Eugene observed Marianne’s perplexed expression, noticing her troubled look, and gradually, the sharp anxiety that had initially gripped her began to ease.
“Is this the handiwork of hormones, too? It seems I’ve grown rather sensitive,” she mused to herself.
Having acclimated to the serenity of this world, the current sounds around her no longer grated on her nerves as they once had. Just six months ago, she had been subjected to all manner of cacophonies.
“What’s going on? Please tell me,” Eugene inquired.
If Marianne was seeking her counsel on a matter not easily resolved, it was likely a weighty concern. Eugene suspected Marianne had turned to her because she deemed her own abilities inadequate for the task at hand.
“Yes, Your Highness. The capital is currently abuzz with a grand festival,” Marianne revealed.
“I heard His Majesty issued a decree. Did he also oversee the festivities?” Eugene inquired.
“No, Your Highness. Considering the timing, His Majesty ordered strict supervision to prepare for the bustling season. However, we’ve received reports that it’s proving challenging to manage, as people are gathering sporadically, without a clear leader. Consequently, His Majesty has instructed us to allow it to continue for a few days,” Marianne explained.
Eugene nodded in understanding, a show of empathy. She likened it to waiting for a raging fire to burn itself out when the blaze becomes too intense.
Marianne continued, her troubled expression deepening.
“However, an unexpected issue has surfaced. Her Highness has been notably absent for a few days, and it appears this news has spread rapidly throughout the populace. I regret to bring you such unsettling tidings… but it seems vague and unfounded rumors are now circulating among the people.”
Eugene, taken aback, inquired, “Rumors about me?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“What are the nature of these rumors?”
“I… It’s quite challenging to articulate. Your Highness appears to be in a state of considerable distress…”
Uncharacteristically, Marianne’s words faded away. Eugene could hazard a guess as to the rumor’s content, perhaps involving the heir’s precarious condition or some similarly foreboding prediction.
“How does the rumor of my health relate to the current unrest?” Eugene asked, perplexed.
“The citizens have gathered around the palace, and… they’re singing songs, expressing their wishes for Your Highness’s well-being,” Marianne explained. In the Hashi Kingdom, a cultural tradition prevailed wherein sympathy for others’ misfortunes was conveyed through song. It was customary for friends and relatives to come together to sing songs, wishing for the recovery of those afflicted with serious illnesses, or for mourners to sing songs at funerals to guide the departed soul onward.
“They are singing for me…?” Eugene inquired.
“They harbor no ill intentions, and so we cannot disperse them by force. Since His Majesty is absent, I’m uncertain about the appropriate course of action.”
Kasser was presently absent from the palace; he had departed for the desert some time ago, accompanied by a small contingent of guards. It was a crucial part of the king’s routine to periodically journey to the desert for reconnaissance as the dry season gave way to the impending active season.
The precise timing of his return remained uncertain. Before his departure, he had informed Eugene that he might return today, if possible, or in the early hours of the morning.
“I apologize for the oversight. We will diligently investigate those who may have casually mentioned it and impose severe sanctions,” Marianne expressed remorsefully.
Eugene harbored no anger towards those who had spread the news of her condition among the palace staff. It was more likely that someone had genuinely expressed concern, leading to the news spreading. She trusted that if there had been any malicious intent, the meticulous court officials would manage it adeptly.
The unfolding situation intrigued her, piquing her curiosity about events beyond the palace walls.
“I shall go outside,” she declared.
“Pardon?” Marianne responded, bewildered.
“If those who have gathered are worried about me, assuring them of my well-being from a safe distance should ease their minds.”
“But Your Highness, there may be risks, unforeseen situations,” Marianne cautioned.
“I do not intend to make direct contact. Surely, there is a way to make my presence known while maintaining a safe distance,” Eugene proposed.
After a brief pause, Marianne suggested, “In that case, how about utilizing the balcony that connects directly to the city walls?”
“Is such a location available?” Eugene inquired.
Marianne nodded. “It’s a designated area for monitoring external activities during emergencies. Normally, access is restricted.”
Eugene followed Marianne’s guidance, advancing towards her destination. As she ventured deeper into the heart of the palace, the sounds from outside swelled with each passing step. Initially resembling the distant thunderous beat of countless drums, as she neared the palace walls, the noise crystallized into a chorus of voices.
The attendants unlocked a tightly sealed door, revealing a room shrouded in darkness. Without the lanterns carried by the attendants, visibility would have been nearly nonexistent.
Eugene entered, her gaze sweeping over the dimly lit chamber, devoid of furnishings. In the middle of the unadorned stone wall, she noticed two substantial circular handles, and certain sections of the wall displayed a mechanism that allowed it to be opened and closed like a door. These stone doors were exceptionally weighty, integral parts of the palace’s fortifications, designed to potentially bar intruders from the outside.
The accompanying guards split into two teams, each grasping one of the handles. They synchronized their efforts and commenced pulling.
With a faint scraping sound, a portion of the stone wall started to shift slowly. Minute gaps materialized in the once-seamless stone facade, permitting slivers of sunlight to infiltrate. As the guards exerted more force and continued their labor, the openings expanded. In no time, the room was bathed in enough light to negate the need for torches.
A moment later, beyond the fully opened stone door, the sky came into view. Eugene stood there briefly, absorbing the resonating chorus of songs. Then, she began to step forward. On the other side of the open stone door, a narrow balcony extended only about a foot in width. As she ventured onto the balcony and peered downward, her breath caught in her throat.