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The air was thick with the scent of plants.
Vines grew thickly between the trees, hampering the way forward, whilst the undergrowth reached as far as the hips.
Because he hadn’t had water, his throat was parched and his rough breaths seemed to burn.
The sun had almost set. His visibility was already compromised in this thick forest.
Before the dark came, he had to find her.
The howls of a kelheross reached Hiqyuu’s ears, and his body shook in fright.
Although he turned around to look, all he found was thick greenery. Just as he was feeling relieved, the howl came again.
It was closer than before.
It was a solemn yet ferocious roar.
It seemed to be telling this poor intruder that it was the king of the forest.
Even whilst Hiqyuu was dealing with his fear, the cries of these rulers of the night forest continued to approach.
A chill ran down his spine.
He turned around again, and his trembling legs broke into a sprint.
“Princess! Where are you!? Princess!”
As he thought about her lustrous hair, silver like the light of the stars, he continued to shout for her.
“Princess? What princess?”
The moment he heard the sudden woman’s voice, a bright light shone into the darkness of the forest.
In his surprise, Hiqyuu bumped into a tree branch, and bounced off it onto the ground.
“Ah, sorry for surprising you.”
While bearing the pain of his forehead, Hiqyuu looked up and found a woman amongst the tree branches. Her skin was honey-coloured, and the smooth lines of her body were characteristic of a woman’s figure. From between the arms folded across her chest, protruded soft swells that he could almost see.
――Why was there a naked woman in a kelheross-inhabited forest!?
“It looks like I’m pretty high up, huh. I wonder why it opened up here.”
She leant out of her shining rectangle, and looked down from above.
And Hiqyuu, he looked back, in disbelief.
The woman looked about the area, and tilted her head in puzzlement. It was around then that she seemed to notice him and opened her mouth to speak.
“Ah. There you were. Hey, you there, you’re looking for a princess, right? Can I ask whose princess?”
“Eh-, that is, Princess Aqua of Jebas…”
“I knew it,” said the woman, and she struck her palm.
“I thought that might be the case,” she continued with a happy smile. While Hiqyuu looked at the woman’s carefree smile, he heard a cry again.
Right! I have to find the Princess!
Having come back to his senses, he stood up in a hurry.
Something sounded from above.
Or so he was thinking, when his head was suddenly wracked with pain. It wasn’t terribly painful, but it was very surprising, so in reflex he held his head as he squatted.
“Aahh, it dropped. Sorry, again.”
Apparently the woman in the air had dropped it.
His eyes were teary. As he looked around the ground, a shining bell came into his blurry view.
“Do you need it? I’m not sure if it’ll help at all though.”
“It will help! It will most definitely help!”
Hiqyuu stood up with bell in hand.
“Eh? It will?”
-shan shan shan-
A clear and refreshing sound reverberated through the forest. There was no mistake. This was a kelheross-repelling bell.
“Miss! I will be borrowing your bell!”
The woman readily agreed.
“Thank you very much. Now then, to find the Princess…”
Just as he was about to run off, Hiqyuu stopped in shock. Before he had noticed, the sun had fully set. Because of the thick canopy, even the moonlight didn’t shine through. He could see right now because of the woman above him, but it began pitch dark only a few steps away.
“…This can’t be.”
He wouldn’t be able to search for her.
As he was trapped in despair, the cries of the kelheross came again.
They were even closer.
It was no use. He wouldn’t be able to find her.
While he was stumbling around in the darkness, a voice from above came.
“Aren’t you going to go find the Princess?”
The somewhat leisurely voice touched a nerve, and he yelled up in anger.
“I want to! But in this darkness…! Damnit…!”
“Oh, that’s true! It’s pitch dark, isn’t it.”
Could this woman even feel panic?
Hiqyuu was being eaten away by anxiety, and felt powerless like a mountain was in his way, but seeing this endlessly easygoing woman shocked him into calm instead.
Princess Aqua was known for being a tomboy.
Today she had escaped via tree, from a window on the third floor. Nobody had noticed her. Had it been the second floor, everybody would have been on guard, but they mistakenly assumed that it would be fine on the third.
Hiqyuu who had noticed her absence early on let the court ladies know, before rushing ahead of the knights. Urging his horzh forward, he had followed eyewitness reports and found himself at the forest.
It was on a forest branch that he noticed one of her hair ornaments as well as trodden undergrowth and broken branches, so he followed them in.
She was only nine, and it was no easy feat for her small legs to traverse the forest. He should have been catching up. And not only that, she was a better tree climber than even sons from knight families. If she heard the howls of kelheross, she would definitely be in a tree right now.
Should I walk around ringing the bell, or should I resume my search in the morning?
While Hiqyuu was at a loss,
he heard the sound of something falling by his feet.
It was the woman’s voice. Hiqyuu fearfully picked up the object.
It looked like a red cylinder. On one end, some black material fanned out. What on earth was this?
“There should be a black bump, right? Press it for me.”
Turning the cylinder around, he found that there really was a bump. He did as he was told.
Suddenly, light short forth from the fanned end.
He threw the cylinder by reflex.
“Ah-, hey! You’re going to break it!”
“Wha-, wha-wha-wha-wha-what is that!?”
“A flashlait. Ummm. I know! This is one of the Seven Tools of the Heavens, and because of its heavenly blessing, it can shine light.”
Was it his imagination that her explanation felt entirely fake?
“Anyway, it’s nothing dangerous, so relax.”
He didn’t think it was at all possible to relax the way she said things, but it was true that he needed a torch.
Hiqyuu poked at the flashlait with his feet. It simply rolled, without change.
“Umm, I did tell you that it was safe, didn’t I? Come on, shouldn’t you be believing the words of an angel?”
Hiqyuu looked up at the woman.
This naked lady is an angel?
Her suspicious explanation gave him pause, but he had no basis with which to reject her claims.
“I see… So you were an angel…”
Gulping, he picked up the flashlait.
He pointed it and illuminated the forest.
“O Angel. Are you lending this to me?”
“That’s right. Ah-, if you find the Princess, mind bringing her back to me? There’s something I want to ask her.”
“I understand. I shall definitely find her and bring her here!”
With flashlait in on hand, and whilst ringing the bell in the other, Hiqyuu set off.
He carefully proceeded through the forest, making sure not to overlook any clues.
Now that he was calm again, thanks to the angel, he noticed that the broken branches couldn’t be because she simply bumped into them.
She had broken them as markings. Otherwise, the broken branches were too thick to explain. He continued to follow them.
“Oh? It really was Hiqyuu. What’s the matter?”
It was when his voice was growing hoarse, and he could start to taste blood, that he heard the Princess’ even more carefree voice.
Just as he thought, she was up in a tree. With agility that would put a mankii to shame, the girl descended to greet him.
“…Not ‘what’s, the… matter’…”
While he was breathing heavily, she thrust a leather bag at him.
“How about a drink first? Your voice sounds terrible, you know?”
There was plenty he wanted to say. But with his throat the way it was, he wouldn’t be able to say half of it. Accepting the flask from her, he moistened his throat.
“Hahh, thank you for that.”
It hurt a lot less now.
“Honestly, I’m shocked. You came into the forest without even preparing water? Or food? Or a compass? Or… well, I guess you’d have at least a kelheross-repelling bell, huh.”
Laughing, the Princess added, “If you told me that you didn’t even bring that, I wouldn’t know what to say anymore.”
Hiqyuu experienced a never-before-felt sense of weariness.
“Princess, why did you leave the castle? And what’s more, to do something as unthinkable as entering the forest by yourself!”
“I prepared properly, you know? Unlike you.”
Hmhmn! proudly hummed the Princess. Hiqyuu bore with the urge to drive his head into a tree.
“Anyway, please return!”
“More importantly, you’ve got something interesting there, don’t you. What is this?”
Ignoring Hiqyuu, who was angry like a furious rekyuw, the Princess pointed at the flashlait with sparkling eyes.
“Hey, hey, can I touch it?”
Due to her arrogance as royalty, she snatched the flashlait without waiting for an answer.
“Amazing. It’s shining. Could this be the moonstone that was mentioned in the notes of Conyork the Second?”
“It isn’t. This is one of the Seven Tools of the Heavens that I received from an angel, the flashlait.”
The Princess gripped it tightly in her two hands.
“You met an angel!? That’s amazing, Hiqyuu!”
Her face seemed to float in the darkness, as it was illuminated from below. Even though ten out of ten people would agree that her face was adorable, right now it seemed eerie enough that he had to bite down a scream.
“Yes, well, she wants to meet you, and is currently waiting for you. I must also return the flashlait. Now then, please return with me.”
After taking the flashlait back from her, Hiqyuu took her hand and led her into the forest.
Even from afar, it was easy to tell where the angel was.
After all, it shone brilliantly in the darkness of the forest.
“It really is an angel!”
Hearing the Princess’ excited shout, the angel noticed them and waved her hand.
“Welcome back. I’m glad it didn’t take half an hour.”
Unlike when they parted, the angel was now clothed in a white robe.
“By the way, some stray dogs have been loitering about, you know? When you guys came, they ran off somewhere though.”
By stray dogs, could she mean the kelheross?
To think that she would group dogs together with the kelheross, the envoys of hell, and the kings of the forest…
Hiqyuu gulped. Perhaps to angels, the denizens of the heavens, a kelheross was no different to a powerless pup.
It was a little late, but Hiqyuu finally felt the fear and awe.
He knelt, and then lowered his head.
“I have brought with me Princess Aqua, of Jebas. Because of your assistance, O Angel, I was able to rescue her without problem. I, Hiqyuu, express my humble thanks.”
“Aahh, umm, well, mn. I don’t really get it, but it’s great that you found her. By the way, isn’t it dangerous to be sitting around there? If there are wild dogs around then it’ll be dangerous to walk about, so how about you climb a tree or something first?”
“My, it is all right to approach your honoured side?”
No sooner has the Princess said that, did she smoothly climb up a tree.
“What are you doing, Hiqyuu. Hurry up and come.”
In an instant, she arrived at a branch close to the angel, and yelled at him.
He was assailed by an indescribable sensation, like all the power had been taken from his body. He was about to sigh again, but stopped himself, and moved his hand to a tree.
There was not one of her retainers who could not climb trees. The Princess hated studies and etiquette, and would often disappear. Because of that, the main job of the retainers was actually to climb trees on the palace ground to find her.
After clambering onto the branch next to the Princess’, Hiqyuu respectfully presented the flashlait to the angel.
“The flashlait that you mercifully lent to me. Please take it back.”
“Thanks for that.”
After taking it back, the angel turned to the Princess.
“You’re the Princess of Jebas, yes?”
“Yes! My name is Aqua. That I was not only able to meet you, but to even be spoken to brings me undeserved honour.”
The Princess gave a skilful curtsy atop the tree branch.
If only even a tenth of that skill went towards her etiquette lessons… he couldn’t help but think.
“There’s something I’d like to check with you. First, do you know of Knight Captain Arshu?”
Arshu-sama!? he wanted to shout, but he covered his own mouth. Right now that name was taboo around the Princess.
“Goodness, Angel-sama, you know of that muscle brain?”
He could understand how she felt. But it was really too much to talk about the trangorn-slaying hero that way.
“Princess… I am sure I have warned you countless times not to speak that way.”
“Goodness, please excuse me. Angel-sama, you know of that Jebas Knight Captain who loves training his muscles so much that even his intracranial space has been filled with muscle?”
Nothing had changed.
Hiqyuu rubbed his temples to help his headache.
“Princess… That is the same as before.”
“I changed it. What do you want me to call him then? The paedophile who wants to marry me?”
Princess Aqua turned her head away in a dignified harrumph. Seeing as how she had no intentions of changing, it became harder and harder to restrain his sighs.
While Hiqyuu was about to reprimand her again, a cheerful voice cut him off.
“It looks like you don’t think much of him, then.”
Hiqyuu and the Aqua let out surprised cries.
“You see, he actually has a sweetheart in his hometown. So I actually wanted none other than you, to be against a marriage with him. But Arshu is pretty good looking, and he’s a hero now too, so I was wondering what I would do if you liked him, but thankfully it looks like that’s no problem.”
Certainly, even a man like Hiqyuu felt that Arshu held charm. But that was because of his age and position. To the nine-year-old Aqua, he was nothing more than an old, boring adult.
“Angel-sama! Please let me hear more about this!” started Aqua, “Even if I die, I don’t want to have to marry that gorilla-man without knowing true love. Even now… I have run into the forest because I heard I was to have dinner with the Knight Captain!”
I knew it.
So that was why she left the castle.
Hiqyuu looked at the Princess’ innocent profile. There was no way he didn’t feel pity for the girl that was being forced into an unwanted marriage.
“Ummm, it’s a bit hard to say to you, Princess, but he was actually tricked by a messenger of the King, and ended up being left by his wife. And so he’s probably quite depressed right now, right? But actually, his wife actually left him because she had her own circumstances, but since those circumstances were resolved, she left for the Capital to chase after Arshu. But then, when she arrived, the marriage between you and Arshu was the talk of the town…”
After stopping for a while, the angel struck her palm with a -pan-
“And so, the Old Maestro who the King wanted to compose a song about Arshu, agreed to help me! He’s going to write a song about the tragic love of Arshu’s wife, and get the citizens on her side. But I don’t think that alone would be enough.”
“Goodness, the Old Maestro is?”
Hiqyuu was dumbfounded by the strange turns of this story. Arshu had a lover, this angel was plotting to cancel the engagement, and the Old Maestro was a collaborator?
“I shall help! Please allow me to help!”
Unlike the confounded Hiqyuu, the Princess immediately got on-board.
“It really helps that you say that. Aloma thought that you wouldn’t know a thing. But it looks like he shouldn’t have made light of you, just because you were nine.”
“Goodness, Aloma said such a thing? The next time I see him, I really must investigate this.”
“B-, But Princess, how…”
The Princess had been against the marriage the whole time. But the King had never changed his mind. As far as he could tell, there was nothing she could do.
But the Princess gave a smile brimming with confidence.
That haughty smile of hers had a strange way of charming people.
“By doing this.”
No sooner had she said that, the Princess produced a dagger from her pocket.
“What are you doing!”
Hiqyuu immediately reached out for it.
But they were standing on unstable tree branches. He stumbled. While he was struggling with his balance, Princess Aqua placed the blade against the long hair by her back.
The waist-length hair shone before his eyes, and in the next instant, was cut to the short length of a commoner boy’s.
“W-, What have you done. The silver hair that is proof of royalty… The symbol of your noble lineage…”
Only royalty had this silver hair, and it was subject to the awe and respect of the people. Not only that, but to a lady, her hair was more important than her life.
To have cut that hair was…
To think that he allowed something like this to happen before his eyes…
The image of the enraged King was vividly displayed in his mind.
“Aahh, that’s better. I’ve always wanted to try giving it a cut. Well? With this hair, it’s impossible to get married. Far from that, I doubt I’ll be allowed out in public until it grows back.”
All the blood had left his face. But suddenly remembering his uncle, he realised that he could still be saved!
“Please hand me that hair!”
Hiqyuu entreated the puzzled Princess.
“We can make a wig from that hair. I know a skilled craftsman.”
It was the one his uncle used.
“Goodness, you’re so stubborn. I’ll do this then.”
The bundle of hair in her hands was thrust towards the angel.
“Angel-sama. Please accept my hair.”
The angel who had been watching on blankly now let out a cry of surprise.
“Are you sure? Or rather, I suppose it’s a bit late for that, but… Hmmmm, looks like you’ve made up your mind, huh.”
The angel took the hair that was half forced onto her.
“Please wait! Please, leave that hair with us.”
“Well then, Angel-sama! Burn it, cook it, please do as you will. Now then, so that Hiqyuu will give up, please hurry back to the heavens.”
“Y-, Yeah. Well then, ummm, do your best, okay?”
Before his outstretched fingertips, as though some stage curtain had been drawn, the angel simply disappeared.
Hiqyuu could hear the sound of his life ending.