A knock sounded on the door.
The man entered and approached Rodrigo, who sat behind a desk completely shrouded with various documents and books. Barely tearing his eyes away from the three open pages in front of him, he looked at the man standing before the desk with his head lowered.
“Yes?” Rodrigo prompted the man to speak.
“I found that there are insufficient articles after reviewing those you asked for. While I can stock up on others within a few days, the Blue Flower Danggui is too rare an item.”
“Is there no one who will sell at a higher price?”
“Since it is very rarely sold or bought, no one handles the item because the earnings will not cover the expense.”
Rodrigo let out an irritated sigh before replying. “It cannot be helped. I need to send a person to bring one to me directly. Find a fast and useful messenger, someone experienced will be better since it could be a long-distance errand.”
“Yes, sir.” He nodded before leaving the study.
Rodrigo looked down at the documents he had been reading after the man left but found himself annoyed. He threw a wooden pencil holder on the wall in front of him. The loud sound the object made as it hit the floor made his insides boil instead of relieving a bit of his stress. A courtier had visited Molly’s residence with sad news a few days back, after the royal group had returned from the desert. They relayed Molly had died of an unfortunate accident during the journey and brought the objects Molly had been using and her clothes as her keepsakes for her family since the funeral had been held in the desert. Rodrigo had been thinking of tasks he would assign to Molly after she came back and now felt faint at this sudden news.
‘She killed three Tanyas! How can she be a saint?! She’s a horrible witch!’
Rodrigo’s teeth clenched even more at the fact that he had to prepare the fourth Tanya, as things had not ended yet. Tanya was a title for specially trained warriors ready to die as martyrs for the cult. They were guided through rituals secretly handed down through generations. However, preparing Tanyas was complicated, as it was a demanding task to select devout believers and many of the items used for the ritual were rare.
He needed a way to contact the queen since he had heard that the Anika was an important connection for the Mara to be summoned to these lands by the High Priest.
The messenger would bring the Blue Flower Danggui from the Flake Kingdom around the end of the dry season. On top of that, there was no way to contact the queen and prepare for an important ritual. Rodrigo’s head ached already thinking of excuses he would have to make to the High Priest. The Blue Flower Danggui was a poisonous plant that grows in a cold area, and the Flake Kingdom was known to be the home of this plant. Hashi, the nation located in the northernmost regions was based on the Holy City, and Flake was located in the southernmost regions. The distance between the two kingdoms was the farthest from Mahar.
Rodrigo vented out his anger for a while before sighing and leaning back in his chair. Maybe it was his age but being angry exerted him. He could only spare himself a moment of relief and lowered his gaze to the desk, glancing over the spread documents before taking an old record out of them.
‘It is because a few rushing servants had committed a foolish act.’ The text said.
The High Priest’s message kept playing in the back of Rodrigo’s mind. He was researching relevant data because he had a guess what the ‘foolish act’ had been for the High Priest. The Cult of Mara was divided into several branches, but it was not because the authority had been divided into numerous sections due to the cult’s strength. Actually, each branch moved according to each branch’s governing priests because a center did not exist.
The method each branch was organized was without prior planning. As if anyone who revered Mara from somewhere would bring other believers together, and when they made a considerable number, they would be acknowledged as a branch. Then, the branch leader would become a priest after receiving holy powers from the High Priest. Rodrigo was dissatisfied with the cult’s lack of structure, as the High Priest did not intervene in governing the cult except for giving orders, when necessary, by showing Mara’s powers.
Therefore, someone had to become the center, like the evil god Mahar’s Sang-je, to gather the cult’s force. Rodrigo believed he could fulfil that role, as most believers would acknowledge his influence. There had been an incident twenty years ago, when Rodrigo had merely been the underling of a leading priest in a small branch, while a central branch had been the biggest out of all branches. Rodrigo was not an underling anymore, and being the leader, he could have strongly voiced his opinions in other branches and received special attention from the High Priest. If the central branch remained in power today, Rodrigo would not have gained this chance, as the leader or his successor would have still seized the cult.
However, that branch broke down instantly, as the High Priest showed wrath towards the faults committed by the leaders of the central branch. He had taken away the holy powers and excommunicated all of them. Some of the regular believers went into other branches, and others scattered. No one in the cult knew what the leaders had done, as the High Priest only communicated that ‘he had punished the criminals who committed an unforgivable sin.’ As Rodrigo could not, the other priests too could not lift their heads in front of the High Priest, let alone ask him what the matter had been.
‘Had Anika been involved in that incident?’
What had that leading priest of that branch done then? Rodrigo felt he needed to learn what had happened not only because of individual curiosity but to not make the same mistake.
‘If Anika had to do with it, the Holy City would have been in chaos. Someone would remember if there were an uproar.’
Rodrigo thought that he would need to investigate by sending someone to the Holy City soon enough.
An aide put an organized list of names on the table.
“I have sent someone to confirm tomorrow’s schedule as well.”
Eugene held the list in her hand and confirmed the six names on it.
“You did good. Prepare for tomorrow.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The aide bowed and left the room.
Eugene had prepared a light tea party and had invited noblewomen for the event. After coming back from the desert, her first official decision was hosting this party to assess the atmosphere before beginning socializing in earnest. While she had planned the party for yesterday, the trip had taken more time than planned, which led to a delay in the consequent schedule.
The ladies she would meet tomorrow were not famous in social circles, as the notable ladies had not yet returned from the Holy City. About twenty to thirty days would pass after the dry season started before most aristocrats came back, and the socializing could begin in full swing. The women Eugene was going to meet tomorrow were the wives of high-ranking officials. Since their husbands worked in high places, they could not go to the Holy City during the active season. Since they naturally could not follow the Holy City’s latest trends, they were pushed away from the centres of social circles. Therefore, Eugene had heard that many ladies did not like their husbands becoming officials in this kingdom. It was the queen’s duty to console their dissatisfaction, and Eugene chose her primary schedule, something Jin had never done as Queen. Eugene thought of today’s date and lamented after the aide left.
‘Time flies so quickly…’
It had been ten days since the dry period started, and time had flown after her return from the ritual. They were late by two and a half days from their plan of returning after five days when the royal group reached the stone gates. They did not notice the alarming atmosphere in the capital until after they had arrived at the castle, receiving a feverous welcome from the people. Eugene heard that an emergency order was about to be given, and warriors would have greeted the group if their arrival had been a day later.
“I’m grateful for your safe return, Your Highness. While I had thought nothing serious would happen as His Majesty was with you, I was worried that you would be tired of the rough trip.” Marianne repeated, asking whether Eugene was all right, and Eugene could not hide a smile as she remembered how Marianne had looked. She now knew what it felt like to have someone wait in worry and have a home to return to. She enjoyed the warmth she felt for the first time but also felt a bit embarrassed by it.
Eugene heard a knock followed by a maid’s voice outside the door, and quickly composed her expression before answering back.
“There is a servant who says His Majesty has asked for you to come see him.” The maid informed her.
“He didn’t mention the reason?”
“No, Your Highness.”
Eugene stood up instantly, worried that there might be some bad news and walked out to the servant who was waiting for her to escort her. He had not said anything much during dinner they had just had before, and since they would see each other in the bedroom in a few hours, he would not call her unless there had been an emergency.
The servant led Eugene to the King’s private parlor. As she went inside, Eugene glanced at the servant who kept the door open with his head bent low. Usually, the courtier who guided her went inside with her.
“Abu!” Eugene was surprised at the black leopard jumping towards her, almost smiling in welcome.
Abu’s head came up to Eugene’s waist. She rubbed his furry head with both hands.
“Abu, pretty Abu. What are you doing here? Have you come because your master called?” She talked to him in her baby-voice.
Eugene looked up after fussing over Abu, like they had been separated for a long time, and immediately cringed.
‘He should have told me that someone else was here.’
There was someone sitting on the sofa across Kasser. He hurriedly lowered his head when Eugene stared at him. She had not thought that there would be a guest, and inwardly cursed Kasser as she withdrew from Abu and stood straight up. Her face flushed as she realized the man must have heard her baby-talk.
The stranger went on his knees and stomach as she approached them.
“A lowly sinner greets you, Your Highness. I will never forget you saving my life.”
Eugene’s eyes widened as she looked down at the man with a surprised expression.
“You’re…Adrit?” She asked.
“Yes, Your Highness.” He replied without rising from his position on the floor.
Eugene had not recognized him because he was dressed up in neat clothing. Eugene smiled as she felt relief and gratefulness. If Adrit had not come here, it would have been difficult to show goodwill to other wanderers she may meet in the future. Eugene forced Adrit to rise and sit up, as he kept saying that he would answer all her questions while bowing in front of her as he owed his life to her.
“You said that you stayed in a hwansu’s territory during the active period. However, can’t you avoid larks? Why do you use a hwansu’s territory as your shelter?” She asked her first question.
“The spell for avoiding larks is not infinite, Your Highness. The power erodes bit by bit whenever we encounter larks. But the spell lasts longer if one does not use it much.”
The word Eugene had wanted to hear came out of Adrit’s mouth.
“Spell…that tattoo really had been a spell.” She realized.