t noticed Izumi’s presence yet, and were looking outside through the opened wooden window.
And outside the window, beyond a gap of about a metre, was the window of a house placed diagonally from theirs.
Izumi closely examined the two of them. Their bare arms were of brownish hue, and it brought to mind a desert people. But their clothing was completely different. White clothing that resembled an ancient kantoui or tunic, tied with a white belt that lustred like silk. Both tunics went beyond the buttocks, and whilst one was like a long skirt that reached the ankles, the other had a shorter skirt that reached just below the knees.
From the silhouettes, Izumi could tell that the knee-length tunic was worn by a man, whilst the ankle-length by a woman.
“W-, What should we do, Kyousui-san? There might still be children left behind! Aahh, why isn’t anybody going to save them? Should I go bring water?”
“It’s pointless. With motor skills like yours, there’ll just be one extra person to save. The soldiers will be here soon.”
“Well that might be true, but still…”
The man glanced at face of the woman next to him. From what Izumi could see, he had friendly looking eyes that slanted outwards, and particularly striking were his shining red earrings.
When Kyousui, the woman, looked back towards him, she noticed Izumi.
Her eyes widened so far that they were in danger of falling out of her head.
“Eh? EHH? UMM… EHH!?”
She pointed at Izumi as she visibly struggled for words. Because of this, the man noticed Izumi as well.
“Hello. Umm, you might not believe me but, I’m nobody suspicious. By the by, might you be having trouble of some sort?”
First was greeting them.
“Oh, well thank you for introducing yourself,” said the man as he bowed. It was a standard response, but it seemed to Izumi that he was simply numb from shock.
After raising his head, the man ran over to Izumi’s side.
“The truth is, we’re terribly troubled, Lady Magician!”
Izumi didn’t comment. Her experience suggested that correcting him was pointless.
“The house beyond this alleyway is on fire, but there might still be small children in there! Please lend us your aid!”
Izumi was troubled. The man’s response was so intense that he might prostrate himself at any moment.
She turned back to check her bathroom.
The only thing that looked to be of use was the swaying mantle before her eyes.
Izumi snatched it. The clothes peg fell to the ground.
She turned the knob of her shower and held the mantle beneath the water.
“Perhaps you could cover yourself with this and save them yourself. Don’t try the impossible though.”
Izumi forced the words, “Because you look kinda slow.” back down her throat.
“Oohh, how reliable. If this is Lady Magician’s cloth then there will surely be no problem.”
It’s just a normal, fancy cloth though…
Izumi couldn’t help but feel incredibly nervous.
“Dear, wait a moment!”
Kyousui tried to stop the man, but he had already donned the mantle and was on the verge of jumping through the window. He tried to make a gallant jump through the window, but his raised leg got caught on the mantle, and he fell through the window instead.
Izumi could hear the dull noise from the impact.
“I told you that it was impossible for you!” shouted Kyousui as she leaned through the window.
It was at that moment that Izumi spotted bright red hair fluttering beyond her.
“I’ll be borrowing this cloth!”
A voice reached her ears. It was calm, and low, but unmistakably a woman’s.
Who exactly, Izumi couldn’t see, but apparently somebody had torn the mantle off the man.
As the man floundered outside however, Izumi occasionally spotted the somebody’s bright red head beyond the windowsill.
Now fully wrapped in the cloth, a woman stood up outside.
The fiery red hair that reached her hips was tied into a high ponytail.
Her white skin was tanned slightly olive, while her sharp brows, straight nose, and clear blue eyes painted the image of a strong-willed woman. Said eyes were currently turned towards Izumi.
The moment she saw her, the woman looked astonished for a moment, but she immediately regained her composure.
Clad in Huuron’s mantle, she dashed off without hesitation.
It didn’t take long for her to disappear down the alley.
“Owowow…” muttered the man, as he stood up, rubbing his hips.
From far outside, Izumi could hear a crowd falter between horrified screams, and cheers of joy.
Black smoke rose from the neighbouring house as the flame audibly crackled.
“Dear, hurry inside!” screamed Kyousui.
Her shout had brought Izumi back to her senses.
She rushed out of her bathroom and grabbed every bucket and pail she could find, and when she ran out, she went for the vases as well.
When she returned to the bathroom, Kyousui was just on the verge of dragging the man back herself.
“We’re going to do a bucket relay,” Izumi declared to her.
Kyousui turned around.
Without delay, Izumi forced a bucket of water into her hands.
“Come on! Hurry up! Hand it to the man outside!”
After glancing at the bucket, and then at Izumi, Kyousui gave a strong nod before making for the window.
“Dear! It’s water! Come on, hurry!” she shouted.
The man had been standing there dazedly, but Kyousui’s voice sent his head snapping back towards her.
Receiving the bucket, he splashed the water through a burning window. By the time he had finished, Kyousui was ready with the second bucket. One after another, Izumi handed the filled containers to Kyousui, and one after another, Kyousui handed them to the man. When the man had emptied each one, he would exchange it for the one in Kyousui’s arms, before turning back to toss the water through the window. For a stopgap measure, it was rather well-done.
Just as sweat was beginning to form on their brows, a gust of wind came from beyond that window.
Earlier, the red-head had charged in with the mantle on her person. That same woman was now jumping out of the window, carrying something wrapped in that mantle.
Gently placing the bundle onto the ground, she unfurled the blue cloth, and from inside appeared a boy of four or five. His teary, bloodshot eyes looked around uneasily. Although he tried to clench his lips tight, it was heart-rending that sobs still escaped them. However, he wasn’t injured, and there wasn’t a single burn mark on him.
“Mister! I’ll leave this boy to you. And Miss, I’m sorry about this, but could you hide me? The soldiers are starting to gather, and I have a reason that I don’t want to be seen.”
Right after she finished speaking, the woman handed the child to the man, and then entered the house through the window. Naturally she didn’t catch her foot on anything.
Kyousui showed her agreement by reaching for the window shutters.
“Dear, I’m leaving this to you.”
“Hm? UMM, EHH!? AH-, WAIT, KYOUSUI-SAAAN!”
The man’s voice disappeared as the window closed.
Kyousui wrung a wet cloth to give to the sooty woman.
She accepted it with thanks, and began wiping her cheeks and arms down.
Looking closely, it was now obvious that the ends of her hair and part of her sash were burnt black, and the back of her right hand had turned red.
“Come here,” beckoned Izumi. “We’ll cool your hand with running water.”
Although the woman tilted her head in confusion, she came over nonetheless.
Turning on a cold shower, Izumi took the woman’s hand to hold beneath it.
“Sorry for the trouble,” said the woman, as she left her arm to Izumi.
It was at this point that the woman noticed the mantle in her other hand and caught her breath.
“Looking carefully, isn’t the embroidery on this cloak amazing!? It’s my first time seeing such a beautiful and detailed design.”
After sighing in admiration, the woman spoke apologetically to Kyousui.
“I’m sorry, Miss. I don’t think I can reimburse you with something like this, but I’ll try my best to repay you.”
“No, that doesn’t belong to us. It’s actually Lady Magician’s.”
Now subjected to two stares, Izumi shook her head.
“No, well, that isn’t exactly mine but… Well, it did save the life of a child, so I guess its original owner wouldn’t complain.”
“Truly? How magnanimous,” she replied, before staring at the mantle.
Its edges were charred black, and the rest of it was soiled with sooty water. Its intricate patterns now frayed, and it looked beyond repair.
On the other hand, the sash wrapped around her waist lustred splendidly, its gradated dye-job reminiscent of the morning sky.
In Izumi’s eyes, it too, was quite the work of art.
No, actually, it’s not the sash that’s the real pity here…
“It looks like the ends of your hair are singed.”
The waist-length hair was as red as red could be, and it was obvious to anyone’s eyes that it had been carefully tended to.
Both the embroidered mantle and the sash had been a shame, but as a fellow woman, it was the woman’s hair that pained Izumi’s heart the most.
“It’ll grow back in no time,” smiled the woman. Though the smile had been a casual one, it was charming like the blooming of a gorgeous flower.
“Now then, please help yourselves,” announced Kyousui with food and drink. “I’m not sure if it will suit your tastes, but please go ahead.”
“Aye, thank you. To tell the truth, I haven’t eaten since this morning,” said the woman. She promptly put down the mantle, and brought drink to her mouth. Without delay, her hand continued on towards the pita-like flatbread with the green paste inside.
“Lady Magician, please help yourself as well. It’s naan with zora bean.”
Izumi took some naan without reserve.
The surrounding bread was roast crisp, whilst the green paste inside had a texture not unlike roughly-ground red-bean paste. Although it could do with just a little more salt, it had a gentle and light taste to it.
“How delicious,” muttered the redhead.
Izumi agreed. But for some reason the woman had sighed sadly.
When she raised her head, she found Kyousui frowning towards the woman.
“Umm, could it be that you are Princess Hitow?”
Izumi’s gaze returned to the redhead.
The redhead nodded with a complicated expression.
“Quite so. I am Hitow.”
“Shh! You’re being loud.”
When Izumi accidentally raised her voice, Hitow placed a finger against Izumi’s lips.
Ohh! So they have the same gesture in this world!
It was a little moving.
“Why? Ohhh, is that because you don’t want to be found by your soldiers?”
She now knew why Hitow didn’t want her screaming ‘PRINCESS!’. But as for why she didn’t want to be found, Izumi still had no idea.
“I still don’t get why, though.”
Izumi’s frank question caused the redhead―――Princess Hitow―――to hang her head silently.
Her messy hair concealed her face.
Izumi was sent into a panic.
“Um, I’m really sorry. I asked something personal, but I didn’t mean to pry if you didn’t want to answer.”
Hitow raised her head and shook it.
“No, it’s natural to have questions. Unworthy though I may be, I am still royalty, and it was shameful to make a citizen feel uneasy. My apologies.”
Her bow was so perfect that people might think her OCD, whilst Izumi the recipient was watching on with a stiff expression. To begin with, Izumi wasn’t her citizen, so there was no reason to apologise.
While Izumi was wondering to herself how to explain, Hitow let out a sigh.
“I had a disagreement with some of my officials, you see. I desired some time alone, so I left the palace to cool my head.”
Seeing the look of grief appear on Hitow’s graceful features, Izumi opened her mouth to say something, but closed it soon after.
She realised that Princess Hitow’s skin was flawless, save for the faint bags under her eyes.
The girl looked to be about twenty. It was an age that already came with its own troubles, but coupled with the baggage of royalty and they were sure to be on another scale. How could Izumi possibly give advice to a person like that.
The mood had turned dark like the sky before rainfall.
It was Kyousui who first timidly broke the silence.
“It might be presumptuous of me to ask, but could it be that Your Highness is troubled by the marriage proposal from King Cornou of Tohji?”
Hitou was wide-eyed.
Her cheeks began to lightly blush.
“How, did you…”
“As you can see, I am an immigrant, and when I first arrived in this nation, I was shocked by how close the royalty was to their citizens. Everyone was so warm and frank that you couldn’t feel the walls of social status… Which is why everyone is worried. Even though Your Highness had been so shy and joyful just hearing King Cornou’s name, recently Your Highness’s smiles have all seemed sad.”
The princess buried her face into her knees.
“Everybody noticed all of that? How immature I must be.”
With an overreaction like that, it was possible that absolutely anybody could tell. Izumi stared at Princess Hitow.
“Our meeting was surely some kind of fate, so we’ll hear you out if you want. I think that we can be franker than your advisers.”
“I wouldn’t understand political issues, but from what I humbly see, Your Highness’s situation is different, yes? So rather than white-haired gentlemen, perhaps the two of us would be more suitable,” added Kyousui.
Princess Hitow raised her head.
To say nothing of her cheeks, to say nothing of her ears, Hitow’s entire face flushed bright red like a tomato.
“You’ll listen? It’s pathetic though, so you might be disillusioned.”
“Of course we’ll listen.”
The two of them nodded reassuringly.
After taking a large breath, Princess Hitow let out a large sigh and slumped her shoulders.
“I can’t eat (it),” she muttered.
Their two voices overlapped.
Izumi’s heart pounded for a moment as she wondered if it was a sexual euphemism, but apparently that wasn’t the case.
“Can’t eat, what?” asked Kyousui.
“I can’t eat Tohjian food.”
Izumi was just a little bit disappointed.
“Almost everything in Tohjian cuisine includes coconasso. And I can’t stand that distinct, saccharine flavour it has. Curry, naan, everything made with coconasso…. Each time I visit Tohji I force the stuff down with drink, but two days is my limit. Living in Tohji? Without eating coconasso? It’s so ridiculous that King Cornou would be astounded. So I suggested that we postpone the marriage. At the moment I’m actually in the middle of some special training designed to force myself to get used to it. But it might be impossible for me…”
“That’s, ummm… terrible, maybe…”
It was a little childish to be picky about ones food, but everybody had things they were bad at. If something you hated was in everything you ate, perhaps it really would be tough.
Earlier, Izumi’s mouth had been hanging in disbelief, but after imagining a world where everything included shiitake mushrooms, she suddenly revised her opinion.
“Couldn’t Your Highness ask them to exclude coconasso from your food?” asked Kyousui, before adding, “It might take the cooks a little longer though.”
The Princess shook her head.
“Coconasso is special to King Cornou.”
Izumi tilted her head in wonder.
“Indeed. Roughly ten years ago, Tohji was struck by famine. Until then, coconasso had only been eaten in one region of the nation, but given the famine, King Cornou himself spread its use and increased its production. It matures quickly, is strong against disease, and provides splendid nourishment. I heard from citizens of Tohji that many infants were saved thanks to its boons. With its place in the hearts of King Cornou and his citizens, how could I say that I couldn’t eat it. King Cornou will surely come to hate me. He will deride me for being such a selfish princess.”
Izumi crossed her arms in thought.
If they hadn’t eaten it until ten years ago, then it was quite possible to create foods without it. If it was just food that she wasn’t used to, it would probably be fine to refuse it. But now that it was the foodstuffs that saved a nation, refusing it could be taken as extravagance as well. Just how would King Cornou himself take it?
“What kind of person is King Cornou?”
The moment that Izumi asked this, Princess Hitow went from slumping and sighing, to having sparkles in her eyes.
“A wonderful gentleman! He’s thoughtful, and wiser than anyone, and even though his features look gentle he never flinches from anyone or anything. And he’s strict with himself, and strives for perfection in everything. I’ve always admired him.”
“I-, I see.”
As Hitow stressed every word with clenched fists, Izumi could only nod stiffly.
Can such a superman really exist?
Looking up, the happy laughter had come from Kyousui.
Eh? Was that something to laugh at just now?
Izumi looked at Kyousui as a cold sweat formed at her brow.
“I’m sorry. Your Highness was simply adorable, so…”
Hiding her mouth behind a hand, Kyousui smiled once again, sending the Princess into bewilderment, and then a scowl.
After her smile disappeared, Kyousui gave Hitow a warm gaze that an older sister might give to her younger sister.
“It seems that Your Highness has fallen in love with King Cornou.”
The Princess flushed again.
“Ah… no, rather than falling in love, it’s more… like respect…”
No, it’s definitely falling in love, thought Izumi.
“Sometimes, falling for somebody makes a woman frail. They don’t want to be hated, and they don’t want to lose them, and they spend all day thinking about nothing but them. It once happened to me as well. Back then, there was nothing scarier to me than the thought of losing him… although, I suppose not much about that has changed…”
Kyousui smiled again, but this time it wasn’t a happy smile. Instead it was a lonely, and somehow reminiscing smile.
“Because of some circumstances between us, we had no choice but to leave our country. With my older brother’s cooperation, we managed to leave, but until we passed the borders, not one day did we feel alive. Even when we first arrived in this nation, we were terrified of losing each other, and spent each day in fear. Up until then, I was often told in my homeland that I was bold like my brother, you know? But then I fell for him, and I changed.”
To Izumi, Kyousui had seemed to be living a happy life with her muddleheaded but kind husband. Apparently Kyousui had lived a tough life of her own though. While Kyousui’s stormy life saddened Izumi, at the same time it also made her envious. After all, Kyousui’s fears were testament to the strength of her feelings for the man.
“But, it’s fine. Falling in love weakens a woman, but building that love grants her strength. And once she gives birth, she becomes the strongest being in the world, or so my brother often told me.”
Completely changed from the mournful mood from before, Kyousui’s expression was clear.
“After all, you won’t be able to live if you don’t stop fretting.”
“…Well, it’s true that the energy of the housewives in the marketplace scares even me sometimes.”
Izumi recalled the older women during limited-time sales. That impudent boldness of theirs was certainly fearsome.
“It sounds unpleasant to word it this way, but please become more shameless. During a famine there is certainly no room for pickiness, but things are different now. Isn’t Your Highness’ duty to work hard with King Cornou so that a famine never happens again?”
The Princess raised her head in realisation. Then, she slowly lowered her gaze, closed her eyes, and began to think.
“From the moment he was enthroned, King Cornou faced hardship after hardship. Yet despite that, he faced everything without faltering… I wanted to become his strength… But despite that, before I realised it, I was thinking about nothing except how I didn’t want him to hate me.”
Standing up, the Princess pulled Kyousui into a tight embrace.
“Thank you for being honest with me. I’ll try telling him, and I might be hated, but I’ll let him know that I’ll give my best.”
Under the bright red hair, Kyousui’s eyes widened. Eventually they narrowed as she nodded, and patted the Princess on the back, almost like an older sister praising her younger sister.
The mood kind of called for clapping, and it seemed like things were solved, so just as Izumi was wondering if she could close the window now, a large bang rang out.
The door was opened wide, and from it appeared the man from earlier, the child Hitow had saved, and finally a large stranger with a full beard.
The very moment that the door was shut, the bearded man bowed his head. As he did, Izumi caught a glimpse into the basket on his back.
“Princess Hitow, thank you very much for saving the life of my son.”
The small child bowed as well.
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
Princess Hitow parted from Kyousui to walk to the boy’s side, and she bent down to meet eyes with him.
“You’re very welcome,” she said, ruffling the smiling boy’s head, as he seemed to find it ticklish.
“The fire’s gone,” started Kyousui’s husband. “Ah-, I didn’t say anything to the soldiers, okay? He said he wanted to thank her no matter what, so I brought him here, but… was that not okay?”
He looked at Kyousui to check her expression.
“No, it’s absolutely fine.”
Hearing Kyousui’s answer, a smile bloomed on his face.
“Thank goodness. You’re terrifying when you’re angry, Kyousui-san.”
If you put it nicely, the man was pure, but he was as unreliable as a person could get. Still, everybody had their own taste in romantic partners. As Izumi watched the couple nestle up together, she felt like she had been taught a lesson in the complexity of the human heart.
“Your Highness jumped into the fire yourself. Just how can I thank you? I will do anything in my power.”
In response to the bearded man’s sincere words, the Princess turned to face Izumi.
“If you want to thank somebody, thank Magician-dono. She lent me her cloak, even though it was more than luxurious enough to feed a family for a year.”
She knew it was expensive, but to think it was that expensive…
If, just if, she met with Huuron for a third time, what on earth was she supposed to she say?
As Izumi prayed that she never meet him again, the bearded man approached her.
From the basket on his back, he produced a pair of long scissors. The handle was quite lengthy, and closely resembled hedge-clippers.
“I used to use these, back when I was a craftsman. It’s the next important thing after my life. It can’t compare to that cloak, but please accept it.”
“No, taking something so important to you is a little…”
Izumi waved her hands and tried to refuse, but it caused the bearded man to frown.
Seeing that, Kyousui’s husband suddenly took the scissors.
The bearded man gave him a look of relief.
Kyousui’s husband, Karasu, reverently presented the scissors to Izumi.
“Please accept it. If you decline due to kindness, Lady Magician, it will make him feel uncomfortable instead. And people often do say that things you receive without paying back for will end up hindering you, after all.”
Even so, Izumi wasn’t sure about it. But when she glanced at the man, she found that both he and the boy here bowing towards her. So she reached for the scissors. If it helped the man settle his heart, then that was what she would do.
After waving at the boy, with the scissors in hand, Izumi shut the window.