After the servants came from the castle, on the second floor of the white house where the widow of Sevitas brought by the Archduke of Axias lived, a delicate candle was lit in front of the memorial tablet bearing the name of a small child. Rietta sat in front of the memorial tablet for a long time.
After a night where nothing was visible save for the dimly lit candle, Rietta barely laid herself on the bed when the newly risen moon drifted westward. Cool but cozy bedding wrapped around her body. It was her bed. Not a bed for her to sleep with someone… but a bed just for her to rest and sleep.
Rietta thought of the most brutal man in the Empire who had indifferently rescued her and let her stay in his own land.
Killian Axias, the heartless man who decapitated his brothers… Someone who ate human flesh, someone who killed the woman whom he was not satisfied with—a lunatic tyrant surrounded by such vicious rumors. Was he really someone like that?
Rietta thought about Erne’s words as she felt the cold bedding slowly warm up.
‘Madam Tristi, you may not know the master well, but he doesn’t sleep with a woman without their consent.’
It was a natural attitude as if Killian knew well that he might have been misunderstood. The butler’s smiling face showed his respect and affection for his master.
‘If he’s not going to sleep with me, why would he bring me here?’
The butler answered her silly question with a gracious smile.
‘Perhaps master felt sorry for you, Madam Tristi.’
Rietta sighed lightly and covered her eyes with the back of her hand. In a world where she survived alone without her husband and child, it was sad that she felt a sense of relief on top of the emptiness and heavy guilt she had. Belatedly, tears flowed silently down her hands. She thought she had let go of her will to live.
Countless people said that they felt sorry for her. But the only person who reached out to her was the most notorious and heartless man in the Empire.
It was only early in the morning. The eastern sky shone a pale light when Rietta staggered and got up. The faint dawn light coming through the window had never been bright, but after sitting down for a long time without eating, even waking up made her vision dim. Rietta touched the wall for a moment, waiting for the dizziness to go away.
Now that she was at ease, she could afford to be pitiful.
As she sat in front of her daughter’s memorial tablet and lit candles all day and night, the flint and candles she brought in her small luggage were exhausted within less than a day. Only then she had the thought to stand up. Praying for the soul of the departed was something that needed candles, and buying candles was something that needed money.
Rietta chastised herself for slacking for too long and began to move her body on instinct. As someone who was waiting for her death as the burial accessory for the lord of her land, Spending time idly doing nothing was considered a luxury. It was not like she was still waiting for her death now, but being locked up in the house like this was her not being able to break the habits that had been stuck on her body for a long time. Rietta staggered.
Too much time had passed for her to be absent-minded under the pretext of not accepting reality. As long as she survived, she had to come to her senses quickly.
A commoner had to work for a living in order to survive. No matter what she did, she had to keep moving without a break to overcome the spring famine or difficult times that she might face. The lengthy time of mourning was also a luxury.
The butler said that he would provide living expenses, but she could not just stay still and only accept without giving anything back in return. Food became expensive in spring. Although springtime difficulties did not apply only to the Archduke of Axias, as a commoner, the financial help she had received during this period felt even heavier. The thought that she owed him her life terrified her and was already too heavy to bear.
She thought that with her slow movements organizing her luggage, the night would quickly turn to dawn. However, since she barely brought anything, her activities of organization quickly ended. She never thought that she would settle down somewhere, after all.
It was still dark outside. She really did not bring anything. In the midst of all that, it was praiseworthy that she had taken her daughter’s memorial tablet and flint.
Rietta was quickly exhausted despite not moving much. She stared blankly at the incense burner that had been extinguished. Then, she looked out the window again. It was still too early and too dangerous to go out and buy things. So she moved her weak body again and began to wander around the house like a ghost. Just in case there were any tools to light a fire in the house.
There was a folk belief that a candle honoring the dead should be lit for 100 days so that the departed can cross the Rodomus River safely. While living in a monastery for more than a decade, she had seen that such superstitions were used to make money. But now that it had become her concern, Rietta also became obsessed with that superstition.
In the Sevitas Monastery, where Rietta spent her childhood, they kept fleshing out the belief and made money. They said that on the eve of every month when the demon was rampant, people should light candles all night, hold rituals, buy some amulets, or listen to the priest’s prayer.
Fortunately for Rietta, who, for a while, had led a monastic life, she could solve things like prayer and ritual by herself. But she could not leave out the symbolic ritual of lighting a candle. Rietta moved with her body trembling from lack of strength.
Rietta opened drawers, cupboards, and closets in and outside the living room. She was a little surprised that the house was more equipped than she had expected. There was much more stuff compared to her old house.
There was even a small amount of dry food to eat. It was dry biscuits that would not go bad even if stored for a long time. Only then did she feel the hunger in her stomach that had been empty for a long time. Rietta took the entire barrel and held it in one arm. While eating the biscuit, she continued to rummage through the cupboard and drawer. She felt nauseated a couple of times from the hard and dry food that she ate in a hurry. It was probably because she had a bad stomach due to starvation. But even then, she kept on eating the biscuit regardless of her condition.
Before long, Rietta found a box of matches in the drawer. Then, she opened her eyes wide and grabbed the box. It was a high-end match that could only be used when there was an important event in the monastery. Right next to it, she even found a lamp with plenty of oil. If the lamp was lit, she would not need to worry about the candle, which often went out due to its bad wick.
Suddenly it occurred to Rietta; maybe she could even find a candle in the house. It was even stranger that there were no candles when there were matches and lamps after all.
As expected, Rietta found a candle in a nearby drawer after wandering for a short time. She picked it up and rejoiced. It was a fine candle made of wax.
Rietta quickly returned to the altar—precisely, a small drawer with a memorial tablet and incense burner put on top of it—and crouched in front of the memorial tablet again. The new candle caught fire, it ignited easily and gave off a pretty color. It was without a doubt a fine candle.
Rietta stared blankly at the burning candle. After a while, she chewed up the biscuit in her mouth. The biscuit barrel was half empty before she knew it.
Rietta quietly looked at the wavering flame. She felt funny that she was hungry even in that situation. She scorned herself for still being able to eat but soon hung her head as her face became twisted while mocking herself.
She felt pathetic because she felt happy with the candle that was lit in front of the memorial tablet… Not because she was satisfied when she saw her daughter enjoying the food that she made, not because she thought it was cute that her daughter made a mess on her new pretty clothes and became sulky, not because of the way her daughter mumbled while sleep talking was adorable… But because she had nothing else to be glad about…
While silently chewing on the biscuit that was mixed with tears, Rietta thought of her husband, whose grave she had left behind in the distant land, and her daughter, who did not even have a grave. It had been less than two months since her child became like that.
The mother who had lost her child was relieved to be alive, was chewing on food, and that the candle in front of the memorial tablet was high quality, now that she had nothing else to be glad about.
Rietta did not even realize when she fell asleep. She was woken up by someone knocking on her door. The bright midday sun and wind were peacefully coming in through the open window. Again, there was a loud knock on the door. The first thing she felt was a terrifying feeling. Even though she knew this was not Sevitas, the first thing that came to her mind was whether the one on her door was a soldier or not.
Every time soldiers came to her house, nothing good happened to her life. Did the Archduke of Axias change his mind? While being on edge, Rietta opened the door quietly.
She was bewildered when there was a middle-aged woman with a warm impression. And a man and woman who were a little younger than the woman, but about ten years older than her, in front of her house.
The middle-aged woman standing in front greeted her first. Following her, the man also gave his greeting.
“Oh! So it’s true. The owner of the house is here. Wow, what a beauty! I’m Martin. You can call me Uncle Martin! You can also call me darling.”
Before Rietta could even understand that energetic greeting, the woman next to him slapped the man on the back and scolded him.
“That’s so silly! I’m Nella. You don’t have to pay attention to his nonsense.”
The middle-aged woman who smiled while looking at them held out the plate in her hand. A sweet and savory scent came up.
“Welcome to Axias. I don’t know if you like apple pie.”
Rietta finally realized that they were her new neighbors and came to give her an ordinary welcome.
“Ah, th, thank you…”
Rietta vacantly took the plate and stuttered to say thank you.
Neighbor. Yeah. There were always neighbors at home.
It had been so long since she had been visited by a neighbor, so she did not know how to talk to her neighbors who came to her house with goodwill.
They were grinning and waiting for Rietta’s next words. Rietta stepped back from the door, feeling helpless.
Unlike when she was alone, she felt so unfamiliar and strange when she had to stand up in front of others to introduce her house and invited them to come in.
“Oh, hmm… Would you like to come in? …Wait a second. The house…is not organized yet.”
Rietta stepped back on the jump and greeted them awkwardly. When she quickly looked behind her back, her house was empty. It was embarrassing when she said her house was not organized.
Fortunately, she happened to see a table with four chairs in the living room in front of the kitchen.
“Th, this way…”
Rietta awkwardly guided her guests and put the dishes down on the table. The middle-aged woman who handed the apple pie smiled and introduced herself.
“I live next door. Call me Aunt Phenyl.”
The other two who have already introduced themselves added again.
“We run a grocery store at the intersection ahead.”
“Nice to meet you, new neighbor!”
Come to think of it, she did not tell them her name yet. Rietta barely came to her senses and bowed her head to greet them.
“He, hello. I’m Ri, Rietta.”
“Ririetta? What a lovely name!”
“Ah, no! It’s Rietta. Rietta, Tristi.”
“Rietta! That name is lovely too!”
He spoke with full force no matter the context, his voice was loud and he talked quickly. Even though she was not the one speaking, she felt out of breath. She hurriedly recommended chairs to her guests.
Her guests sat around the table smiling. After she hurriedly put tableware and plates that she had never seen before on the unfamiliar table with the apple pie plate, she realized; She did not have any beverages to offer. Rietta panicked and turned her body towards her guests.
“I, I’m sorry. I don’t have anything to drink at home. C, can you wait a minute? I will go out and buy some beverages.”
Where, where did I put my money?
As she went through her head, Nella smiled and waved her hands.
“Don’t feel pressured. we’re fine with just plain water.”
Rietta panicked again.
“W, well, I don’t have plain water either. Ah, could you tell me where the nearby well or drinking water site is?”
The three people’s eyes widened.
“You haven’t had any water in your house because you don’t know where the drinking water site is? Did you eat?”
Nella turned around and pushed Martin on his back.
“Martin, go get some milk.”
“Ouch! Come on!”
Martin, who was hit in the same spot as before, reacted irritably. Aunt Phenyl looked at Rietta’s face and looked worried.
“Oh my, look at your face. You must have been pretty busy moving and cleaning up! We’re all trying to make ends meet, so you have to at least eat.”
Nella and Martin finally realized Rietta’s dark complexion and drooped their eyebrows.
“We waited to come here because we didn’t want to bother you while you were busy… Would it have been better if we had come sooner to help? You must have had a hard time, did you not?”
Is my face really weird?
Rietta touched her face awkwardly. Aunt Phenyl got up and gestured at Rietta.
“Come out with us. We will tell you the location of the well.”
Nella agreed and chimed in.
“Ah, that’s better. You have never been outside at all? Then, you must not have known where the market is.”
Nella also got up. Martin was up a long time ago. It was fast—there was not even a gap for Rietta to interrupt.
“Oh, th, thank you. Wait a minute… Key… Where did I put the key?”
Rietta, who could not find the key, was flustered and tried to climb up to the second floor. But Nella pulled her hand, saying it was okay to just go. When their arms linked, Rietta looked at Nella who held her hand as if she was trying to take her to the police station. Nella gave a friendly smile.
“It’s fine not to lock your door. It’s your first time in Axias, right? There are almost no thieves here.”
Aunt Phenyl who was already opening the door continued.
“You still have to lock the door at night. But when the day is bright like this, it doesn’t matter if you leave it open. Phew, but this lady should be more careful of thieves other than the night thief. Rietta, you’re such a beauty.”
Nella reached out with a sad face and touched Rietta’s thin cheek.
“But you look pale. Did you sleep? You need to eat and sleep well. Your skin is rough. You’re going to ruin your good skin like this.”
Rietta blinked blankly at the sudden warmth.
“Nella, I told you not to just fiddle about during your first meeting.”
“Sorry. I just did it unconsciously. There’s a good cream that just came in our store. Should I give it to you?”
Rietta was dragged out with her handheld as if she was swept away into the rapids. Even if this was a well-planned kidnapping to take away a person’s soul, there was no time to think about the situation where nothing could be said about the stupidity of the person who was dragged out without even giving out a fight. Rietta was carried along by the atmosphere, she was dragged into the arms of energetic people while unable to refuse.
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