Lucia Searches for Maria
When we realized that Miss Maria had unexpectedly gone missing, the expedition fell into confusion.
Miss Maria was utterly irreplaceable. Without her, we couldn’t purify the Cristallo Sacro. Everyone had learned that, when the summoning of the Sacred Maiden was declared. There was no one who could replace her.
So it had never occurred to us that there might be people who would attempt to abduct her. Only monsters would attempt to harm the Sacred Maiden…or so we had thought. Which made this realization even more of a shock.
“Dinnertime. So the last anyone saw her was about four hours ago, I’d say,” Sir Gaius murmured darkly. His face was solemn, his usual lighthearted manner gone.
“I’m sorry. I should have said something sooner,” I said.
As Miss Maria’s roommate, I was responsible for the gravity of this situation. Even if she was only going to the prince’s room, I should have made sure to see her safely there. I’d been lulled into a false sense of security because it was only a few rooms away, inside the inn. That had been irresponsible. At the very least, if I had checked with Sir Agliardi when we’d talked, we could have reacted sooner.
It hurt to think of Miss Maria. Here I’d said I would protect her. Was she frightened right now?
“Maria did come to my room. She came to ask if Lucia could ride in the carriage starting tomorrow, since she wanted her to stay close. She went back to her room about an hour later… Where could she have gone after that? Hopefully nothing frightening has happened to her, but…I should have escorted her back to her room.” Emerald-green eyes shadowed, the prince bit his lip and grimaced. His usual laid-back smile had vanished. Now he had the face of a man worried for the safety of his missing beloved.
“If it’s been three hours, then it’s possible she’s left the town,” Sir Celes noted.
“But, you can run into monsters outside the town,” Eric immediately countered, holding a bag of magic stones. “And it’s nighttime already. There aren’t any of the kingdom’s carriages running at this hour, so wouldn’t she have limited options for traveling? Plus, I’ve got the magic stones we’ve been using. The Sacred Maiden didn’t take any of them.”
Outside of the kingdom’s official carriages, the only ones who could afford carriages with warding against monsters were the very wealthy, such as nobles and large merchant houses. Monster-warding magical stones increased drastically in cost with how effective they were, which put them far outside the reach of ordinary people. And to go outside town walls at night without a magic stone was beyond dangerous. You might encounter a monster in the daytime, yes, but the monsters that came out by night were often far more vicious. I couldn’t imagine that Miss Maria, who was so afraid of monsters, would go out at night without even taking a magic stone. Not of her own accord.
“That does make sense…” Lord Reynard agreed. “In which case, she must still be here in town. But I’ve heard that the town is not particularly safe right now. It would be very dangerous for the Sacred Maiden to go out alone.”
When Lord Reynard mentioned the security in Amarith, Sir Gaius grimaced, arms crossed
over his chest. “Don’t like thinking about it, but it is possible. We don’t find her soon, Her Sacredness could be in danger.”
“But, would any of the townsfolk attack or kidnap the Sacred Maiden? I mean, she’s the Sacred Maiden,” Eric asked. “Without her, we can’t purify the Cristallo Sacro, right?”
“Worse case, there are plenty of scum who’d figure that it’s fine, so long as they don’t kill her. Particularly the sort of perverted trash hanging around here. Especially since Her Sacredness is pretty.”
For a moment, everyone fell silent, considering Sir Gaius’s words. Miss Maria was in danger. That was a crisis for our whole world. After all, Miss Maria was the only one who could purify the sacred trees.
Finally, Sir Agliardi broke the silence, “For now, we should verify the records of who has left and entered the town. If it seems unlikely that the Sacred Maiden has left, then she may still be here in Amarith. Reynard, can I ask you to inquire at the gate? Gaius, go into the town and find out if anyone has seen her.”
“I will go as well,” Sir Celes said.
Of course. If you thought that someone you cared about might be in danger, you couldn’t simply sit around waiting; you would want to go save them yourself…
“Good thought. Gaius, focus on the taverns. Celestino, I want you to check the back streets. I suspect you’ll have better luck getting the women to talk to you.”
Lord Reynard, Sir Gaius, and Sir Celes all nodded briskly at Sir Agliardi’s commands, then turned and left the room.
“I’ll go as well,” said the prince, rising hastily as if to follow them. “I will, too!” I said.
But Sir Agliardi stopped us. “Your Highness, you cannot go. We cannot afford for you to be in danger. Do not forget that, like the Sacred Maiden, you are irreplaceable. Miss Lucia, I want you to remain here as well. Eric, I’m sorry, but can you go borrow the innkeeper’s ledger?”
I wanted to do something to help Miss Maria. It hurt to just sit and wait. I’d hoped that Sir Agliardi would have instructions for me, but he simply turned me down. Was there really nothing I could do?
Then Eric came to my rescue. “You can come with me to talk to the innkeeper, Lucia. That shouldn’t be a problem, right, Commander? Besides, it’ll be easier to protect his Highness alone, right?”
The prince glowered balefully at Eric, but Eric simply grinned back at him and offered his hand to me.
“Very well. Meet back here in an hour,” Sir Agliardi ordered. Eric and I hurried out of the room.
“Suppose we should see if she’s left the inn or not, first. Let’s check the entrance.” As he walked, Eric pulled on his robe. From the way his flame-red hair was tousled in the back, he must have been sleeping. “But, seriously. The Sacred Maiden just causes one problem after another. I’m tired,” he mumbled, looking irritated.
It felt like he was waiting for me to agree, but…I didn’t feel like I could sympathize. Miss Maria hadn’t caused me any trouble.
“I don’t think she’s missing because she wants to be,” I said.
“You’d think. But with the way she’s been, I’m pretty sure she’d do just about anything if she thought it would get our attention. Seriously, this is such a pain.” Yawning, Eric glanced at me. “Before you got here, she was really awful. Honestly? If it weren’t my job, I wouldn’t have anything to do with her. Yeah, that power of hers is really interesting, but you know, I’ve got plenty of other stuff I can research. And I’m not interested in dealing with annoyances outside of my research.”
Stunned, I stopped short in the hallway. “Aren’t you worried?”
Noticing that I’d stopped, Eric paused a few steps further down the hallway as well. His clear amber eyes studied me as he said, “Of course I am. We’re in trouble if she’s gone. What are we supposed to do about the Cristallo Sacro without her? But if it turns out that she decided to hide out somewhere and get a laugh out of us running around trying to find her, I’m going to be so ticked off.”
“How can you say that…!”
“You’re only saying that because she’s never gone after you. You should ask the attendants who got sent back to the capital! She was constantly insulting them and threatening them, and she never let up!” The words exploded out of Eric like a dam bursting. “It was scary enough just watching her. And then when she got tired of screeching at them, she’d turn around and drape herself all over the rest of us. How am I supposed to trust someone like that? Does she get to do whatever she wants, just because she’s pretty?”
Then, as if he thought that he might have gone too far, he huffed a little and looked away, lips pursed. “Look, I try to treat her nicely, because she’s the Sacred Maiden. But I really kind of hate her. I know you get along with her, so you don’t feel the same, but…”
The Sacred Maiden that Eric was describing seemed like a completely different person than the Miss Maria that I knew. In the back of my mind, I could see her crying. “They only stand by me because I’m the Sacred Maiden,” she’d wailed. Her voice had wavered as she cried that no one ever looked at her. She was just an ordinary girl like me, one who cried when she was scared. How could no one else understand that?
It wasn’t that I knew Miss Maria all that well, but Eric’s words were so harsh that I found myself saying, “That’s… Certainly, her behavior may not have been the best. But I think the same could be said of us.”
Hastily, I closed my mouth, but I couldn’t take the words back.
“‘The same could be said of us’?” Eric asked, puzzled. He stepped closer. “What do you mean?”
Eric and I were close to the same height, but his solemn amber eyes seemed to be staring straight through me. It was a little intimidating.
“Well… We’re the ones who told Miss Maria, ‘you’re the Sacred Maiden, save us,’ aren’t we? We forced her to come here, to a strange world, and demanded so much from her. Doesn’t that make us the selfish ones?” I said.
“Huh… Yeah. You’re right.” Eric seemed to fall into thought. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know I don’t know much about it all…”
“Nah, it’s okay. Yeah…now that you mention it, you’re right. I never really thought about it that way before, but I just sort of assumed that of course it’s the Sacred Maiden’s job to purify the Cristallo Sacro. Augh! Darn it! Just making assumptions and only looking at one side of the
problem — some researcher I am!”
Shoulders slumping, Eric sighed. Even his fire-bright hair seemed to droop.
“I’ll try to observe more carefully from now on, without letting bias get in the way,” he said. “Anyway… Let’s see, we were looking for the inn’s ledger, right? Shall we go borrow it?”
“Let’s!” I agreed.
Eric grinned sheepishly, the smile making his neat features light up.
When we descended from the second floor to the entryway on the first floor, we found several people, including the innkeeper, standing at the counter looking at each other with worried faces. Could this have something to do with Miss Maria’s disappearance?
When he saw me and Eric, the innkeeper quickly covered his worried expression with a warm, friendly smile. “Well, well, the Sacred Maiden’s companions! What can I do for you this evening?”
While I was trying to decide how to explain the situation, Eric jumped in with a bright smile. “Oh, we just had something we wanted to check… But, is something wrong?”
I was older than Eric; I would be ashamed to leave this all to him. “Is something troubling you?” I asked.
Perhaps because both of us had asked, the innkeeper finally answered, his voice troubled: “Well…you see, a lad I employ as a servant has disappeared.”
Disappeared? Eric and I looked at each other. Someone had gone missing here as well? This couldn’t be a coincidence.