“Hiii, hoo, hiii, hoo”
Although she is unsteadily staggering on her feet, which looked tiny and plump, she is trying to tread on a special white cloth. The thing, which at the beginning bulged from under the cloth, is slowly and gradually being flattened under their influence. Moreover, in proportion to the stepping, it seems to be stabilizing as well.
“Oof, pheew… 3 more times.”
Another cloth spread on the floor… that one is an ordinary, clean cloth, but… carrying out a landing, Paulina is expressing a perfect smile. Even while Wilma believes it to be lovely, it’s inevitable for her to worry about the other two onlookers besides her.
“Oh dear! How magnificent. I believed the soil to be the ally of the feet sunk into it, but…”
While somehow disrespect is seeping through his expressions, words and deeds, that soldier has a way of repeatedly praising her. It’s Akseli. Although it’s fine for you to stand upright, declining to sit down even when told so, what is this about folding your arms while in front of the princess, Wilma thinks.
And, there’s one more.
“That’s amazing. Looking at the lustre of that white cloth, it appears to be the same as if it had been kneaded for a long time. My expectations are rising.”
There’s a boy here demonstrating dignified manners even while sitting. His tone is very sincere, without something like ridicule, but his sparkling blue eyes below the black hair are nice and his long, slender and well-proportioned limbs are great. Wilma can’t calm down feeling somewhat strangely overpowered.
(The village headman’s son, Marko, he was called? I’ve heard he is 13 years old, but…) (Wilma)
Looking at him with a glance, Wilma thinks he’s weird after all. A 13 years old boy of this generation hasn’t such manners. Those at his age are insecure, failing to develop a strong will, be it the one facing outward or the inner one. All of the children Wilma observed were like that. Genuinely awkward and painful to look at with their liveliness.
How about him then? The style of calmness of this boy called Marko isn’t a trivial matter. At the astounding event of a princess appearing in the village, he managed everything as the leading character outside, due to the adults becoming restless.
Showing a place to plant their tents to the soldiers of the escort, arranging for water and fodder from the villagers and proposing the optimal guidance, considering the length of their stay, to Wilma… doing everything smoothly in advance, it doesn’t feel like some kind of pretense either. He honours Paulina by serving her with politeness. It’s a reception without any mistakes to point out.
Is he really 13 years old?
Wilma prefers excelling characters without regard to their social status. Since she is a fledgling herself, she has no intention to discriminate by things like age either. However, that boy’s bizarreness was something difficult to accept.
(This boy, what is he hiding? What is he looking at…?) (Wilma)
For Wilma, who was continuously exposed to the blade of morality called malice in the swamp of poison called capital, this kind of unknown in itself should be something she had to be cautious against. If she can sort out to some degree what they are thinking and what they are intending, she is able to cope with it. Even if she can’t defend against it, she will be somehow able to circumvent it before it happens. However, with this level of an unknown opponent, that won’t work. At the time he wanted to do something, it will be the end, if even one of his actions are fatal for Paulina.
Talking about that Paulina, having folded the cloth, which was flattened evenly, she is treading on the next hill. Gripping the hem of her dress, she is once again stepping on it and stretching it out full of spirit. She is doing it with more vigour than usual because of the praises of the spectators, huh?
What she is making is a food called “Refined Noodles.” (T/N: 練麺 = Neri men… google the kanji and you will find pictures, seems to be some kind of science to make those noodles)
As something she was able to often eat at the Hiltoora household from her mother’s side, it’s ingredients are light wheat flour, salt and water. Mixing those together, and letting mature for nearly an hour, it is refined by kneading just to let it mature once again and then it is cut thinly and gets boiled. As something that suits broth, is good mixed with eggs and tastes well with fish sauce applied over it, it appears to be popular as food of the masses in the Eberia Empire. Wilma only learned of that after becoming a maid officer.
There are various kinds of ways to make it. In Paulina’s case, the part, which is usually kneaded with hands, is being stepped on with the feet. Her powerlessness has been compensated by her body’s weight. The ingredients are wrapped up in a special white cloth, rolled up and stepped on after wiping the bare feet clean. At the time Wilma saw the actual procedure for the first time, she was also surprised in a two-fold meaning.
First, the act of stepping on things, that can be eaten, with the feet is lacking common sense. It goes against the teachings of the church. No matter how cleanly you wash them, feet are still feet. The act of stepping on food is equated as filthy deed.
Next is the special white cloth used at the time of stepping on the ingredients. It’s a fabric called Quinn, which is considered to be the highest class among all clothes. The white, glittering, lustrous material… a dress entirely made out of Quinn is the dream of every woman. It’s even at the level that daughters of great nobles don’t possess several of them.
That treasured fabric, which was bestowed to her as a dress by the king, who is her father, is being used by Paulina as a cooking utensil for a in-itself special cooking method. Even currently she is stepping firmly on it while feeling gleeful.
Is this the childishness of a youth? Or is there something else behind that?
Wilma can’t make that judgement as of yet. I just have to hide this conduct from society. There’s already nothing more than sorrow, without any fresh charm, considering how the surroundings will take it, but the white cloth can’t be stolen. It’s a treasured item for the sake of making a delicious dish and for Paulina to trample on in joy. It won’t do if I can’t protect her. Be it the church or the nobles… even if it was the king for example, I won’t allow them to be this much of a nuisance. I don’t want to.
“The footwork of princess-sama is only admirable, but hmm, I can’t imagine the completed work at all.”
“Ah, it will be cut after this. And then it will be boiled until it’s done. You might be close while imagining it as a soup that has substance. Look forward to it.”
However, these are the circumstances. Wilma doesn’t know what kind of facial expression she might be currently showing. In the tent built for the princess use, where no one was planned to enter either, a soldier and a boy are waiting while nodding to one another with a “Uh huh, uh huh.” Paulina is making dinner by freely showing the method that should be hidden.
Thanks to that, the discussion about refined noodles between Paulina and the boy ended up getting excited.
During his tour, the boy provided various explanations even while not addressing Paulina over-familiarly. Wilma became the mediator of the two and answered that task. That’s only natural as royalty and Paulina abides to it as well. It was considered that everything would proceed without any problems.
But, at the moment the explanation reached the practical method of harvesting wheat, Paulina’s eye colour changed. The traditional measures against cold-weather damage and the method of gradually attempting various cultivations, namely Mekon wheat… as way of capitalizing on its characteristics, refined noodles were able to show their reputation.
Paulina enthusiastically asked questions repeatedly once there was spare time during the tour. What kind of milling? How much water-solubility? How about its sensitivity? How about its firmness? What kind of viscosity is needed? … It was an exchange of straight questions and and prompt answers. While getting concrete confirmation with a rough nasal breathing, Paulina was already at a standstill on the spot, too.
And, currently she is using the pretext 「Food Sampling」.
“It’s done. With this much stepping at the end, letting it mature will be next.”
With her cheeks dyed pink, Paulina displayed a smile all over her face. The sweat on her forehead is glistening as well. There’s a short moment of rest once you finished the foot-kneading. The ingredients will finish during the time of enjoying one cup of tea. Most likely she was able to execute it with satisfaction, Wilma’s cheeks slackened. She shakes in excitement as she muses over the sensation of Paulina’s feet. While secretly restraining those thoughts, she folds the cloth.
During that time the soldier and the boy also greatly admired Paulina’s ability… although it’s only the feet… they gave praises for her strenuous effort of accomplishing the stepping and stretching for a total of 8 times. There already isn’t even any time for Wilma to step in there. She is happy once she looks at the boastful Paulina. Although she believes that their intimacy with people sometimes surpasses her social status, Wilma is still a maid officer.
“… Akseli, will you use a raw egg?” (Marko)
“Depends on its freshness.” (Akseli)
“In that case it’s alright. Let me try testing refined noodles with egg as well. I will go fetch some.” (Marko)
I chase the boy, who exits the tent saying “Excuse me for a bit”, with my eyes. And I saw the soldier following him with his eyes until he was out of sight as well. I have no proof, but I believe it to be something suspicious. Seeing those looks and seeing the way of talking between the two of them, Wilma surmises that there has to be something… and she feels that it is connected to the bottomlessness of the boy.
“Captain-dono… what kind of relation do you have with him? You are surprisingly close.” (Wilma)
Even if it was impolite, that didn’t mean I wouldn’t ask about it. Thinking back on today’s events and watching the exchanges between the two, Wilma’s mind has a single suspicion rising to the surface.
Wasn’t it the objective to meet up with him?
Coming as far as this remote region in the hinterland of Earldom Helrevi happened because of the suggestion of this soldier. He is the cause. He said that it was something apparent, but as a matter of fact, didn’t we come to this village because that strange boy is here? We visited many places seeing all of the village thanks to the tour of the boy, but it can also be said that we could see it today, in one day, because of the boy.
“Rather than meeting at this village, I’m associating with him for several years now, but… hmmm… if you insist on words to describe our relationship, it will become something quite complicated. There’s no doubt about our intimacy though.” (Akseli)
After he wrecked his brain with a tensed look on his face, that came flying out of his mouth like lightning.
“Well, if he ordered me to destroy the kingdom, I would likely do that.” (Akseli)
Those were words she couldn’t comprehend at once. Trembling all over her body due to its significance like an electric shock, Wilma stirred as if snapping. Grasping the sword with her hand, she covers Paulina with her body. The man in front of me is unarmed, but I’m sure he is concealing steel, if he dares to leak such dangerous words.
“Your loyalty is almost splendid. But, I’m sad to tell you, it’s merely kindergarten military arts for the elder sister to protect her younger sister.” (Akseli)
“… Shut up. Kneel down with your hands behind your head. Turn around. Else I will kill you.” (Wilma)
“If you kill me, you guys won’t survive.” (Akseli)
The words of that man are dangerous after all. Wilma searched for presences in the vicinity of the tent with a feeling of her hair standing on end. The sounds of clothes billowing in the wind at dusk, the sounds of the small popping of wood burning in the camp-fires and… the far too many footsteps of the guards all at once. The metallic clanks of swaying sword belts. The sounds of the spears’ pommels colliding with pebbles.
We have been surrounded. Their numbers aren’t below 20, but not above 50 either, huh?
“Did you guess it? By the way, all of them are members of the feudal army’s infantry unit. They are lent soldiers. My 100 cavalry riders are currently away from here. I hear that apparently mounted bandits appeared.” (Akseli)
“Right, it’s an impossible story. At this point in time something like mounted bandits shouldn’t appear either. But, there is the strict order that the defeat of the mounted bandits takes the highest priority, as long as eyewitness reports crop up. It seems to be something carefully thought over along the journey of the princess-sama, but well, isn’t the safety in the village something unexpected?” (Akseli)
Due to the soldier saying this with a smile and the sharpness of his discernment, Wilma was overpowered and took half a step back. She is able to feel something soft in her back. It’s the warm and slender hand of Paulina. I cannot afford to retreat any more than that… she puts her deep and low breathing in order.
“Yes, that’s fine. As expected of a maid officer.” (Akseli)
Wilma’s body almost pitched forward due to his far too cheerful, smiling appearance. Her motivation was warded off. Rather than letting her recover her footing, the soldier quickly piled up even more words.
“It’s alright. That lot can’t attack as long as I’m here. They would be publicly beheaded because of the crime of not protecting the princess from the mounted bandits. That’s my role in this. Regrettably there is no reason for them to kill me here. If they kill me, it will result in the infantry unit’s commander losing his head instead. In that situation the other party will likely be troubled as well.” (Akseli)
Saying that, he picks up a sake cup and drinks some water. What’s this soldier saying…? Wilma wrecked her brain while being at the same time nervous and spoke of her deductions as if tracking down a gold coin within mud,
“You are… captain-dono is different from that group?” (Wilma)
“Of course. I have absolutely no intention to offer my neck for the kingdom.” (Akseli)
And, with a broad smile, he added one more thing,
“If it’s on behalf of Marko, well, there might be such work as well.” (Akseli)
Something clicked within her.
The mystery called being in the village. A treasure, which is hard to get. This much isn’t happening because of him for sure, huh? The unfathomable something I feel from the 13-years old boy called Marko… for the person called Feudal Army Captain Akseli Anel that is even more precious than the kingdom. Isn’t it more important than his own life?
“… He is?” (Paulina)
There was a quiet, inquiring voice from the back of Wilma making her dumbfounded.
“Very soon the dough will be cut and boiled, but are you able to eat it together with us?”
In a time of emergency like this. Wilma is trying to have Paulina hold her tongue, and that resulted in her seeing something for the first time. Without being able to see everything even with her eyes open, she still tried to have her eyes open.
Someone, who was Paulina but isn’t Paulina, stood there.
That doesn’t mean that her appearance changed. There’s no particular difference in her being a pure, plain girl. However, it was huge. Something was spreading out more and more. At the same time it was something becoming distant, stronger and stronger. Wilma was aware herself just how much she had misread her lord. She bore a feeling of shame. At the same time a feeling of great joy ignited in her chest.
(Ah… That’s how it was? Even I tried to look down on you…?) (Wilma)
Wilma saw the sky. The blue, blue, transparent firmament. If you looked at it from the small window called human ambition, you can assume it to be something worthless, low and very dull when compared to jewels and paintings. As if it is obvious, it is something you can’t feel even a shred of something like brilliance, without knowing any value it might have.
But, if you jumped outside society, it is sparkling throughout the entire heaven you can gaze at. It is something incomprehensible by every single human world and thus it has no fetters tying it down. It isn’t something tiring of wishing everything and anything well freely at will either.
Paulina stood there… in a calm and collected manner.
“I can eat it.” (Akseli)
The soldier replied with an unchanged attitude. That is capable of surprising Wilma once again. It is impossible for him to not feel something that should even be called the divinity of Paulina. There’s no way that this kind of soldier hasn’t seen the embodiment of a person with great talent appearing at this time of emergency. And yet.
“He went to fetch some eggs, but since it’s dark already, he is just returning while being slightly careful. The hindering pebbles, the twigs, just about everything… he just repels them with his hands.”
That was likely far too close considering it’s a prediction.
There were continuous weird sounds besides the tent. Sounds of scraping metal and sounds of something dropping with a thud. Shrieks are mumbled and agitated screams were unnaturally cut off. She hears various sounds of various things in a short time, and then, all sounds vanished. Only one remains, there is only the sound of tent’s cloth fluttering in the wind.
Trying to shake her strangely heavy body, Wilma walked outside the tent.
The moon had come out.
In a world, illuminated by its velvety soft light, the corpses of several tens of people were scattered in the vicinity. They had the shapes of soldiers. The ground is slightly reflecting the moonlight darkening it, but since the smell of iron rust is drifting about, it surely must be something worse.
There were kneeling man. Their appearances were diverse. Those, who had the guise of farmers, those, dressed completely in black, and those, with the appearances of merchants… there are also many people sharing the same appearance as the collapsed soldiers. All of them are clad in the dreadfulness of those who make a living out of strife. Conspicuously standing out among them is a man, wearing a green hood. Carrying a formidable long sword in his hand, he is likewise kneeling being the vanguard of these men.
And… there is him.
Being like a heaven-sent child of moonlight, a single black-haired boy with blue eyes is serving as the instructor for these men. Is he someone being obeyed respectfully even by the night wind in his surroundings? Only his place is wrapped up by silence in anything and everything. His lonely figure is standing still as if a landscape depicting the hidden beauty of mountains and rivers.
Marko. A fearsome boy gazing out towards somewhere and hiding something.
What he held in those hands of him were… eggs. 2 per hand, 4 in total.
“Ah, did I keep you waiting for a bit? It’s still not completely boiled, right?” (Marko)
Wilma met him.
For Wilma it was an encounter and a mystery under this moonlight.