Chapter 14 – Coming to the Castle
Left by herself in Claus’ house, Ruri held back a yawn from sheer boredom.
After a while, a few of the spirits who had gone to take care of some important spirit business returned.
“Ruri, we’re back~”
“Welcome back. Where did you guys go?” “Lady Lydia asked us to run an errand!”
“She told us to give ’em the third-degree.”
“So we did our best to give them exactly that!”
“Uh-huh, I see… Wait, ‘third degree’? Where did Lydia even learn that expression…? Also, who is ‘them’ and why are you giving them the ‘third-degree’ in the first place?”
Lydia had a penchant for blunt and rather coarse speech from time to time. It would seem that she had picked it up from her former contract-bearers, which was why she would sometimes say some rather unladylike things.
“By the way, how long are you gonna stay as that white kitty cat, Ruri?”
“Hmm, well, I actually would like to turn back as soon as possible, but it would be too confusing for Claus-san if he came back to me being a human and not a cat, right? That’s why I’m going to wait until he comes back so I can show him.”
Not long after the spirits returned from their errand, the door opened and Claus stepped into the room. Claus took a knee in front of Ruri as she sat on the sofa and looked her in the eyes.
“I have spoken with His Majesty and he wishes to invite you to the castle. Would you mind accompanying me, if it’s not inconvenient for you?”
“Hypothetically, what would happen if I were to say no?” Ruri questioned, cocking her head in bewilderment at Claus, who seemed to be speaking to her far more politely than when she first arrived—though it could have been her imagination.
“In that event, we would ask you to stay here and bodyguards would be deployed from the castle.”
“Huh? Bodyguards would be kind of overboard.”
“His Majesty said that he has no intention of strong-arming you into living at the castle if you do not wish to, but we have no intention of letting a Beloved spend their time in a place with such lax security.” Although he was saying that either choice was fine, Ruri could tell from Claus’ face that he wanted her to go to the castle. Recalling what Chelsie had said about the possibility of statesmen trying to manipulate her, Ruri kept up her guard.
“What exactly must I do if I go to the castle? Something specific, or…”
“Nothing at all. You can do whatever it is you so desire. It would simply mean moving into the castle and making it your residence; there would be no restrictions to what you can and cannot do. I, of course, also have an obligation to fulfill my mother’s request that you be protected.”
Ruri would have been opposed to the idea if he were being pompous, but with him speaking to her so deferentially, she was finding it hard to say no. And, technically, Ruri was the one asking for a favor to begin with, so she wouldn’t feel great asking for too much and putting Claus in a difficult situation.
Chelsie, the person she trusted most in this world, had trusted Claus to look after her, and Claus, in turn, wanted her to go to the castle. Hence, Ruri decided to go along with Claus’ wishes.
“All right, then,” Ruri replied amicably.
“Thank you very much,” Claus said, relief written clearly across his face.
Ruri saw that reaction and looked at him with pity, thinking that being caught between his love for Chelsie and his duty to the Dragon King was hard for him. This was an incorrect assumption.
The real meaning behind Claus’ look of relief was because, unbeknownst to Ruri, he was free of the stress of trying to bring her to the castle without angering the spirits.
“Now then, shall we be off?”
With a carriage already prepared, Ruri and Claus both climbed aboard and made their way to the castle. The spirits flew around the outside of the carriage, following along the whole ride. They clearly didn’t care for being cooped up in cramped places.
“Um… if you don’t mind me asking, just how far do the spirits abide by your wishes?” “In all the time I’ve lived with them, they’ve never refused me once.”
“Let’s say for example, you were in a position where someone ended up injuring you, but it wasn’t done intentionally. The spirits decide to attack that person. If you were to tell them to stop, would they?”
“Aah, well, things have gotten dicey that way in the past, but if I tell them to stop, they will stop, albeit reluctantly.”
For the rest of the ride the two continued to speak, mainly about the spirits. To Ruri, it was a light conversation, but to Claus, it was anything but.
He was trying to figure out just how far the spirits were willing to listen to Ruri, but she was oblivious to this fact. However, seeing the relieved expression on Claus’ face did make her question his choice in facial expressions in the first place. As she considered this, she suddenly remembered the bracelet and figured now would be as good a time as any to explain the situation.
However, Claus’ next words made Ruri freeze up before she could.
“Honestly, thank God that you’re not a human,” he said offhandedly. Ruri felt cold all over.
“…Is there something wrong with humans?” Ruri was wholeheartedly glad that she’d decided to stick with telepathic communication. If she were speaking with her mouth instead, she would have been afraid of the words getting stuck in her throat.
“Humans quickly become drunk with power, and they’re greedy. When one thing doesn’t satisfy them, they covet the next and the next after that. They’ll try to take what they want by force if it suits their needs. I absolutely shudder to think what would happen if a Beloved with your caliber of mana were a human.”
The disgust and displeasure for humans seeping through his face and each word out of his mouth sent cold shivers down her spine.
It was hard to tell, with her being a cat, but if she were in human form then it would have been very obvious how stiff Ruri’s expression had become. (But, wait. Huh? I thought the Nation of the Dragon King was a nation of all races and creeds, where even humans lived…) For a nation that prided itself in that, Claus’ speech about humans was very odd.
Ruri had been prepared to tell him that she was human, but now she was at a loss for words.
(Maybe I should keep pretending to be a cat for the time being…) Fortunately for her, Claus hadn’t called her catness into question. With things how they stood, she couldn’t help but be paranoid about how his treatment of her would change once he found out she was human. Ruri didn’t know Claus’ full intentions, so she decided to keep her mouth shut and see how things played out for a little while longer.
They rocked around in the carriage, exchanging chit-chat, and eventually reached the castle. Without wasting a single moment, Claus led Ruri to the royal office.
The castle where the Dragon King resided was located atop a tall, rocky mountain that towered above even the clouds. Ruri had wondered about this mountain ever since she came to the royal capital, but she was shocked to find out that it was the home of the royal castle itself. Said castle was in the style of a European palace, just like the buildings in the town; it was literally a place fit for a king. Just looking at it raised the question of how they’d managed to build it atop this rocky mountain in the first place, but this world had flying dragonkins and magic. It was probably simpler than she thought.
The floor Ruri walked on was so pristine you could see your reflection in it. She looked around at all the gaudy decorated items—including things as functional as a simple candelabra. The extravagance made Ruri’s jaw drop. She was sure she was walking around with the dopiest look on her face. The feeling that she didn’t belong here made it hard for her to even walk down the corridors.
They passed many people along the way, and each time they would stop in their tracks, gaze at Ruri with her spirit entourage and rub their eyes to make sure that they weren’t hallucinating. Thankfully, Ruri had Claus, a royal adviser, to act as a buffer and keep a sharp eye on her, so not a single person tried to approach her.
“This is His Majesty’s office. Are you ready?”
“I’m pretty nervous…” Ruri admitted, her whiskers twitching with her tension. Claus looked at her and smiled encouragingly, slowly opening the door and allowing Ruri to walk into the office first.
In the back of the room, there was a single desk with stacks upon stacks of documents. Sitting at the desk was a man diligently focused on his work—the Dragon King.
The Dragon King’s focus had been squarely on the documents, but he stopped the furious scribbles of his pen to look up, rise from his chair, and head toward Ruri.
When Ruri made eye contact with the Dragon King, she was floored. (Oh my God, he’s absolutely stunning.)
His eyes were sharp and narrow, the bridge of his nose was slender and fine, and his jet-black hair was almost shoulder length and tied into a ponytail.
His deep green eyes, which sucked you in, gave Ruri an odd, minor case of deja vu, but all of that dispersed in the face of the Dragon King’s features—features that seemed almost painstakingly crafted by the gods.
He was so attractive, in fact, that he didn’t seem real.
To be honest, though, Claus and all the people they’d passed along the way to the office were also very attractive. It was hard to say anything for Chelsie since she was advanced in age, but it was said that dragonkin were generally attractive, meaning that she was probably no slouch in the looks department in her younger days. Given that, she could see why their king would be as beautiful as he was.
Even though Ruri had been around plenty of beautiful men and women, by way of her mother’s profession as a model, she found herself so entranced that she couldn’t even speak. Her mouth agape, she was making quite the gormless expression, but it was difficult for non-cats to tell with her feline face. She simply stared. The Dragon King furrowed his brow in doubt.
“Is there something on my face?”
Ruri came back to her senses, shaking her head. “No, not at all.”
“Good to know, then.” The Dragon King moved to the sofa that was opposite his cluttered desk. He invited Ruri to sit across from him.
At first, her eyes had been fixed on the Dragon King’s features, but after she took another look at him, his grace as a ruler—the overwhelming presence and power he commanded just by sitting there—started to permeate into her body.
She felt his beautiful face doubling those effects.
As she sat across from the most influential person in the land, everyone in the room watched —Claus, standing off to the side, and the aides, who had been in the room the whole time.
It felt less as if she were being watched over and more like she was being investigated. It was starting to make Ruri feel extremely uncomfortable.
Picking up on the subtle signs conveyed by Ruri’s heart, the spirits stuck to Ruri’s side and shot the onlookers glares that clearly communicated, “stop bullying our girl.” Claus and the others got the message and quickly let their eyes wander.
The Dragon King’s next words were directed not to Ruri but to Claus and his aides. “All of you, clear out.”
“Huh? But, Your Majesty…”
He wanted to be alone with Ruri before they could even discern if she was safe or not, causing all the other aides aside from Claus to speak up in protest, but the Dragon King silenced them with his gaze and kicked everyone out of the room.
“I’m sorry, they’re all just nervous. We haven’t had a Beloved in the Nation of the Dragon King in many ages.” Now that the room held just the two of them and the spirits, the Dragon King spoke to her in a tone that was far gentler than she’d predicted, bringing Ruri’s tension level down a peg.
“Oh, I can’t say I blame them for being wary of someone like me coming out of nowhere.”
“That’s quite the relief to hear you say,” said the Dragon King, relaxing the tension in his face. “Now then, as for your plans moving forward, what is it you wish to do here in the royal capital? I was told that Claus was instructed to take care of you by Chelsie, but do you have some sort of objective in mind?”
“I don’t have anything you’d necessarily call an ‘objective’… But, you see, I don’t know anything of this world. So I’ve simply come to see how the people of this land live on a daily basis, studying your ways. Chelsie-san told me that I should start thinking about how I’m going to live my life here.”
“You don’t seem too keen on the idea yourself.” “…”
Her life out in the forest with Chelsie had been lovely. On top of that, learning a new way of life in the royal capital, in order to decide on where she’d be living despite wanting to just go back to the forest, was something that Ruri couldn’t help but be reluctant about. But Chelsie had said she had no choice in the matter…
The Dragon King had caught on to that sentiment hanging in the corner of Ruri’s mind.
Unable to answer back after having her true thoughts guessed so accurately, Ruri hung her head.
The Dragon King didn’t pursue the matter any further.
“Well, I have no intention of prying any deeper. I’m the one who requested that you come to the castle to live instead of Claus’ house. I will provide you with everything. If there is anything you may need, just let me know.”
“Thank you very much.”
“I’ll hire tutors for you if you’d like to learn about the ways of our land. I don’t intend on limiting the scope of your activities, but I would appreciate it if you would tell us if you plan on leaving the castle.”
“Yes sir.” That was extremely generous. Leaving a message before she went anywhere was practically nothing.
“In exchange, I have a request. If by some off-chance someone in this land ever harms you or treats you with disrespect, I’d like you to tell me first. I’ll handle the situation accordingly. I would also appreciate it if you’d stop the spirits should they go berserk,” said the Dragon King, glancing over at the spirits by Ruri’s side.
Even a person of the Dragon King’s caliber couldn’t quell the spirits’ rage, and seeing as how Ruri was still the absolute object of the spirits’ protection, she was his only hope. Since the Nation of the Dragon King had been devoid of a Beloved for a long time, how to build a relationship with one was all guesswork for him. This desperation naturally came through in his voice.
“I will ask the spirits not to act of their own accord. Even if I’m attacked, don’t just carelessly attack, okay guys?” Ruri switched her focus from the Dragon King to the spirits.
The spirits all replied energetically. “Okay!”
Ruri’s attitude was amicable and, while it wasn’t guaranteed that they’d stick to their word, the spirits were following Ruri’s orders so far. The comfort the Dragon King gained from seeing this softened his expression.
“…I have one more, last request.”
“What might that be?” He looked at her with a serious expression all of a sudden, prompting Ruri to brace herself for what he might say next.
“Erm… would it be okay if I were to pet your head?” “Pardon…?” Ruri’s eyes shot open in surprise.
As for the Dragon King, he turned his head away as if embarrassed by what he’d said. His face was flushed ever so slightly.
“I mean, um, the dragonkin are an extremely strong race, you see. Especially the Dragon
King, who’s picked because of their power. I am a fan of cats and dogs and even tried to keep them as pets several times in my youth, but animals have an instinctive fear of the dragonkin, which causes them to go half-mad and run away. So, I’ve never really touched a small animal…” Unexpected as it was, it was clear that he was a fan of the cute and cuddly. The juxtaposition between his cool looks and his love for animals made for a stark contrast.
“But, um, I’m not ordering you to, of course.”
“No, it’s fine.” Since he was going to be providing her with the necessities, a few head pats was a small price to pay.
Once Ruri gave the go ahead, the Dragon King broke out into a pleased smile and timidly placed his hand on Ruri’s head.
He was rather anxiously checking to see if Ruri was afraid or not, but he began to sense that Ruri wouldn’t run away from him and started to softly stroke her.
He touched her gently, as if handling a delicate item, making Ruri grin in delight at the sensation.
Since this was the first time the Dragon King had ever played with a cat, he found it difficult to stop. However, his aides, who had been run out of the room, grew worried over not being called for and assumed the worst. Panicked, the pack of aides all rushed into the room.
With his blissful moment disturbed, the Dragon King simply gave his vassals an ill-tempered glare.
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
After concluding her talk with the Dragon King, Ruri exited the royal office, without mentioning to him that she was actually a human, and followed Claus as he led her to a room pre-prepared for Beloveds—a room that each nation always had set aside.
(Holy moly, it’s so much room.) The space was so vast that it was hard to believe that it was really meant for just one Beloved. It seemed even bigger since Ruri was currently in cat form, and therefore much smaller than if she were in human form. The room was full of natural wood —a look suited for both male and female Beloveds—but the decorations and craftsmanship left Ruri absolutely floored.
A Beloved hadn’t sprung up in the Nation of the Dragon King for many years, but it seemed the room went through periodic cleaning as there wasn’t a single speck of dust on any of the furniture. Looking up, a beautiful, glittering chandelier illuminated the room and made it look even more lavish.
“Claus-san, is it really okay for me to use this room? I’m thinking that you might have made a mistake…” This was not a room you’d give to a cat.
“No, no mistakes. This is the right room. Every nation has a room prepared within it that is as luxurious or even more so than that of the King, so this is standard.”
“Hmm, Chelsie-san said that you would treat me with care, but I never expected this much.” “…Speaking of which, are you hungry?”
“Well, now that you mention it…” Ruri hadn’t eaten since she’d first arrived at Claus’ house in the morning, and it was already past lunchtime. She found herself hungry as soon as the topic was brought up.
“I shall bring a meal for you. Erm, actually, what do cats usually eat? Fish, meat, milk… No vegetables, correct?” Claus made it apparent that he’d never had a cat, as he listed off items that cats ate according to common knowledge.
However, Ruri simply had the appearance of a cat; she was a human on the inside. “Um, I’m fine with normal food—the kind everyone else eats.”
“Yes, and I would appreciate it if you could put it on a normal plate as well.” She would lose her appetite if they were to bring her mushed-up cat food and some milk on a saucer. Ruri vastly preferred he bring her food on a plate that normal people would eat from.
“Well then, I’ll go fetch something now, but are you sure it won’t upset your stomach?”
“Yes, positive,” she assured him. She was almost tempted to tack on “because I’m a human,” but kept it on the inside. In fact, seeing as how she wanted to keep up the masquerade, yet, at the same time, not be mistakenly treated as a real cat, she added, “I’m not like normal cats, so don’t worry.”
Claus left the room and returned after a short absence with a cart loaded with a meal—a meal
that looked impossible for one person to consume by themselves. “Um, are you going to be eating here as well, Claus-san?”
“Not at all. This is all for you. I informed the head chef that you would eat anything, but without knowing your specific likes, they prepared a wide array of different foods. Choose whichever of these suits your tastes and I’ll take away the rest.”
“What will you do with what I don’t pick?”
“I will bring it to the soldiers after their training exercises. They are healthy eaters, after all. And they rarely get the opportunity to partake in the head chef’s cuisine, so they will clean their plates with gusto.”
“That is great news, then.” Ruri had been worried that he would simply dispose of the unwanted food, but now she felt at ease. Without reserve, she picked out several dishes that interested her from the cart and had Claus move them to the table.
“I have work to attend to, so please make sure to ring if you need anything else,” Claus said, leaving a bell on the table and exiting the room with the cart hauling the remaining food.
Ruri waited for Claus to exit and listened as his footsteps got farther away. “…Is he gone?” “Yup, he’s gone.”
“Guys, will you let me know if anyone comes near the room?”
“Okay, sure thing!”
Ruri saw the spirits raise their hands, telling her to leave it to them. Ruri then had the spirit closest to her remove the bracelet on her wrist and she returned to human form. She let out a small phew and her eyes, now human, took in the scope of the room once more.
“This is incredible. Should I really be staying here?” Chelsie’s house had been big too, but it didn’t hold a candle to this place’s level of roominess and extravagance.
In her excitement she decided to check out the entire room while she had the time, opening doors left and right. There was a closet, a powder room, and a parlor which connected into the bedroom. Unfortunately, however, there was no tub or bathing area.
According to Chelsie, there were businesses that would wash those who couldn’t use Purification magic, with anyone else settling with wiping off their bodies the best they could, which meant the concept of soaking in hot water was lost on everyone here.
The lack of a tub was a huge letdown.
She wasn’t sure how long she would be living in this castle, but if it was going to be long, the idea of asking for permission to make one just like the one in Chelsie’s yard was deeply appealing. As these thoughts ran through her mind, she dug into the meal that Claus had brought for her.
After finishing her meal, she asked the spirits to tell Chelsie that she’d arrived at the capital safely.
Due to the unique communication ability spirits shared with one another, they could get the message to Chelsie much faster than delivering a letter via the water box could.
She spent her time checking out every nook and cranny of the room until nightfall, when Claus once again came to deliver her a meal. Unprepared and panicked, she transformed into her cat form hurriedly right before Claus came in. Once he left, she reverted to human form to eat her dinner, after which she felt tired and laid down.
She tossed and turned in the huge bed, unable to catch a wink of sleep. It had been several action-packed days since she left Chelsie’s house, so while her body should be exhausted, her mind was wide awake.
She reluctantly rose from bed, put on the bracelet she’d laid on her pillow, and turned back into a cat. Climbing out of bed, she walked toward the door.
“Ruri, where are you going?”
“I can’t sleep, so I’m taking a little night walk. I’ll hoof it alone, so just wait here, guys.” “Okay, got it!”
Leaving the spirits behind, Ruri walked the dark corridors, lit only dimly by the flames of the candles lining the walls. Her destination was the garden that she passed when she was being shown to her room earlier in the day.
There wasn’t anyone around, so the garden was cloaked in silence.
It was probably a side effect of being a cat, but her nocturnal vision was far better than when she was human, so she had no problem walking around without tripping or bumping into anything.
She looked up to see the sky, full of stars. She was able to see them at Chelsie’s house as well, but the tall trees often got in the way. Now that she was in this garden that had nothing to obstruct her view, the sky looked incredibly bright and beautiful. She wouldn’t be able to get a view this clear in her world, either, where bright lights dominated the sky during the night as well as the day. As she stood there, enraptured, she heard the sound of someone’s footsteps from behind her.
She turned around to see the Dragon King himself standing there.
“Couldn’t sleep, I take it? …Actually, cats are supposed to be nocturnal, right?” the Dragon King said, his earnest display of concern making Ruri grin on the inside.
“No, you see, I tried to go to sleep, but I ended up wide awake instead.”
“I see. Are you unaccompanied? I don’t see any spirits with you,” said the Dragon King, perplexed as he checked around her to not find any of the spirits that usually stuck to her like glue.
“Yes, I’m by myself; I left the others back in the room.”
“Seeing as you can’t sleep, care for a little chat?”
“Of course,” agreed Ruri, not having any reason to say no.
The Dragon King proceeded to sit down next to Ruri. “Is the room to your liking?” “Yes, it seems almost too good for me. Is it truly all right that I use it?”
“It is. That area is close to my room as well. I’d be grateful if you were to use that room, if only for security’s sake.”
“If you say so, then I will.” She was never truly opposed to the idea of using the room in the first place. So as long as she had the okay from him, she would graciously use it.
“Your name is… Ruri, if I recall correctly?”
“Do you feel as though you can handle living here?” Ruri paused for a moment and cocked her head.
“Hmm, I can’t say I’m sure yet. Chelsie-san sent me out here to pick one of three options— either keep living with her, live in the royal capital as a Beloved, or live someplace else. But I don’t really have a firm grasp on how I’m supposed to live here, practically speaking. There
isn’t anything that I specifically wish to do either…”
“So you’re here because Chelsie sent you. I see… You seem to be very attached to Chelsie. Listening to you now, it sounds as though you’d like to go back to living with her.”
“Not only did Chelsie-san take me in when I was going through some very hard times, she took care of me despite us having never met before; I couldn’t help but become attached to her. I feel right at home at Chelsie-san’s, and, honestly, I only feel anxious when I think of looking for any other way to live.”
Chelsie had said that she was also fine with Ruri continuing to live with her, which was the option Ruri was leaning toward, but she knew that she couldn’t depend on her forever. That being said, she had no one else in this world but Chelsie, and she was afraid of all the unknowns. She felt like a baby bird trying to leave the nest.
She realized that, from an objective standpoint, she had become more dependent on Chelsie than she had thought.
“Well, no need to rack your brain over this. I’ve invited you to stay at the castle, but I don’t intend on limiting what you’re allowed to do, so you can go home whenever you’d like. I’ll provide you with teachers if you don’t know what to do here, so you can learn the Nation of the Dragon King’s way of life. After all, Chelsie made it a point for us to teach you our customs and culture. Why don’t you try talking to some of the other people in the castle too?” suggested the
Dragon King as he patted Ruri’s head. “I shall. Thank you very much.”
“I can also spare time to discuss things with you. Well, speaking as the king, it would be great if you could stay in the castle seeing as how you’re a Beloved. Just do me a favor and take that
into consideration.” “Yes, I will.”
Ruri had initially wondered if this “king” would be self-absorbed and condescending, but the Dragon King spoke with her in a kind and cordial manner, much to her surprise, which helped lessen some of her fears about living in the castle.
Right as Ruri was basking in relief at him and Claus being good people, she could hear the Dragon King, as he was petting her head, murmur, “Small animals are great after all…”
That took her by surprise. The reason the Dragon King wanted her to stay in the castle might not be because she was a Beloved, but because she was a cat…