The scene looked like soup with beef chuck floating around.
The gently-sloping fields covered in snow stretched as far as the eye could see, bare but for the occasional rock.
Inside a simple, isolated hut in the middle of that drab scenery.
The alchemist Kusla had no interest in the conversation and was absentmindedly gazing out through the cracks in the decaying wooden window.
“I simply cannot express my joy at being able to meet the beloved Claudius Knights!”
The overblown speech resounded through the crude hut that would likely blow over in a strong wind.
Kneeling on the floor was a nobleman wearing a fur cloak, his proof of nobility. Although he was obviously dressed to the nines, his attire did not even compare to the tailoring in the southern lands. In short, he was just a country noble, with his two attendants hanging their heads while shrinking into their crude leather armor.
“Right. I’ve heard about your ability to govern your territories. Our master Archduke Kratal has said that his only wish is to see a long association.”
“You have my gratitude.”
Kusla stifled a yawn at this typical exchange between influential people.
It had been five days since they had left the town where Archduke Kratal had inspired the people and they had stopped in at one of the border toll offices along the main highway. The ancient kings had traveled around with the royal court, collecting taxes and holding court, and perhaps as a remnant of those customs, the local lords would offer up a tribute whenever someone of high rank crossed the border.
It was quite a hassle, but confirming who was in charge of the area was probably very important to those with low standing. In addition, Kusla’s group had now arrived at a place that would normally be considered enemy territory, since it was governed by pagans. Actually, they should probably be called former pagans, but that was a delicate topic.
The particularly high-handed conduct of the seated knight appeared to be an attempt to cover up that issue.
“As for that matter, here is something to amuse you on your travels.”
The kneeling noble motioned his attendant to hold out a sturdy box.
Though not very large, it produced a nice, satisfying sound.
The man sitting in the sole, crude chair in the hut motioned with his hand. He was Alzen, the man who was officially Kusla’s employer.
While everyone’s gaze was fixed on the box, Kusla huffed with exasperation and moved away from the window,
“… Excuse me”.
Without hesitation, he reached out and opened the lid. The soldiers in the hut did not cry out, probably because it was a common sight for them.
Packed inside were gold grains.
Kusla snorted and took out one of the tools of his trade from the pouch on his waist. He was an alchemist, and dealt with minerals and metals in his line of work. He grabbed one of the gold grains and casually rubbed it against the flat, rough, black gem he had taken out.
“…This is above average, see?” He pointed out the gold streak left behind on the black gem, and Alzen nodded, getting up from his seat.
“I pray for the continued development of your territory.”
“Thank you for your kindness.”
Then Alzen sent the local lord on his way like he was the king.
The Great War against the heretics had continued for twenty years.
It had begun due to religious zeal, but was now becoming a mere pretext for seizing land. The group that had shown the most growth during the war was the Knights of Claudius.
The legitimacy of their military might was different from that of the Church, which was organized with the Pope at the top. As the agents of God, it was secured by their annihilation of the pagans. The Knights did not show much interest in proselytizing, yet there were branches in towns throughout the world, just like the Church, and they kept in close communication with each other. The circulation of people and goods via this network also resembled that of a large company with extensive branch offices.
The Knights of Claudius was akin to a merger of the Church and a large company, bolstered by a powerful military force. Within the Knights’ economic control were also mines and smelters, and a huge quantity of metals in circulation. The reason that alchemists like Kusla were hired was that improved metallurgical techniques led to a huge boost in profits.
“Hmm. They did not follow in the wake of that stupid noble the other day?”
After sending off the country noble, Alzen picked up one of the gold flakes and noted wearily,
“It was certainly a brilliant plan to mix gold with copper to increase the quantity and then saying it was valuable colored gold, huh?”
It was the fourth time Kusla had been summoned to assist Alzen. It was not unusual for those respectfully presenting tributes to double-cross their superiors, so the ability to assess the authenticity and quality of precious stones and metals immediately was an indispensable skill.
“It’s a country of uncultured barbarianism. It’s necessary to deal with them the same way you do with a dog.”
“Even more so when that dog insists on calling itself a cat, huh?”
Alzen put the gold back and had his subordinate take care of the box.
He said brusquely.
This land belongs to the country of Latria, the last country in the world ruled by a pagan queen. Thus the Orthodoxy Church’s army corps, notably the Knights of Claudius, had invaded and seized many towns. Of all the towns captured, their greatest prize was probably Kazan, Latria’s largest mining city, which had fallen just the other day.
At that point, if they could hold this town, Latria would be ruined.
Then Latria’s queen suddenly went and declared her conversion to the Church.
The Claudius Knights was a religious organization rounding up stray dogs, so to speak, if their prey suddenly turned into a cat, there would not be anything at which to aim their spears anymore. This was all the more a problem for those already aiming to behead.
“Still, they seem subservient in their own way. I think there was quite an amount in just that box, huh?”
Kusla said in a servile manner, but he was also probing to find out what Alzen thought about the current situation.
The motionless Alzen, seemingly engrossed in his thoughts, suddenly looked at the black gem.
“That’s a handy tool that lets you know the substance of something just by scraping it, huh? How reliable is it?”
“In the hands of a discerning goldsmith, it can measure purity to a one or two hundredths per centum of accuracy.”
“I’ve heard the word touchstone used as a metaphor, but it’s my first time actually seeing one.”
“Does it intrigue you?”
Without getting angry, Alzen shifted his gaze to Kusla at his somewhat jestful question,
“If you could infer the quality of anything just by rubbing it, nothing could be better. If you could choose your destination just by rubbing the stone marker at a crossroad, how wonderful would that be?”
Coming from Alzen, who had many subordinates and was in charge of negotiating with the rulers awaiting them at their destination, this did not really sound like a joke.
Within the Knights of Claudius, there was a unit whose insignia was the Azami’s Crest.
Alzen was the herald of this squad, responsible for delivering proclamations and eliminate all obstacles. In other words, his role was to pave the way for the rulers.
The unit, for which Alzen was in charge of leading, was to reclaim towns that were conquered by the Knights; their specialty was colonization.
Now too, the unit was right in the middle of heading with new settlers toward Latria’s largest mining town Kazan, which had fallen to the Knights.
But Kazan, which had been a pagan land and thus captured with impunity, converted to Orthodoxy after the ruler of this city, the queen, had converted. That being the case, the Knights would appear to be attacking one of the Church’s own towns. If the settlers continued on, it was likely the situation would be a little tricky.
It was probable to go from being the hunter to the hunted if they were regarded as heretics who had bared their fangs against the Church’s followers. Even if matters worsened however, they could not simply abandon their march.
For one thing, there was the matter of the Knights’ prestige. For another, many of those who left home to migrate had nowhere to return to. They left their faith and fate in the hands of the Knights and their destiny, and had come this far. If the thousands of migrants learned that there was no new world, who knew what they might end up doing?
Surely the Knights, whose ranks had swelled with each of the many battles it went through, would know well that humans with nothing left to lose are no different from beasts.
It was in this difficult situation that Alzen showed interest in how easy it was to use a touchstone.
No matter how experienced a person was, surely they would feel uneasy about the future. Of course, there was the likelihood of Alzen being simply curious.
“As one who relies on Your Excellency’s keen insight, I do not really wish to hear such sentiments.”
While Kusla did not mince his words, naturally, Alzen noticed the implication.
Not getting angry at such remarks was also typical of a skilled negotiator.
“I simply mean using anything that might be of use. Hey.”
Alzen called out to a young officer waiting in the corner of the room, who quickly held out a sheet of parchment.
“This is what you wanted. Do not lose it before we enter the town.”
Receiving the parchment with some surprise, Kusla looked up at Alzen with feigned servility,
“That being said, there’s no reason to not compensate you, right?”
What Kusla received was a letter of privilege from the head of the unit bearing the Azami crest, Archduke Kratal, which guaranteed Kusla’s freedom in the new town. With this letter, he would even, for example, be allowed to light a bonfire in a church.
For refusing to kowtow to this letter of privilege would be tantamount to defying the Claudius Knights.
This letter changed everything.
In Kazan, there would surely be much knowledge and many techniques left behind by the pagans, things that were probably difficult for Orthodox members to accept. No matter how valuable that knowledge might be, rulers and pious heretical inquisitors who worried about appearances might scrutinize it, and then seal it in a stone warehouse or burn it.
But alchemists like Kusla were concerned neither about paganism nor the Church. All that mattered to them was whether something would benefit their research; anything else was of no concern. If possible, Kusla wanted to be the first one in Kazan to see for himself and memorize, or procure a copy of, this dangerous knowledge and techniques before they were sealed away. To accomplish that, he would have to ignore irksome procedures and get access to various places.
It was for this reason that Kusla meekly acted as a minion towards Alzen.
“Naturally. In exchange for guaranteeing your freedom of movement in Kazan, you must share with me the entirety of the knowledge you obtain.”
“Perhaps there is a greater alchemist who might be more suitable for you, my lord?”
The Azami’s Crest unit already had its own proper alchemist with the title of “Doctor.”
By all rights, Kusla should not have been able to go to Kazan, but he’d maneuvered his way into things.
“Nonsense. There’s a way to use a treasured sword like a treasured sword, and a way to use a sword for killing like a sword for killing.”
Kusla was initially convinced that the fact that he and the others had been called on for trivial matters like examining the tributes, but that was not the case. In any organization, there are those who plot to rise through the ranks for the sake of political power. Alchemists were no exception.
Although if someone actually made it up to the upper echelon of the Knights just by currying favor with various people, that too could probably be regarded as a kind of alchemy.
“But even setting that aside, I’m still concerned,”
Kusla said, putting the parchment in his breast pocket. This situation had him reading between the lines.
“Are you saying that we cannot stay in Kazan for very long?”
The Knights was easily granting freedom of movement to someone like Kusla. That hinted at a sense of urgency on the part of the rulers.
At any rate, if the conversion of Latria’s queen was to become accepted by the world, then forcibly settling in the towns under her jurisdiction might be perceived as a challenge to the Church’s authority. If that happened, the settlers would quite likely be driven out of Kazan right after arriving, and if they left empty-handed without even laying eyes on the knowledge and techniques left there, the losses would be devastating.
Even if they could not take any gems or precious metals, it would be a different story if they did obtain the knowledge that was even more valuable.
Alzen’s position as commander of the Forces meant that there were glimpses of strategic moves with possible bad outcomes into consideration.
Kusla stared fixedly at Alzen.
Now, amongst the Forces, rumors were flying about those “bad possibilities”.
“We must constantly be as prepared as we can be. That’s all.”
Alzen evaded the question.
Kusla did not pursue it further.
Kusla respectfully bowed his head and left the border toll office.
Kusla went outside and returned with relief to the wagon he and his companions shared.
Alzen’s behavior was the only way he could infer the current predicament and their destination, Kazan. Even though Kusla did not, of course, expect to hear a clear outlook on the situation from Alzen’s own mouth, he had received sufficient clues. And whatever Alzen’s intentions, simply having gotten hold of the letter of privilege allowing free movement about Kazan was a success. Because there were a few days left until they reached the town, Kusla decided to spend the remaining time drinking and sleeping.
However, he suddenly noticed a white figure rustling at the edge of the fire.
He thought she was preparing lunch, but a bunch of merchants were a little ways away, aiming to profit and cooking meals as they gathered around a cauldron. The food from the merchants were tastier and cheaper, so Kusla’s group had been doing that for the entire march. While they had wagons stocked with food that would not go bad even during long periods of rain, that benefit meant compromising on taste.
Therefore, it was impossible to think that she was cooking.
Kusla snuck up right behind the small, defenseless back.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
Right after that small cry, a pot or something was knocked over. Along with the characteristic sound of water spilling on an open fire, ash swirled up into the sky.
Stunned, Kusla looked up at the swirling ash. When he looked back down, the person squatting in front of the fire and fiddling with something turned around timidly.
The pure white clothes were a nun’s habit, and her skin was white as well. Even her hair was pure white, so her large green eyes stood out all the more. The girl, whose appearance still fit this description of a young, or even childish one, was Fenesis.
“If you play with fire, you’ll wet the bed.“
“I will not!”
“Won’t play with fire or won’t wet the bed?”
Without really paying much attention, Kusla, looked at Fenesis’ hands suspiciously.
With that small pause, Fenesis finally managed to regain a little bit of her usual composure.
“I heard…that you people…are up to something suspicious.”
Kusla stared back silently at Fenesis, who flinched like a pup being reprimanded
Sighing, Kusla asked,
“Is that what Irine said?”
Irine, who was traveling with them, was two, three years older than Fenesis, and the daughter of a blacksmith.
At Kusla’s question, Fenesis awkwardly averted her eyes. She probably thought that if she admitted that it was Irine, she might be tattling, but telling a lie was against God’s teachings.
Watching this not-unattractive girl’s internal debate had its own pleasures for Kusla, but she seemed to reach a decision more quickly than he expected.
Looking at Kusla, she said,
“Be-because there is a suspicion of heresy, I have to investigate.”
Kusla unintentionally let out a little laugh at Fenesis’ excessive rhetoric.
At that laugh, Fenesis herself probably realized this was an implausible excuse, and her face immediately reddened.
When they first met, she really had thought Kusla and Weyland were sorcerers, and she would get worked up trying to find evidence of heresy. But having learned the reality about alchemists, she did not have such thoughts. In fact, Fenesis wanted to become a skilled alchemist who is able to play an active role as Kusla’s partner.
So surely she was trying to hide something with that absurd excuse.
Kusla looked at Fenesis disappointedly.
“And speaking of which, where is Irine?”
He asked this unrelated question, and Fenesis looked at him like she had been tricked.
But when she met his gaze, she quickly averted her eyes and looked down.
“…Sh-she has gone to help make lunch….”
Kusla looked over to where they were preparing the meals, but there were too many people asking for food, and he could not see Irine’s defining red hair. Certainly, she would cook to earn some pocket change if she was free, but it was impressive that a young lady like her dared to hang out amongst mercenaries who were no different from bandits.
“I think she’ll probably make her way back here soon….”
“You mean a craftsman cannot bear to stay still?”
Most blacksmiths began working before dawn, and toiled before the forge until after midnight. Kusla knew full well that Irine was the sort of person who could not idle around.
But watching her for the past few days, he also felt that, even if she was as restless as usual, she appeared to be trying to forget something.
“Irine told you, didn’t she? That this is fortune-telling.”
Fenesis shrunk back in surprise. Her body did not quiver much, but unfortunately her head did.
She had the veil of her nun habit over her head, but by no means was it to show how pious she was.
Surely there was a reason why a young girl like Fenesis was with the alchemist Kusla and his group.
She was not a normal young girl, but rather, one whose bloodline was said to be cursed, for she had a characteristic of non-humans brought from faraway lands; under her veil were the pointed ears of a beast.
And these ears always revealed her thoughts, since she was careless even under normal circumstances.
“… I, I heard that you were fortune-telling with Mr Weyland. Fo-fortune-telling, is against God’s teachings.”
“Do not speak of such revolting matters. There’s no way I’d do something like that with him.”
Weyland was an alchemist Kusla was acquainted with for a long time. The two of them had briefly set up a workshop in the port town of Gulbetty, and they would probably do the same in Kazan, the town they were heading to.
Fenesis stopped in mid-sentence, and Kusla shrugged.
“Do we look like we believe in stuff like fortune-telling? We were gambling.”
“We were just pouring melted lead into water and writing characters. Whoever did it better would be freed of a chore. And that Weyland wrote the characters ridiculously well. I do not know what kind of trick he pulled …. In the end, I took on four chores in a row. Now at the very least, I’m finally be released from them.”
Those chores included being Alzen’s servant, hear out the situation in Kazan, obtain a guarantee that he could act freely. Kusla did all that obediently, for despite being a victim of fraud, the fact was that he lost.
“By the way, where did that Weyland go?”
“… Oh, Mr Weyland … he said he was going all the way to the back of the line ….”
Kusla asked in return, and Fenesis ducked her head like she was being reprimanded.
“There is a merchant dealing in books…Mr Weyland said he was going to look at a book.”
“I’m working, and he’s off enjoying himself,”
Kusla had assumed that Weyland cheated, and was not bemused in the least.
He looked down at the lead boiling above the fire. The pot that Fenesis knocked over was apparently the one with water in it.
“So, what did you want to predict? Surely it was not something like whether or not there was heresy?”
When Kusla abruptly got to the point, Fenesis trembled miserably.
Even though it was done clumsily, she seemed to have thought that she had somehow or other successfully hidden her intentions.
“Definitely trying to predict the future, aren’t you.”
Fenesis moaned and hung her head.
Perhaps she felt guilty about turning to fortune-telling even though she was wearing a nun’s habit. Or perhaps she knew all too well that Kusla would not be happy about her trying to predict the future through fortune-telling.
But Kusla neither laughed at Fenesis nor got angry at her.
That was because his view of Fenesis had changed slightly. This “little girl” managed something really impressive a few days ago.
At that moment, Fenesis was no longer a toy that Kusla took bullied, abused, and teased, but a proper little alchemist who thought for herself, made a plan, and carried it out admirably to get the results she wanted.
So when Kusla realized that he had fallen right into her trap, not only was he so mortified that it seemed like his head would split, he was also partly happy that he’d acquired another accomplice.
Fenesis said she wanted to become Kusla’s partner, as an alchemist.
As one of the cursed bloodline, her life was targeted all the time, and she lived scrutinizing people’s expressions, so she probably yearned to be one of those rash people who had no regard for lives, including their own.
But her motive did not matter.
The question was whether she could move forward.
And Fenesis had the wits and the courage to advance. Even though she was small, she had pulled it off.
That was why he decided to not nitpick about her slight foolishness.
Given her amazing ability to scheme if necessary, he found that foolishness to be a little charming.
“Pour water into the pot.”
“After all, it’s just child’s play.”
Kusla said, and sat down next to Fenesis.
She was flustered, but he ignored it and kept talking,
“Lead melts well even in a fireplace. When you pour the melted lead into water, it changes into various forms. Here, pour the water in.”
Kusla thrusted the now-empty pot at Fenesis.
She was an obedient girl whose body moved on its own after being told to by Kusla. She filled the pot, and the flames that had weakened from the spilled water regained strength. Kusla shook the pot a little, and checked on the melted lead.
He then lifted the pot with the lead in it and dripped it into the water drop by drop.
Fenesis, who had shrunk back until just a moment ago, immediately stared into the pot with all her concentration, not even noticing Kusla looking at her profile.
Such a simpleton, he thought. At the same time, looking at how interested she was in everything, he did not hate it.
Someone with skill but no curiosity could not become an alchemist.
Fenesis asked while staring at the lead in the water, and slowly turned to look at Kusla.
“Tha-that shape…what does it mean?”
Kusla gave a little shrug.
“I don’t know. Fortune-telling is something village women do.”
Fenesis looked a little disappointed. It seemed she yearned to know about the future.
Not surprisingly, Kusla reprimanded her.
“While I won’t make fun of you for worrying about the future, it’s foolish to rely on something like fortune-telling,”
He said, and Fenesis hung her head.
Of course, though, he understood her worries.
It was likely that Irine restlessness and eagerness to help cook was born out of the same uneasiness, and Alzen dealing with the local lord in a particularly high-handed manner too was the same.
They were worried about whether this migration could succeed.
They were people without an objective when no directive was issued to them.
“Worrying is definitely not abnormal. But when you set me up, did you just simply believe in the outcome?”
After a little hesitation, Fenesis said,
Kusla said without amusement.
The trap that Fenesis ensnared Kusla in was on the expectation that he was a good person. She tried to get Kusla to save Weyland, who was suffering the consequences of a stupid involvement with a noble lady in Gulbetty, and she probed him to overlook the secret mining of gold by nomadic tribes. Both outcomes would have been inconceivable for Kusla up until now.
Basically, Fenesis expected that he would do it because he was a good person. Kusla did not really want to acknowledge it, but he did have some idea as to why she had such an expectation.
For that reason, Fenesis had formed a hypothesis based on the facts she’d observed and carried it out skillfully. While daft with most things, she was surprisingly quick-witted at odd times.
“Now, the current situation is the same. Observe the facts and chew on it. Then construct your hypothesis. It is important to verify, and only then should you conclude, but even so predictions always entail uncertainty. Headstrong assumptions are scary. And the most terrifying part is misreading the results.”
When Kusla said this, Fenesis looked at him with her clear, green eyes.
She was someone who listened carefully to what people said.
“The worst thing about baseless predictions such as fortune-telling is being completely unable to shake something off once you believe it. Because of that, people overlook important things and often interpret things to suit the results. When dealing with matters where the causes and outcome are uncertain, awaiting you is a labyrinth, and the malice of others.”
Kusla had no desire to tease and laugh at Fenesis, nor did he think he was in an advantageous position to lecture her.
She was finally trying to stand on her own feet. He simply wanted to tell her not to make a stupid mistake.
“So do not go around thoughtlessly predicting the future using something like fortune-telling. On top of that, you’re hoping for only good things, right? In this lousy world, no sane person would believe in fortune-telling.”
“But, just a little…?”
Fenesis opened her mouth as if she were speaking without thinking, but kept quiet once Kusla glared at her.
After averting her gaze, and said with a rare sulkiness,
“…I think you’re always too pessimistic.”
She glanced fleetingly at him.
If he were a town craftsman with a stable life, it would probably be fine to pray for another good day for tomorrow. But unfortunately, Kusla was an alchemist, and in an alchemist’s workshop, ill will always lingered. Nothing good would happen when one let down his guard.
He had emphasized that to Fenesis an umpteen number of times.
Besides, what Kusla wanted to say was just a bit different.
“I’m not pessimistic. In fact, I’m not particularly worried about the future.”
Fenesis seemed a bit confused.
She knitted her brows into a pretty shape, thinking that Kusla was once again speaking befuddling her.
“But I have my own reasons. It’s totally different from your reliance on fortune-telling.”
Glancing sidelong at the dejected Fenesis, Kusla added charcoal onto the fire where the lead was melting.
The scent of delicious food wafted in from afar.
“Why do you think I’ve responded so obediently to Alzen’s summons?”
Kusla heaved a sigh at Fenesis asking that again.
“Are you aware of what kind of work I’m made to do?”
Miffed at this sarcastic tone, Fenesis quickly shot back a childish scowl, and replied,
“V-verification at the customs office.”
“That’s right. And what I assess are the tributes presented by the local lords. By rights, however, it’s where the lords collect taxes.”
“The ones respectfully bowing and scraping are not the knights. Understand? The local lords are pay paying their respects to the Knights on their own lands. Even though we’re already in Latria. What does that mean?”
Fenesis’ gaze wandered in confusion. Kusla did not let the chance go by, and teasingly blew on her face.
Caught off guard, Fenesis closed her eyes, and after wiping her face, she glared angrily at Kusla.
It was childish teasing of a child.
“Those men who are resigned to lowering their heads to messengers have surely already heard about Latria’s queen conversion. Yet even so, they think that it’s prudent to kneel. The power of the Knights is still overwhelming, and they think it’s better to bow down to the Knights. Accordingly, if you think about it normally, there’s no way the Knights will accept the queen’s conversion. The Knights will try to use its political power freely and obstruct this with all its might.”
“With this basic understanding, I don’t think there is a need to worry too much. Baselessly, irresponsibly, and thoughtlessly believing it’s easy to know the future through fortune-telling, like what you did, is wrong from the outset.”
With each word, Fenesis’ head drooped further, and at the end, she curled up, on the verge of tears.
“I’m not pessimistic. I’m simply cautious. And rather than optimistic, you are just careless by dabbling in fortune-telling. That time in Gulbetty, and the golden sheep… well, it wasn’t that bad, but this is way off now. Got it?”
Being admonished with logic, Fenesis naturally felt downhearted.
However, she felt so as she understood that he was right.
Kusla thought her intelligence and obedience were not bad traits to have.
So he thought, but Fenesis suddenly spoke without looking at him.
“Wh-what you said is right…I think.”
“Not ‘think.’ Definitely.”
At his correction, Fenesis discontentedly clammed up, curling her lips.
But she did not remain silent.
“B-but, but there are some things that cannot be verified…so, I I think…”
Kusla looked at Fenesis. Avoiding his gaze, she stared down at the fire.
He thought for a few moments, then asked,
“What did you want foretold?”
Upon hearing that, Fenesis turned a sulky look on him.
She was just a bit angry, like whenever she was being teased.
“I do not wish to say.”
She suddenly turned away.
Without showing any expression, Kusla pinched her ear through her veil.
Fenesis screamed silently and twisted away.
He had not meant to grab hard, but it was a sensitive part.
Kusla let go, and she glared at him with tears in her eyes, holding her head.
“Tell me. What did you want to predict?”
There was still lead in the pot, and it was simmering on the fire, bubbling away.
Fenesis looked back and forth between the lead and what her hands were doing, her eyes wavering.
But Kusla remained motionless, so eventually she gave up.
She did not look at Kusla, perhaps as a token gesture of protest.
“Th-the future, and…”
She said, pursing her lips.
“Whether or not everyone can still be together…That’s what I wanted to know.”
Finally, she raised her eyes and looked at Kusla.
Taken aback, he could not immediately mask his expression. He was at a loss for words, for he failed to think of that.
But this was indeed very much like Fenesis. Innocent, completely without malice, she just quietly wished for a little happiness. And yet she did not say “With everyone”. Because hers was a cursed existence, she said “Everyone,” unconsciously assuming she would eventually be separated from them.
Kusla felt sheepish for one-sidedly presenting his coldhearted logic to this Fenesis.
Fenesis suddenly spoke, and Kusla faltered for a moment.
But he was clearly better than Fenesis at not revealing his feelings overtly.
He said tersely.
Fenesis slowly looked away, and said,
“Furthermore, while I think that your methodology is correct, I cannot believe that’s all there is.”
“Because you view the world…a little too harshly.”
Fenesis’ eyes were filled with a strange confidence, which Kusla thought was odd. Afterward,
“A hypothesis based on the observation of reality…is that so?”
Kusla could not look away from her green eyes.
“This fortune-telling…no, gambling…”
Kusla stared at Fenesis seriously for a moment, and then the next moment scrutinized her eyes.
“What do you mean?”
Encouraged by Kusla’s response, Fenesis straightened her usually hunched back, and said,
“You suspected Mr Weyland of fraud, but I do not think you should have.”
“The wager was about forming words in the lead, I think that is simple. If it was the fortune-telling that village women often do, would Mr Weyland not have been used to doing this often with those women?”
For something like flipping and guessing the side of the coin, people used to this could easily manipulate the throw and be spot on every time. He had assumed that could not be manipulated. But that was a miscalculation on his parr.
Groaning, Kusla suddenly noticed Fenesis’ gaze.
“…What are you on about?”
Fenesis did not smile.
“Observe the facts and verify the hypothesis. But even when the facts are the same, I think different people view things differently. You suspected Mr Weyland was cheating, but I do not think he’s that kind of person.”
She had used his own reasoning against him. He felt beyond foolish.
“So in that case, seeing a positive future in the shape of the lead … That is, I want you to ease up on me.”
That was Fenesis’ meager protest.
She was not obsessed with fortune-telling; it was just a small comfort.
Kusla understood why he had felt embarrassed. It was because he himself had been unable to understand games simply as games because of his rejection of fortune-telling.
Fenesis did indeed innocently wish to continue her relationships with Kusla and the others.
But by no means did her innocence ignore the truth of reality.
“But if he really did cheat…I probably would not have noticed because of my ignorance. Therefore, if I follow that logic, knowledge and experience and a discerning eye, are necessary. But…”
Fenesis said apprehensively.
“Perhaps…you can lighten up a little? Of course, I too understand that this is a secret to survival. But even so…you always seem pained,”
She herself said painfully.
Kusla did not know what to do. Alchemists were always regarded as a threat, viewed with suspicious eyes, and treated as a tool by their employers. To get by in such a world, they became indifferent to people’s feelings, thinking only about their own profit, and excelled in understanding trickery. In that situation, Kusla assumed he had never had such straightforward feelings directed at him.
Then he muttered “No” to himself.
There was once.
That was when he first had feelings for Fenesis. For Kusla, who could only behave like himself, true to his name meaning “Interest,” that was when he realized he could really like someone.
But, Kusla thought. He could not help but feel that following her suggestion would mean he would lose out to something. He felt he would degrade into something no better than dogs or wolves.
Kusla stared back at Fenesis bitterly, but she looked at him as if she cared for him from the bottom of her heart. There was a transparent pureness in her eyes.
In the end, Kusla could not deal with being on the receiving end of forgiveness, and he pinched Fenesis’ small nose.
He said brusquely to the surprised Fenesis.
“Some big talk from you.”
And he wiggled her nose all around, letting go after she got upset.
He had no sense of superiority.
Feeling utterly defeated, Kusla let out a deep sigh.
After a short while, the red-headed Irine came back, bringing lunch in a steaming pot.
She greeted Fenesis, who was alone by the fire, and then glanced at Kusla, who was drinking in the wagon bed. Since Fenesis was staring at him reproachfully, Irine had somewhat realized guess the source of Fenesis’ sulkiness.
She served wheat gruel into four bowls from the pot and took two to the wagon,
“Did you tease her again?”
But Kusla, of course, refused to explain. How could he have admitted he teased Fenesis because he could not deal with her worrying about him to his face?
“ …She’s just getting herself all upset.”
“Good grief, you’re like a young apprentice, always causing trouble.”
Irine, who worked in a blacksmith’s workshop, had the nosy disposition of a meddler.
It was said that she instigated Fenesis into laying the trap the other day.
Given that, it was definitely this girl’s fault that Fenesis had been getting closer to Kusla. While the amount of iron would not multiply as women increased in numbers, women would cause the nature of the iron to change.
Now that is scary, Kusla thought.
His stomach growled when he smelled the gruel with melted cheese, so he accepted the meal Irine brought, but nothing more.
Perhaps because he was always upsetting Fenesis, Irine gave up and did not press matters further.
“So where’s Weyland?”
“He said he was going to play at the rear of the line. Who knows when he’ll come back?”
“Eh …. Then do I leave some food?”
She asked and looked down at the other bowl in her hands.
In different ways than Fenesis, Irine often left herself open to teasing.
“Do not sound so happy.”
“Wh-what do you mean!?”
Irine, quick to respond, and easy to understand, would likely the poster girl at a bar if she were to work there.
She got along well with Fenesis, perhaps because she was such a contrast with the pure, white Fenesis.
“If you can’t finish it alone, give some to me. It’s a waste to throw it out.”
Irine looked at Kusla reluctantly and said,
She was probably gluttonous for food as she had once stayed in a workshop where many people lived together.
Kusla nodded silently without making any crude remark, took the other bowl from Irine, and divided half of Weyland’s portion into his own bowl.
“Ah, that reminds me,”
Irine added, as if as an afterthought.
“There was a rumor even at the cooking tent…”
When Kusla looked suspiciously at her, she was rendered tentative, but continued,
“Is the situation in Kazan okay? You’re working alongside that Alzen, aren’t you?”
As was the widow of the Guild Leader, Irine had taken the position of Guild Leader of the blacksmith’s association of the port town Gulbetty. Despite not being respected by anyone and having a hard time, Irine did not complain. That was because she firmly believed in the promise with her husband, a respected craftsman, that she would take over the position and lead the association.
Even Irine, who was usually adamant, seemed uneasy about the future. Kusla understood well that the rumor from the cooks was a clumsy excuse, and given her personality, she could not really tell complicated lies.
Kusla came to this conclusion, but ground his teeth at the fact that there were times he had been fooled by Irine and Fenesis. He pretended that he was chewing the wooden spoon, exaggeratedly shrugged, and asked,
“What would you do if I said things were terrible and there was nothing to be done?”
Irine was momentarily startled, but soon glared at Kusla.
“Can you stop with such jokes?”
“When you do not understand something in the workshop, do you immediately go to your master?”
“You must have been told often to observe and steal. He really spoils you.”
In terms of logical ability, Fenesis might be superior to Irine.
Irine talked a lot, but was easily held back by her feelings. That impulsiveness was typical of her straightforward personality.
“So, look closely at me, and think about it.”
Kusla put on an affectedly pleasing smile; Irine made a disgusted face and fully bared her teeth. There was a different kind of pleasure in teasing Irine compared with teasing Fenesis.
“Things seem fine for now, but…”
Irine looked at Kusla, annoyed.
His shoulders shook with laughter, and then someone appeared.
“Sorry for interrupting your meal.”
Kusla looked over and saw three men dressed as mercenaries.
“If it’s food you’re after, go somewhere else.”
“No, no. We heard you guys have tree oil, so could you share some with us?”
The mercenaries were holding well-used cloaks, the animal’s fur no long distinguishable.
“Tree oil? Ah, tar, right? We’ve got some. Hey.”
When Kusla called out to Irine, who had been sulking, she took the leather cloaks from the mercenaries, muttering “So self-important.”
“Sorry, young lady. It seems like it’s going to rain or snow again in the afternoon.”
“No, I’m peeved because of that disagreeable one there.”
Puzzled, the mercenaries looked at Kusla. He sipped the gruel, ignoring them.
Grumbling away, Irine took the mercenaries’ cloaks, then lightly jumped up on the wagon and fished through the luggage.
The tree oil the mercenaries mentioned, called tar or pitch, was a kind of oil obtained by heating a certain kind of wood, and it had various uses like preserving meat or treating skin diseases. Because it was an oil, it also repelled water. Irine and Weyland had made tree oil at the workshop in Gulbetty.
Shortly after they set out on their journey, it had rained, and word seemed to have gotten around that painting tar on would prevent water from seeping through the wagon covers.
The tar was not hard to refine, but it was expensive due to the labor and fuel costs, so it was best to get it when possible. Kusla and everyone made it using the Knights’s money, so they were not stingy with it.
Ignoring Irine, Kusla suddenly noticed that Weyland’s portion of gruel that he had split with Irine was sitting untouched. He could not bear to let it cool like that, and also, it was something Irine had earned as compensation for her work. Weary, Kusla stood up and took the remaining gruel to the fire. He poured it into Irine’s bowl and placed it next to the fire to keep it warm.
While he did that, Fenesis was restlessly eating some gruel with a wooden spoon and forcing herself not to look at Kusla.
When he spoke to her, Fenesis reacted like a startled cat.
However, she did not turn around, and Kusla gave a sneer.
He was bemused at her simple and childish reaction, as well as how she sometimes backed him into a corner.
“You did not know about tar, right? What did you do about rain when you traveled?”
When Kusla asked that normal question, he knew that Fenesis’ ears were twitching under her veil. She probably wanted to tell him not to talk so familiarly with her because they were fighting, but she also felt bad about ignoring somebody who was speaking to her.
Of course, Kusla had deliberately called out to her because he enjoyed her reactions.
In the end, it seemed like her sincerity won out.
She turned around unhappily and answered,
“…I used regular oil and…something with the same effect.”
“…Heh? The same effect?”
Kusla asked in return, and Fenesis seemed to realize her mistake in continuing the conversation.
She wrinkled her brow like she was suffering a headache, but gave up trying to be stubborn towards Kusla, who again asked what she meant.
“… It was something other than tar, I think,”
She said, and returned her spoon to the bowl.
“Certainly, there is that kind of oil, but it does not come from a tree. It comes from small rivers or ponds. It floats on top of water, and you gather a lot of it with linen and drain the water. It was an oil that was more pitch black, had a strange smell, and burned well.”
Fenesis was a foreigner from a place far south of here and astoundingly far to the east from there. He heard that that land was dominated by the scorching sun and endless sand and stone.
Kusla raised his chin slightly. “I’ve heard there’s an oil taken from rocks that has roughly the same effect as tar.”
“Yes. It was also called stone oil. But it’s more commonly called black pitch.”
“Ah, black pitch, I remember now. I’ve seen it once or twice, but it was only enough to fit in a small bottle. It’s something that you definitely cannot get here.”
While Kusla was talking, Fenesis’ gaze suddenly became distant. She was seeing somewhere else, and Kusla peered into her eyes and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Eh? Ah, it’s nothing…”
Fenesis came to her senses and, a little embarrassed, said,
“I just remembered something, from long ago ….”
“Yes. Long ago I saw a lake of black pitch.”
Kusla thought that there was no way she could have seen that, but he remembered that Fenesis had come here from a far-away place. It was so distant that it was spoken of only in fairy tales.
“On days when the sun was blazing, it was so pungent, it was impossible to breathe, but the sight of part of the lake always on fire was incredible. Burning morning, noon, and night, it seemed like the end of the world, and yet also like the beginning…”
Fenesis’ expression as she reminisced was one Kusla had seen before. It was the face of someone who had experienced one of the wonders of the world and hence no longer cared what befell them.
Fenesis suddenly smiled with self-derision and said quietly,
“I do not think I can get you to believe me…”
By normal standards, a story about a burning lake would probably be regarded as the delusion of an uneducated girl.
But Kusla was an alchemist and would surely spend his whole life chasing seeming illusions.
“I want to hear all the details.”
Puzzled, Fenesis stared back at Kusla.
“A lake of black pitch? How big was it? Do you know the exact place? Did fish live
in it? Did the pitch flow in from somewhere? Or did it gush up from the ground? You said one part burns, but why does not the whole thing burn?”
Fenesis blinked incessantly at Kusla’s rapid questions.
Kusla was burning with curiosity. If a burning lake exists in this world, then it was possible there were other mysteries as well. That was better evidence than anything that this world was not a boring place, but was filled with mysteries and that it was worth carrying on even through hardships.
Fenesis said while backing away from Kusla, who was excitedly questioning her. She looked up at Kusla with worried, perhaps slightly criticizing, eyes. And then she said,
“But…you will not seriously listen to me, right? So I d-do not want to…tell you.”
Just a bit ago, in response to Fenesis’ sincere concern, Kusla had pinched her nose and wiggled it around. This was Fenesis’ justified revenge. But when it came to willfulness, this alchemist rivaled even a king.
“I’m not interested in you, but I am interested in what you saw.”
Fenesis was so taken aback that she snapped up straight, but Kusla placed his bowl of gruel by Fenesis without hesitation.
“Look, I’ll share my cheese, so tell me.”
At this, Fenesis took a big breath, on the verge of yelling, but in the end let it out exhaustedly.
“What have you seen of me up until now?”
Offended, Fenesis stared up at Kusla from beneath her lashes.
Fenesis seemed to have mustered up a lot of courage to say this, and even though she had averted her gaze, she looked worriedly at Kusla once more.
He said with a serious face,
“I’m not mean. I’m an alchemist.”
Fenesis made an extremely reluctant face, but did not look away from Kusla.
“…It is as what I saw.”
She was an honest girl.
As befitting alchemy which turns lead to gold, Kusla changed his expression to a smile.
Fenesis was still reluctant, but finally sighed with resignation, and also seeming a bit happy, falteringly began to tell him about the scene she saw long ago.
Fenesis finished telling Kusla about the mysterious burning lake about the same time Irine finished coating the mercenaries’ cloaks in tar.
Perhaps not satisfied helping with only the meal, Irine felt quite refreshed after her manual labor, but when she returned to the fire, she immediately became suspicious.
That was because Fenesis, whose mood had improved by having someone listen to her story, was servilely making tea, which she had recently learned how to do, for Kusla.
“I’m worried she’ll be cheated by a bad person.”
When Fenesis went to the cart to put away the tea leaves, Irine said, insinuating something.
“You mean like Weyland?”
“Weyland would be the lesser evil.”
Kusla shrugged. After it was fully dark, Weyland finally returned. For some reason, he had brought a heap of books. He’d probably said something about returning them when he got to Kazan, but whether he actually would was doubtful.
Weyland shamelessness was mildly shocking even for Kusla, but his interest in books was another matter. While Kusla was browsing enthusiastically through the books, Weyland took one of the books and presented it to Fenesis, who had a similarly keen interest.
“Here, this is for little Ul.”
A guffawing Weyland handed the book to the confused Fenesis. Bewildered, she timidly opened it, and Kusla too could see the magnificent illustrations.
“Apparently it’s a collection of folklore and legends about Kazan and the surrounding area. Because little Ul does not seem averse to this kind of thing~”
Still with the same absentminded expression, Fenesis looked at Weyland, and then at the book in her hands.
Then she looked once more at Weyland and gave a tender smile.
“Thank you very much.”
“Nah, nothing special~”
Weyland was a perfect womanizer.
“This is for little Irine.”
“Can you stop calling me that?”
Irine, who was surely a top notch skilled craftsman than others though conscious of her youth, seemed a bit put off at being called “little”, but obediently took the book.
She was taken aback when she opened it up.
“Huh, this is…?”
“It’s a cookbook~”
Kusla asked this. Why give such a thing to Irine? He wondered. Weyland laughed, saying,
“Look, little Irine, you often help with the meals for the craftsmen, right? I thought you’d be interested~”
“Ah, no, that is ….”
Irine was confused. Kusla felt as though he saw something a little unusual for Weyland to be wrong. Irine was helping to earn some pocket money, or to kill time, or to distract herself from her worries about the future, and so Weyland’s assumption was clearly wrong.
However, while Kusla had such a thought, Irine embraces the book in her chest and shyly said,
Moreover, she expressed her gratitude happily and bashfully like a maiden receiving a gift for the first time. Kusla was surprised at her unexpected response, and Weyland nodded like it was a matter of fact.
Two happy women and the smug Weyland.
Kusla, who did not understand women’s feelings at all, found nothing amusing in this.
“And? Is there anything for me?”
“Aah? But the books will be returned later, so don’t get them dirty~”
Weyland said unpleasantly. Kusla knew he definitely said that on purpose, but because the two women were chuckling at the situation, he was even less amused.
“Did you forget about the favor in Gulbetty?”
Kusla asked. Weyland shrugged and quickly reached out and hugged Fenesis’ small shoulders.
“I heard little Ul saved me?”
Although Fenesis was a little surprised, she was not scared of Weyland like she had been when they first met. With Weyland’s arms still around her shoulders, she was giggling like she had been tickled.
“I heard that too.”
Even Irine followed suit, her eyes seeming to say “Serves you right.”
Kusla thought trouble would beckon if he opened his mouth, so he silently took a book from the pile and forced himself to concentrate on its discussion of sulfur.
No matter how little ahead one could see, if one was to keep moving forward, a conclusion could be made somehow or other. As if to prove that, Kusla’s group was standing on a hill overlooking the town of Kazan.
Even though there had been nothing but plains that continued forever, God had begun working two days ago.
The town of Kazan, and the large mining area spread out behind it could be seen from the top of the hill, the sight could be called the work of the ancient gods.
They often assumed they were reaching Kazan, but it was the previous night when they realized they were right on top of it.
Alzen and his men had probably been considering whether to enter Kazan up until the last moment. If they thought they were still far from Kazan, it would be easier to head back. If they thought they were close, they would probably approach the city even if it meant loosening the reins.
“It’s like a fortress, huh,”
Said Irine while holding down her hair, which was blown by the cold, dry wind.
“More like ruins~”
Weyland replied, Kusla thought that both were right.
Kazan was made as a town at the entrance of the mining area, akin to a gateway.
The city walls were high, and they surrounded the huge town like a sturdy fortress. As the color of the wals closely resembled that of the nearby rocky mountain, the town resembled ruins weathered by winds for hundreds of years.
At this moment, over a thousand knights, who had occupied Kazan were apparently stationed there.
Even though they had taken over the town, they had simply dissolved the council that managed Kazan in the stead of Latria’s queen, and banished the people who had fought in the war, but over two thousand people remained in the town.
Nevertheless, according to the report of the knights who had thoroughly checked the number of kitchens and vacant houses after Kazan surrendered, there were still plenty of houses for the colonists to live in, as well as jobs.
When they heard that report, everybody in the unit cheered wholeheartedly.
It was the moment they won their wager.
It meant that there was not unrest in Kazan and that Latria’s political situation was calm despite the news of the queen’s conversion, and the settlement was only a matter of time.
Alzen and his men had probably ridden their horses hard, keeping in contact with the knights’ forces stationed in various places so as to keep abreast of the situation.
No doubt they had also discerned the attitudes of the nobles who came with tributes in hand during the journey, and they had concluded that everything was alright.
Their good fortune exceeded their expectations.
Fenesis, who believed in that sort of thing, was of course staring enthusiastically at Kazan.
For her part, Irine was becoming angsty, and got off the wagon.
“All hands! Advance!”
Someone in the cavalry shouted while waving the flag on his lance.
Everyone began moving quietly without cheering, probably because they were so full of hope and happiness that they could not shout.
Kusla’s group advanced with the flow.
And of course he too was busy calculating what he would do once he got past the city walls.
“What will you do when you enter the town?”
Suddenly posed with this question, Kusla stared fixedly at her for a few moments.
Fenesis said, perplexed by Kusla’s unexpected response.
But Kusla was confused too.
“Did I not explain last night? I’ll descend on the libraries of the nobles and companies with that rascal Weyland. You do your job too, because we do not know when something might happen.”
When he said that, Fenesis blinked in surprise and said worriedly,
“Ah, um … that is not what I meant…”
“As for me, I might look for some cute girls who’ve suffered during the war,”
Weyland suddenly interrupted the conversation.
“And I’ll even give them flowers~”
“Ugh, Mr Weyland, not again … that’s not funny.”
Fenesis turned a weary gaze on Weyland, but he was happy just for her to be looking at him.
Kusla turned both a cold gaze and cold words on Weyland.
“We won’t do anything. We’ll just look at what we should look at.”
He was not reproaching the light-hearted Weyland, or Irine, or even Fenesis. Kusla had come here for this reason and was living for that purpose.
He was not going to waste a moment.
Wasting time would make Magdala that much further away.
“You’re so serious~”
Weyland was fed up. Then he looked at Fenesis.
“Is there anything little Ul wants to do~?”
Fenesis had been looking at the stubborn Kusla with slightly sad eyes, but bashful when Weyland asked her that.
It seemed there was something, so he had brought it up with Kusla to lay the groundwork.
I was too thick and did not notice, Kusla thought to himself.
“Um, there is something I want to see.”
“Oh, what’s that~?”
Unlike his attitude inside the workshop, Weyland was a typical womanizer outside. Kusla, annoyed at how Weyland enjoying his conversation with Fenesis, was also a bit interested in what she wanted to see, and he stole a glance at her out of the corner of his eye.
“They are in this book I borrowed, but I have heard there are many old legends in Kazan.”
“Ah, that’s right~. That’s because it was originally a mine before Latria existed. It seems it’s been there since lots of immigrants came from the East over five hundred years ago~.”
“Is that so?”
“Well, I’ve just heard a few things. And? What does little Ul want to see?”
“Ah, yes. Um, it’s this ….”
Fenesis reached up and grabbed something from the wagon bed. As he watched Fenesis struggle to pick up a large book, Kusla had a quiet urge to tease her.
But Weyland was there, and Irine had returned to the wagon, so he behaved himself. Fenesis, who of course did not notice anything, opened the book and showed a page to Weyland. When Kusla turned to look, he could see several illustrations, although they could better be described as copies of some other pictures. There were many people and a monster like a dragon. Perhaps because the dragon was breathing fire, a heroic man was resisting with a large shield.
“Ehhhh~? Little Ul, you’re interested in this kind of thing? That’s surprising~”
Surely he felt it was the type of adventure story young boys would enjoy.
But there were onlookers around the dragon and hero, and the atmosphere was somehow carefree, just like an exhibition. Perhaps Fenesis was captivated by that relaxed feeling.
She said bashfully,
“Um … But I want to see this. I heard it is drawn somewhere in town that was originally a mine.”
Weyland nodded, raised his head from the book, and smiled at Fenesis.
“Then, I’ll take you there.”
“It’s good to read technical books, but you can learn a lot from seeing the ruins of a mine. I’ll just bring you along then~”
“Thank you very much.”
Fenesis expressed her thanks with a wide smile, and Weyland nodded in satisfaction. But his glance at Kusla suggested that he had done this very much on purpose.
Kusla, vexed by Weyland’s frivolous actions and Fenesis’ innocence, pretended to ignore them and decided not to show his feelings at all costs, because Irine was watching.
Right then, the company became noisy. Alzen, leading the vanguard of the Azami’s Crest unit that was entering the town first, opened Kazan’s gates.
Everyone probably saw this as the moment their new world opened up before them.
Of course, Kusla was no exception.
The knowledge and techniques of the pagans left behind in Kazan. There awaited a new world he had yet to comprehend.
He told himself not to be rash.
But like everyone else, it was impossible for Kusla to suppress his burgeoning hopes.