The letter offered no useful insights to grasp onto. Where had she gone, her guilt from reveling at the party and subsequent vanishing from the mansion evident? Neither a plan for solitude nor an inclination to journey to the kingdom had been mentioned. Despite an exhaustive overnight search by the knights, she had eluded them with remarkable speed.
Anika Jin… deceiving me in ways I never anticipated.
Sang-je had found Eugene’s demeanor peculiar upon her acceptance of the Celestial Festival’s invitation. Beneath her outward agreement, an underlying insincerity seemed to linger. Despite assurances that the king had ventured out of the Holy City unaccompanied, an unsettling sensation persisted, prompting the assignment of knights to Eugene’s side for vigilant watch.
I’ve made a huge mistake.
To disrupt the celebration in such a manner—he had believed he could orchestrate everything smoothly and relax after its conclusion. The complications wrought by Alber’s magic had also contributed.
“I was quite explicit. Never leave Anika Jin’s side, not for an instant.”
The knight lowered his head. “I apologize, Your Holiness.”
“Given the fact that Anika Jin disappeared around midnight, what actions did you take until morning?”
“At the royal mansion, we confirmed that Anika Jin had not opened the door…”
“If Anika Jin is concealed within the royal mansion, it’s not an issue. She can’t remain hidden indefinitely. The focus shouldn’t be on searching the premises, but on something more crucial.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Are you certain Anika Jin left the Arse manor?”
“We haven’t been able to ascertain how Anika Jin exited the manor. The back door raises suspicion, but aside from Anika Jin, no one within the manor has vanished. The back door is incredibly weighty—five knights would struggle to budge it—so it’s perplexing how Anika Jin managed to open it unaided. However, there was a witness who reported observing two individuals boarding a carriage nearby around the same time.”
“Trace the path of that carriage and scrutinize the city wall guards’ activities from last night. Determine if any unusual approaches were detected,” Sang-je commanded.
“Yes, Your Holiness.”
Once the knight withdrew, Sang-je’s irritation was palpable as he clicked his tongue. The incapacity of those unable to function efficiently on their own was lamentable. Yet, even Sang-je himself couldn’t fathom it. Besides possessing the Ramita, Anika was an ordinary, unremarkable woman. How had she eluded the vigilant eyes of the knights?
Could she have truly left the Holy City?
Sang-je beckoned a priest and issued instructions.
“Make a formal announcement regarding Anika Jin’s disappearance. Her absence might not stem from her own volition. It’s plausible that her safety is compromised. Mobilize all accessible personnel to locate her.”
“Yes, Your Holiness.”
On the fourth day of the grand feast, as per the arranged timetable, the evening was set to launch the celebration. However, during that very afternoon, all participants were unexpectedly handed letters of regret from the Arse family, elucidating the abrupt cancellation of the affair. Rather than harboring displeasure about the sudden cessation of the banquet, the attendees found themselves captivated by the enigmatic reasons concealed within.
The triumph or defeat of a gala hosted by a distinguished lineage bore substantial consequences on their standing. The notion that a mere span of a few days’ festivity couldn’t be properly concluded struck a substantial blow to the sensibilities of the aristocrats, acutely aware of the ever-watchful gaze of society.
Though the reputation of the Arse family wouldn’t be entirely besmirched by this incident, the curiosity was further stoked by the fact that it concerned the very same family. In the wake of that afternoon, the lively array of masquerade boutiques, serene tea parlors, and vibrant clubs, hotspots of congregation, buzzed with fervor.
“Did you hear? Anika Jin has gone missing.”
“No way. Who said that?”
“It was announced at the palace. They’re apparently searching for Anika Jin, turning the whole sanctuary upside down.”
Swiftly, the whispers of rumors spread like wildfire.
In the heart of the Holy City’s Palace, the regal figure of the Concord King from the Delano Kingdom arrived for a visit. The grandeur of the audience chamber played host to Sang-je’s warm welcome.
“I’m considering my return to my kingdom, Your Holiness,” the King expressed.
Sang-je, intrigued, inquired, “Might I ask what brings such haste? A month remains before the season’s end.”
The Delano Kingdom was the nearest neighbor to the city, a mere two-day journey on horseback. Normally, Akil lingered within the sanctuary until the season’s conclusion.
Akil clarified, “It’s not a particular reason, truly. The city’s allure during this season has waned. The spotlight is fixed so intently that other occurrences pale in comparison.”
Sang-je grasped the underlying sentiment in King Akil’s words. This season had brimmed with happenings, from the tales of Anika Jin’s lark tree to the opulent Arse family banquet. The Fourth King, Anika Jin, and the Arse family dominated discussions. For those seeking a more varied amusement, such circumstances offered little.
It had been noted that the Concord King, a regular presence at social affairs, had shunned the Arse manor’s gala.
“As the lively season advances, I beseech tranquility upon your kingdom. May Mahar’s blessings accompany your journey, King Akil.”
“Thank you, Your Holiness,” King Akil responded courteously. Then, with a thoughtful shift, he inquired, “On a different note, I encountered an intriguing rumor on my journey here. Is Anika Jin still among the missing?”
A deep sigh escaped Sang-je’s lips, his features etched with concern.
“The worry is pressing upon me. She evaporated, as if taken by the wind. It’s been so long that you might not recall, King Akil. Anika Jin vanished in the distant past, and now, a similar unsettling notion haunts me – that she’s caught in something equally ominous.”