The wind blew against the window panes, bringing with it the whisper of powdered snow. With the sun down and a blanket of dancing snow on everything, all that was visible through the windows of the hallway was the blue darkness and the silhouettes of buildings.
Families, who had been continuously researching and passing knowledge on medical science, mathematics, metalworking techniques, architecture, astrology and many more studies over a millennium, lived in each and every single one of those buildings, and were quietly immersing themselves in their studies around this time.
<Shin Academy>, surrounded and protected by the mountains around the Sacred Land Otawal, hadn’t changed much outwardly, if at all, in a very long time. However, inside all those buildings developments in technology and research projects were being carried out at a dizzying pace.
As a big door at the end of the corridor came into sight, Hossal slowed. A precious family member was on the other side of that door, and yet, each time he stood before it Hossal felt an inexplicable hesitation in his heart.
Sighing, he pulled the cord next to the door. The faint ringing of a bell could be heard behind the door, and before long, the door opened.
As soon as she laid eyes on him, the eyes of the ruddy cheeked old woman suddenly began to sparkle, “Young Master!”
Hossal smiled at her, “I’m back, Moya.”
She sure has grown old, Hossal thought as he took in her appearance. By his estimates Moya, who had been serving as his stepmother’s maid for many years, was at least in her mid-70s. Each time he saw her again, he was struck with how much taller she had seemed when she was his wet nurse.
Of course it’s partly because I’ve grown taller myself, but it’s a fact that she’s shrunken a bit every time we meet.
“Are you taking the medicine I gave you?”
Moya smiled wryly, whispering, “I am, properly.”
“Before going to sleep every night?”
“Yes, indeed. The medicine you’ve given me, Young Master, is reeeally bitter, and super hard to take. But, this old granny is properly taking it nonetheless.”
Her plump hands on his back, she pushed a faintly smiling Hossal into the room. It was a spacious room with a high ceiling, it couldn’t be called cold at all. A big fire burned brightly in the middle of the room and earthenware tubes ran through the corners of the room to distribute the heat of the fireplace around the entire building. Moreover, the builders had installed an ingenious pipe system beneath the floor, to circulate hot water.
Whenever Hossal entered this room, wrapped in its reassuring warmth, it reminded him of his father spreading his arms and hugging his stepmother.
──This place was a special cocoon his father had provided just for his stepmother.
The rocking chair by the window was slowly moving back and forth. His stepmother was sitting in the chair, but with how small and thin she had gotten it looked as if the chair was moving on its own. A tall woman leaned in close to that chair.
Once Hossal approached, a smile appeared on her lips. A gentle one.
Hossal nodded, likewise smiling, “Stepsister.”
Apparently noticing his presence at long last at the sound of his voice, Hossal’s stepmother lifted her vacant eyes, staring at Hossal. Suddenly a light of understanding lit up in her puzzled eyes, triggering her whole face to immediately gleam in joy.
Hossal gently hugged his stepmother who had spread her arms while calling his father’s name. The scent of a medicated bath tickled his nose. The smell clung deeply to his stepmother’s body, overpowering even the smell of her favorite perfume.
“…Dear.” Hoarsely, and taking slow deliberate breaths in between, his stepmother continued, “I’ve been waiting for you. I’m sure that you must be busy, but, still, if you could give me a little of your time…”
At that moment, a particularly strong wind blew against the windows, making them rattle. His stepmother clung tightly to Hossal.
“I hate the wind. Why is it blowing so much? It’s going to scatter the hydlangea buds. 1 And especially now of all times, when they’ve finally managed to form so many wonderful buds.”
Hossal closed his eyes for a while, embracing his stepmother’s frail body as she worried about a flower that budded in early summer in the middle of a snowstorm.
“…Dear, I’ve missed you for so long.” His stepmother brought her lips close to his ears, and lowered her voice, “The nurse you assigned to me this time is a lot nicer to me than the previous one. ──But, in the end I still feel lonely without you by my side.”
Hossal pursed his lips, breathing shallowly. When he finally released her, his stepmother’s eyes were halfway closed. She always ended up falling asleep in the middle of conversation like this. Turning to his stepsister, Lurya, he saw her smiling faintly and weakly shaking her head as if telling him not to pay it any mind.
Even though her own mother considered her to be a nurse, not once did this woman lose her patience, or even look irritated. Despite having forgotten about Lurya being her own daughter a long time ago, his stepmother still hugged him, the son of his father’s previous marriage, believing that he was her beloved husband.
Apparently Lurya’s father, her late husband, didn’t exist in her head anymore. Not once did Hossal’s stepmother mention his name, despite supposedly having spent fifteen years together with him. And yet, even now, his stepmother frequently talked about Arnol, the man who had slowly slipped into her heart after her previous husband had died. Although she spent less than eight years with him before falling ill, Hossal’s father clearly lived on within the heart of his ailing stepmother as her dear husband.
His stepmother’s first husband as well as Hossal’s father were both descendants of the sacred lord’s family, the one that ruled over the Sacred Land Otawal, but although they hailed from the same family, there was a big difference in social standing between her former husband and Hossal’s father. Just like his stepmother, her first husband was a descendant of the <Three Most Sacred Families> said to be the <Sacred Beyond all Holiness> in the direct line of the former Sacred King of Otawal. On the other hand, Hossal’s father, who later became her husband, was merely a descendant of the <Eight Sacred Families> who were the offspring of the Sacred King’s subsidiary line.
That difference in rank was very important to many people, but to his stepmother it now seemed completely irrelevant.
After gently pulling a blanket over his sleeping stepmother, Hossal signaled Lurya to move to the fireplace.
“…I will prepare tea right away.”
Lurya waved off Moya who had approached them in a hurry, saying, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll do it myself. Take a little rest, Moya. You probably didn’t sleep much last night, right?”
In response, Moya nodded, “Is that so? Please excuse me then. I shall gratefully accept your offer, and take a short break.”
“Please do so. It’d be a huge problem if you collapsed on me.”
Moya revealed a tired smile, “Thank you very much. …Well then, see you soon, Young Master.”
After bowing deeply, she picked up the coat hanging on the wall, and walked towards the door. Hossal called out to her from behind, “If you have some time, grab your souvenirs, and please make me those deliciously light fried tubers of yours.”
Moya looked back, nodded with a laugh, bowed once more, and left. Once the door closed, silence reigned. Listening to the quiet popping of the firewood and small clinking of the porcelain cups Lurya set up after pouring tea into them, Hossal lifted his eyes, looking up to his stepsister.
“She hasn’t been sleeping these days?”
“Indeed, for most of the night.”
“I’ve replaced the medicine, but it looks like it isn’t working, is it?”
Lurya tilted her head to the side, “Hmm, I’m not quite sure yet, but the last medicine you prescribed might have been slightly more effective.”
While taking in the aroma of the tea placed in front of him, Hossal muttered, “It sure is strange.”
Lurya questioningly lifted an eyebrow.
“…She’s awake at night, but sleeps during the day. She lives in early summer although we’re in midwinter.” Staring at the small ripples in his tea, Hossal added, “I wonder just what is human reality if an illness can alter time and memories?”
Lurya suddenly burst into laughter, “Have you now become a philosopher?”
Hossal lifted his face, broadly grinning, “No, I leave that part to the experts.” After taking a sip of the tea, Hossal looked at Lurya, “Has brother-in-law come home?”
“He has. The day before yesterday…or was it three days back? Either way, he’s back.”
Hossal smiled wryly.
“Entrust mother to someone else and take better care of him, will you? Otherwise he’ll cheat on you.”
Lurya laughed out, “He’s been doing that for a long time. It’s not cheating, but since he’s serious about it, I can’t really do anything about it. What makes it even harder to handle is the fact that the other party isn’t a woman.”
Hossal lifted an eyebrow, “Oh, that’s harsh. If he’d heard your words just now, he’d deny them, saying that he doesn’t sleep with horses.”
Lurya shook her head, “The horses are a problem as well, but thanks to you, he’s currently completely fixated on rats. Also…”
“Wolves, huh?” Hossal erased his smile while saying this. “I think I was called back for the same reason this time, too.”
Lurya also put on a serious expression, “In other words, the Black Wolf Fever is spreading after all?”
“…I suppose it could be loosely described as spreading, but it’s slightly different.” Hossal paused, obviously recalling the casualties after getting bitten, and began to talk about the strange disease that had appeared, but noticing the fatigue in his stepsister’s eyes, he cut his story short.
“Stepsister, get some sleep, okay? You haven’t slept much recently, have you?”
Lurya brushed away the hair spilling down on her forehead, and nodded, “You’re right, I’ll go sleep for a bit. ──But afterwards you’ll tell me all about <Akafah’s Curse>, okay?”
Hossal knitted his eyebrows, “Akafah’s Curse? They’re saying that around here as well?”
“Yes. They’re saying that those who have tainted Akafah’s lands are getting cursed. Moya believes that as well. Him too.”
That was slightly unexpected for Hossal. Leaving aside Moya, his stepbrother was someone who’d burst into loud laughter if he heard about curses and such things.
“I was surprised as well, but he was fairly serious when he said it. He mentioned that we shouldn’t take <Akafah’s Curse> lightly.”
In order to let his very tired stepsister go to sleep as quickly as possible, Hossal told her that he’d stay here until a replacement nurse came, and shooed her away to her own room. Once his stepsister left the room, the silence became much more prevalent. Hossal could hear the steady breathing of his sleeping stepmother.
He sat down deeply in the chair like he had done when a child, drew his knees up, and listened to her breathing while covering his mouth with a hand.
T/N: The movie was moved back for an indefinite amount of time due to an outbreak of Covid-19 in Japan. Next chapter will be released on October the 7th.
- The author used ウツゲ (utsuge) as name for the flower. ウツギ (utsugi) is the general term for deutzia. I suspect she lightly altered the spelling to give it an original naming feel for the flower. Though it might of course also be a typo. Either way, I’ll alter deutzia a bit as well. My editor opted for hydrangea as it’s a more common species, so let’s go with that.