Chapter 20 – The Truth
A few days had passed since Ruri had up and left the Nation of the Dragon King, and after making a few overnight stops in towns along the way, she found herself in Nadasha—only to be flabbergasted at the state of the nation.
“This is terrible…” When she’d been ousted from Nadasha’s castle, she was tossed into a carriage and sent straight to the forest, so she’d never had a chance to see the state of the royal capital and the towns she passed by again now.
Looking back, Ruri was glad of that. Had she seen their current state of affairs, she would have been filled with dread over being brought to such a ramshackle world and probably wouldn’t have been able to brave the forest the way she had.
The word “terrible” summed up the Nadashian town perfectly.
Despite it being a reasonably big town, the buildings were all in such disrepair that they looked abandoned, and the streets seemed nearly abandoned too. The few people she did see looked lifeless, tired, and emaciated. There were no children playing happily in the streets, no girls gossiping among themselves, no shouting merchants hawking their wares.
She was baffled by how there could be such a big difference between Nadasha and the Nation of the Dragon King when they were so close together.
It had been about two years since she’d been here. Ruri began to recall her life in Nadasha— those few days she spent being taken care of as part of Asahi’s party. If she had seen this awful sight, then she might have known just how blessed those few “normal” days really were. Then there was the way Asahi was treated like royalty by virtue of being the Priestess Princess—the word “thriftiness” wasn’t exactly in her lifestyle’s vocabulary.
Conversely, this town was in such terrible shape that the way people lived within the castle walls seemed downright ridiculous. Despite that, this King was trying to wage a war. Even someone with almost no knowledge of politics like Ruri thought it was obvious that they had bigger things to worry about.
“Ruri, let’s hurry up,” urged a spirit, but Ruri had been shocked into stillness.
“You, you’re from out of town, aren’t you?” The voice calling out to Ruri blindsided her, making her jump. Ruri turned to find an old woman, who seemed to be about the same age as Chelsie, staring at her.
The old woman seemed exhausted, but, compared with the other even more lifeless people, this old woman’s eyes were still bright with vigor. However, as she came closer to Ruri she limped and tottered.
“I can tell right away from how healthy and energetic you seem. After all, most people here are so famished that they don’t even have the energy to get out of bed,” said the old woman staring off behind Ruri. She followed the old woman’s eyes to see several small children sitting up against a wall. “…Do you happen to have any food?”
“Food?” Ruri repeated and then rushed to open her pocket space, pulling out a bundle of soft cookies from inside. “Here you go.”
The old woman took the bundle, looking relieved, and gave a short yet sweet “thank you” in gratitude. She didn’t eat any herself but instead walked over to the group of children and gave each a cookie.
Once the children had all received a treat, their once emotionless faces lit up with joy and they proceeded to stuff their cheeks with the cookies. Since they scarfed the cookies down, out of fear of someone swiping them, a few of the kids almost choked. As Ruri watched the old woman gently pat the backs of the children with food caught in their throats, she regretted giving her those rather dry cookies instead of something else.
She proceeded to put her hand into her pocket space again and, this time, pulled out a juicy fruit that tasted like a peach and was shaped like a banana. She had stocked up before arriving in Nadasha. She handed one to each of the children and one to the old woman. Content that this new food choice wouldn’t pose a choking hazard, Ruri gave herself a pat on the back for putting her pocket space to good use and stockpiling so many.
As she watched the heartrending sight of the children gobbling down their fruits like it was the last thing they’d do on this earth, the old woman spoke to her.
“Terrible, isn’t it? What in the world did we do to deserve this?” “How did this happen?”
“One day, the state soldiers came down and started taking away all the able-bodied men. With taxes already so high, we were just barely managing to scrape by as it was, but after they took away all the men, we couldn’t hold down any sort of living at all anymore. And on top of that, they still ask us to pay the same amount of taxes, as if nothing ever happened! If we didn’t pay, they took away our food, and if we complained about their insane requests or tried to fight the draft, then they dispatched us on the spot. All we have left are women, the sick, and huge taxes we are forced to pay. Producing crops only to have them taken away under the guise of ‘taxes’ leaves us with no hope and no food. We can’t survive much more of this.” Once the old woman finished speaking, she exhaled as if trying to expel something lodged in her chest.
“And this town isn’t the only one affected. What is going on in that king’s mind? What is going to happen to this nation?” There was no one around to answer the old woman’s listless queries.
Ruri didn’t know what had gotten into her, but she started walking toward the open town square. In the square was a well where many people, who seemed to be trying to stave off their hunger with water, all sat.
Water was not what their bodies needed.
As Ruri, clearly an outsider, walked among them, they gave her only brief glances before quickly losing any interest, as if the very act of looking was too arduous for them.
“Ruri?” As the spirits all looked to her in confusion, Ruri stood in the middle of the square and focused. As she did, a bud suddenly sprung up from the soil.
Ruri pumped more and more mana into the bud until it started to grow at a normally- impossible speed equal to the amount of effort she’d put into it, turning it into a giant tree with rich and vibrant leaves. She injected even more mana and the beautiful tree bore fine fruit.
The townspeople, who once simply stared lifelessly off into space, started to show signs of actual emotions.
Ruri harvested the ripened fruit with wind magic, catching the falling produce with wind and passing them out one by one to each of the impoverished people.
The townspeople stared at her, one after another, in disbelief of Ruri and the lush fruit they’d received. As they took their first cautious bites into the fruits, the sweet juice spreading through their mouths opened the floodgates and they began to scarf them down.
Probably due to the large amount of mana Ruri used to create the tree, by the time she was done passing out the fruit to the people in the square the tree was once again bearing new fruit. Ruri told the people who were relatively able-bodied to share them with the other townspeople and then walked away from the town.
On the move once more, one of the spirits seemed unable to comprehend Ruri’s actions and questioned her. “Why did you help them? None of this has anything to do with you, Ruri.”
“It’s fine. Sure, improving the status quo here isn’t my job, it’s the state’s, but it’s just… if I just ignored things here, the sight would be stuck in my head and I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I lived off their backs, albeit just for a few days. I helped because I wanted to get rid of this guilt—as downright self-centered as that may be.”
The spirit lamented the unnecessary complexity of the human thought process, still clueless as to Ruri’s motivations. Ruri smiled wryly.
She dropped by more towns on the way, handing out food to their inhabitants.
The royal capital of Nadasha, on the other hand, looked the way one would expect the king’s city of residence to look—the streets filled with people all dressed neatly in proper clothing. While it couldn’t hold a candle to the capital in terms of scale, it was essentially a tourist location, which would have filled Ruri with excitement—if this were the first place she saw upon
However, after seeing the state of the towns she’d passed on the way here, she felt discomfort from the radical divide between life in the capital and life in those towns.
In all the towns she visited, there were a lot of children, women, and the elderly, and once she saw the royal capital, she understood why.
There were men lined up in front of the gate into the capital—some seemed tired and some seemed afraid. She turned back into her cat form and eavesdropped, learning that all the people lined up were gathered for the war effort.
“What now, Ruri?” Ruri was stumped when posed with this spirit’s question.
Ruri had come back to Nadasha because she wanted to confirm the rumors of a war breaking out, but now she knew they were far from rumors—they were the truth. She had never thought that she was capable of single-handedly stopping the war or anything outrageous like that. She was just curious.
The other thing she was curious about was whether Asahi was involved with the war effort, but she didn’t know what would come of her finding out. Now she was having second thoughts about coming here on a whim—but too little, too late.
Ruri considered her options seriously for a moment.
“Why not decide after going to the castle and checking things out?”
“That’s a good idea. But I don’t want to run into Asahi, so we’ll go about it discreetly.” With her next course of action set, Ruri slipped through a crack in the outer wall and into the royal capital.
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
In the throne room of Castle Nadasha the King sat atop his throne.
“How go the preparations for battle?”
The one who answered the King’s question was the oldest and highest ranked priest out of all the priests who’d summoned Ruri and the others to this world.
“Everything is proceeding smoothly. The temporary loss of our magic was a frustrating setback, but we told the masses it was a warning from God because of forces who were opposed to the Priestess Princess’ will and that we have exiled them all to the Mystic Forest. I would assume they are nourishment for the many fearsome creatures who dwell there right about now.”
“I was worried about what would happen for a moment, but it was a stroke of good luck that we were able to use exiling them as an excuse. Praise be to the Priestess Princess, yes?”
“Why, yes. Praise be, indeed.” The King and the Head Priest both smirked in an extremely pleased, yet extremely cruel, manner.
Despite some slight changes to the narrative, everything was proceeding as planned for them.
“Although, if I were to list one factor outside our calculations, it would be the Prince being so thoroughly emasculated by the Priestess Princess…”
“It is pathetic that he is ensnared by such weak Bewitchment. Maybe I should send them into war and get rid of the Priestess Princess and the whole lot. A prince can always be replaced, after all,” said the King, speaking of his own son like an expendable commodity. The Head Priest listened to this astonishing statement without batting an eye; he was preoccupied with something else.
“The Priestess Princess as well, Sire?” The appearance of the Priestess Princess, bringer of prosperity, had brought in a massive influx of donations to the church. The Head Priest was not sold on the idea of losing her.
“If we do find it necessary, again, we can just bring in the next one. There is no need for someone with more clout than a King. I have grown weary of her impudence,” stated the King with a furrowed brow. The Head Priest nodded his head, finally convinced.
The King had initially promised special treatment, but her being the Priestess Princess meant that the workers of the castle paid careful attention and paid special respect to her. The Priestess Princess herself seemed to be used to this sort of treatment due to her Bewitch powers, so she accepted it as if it were all normal.
That was likely how she got the castle soldiers to search for her friend. From her perspective, she was only asking for a favor, but the soldiers took it as an official order, with the Prince leading the initiative to carry that order out. That ability, from the King’s perspective, was extremely dangerous.
“…In that case, it might’ve been wise to make the friend of the current Priestess Princess, whom we exiled into the Mystic Forest, the Priestess Princess instead. I looked at our current one and added that extra line, thinking that a ‘priestess’ should be as attractive as possible with unusual coloring, but I suppose I failed to truly consider my options,” the Head Priest said, seriously beginning to fret over his decision.
The King, however, quickly disagreed. “No, that wouldn’t have worked.” “Why is that, Sire?”
“Back when she was summoned, while the others were unable to come to grips with the situation and stumbled into our clutches completely dumbfounded, that girl was the only one to try and calmly assess the situation. We need an oblivious fool who will follow our will, not a perceptive intellectual.”
“Indeed, the word ‘fool’ sums up our Priestess Princess quite well. Some would call that ‘purity,’ but I suppose that is a matter of perspective.”
“As long as they are easily manipulated, call them whatever you’d like. Nevertheless, if we let her stay at the Priestess Princess’ side, she might have bestowed some unwanted wisdom. Eliminating her quickly was the right decision.”
“Yes, quite true. In the off-chance that she found out that the ‘Priestess Princess’ was an idol we created, who never existed in the book of prophecy in the first place, then we would have had a real problem.”
(What the hell…?) As Ruri prowled the castle as a cat in her search for Asahi, she found King Nadasha and the familiar, frail old priest. She decided to listen in on their conversation, but what she heard made her stand stock-still in utter shock. (What did I just hear…?!)
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
As Ruri was eavesdropping on the conversations of Nadasha, Joshua had returned to the Dragon King’s castle where she had already been absent for several days.
“Aah, finally back home!” Joshua had been carrying out some work outside of his field of expertise as an intel operative. He was relieved to see the familiar halls of the castle.
He still hadn’t given his report, which was his final task. Joshua had been getting worked to the bone as of late and he thought it was about time he took a long vacation. He headed for the royal office where Jade awaited him.
“Pardon the intrusion, guys~” Joshua said, entering the royal office extremely casually despite it being the workspace of the Dragon King. Claus had scolded him for that crass habit, but Joshua never showed any signs of fixing it.
Although his tone was casual, he wasn’t doing it to make light of Jade at all, so Jade paid it no particular mind and let it pass without comment. Joshua probably wouldn’t change no matter what he said.
As soon as the young man entered the room, he was greeted by a sharp glance, making him take a step back out of instinct before he even had the chance to ponder why he was being glared at.
“U-Uh, did I do something?” Joshua timidly asked the person staring daggers into him—Jade.
Almost as if only now noticing that he was scowling from someone telling him, he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“No, it’s nothing. She disappeared after you left on business, but… You’re probably not involved…”
Joshua shot an inquisitive glance toward his father, Claus, who was also in the office, but Claus gave him a strained smile and passed Joshua a piece of paper that was atop Jade’s desk. On the piece of paper were a few words in a crooked hand that looked to have been written by a child. Sloppy as they were, he was still able to make out the words—for the most part.
“Wow, this is chicken scratch.” Although he could make out the words on the paper, he couldn’t decipher the meaning.
“That’s a letter from Ruri.” It appeared that Jade looking somewhat sulky wasn’t just in Joshua’s imagination.
“I, for one, am impressed she managed to write that with a cat paw,” Claus said in admiration as it seemed that his concerns differed from Jade’s.
Joshua knew that Ruri probably wrote this note after turning back into a human. Since Claus didn’t know she was a human, he couldn’t help but picture the strange act of a cat writing a letter.
“Alright, so what does Ruri writing this letter have to do with anything?” “Ruri left that letter for His Majesty before leaving for somewhere, it seems.” “Grk, wait, for real?!”
Joshua once again looked back at the paper and written on it was, “Leave. Home. Chelsie. Go Back.”
“…A direct interpretation would be she’s left home—i.e., ‘run away,’ huh?”
The word “run away” caused Jade to jump and drop the pen he was holding. Seeing that, Claus scrambled to cover up for his son’s loose tongue.
“Fear not, Your Majesty. I am sure she simply left for a visit back to Mother’s home and will be making her return to the castle soon enough.” Claus shot Joshua a glare that told him to keep his unnecessary commentary to himself.
Jade had only just gotten his composure back. When he’d first received the letter addressed from Ruri, Jade came to the same interpretation and made a huge fuss over trying to find her. All of his court together managed to stop him from doing so and, because the only place Ruri knew was Chelsie’s place, Claus managed to convince him to stay by telling him he would contact her.
That was why Joshua’s slip of tongue was such an issue, because it threw Jade’s heart back into turmoil.
Seeming to pick up on Claus’ hint, Joshua asked Claus a question to smooth things over. “So you contacted Grandma, right? What did she say?”
“That she isn’t there as of yet.”
“Do you have any clue where she’d be, Joshua?” Jade asked, appealing to Joshua, but he had no idea where she would go other than back to Chelsie. Well, he actually did have one idea, but without any proof, he really couldn’t say it aloud.
“Have you asked the spirits?” Joshua’s question was met with a shrug of the shoulders as Claus explained that they didn’t give them the answer he was looking for.
“I couldn’t ask the spirits that are normally around Ruri because they left along with her, but when I asked the other spirits, they told us that ‘she didn’t want to, but she was curious, so she went to go take a look’—information that neither His Majesty nor I can make heads or tails of. And Mother just replied with a letter that said Ruri would ‘return soon,’ but we cannot tell if she’s saying that with certain knowledge as to where she is. Since it’s Mother, she probably won’t give a straight answer even if we do ask more questions, so we’re at quite the loss…”
Neither Claus nor Jade could decipher the meaning behind Chelsie’s answer. However, it was enough for Joshua to have a good guess of where Ruri had gone and why.
Joshua botched things up, however. He let his knowledge show on his face, which Jade astutely picked up on. He zeroed in on that subtle change in expression.
“Joshua, do you know something?” Jade asked, cutting right to the chase.
He considered trying to make up something on the spot to throw them off his trail, but Jade’s piercing gaze had him pinned down, forcing him to quickly concede. There was also the fact that Jade looked as though he was about to snatch him up by the lapels at any moment.
“I’m not totally certain, but I have a hunch as to where she might be.” Two thoughts had popped into Joshua’s mind—Nadasha, the nation that had summoned Ruri in the first place, and the people summoned to this world alongside her.
Recently rumors of Nadasha inciting a war had taken off everywhere, including with the citizens of the Nation of the Dragon King. She most likely heard the news when she was working in the diner or while out and about. Joshua heard the stories flying around once he got back to the country, so it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume Ruri had also. His guess was that she was concerned over the people she came to this world with and went to go check on them—with added incentive because her childhood friend, Asahi, was said to be spearheading the war efforts.
“A hunch will do. Now where is Ruri?” “I cannot tell you.”
“Joshua!” Jade said in a voice so deep that any small animals in the area would have likely fainted upon hearing it.
However, there stood Joshua. Even faced with Jade looking him straight in the eyes, he replied with a friendly smile and a jovial tone. “Would it be rude for me to ask you not to look so scary, Your Majesty? As much as I would like to spill the beans, I’m unfortunately bound to secrecy per Ruri’s request, so I have to keep my lips shut until I get permission from Ruri herself.”
“I couldn’t give a damn about that.”
“Well, it’s a private matter between me and Ruri, so… Wait, please don’t get all jealous at me, Sire!”
Jade looked perturbed that Joshua knew a secret about Ruri that he didn’t know. Joshua felt that he could at least tell them that she’d gone to Nadasha… but at the same time, if he did, they would probably ask him why she’d gone there to begin with.
He could always just make up some random reason, but judging from Jade’s behavior, he seemed likely to head straight over there to pick her up. Joshua couldn’t let the king of his country head over to the very place that was potentially going to war with them. He decided to keep silent.
“You don’t need to worry, Sire. She may not have gone to Grandma’s place just yet, but if we’re thinking of places Ruri might go, I’m positive that she’ll be dropping by there. I’m fairly sure she’ll contact us after a while, okay? Ruri is competent and has spirits accompanying her, so she’ll be alright on her own. Honest.”
“If Joshua is that confident in his assessment, then I say we wait and see what happens. Fair, Your Majesty? …Your Majesty?” Despite his casual attitude, his son was reliable when it came to his job, so if he insisted that things would be all right, then there was no reason not to believe him. Thinking that, Claus turned to Jade, but Jade sat there stewing in suspicion and silence.
Jade suddenly stood up and, before he could even process that, said, “Nope, I’m going to pick up Ruri.”
“Ah! Wait just a moment, Sire!! You said you’re going to ‘pick her up,’ but from where?!” Claus immediately jumped in to stop him.
“She might drop by Chelsie’s, correct? I’m going to wait at Chelsie’s until Ruri comes!”
“That will not do! We are on the verge of war with Nadasha. This is not the time for you to leave the castle.”
“No, I’ve had enough. I’m going to see Ruri.”
“Your Majesty! Joshua, don’t just stand there; stop him!”
“…Hmm, he’s that attached even though he thinks she’s a cat. What would His Majesty think if he knew Ruri was a human?” Joshua murmured to himself, thankfully disappearing into the ether without anyone hearing him.