And thus, it came to this. After promptly completing the payment, he was glad until they returned to the castle. However, he had spent an hour from then agonising over how to speak to her when the girl spoke up.
“How… will you be killing me?”
There was no time to linger on her voice being what they called as clear as a bell.
Whilst he had removed the shackles on her limbs, the magic restraining collar was still around her neck. Zagan had wanted to remove it, but even he wasn’t able to easily do so. The auctioneer didn’t know how to remove it either, and there wasn’t a key or anything. It was most likely amongst the remnants from the Demon Lord, her original purchaser, so there was nothing to do but spend time investigating it.
She didn’t have any expression whatsoever, but the girl appealed in a tragic voice.
“If I knew how I was to die… I think I might be able to resolve myself a little to it.”
The girl’s face wasn’t anxious at all, but resigned. Zagan yelled, flusteredly.
“Wait, wait, wait! I don’t intend to kill you. Rather, it would be a problem if you were to die.”
He’d intended to reassure her, but for some reason, the girl’s expression clouded even further.
“In other words, there will be no end, such that death is a joy… correct?”
The girl was pale and looking up at the chains hanging from the ceiling, and the bones wrapped in them.
A cold sweat ran down his cheeks.
No, it was just too much trouble to bother to use magic to clean up there, so I left it!
This castle was once another mage’s residence. The funds he had used to buy the girl were remainders from them too; Zagan hadn’t, strictly speaking, amassed them himself.
However, the previous owner was, for better or worse, a quintessential mage, and within the castle were tools of torture and magic, with corpses and bones lying around. Having bones hanging from the ceiling wasn’t to Zagan’s tastes, but saying otherwise in this situation wouldn’t be particularly persuasive.
Even though he was panicking, Zagan pretended to be calm and spoke.
“Rest assured. I don’t intend to use those kinds of unsettling things on you, I don’t intend to harm you. There is nothing for you to fear.”
He wasn’t able to say it particularly kindly, but he thought he had been able to convey what he wanted to… Whether it was persuasive was another matter though.
Perhaps expectedly, the girl tilted her head in question.
“Then… why did you buy me?”
It was an obvious question. However, because of his personality, he couldn’t say that he had fallen for her at first sight.
What should I do in this kind of situation, I wish I had asked Barbarus…
Zagan had left him behind after the auction, but why hadn’t he followed along? He didn’t seem to be overflowing with sexual experience either, but even so, he did naturally use phrases like ‘pick the right woman’. At the very least, he probably knew better than Zagan how to deal with women.
The answer that rushed out of Zagan’s mouth as he groaned, as if he had been cornered, was this.
“There is no need for you to know.”
What am I saying!? He cried out mentally.
However, the girl’s expression oddly didn’t change. It was such that only a faint despondency was visible.
Isn’t her calm a little odd?
She may not have been good at expressing herself, but rather than that, she seemed like she had given up on everything. They had said that nothing had been done to her body since her capture, but something had probably happened…
“Are you…” Zagan began to speak, but then realised he didn’t even know her name.
And she shouldn’t know anything about me either.
Finally, he felt he’d seized upon the beginning of a conversation.
“My name is Zagan. I’m a mage as you can see, but torture isn’t exactly my thing.”
“So, what’s your…”
He was just trying to ask her name, but Zagan couldn’t speak.
No! …I was just going to ask her name, why does her being a girl make me this nervous!
Zagan was already fairly powerful as a mage. However, he lacked the courage to stand in the face of certain death in a hopeless situation.
‘Courage’, it was a word that he had thought was unrelated to him. However, if he couldn’t muster any now, there wouldn’t be any progress.
As he opened his mouth again, the girl let out an ‘ah’ and spoke.
“My apologies for the delay. I am called Nephilia.”
It felt like a cool breeze blew within his chest. It seemed like she’d presumed what Zagan wanted to say, and he thought.
What an attentive, wonderful girl.
It was a sound he wanted to repeat over and over. There was the word ‘Nephilim’ from legends which meant ‘one that fell from the heavens’, it was probably the feminine form of that. He thought it was a mystical, wonderful name.
It’s a beautiful name, the same as her looks.
His spirits soared from simply knowing her name, and he understood the phrase ‘love destroys people’ all too well.
You could call it a constant high. If a person was constantly in this mental state, he could see how even the best of people would fall to ruin.
But is Nephilia her first name or family name?
Schooling his slackened expression, Zagan questioned her.
“It is just Nephilia. I do not have a surname. If it’s hard to say, you may call me Nephie.”
The name Nephilia was a beautiful sound, but the nickname Nephie was adorable too. The girl — Nephie — tilted her head at his sudden outburst.
Actually, not having a surname is the same as me…
From when he was old enough to remember, he had been stealing from rubbish heaps. Let alone his surname, he didn’t even know what his parents looked like. ‘Zagan’ was a nickname he was given, slang in the slums for a wicked person that was demonic or something.
Now that I think about it, those days were the best. My thief comrades and the townspeople would talk properly with me. I might have gotten beat up a lot, but it was sort of fulfilling.
What he had done were certainly crimes, but he was in a bright place, and could even talk naturally with girls. If Zagan was to think of the bright days of his past, it would be those times.
Then, he noticed Nephie staring at him blankly and shook his head.
“Is that, um, normal for elves? Not having a surname?”
“No, it is because I was a cursed child.”
“A cursed child…?”
Zagan scowled, hearing an inexcusable phrase. She put a hand before her lips, as if she had let herself slip.
“Um… why would you ask something like that?”
“Ah, I was just kinda curious, and…”
He hesitated to say that it wasn’t just her name or the meaning of ‘cursed child’, that he simply wanted to know more about her.
Nephie once more nodded as if presuming, and, for some reason, lifted the front of her skirt.
Her snow-white thighs were laid bare, and even her underwear, woven of delicate lace were barely visible.
“Please rest assured, I am a virgin.”
He knew his face had gone red.
“D-do you know what you’re blurting out!?:
“Hmm? It’s said that virgins have more magic. Weren’t you making sure your experiment materials weren’t spoilt?”
“Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t intend to use you in an experiment, or to torture you.”
Nephie made a face as if she didn’t understand all the more.
“Then, why was I bought?”
“…” Zagan held his forehead and fell silent. “There’s no need for you to know that.”
And then, once more, answered with the same words. Or rather, he couldn’t answer.
If someone heard that it was love at first sight, and that he had bought her in cash, they would certainly brand him as a mere pervert. Zagan wouldn’t be able to stand Nephie looking at him like that. No matter how perpetually young they were, a mage could still die of shock.
That aside, not giving her an answer at all is probably making her nervous.
What should he do? Maybe he should let her go home for the day…
Wait, does she even have anywhere to go?
She’d called herself by the ominous phrase ‘cursed child’ earlier, and didn’t seem to want to be asked about it. Zagan himself was someone with nowhere to return to, and he had the same sign in his lack of a surname. Of course, if she wanted to return home, he’d like to help her, but it didn’t seem like the kind of mood such that he could nonchalantly ask that.
If it came to it, Zagan had bought her body, so for the meantime, they’d live here together, but…
Huh, live together?
He, who had yet to speak to her properly, would be living alone under the same roof with a lovely girl like this? He felt a little dizzy.
What an outrageous thing he had done. Ah, he was, of course, happy, but he felt as if he had done something he shouldn’t have.
Calm down. You’re a mage, a powerful mage doesn’t lose their head.
They wouldn’t be sharing a bed after all. First would be living… he should probably start with what she needed to live.
Zagan rose from his throne and stood before Nephie.
Standing directly in front of her and calling her name was strangely embarrassing. Even so, he addressed her without faltering.
“Nephie, I bought you, and you are mine.”
“So first, let’s give you a room. You can pick one you like.”
“In other words, you are having me choose a place to die?”
“I already said I wasn’t going to kill you, didn’t I?”
“I don’t understand… why you would do that… for me. No matter how you use me… won’t I still die in the end?”
It was probably a question she had been asking since her capture by humans, so much so that she didn’t want to hope anymore.
Zagan actually had similar memories.
Back when he was scavenging for food from the trash-filled slums, and stealing.
Back then… what did I want to be told…?
Even at the time, he probably wouldn’t have known the answer. But even so, Zagan gently reached out a hand into Nephie’s hair. As he touched her hair with his hand, he understood what was making her shudder. Staying like that, without putting any force behind his hand, he said this.
“I bought you because I need you. So don’t go on about dying.”
Nephie looked up at him with wide eyes in surprise. It was the first time he had seen her with such an expressive expression since he had met her.
It had gotten a little embarrassing, but he felt he had to get this across clearly.
“Yes, I need you. So start living for me.”
Nephie’s expression remained the same as always, but she didn’t look like she doubted his words either.
This didn’t mean that she believed in him totally, but even so, she didn’t seem to be grieving at her oncoming death.
This was the start of their long cohabitation.
“Now then, the room for you…”
Where would be good? Nephie had been captured as a slave, so she was sure to have gone through hardships. A room where there was some nice scenery would be better than some dark cellar.
In which case, the spire at the top of the castle would be the best place for a view. Just as he went to guide her there, he suddenly noticed.
“Nephie, are you okay with high places?”
Even he thought this was a fairly reasonable question. Still expressionless, she nodded.
“Yes, being strung up by my hands, or my neck is fine.”
“Who said anything about torture?”
“I… apologise. When I heard high places, I couldn’t think of anything else.”
Zagan held his head in his hands at her blank-faced response.
Have more of a will to live, will you…
Given the situation, a high room would probably be a problem. He didn’t think it likely, but the risk of Nephie throwing herself from it crossed his mind.
But still, they ascended the spiral stairs and headed to the highest floor. It seemed that the sun had set. With a snap of his fingers, the candles lining the walls were lit at once.
“Right — ah—”
As Zagan went to climb the stairs once more, Nephie let out a small cry and staggered. The flickering flames of the candles were somewhat unreliable as lights; it was dark by their feet, and the pointed heels of Nephie’s shoes made it hard to walk.
Zagan immediately caught her hand and supported her.
The girl’s face was so close that their noses nearly touched, and a faint, sweet scent tickled his nose. Bordered by white eyelashes, her deep blue eyes were staring right into his. He couldn’t help but be fascinated, and at the same time, a deep sense of shame filled him.
To misdirect her from this, he cleared his throat.
“B-be careful. Look where you’re putting your feet.”
He probably said it somewhat roughly as Nephie seemed to wince. As they climbed the stairs, Zagan became aware of a soft feeling within his hand.
Huh? Am I… holding Nephie’s hand maybe?
He’d held her to support her. And then inadvertently lead her along by her hand. He thought it probably wasn’t the first time, but it was hard to remember holding a girl’s hand before… Maybe it really was the first time.
Her pale white hand was slender, soft, and warm. He could feel her heartbeat through her palm, or maybe it was his own?
Whilst Nephie was looking at his hand in surprise, she followed without a word.
While he was filled with an indescribable shyness, he also didn’t want to let go of her hand. In fits and starts, Zagan climbed to the top floor. It was after climbing about three floors, that the entrance to the top floor was visible.
He was a little worried that the climb to and from it would make having this room tough on her, but he put his hand on the door for now.
“I don’t normally use this room, so it might be a touch dirty.”
As he said that, the fundamental question ‘have I even entered this room?’ passed through his mind. He had lived here for about a decade, but he normally secluded himself in the archives, and couldn’t say he’d figured the entire place out.
And thus, he regretted not confirming those doubts.
A cool wind blew into the room, and a guillotine’s blade swayed and rang.
Moreover, it seemed that there were skeletal corpses and bottles with mysterious substances inside them scattered throughout the room. With the help of the dim candlelight, it was the height of unsettling.
“Let’s not go with this.”
He hurriedly closed the door, but was a little too slow.
People despaired the most when they were given hope. The light in Nephie’s eyes vanished at being thrust before implements of torture just as she was told she was necessary. The girl spread her arms as if she was throwing everything away.
“Please, do as you will, master.”
“That’s not it, you know? It’s, you know… That’s right! It’s a trap for invaders from above.” Even as he said it, he thought it was a pathetic excuse. “But, well, you know. It’s kind of pointless, and gets in the way. I’ll get rid of it.”
So saying, he threw lightning magic into the room with the swaying guillotine and shut the door once more.
Immediately, an explosion followed.
The shock of the blast spilt from the cracks around the door, and Nephie’s snow-white hair swayed gently in it. As he was taken in by the sight, the door fell into the room with a crash. Apparently, even the hinges had broken.
Sure enough, there were no traces of any of the terrifying things from before within the room… Well, it was scorched right to the ceiling, so it might not be usable as a room anymore, and even the candles had been blown out. Suddenly, a chill ran down his cheeks.
B-but the source of her fear should be gone.
He looked back at Nephie, who was petrified in fear, and she was somewhat pale.
She parted quivering lips.
“It’s the first time… I’ve seen such destructive magic.”
Well of course she’d be scared if you just start throwing attack magic around!
And even if it had seemed reserved, it had enough force behind it to turn an average mage to ashes three times over. There wasn’t a single normal person that wouldn’t be perturbed by that.
No, just the only one I’ve spoken to face to face is probably Barbarus, so I just…
Went along as if he were with another mage.
With nothing else to be done, he turned his back on the room.
“…Yeah, this is no good, it’s too dreary.”
“This… is called dreary?”
Zagan couldn’t answer the girl that was tilting her head like a small bird.
Nephie stepped into the room.
Each step sent plumes of ash dancing into the air. There wasn’t even glass in the window, it was more like a birdcage than a room. It was not at all a place girls should tread.
Even so, Nephie continued through onto the balcony.
I should probably put a bounded field against falling or something here.
Of course, he wanted to believe that Nephie wouldn’t throw herself off, but he’d blasted it with magic. At the worst, the thing could be destroyed.
As he was guarding against the worst case scenario, they stood next to each other.
While the balcony had a stone hand railing, that had cracks through it too, and it wouldn’t be strange if it collapsed.
Placing her hands on that railing, she looked up at the sky. As it had turned to night, it seemed that the clouds had cleared up some, and a thin sliver of moon hung alone in the sky like a thread.
Facing the sky, Nephie raised both hands. Despite seeming to be a casual act, it felt like he was watching some kind of sacred ritual.
“Do you… like the moon?”
“…I don’t know.”
Nephie shook her head with a troubled look at his questioning.
“Then, what’s that act mean?”
“…I don’t know.”
It seemed like she was only answering questions with ‘I don’t know’ now.
However, Nephie’s eyes seemed to swim with a heartrending homesickness. Somehow, Zagan ended up imitating her too, reaching his hands out.
“I didn’t catch anything.”
“…I would think so.”
With her answering so seriously, he wanted to die of shame. Why could he never think of a good line at these kind of times?
Then, Nephie murmured.
“May I… have this room?”
This was the first time Nephie had said something like that. However, Zagan looked back over the room hesitantly. There were certainly none of the ominous things from before, but in exchange, there wasn’t even glass in the windows. It didn’t look like a room a person could live in.
And if I fixed it with magic, that’d even bring the guillotine back.
The cleaning and repairs would have to be done by hand.
“A more suitable room would be…”
As he spoke, he remembered that the other rooms were all in similar states. Even if there were no torture implements, there were unpleasant magic tools scattered around. In the end, there wasn’t a room suitable for a girl to use.
Zagan spoke from his worries.
“Are you sure this place is alright?”
“Yes, because it’s the room you prepared for me, master.”
He’d just obliterated everything inside with attack magic. He didn’t think he could really call that ‘preparing’, but…
Even if he said another room would be better, he couldn’t help but doubt that, so in the end, Zagan nodded.
“Very well. Then you may use it as you wish.”
He happened to put it rather exaggeratedly, but Nephie bobbed her head in acknowledgement and spoke.
“Thank you very much, master.”
Those words, for some reason, pierced his chest.
Nephie tilted her head in question.
“What is it?”
“…Nothing, I just thought it’d been a fair while since that was said to me.”
He had sometimes let humans that had gotten lost in the castle escape without killing them, but he didn’t look like a good person. Ordinarily, they’d just race away, not thank him.
However, Nephie didn’t seem to find that strange, and nodded in understanding.
“It feels like it’s been a long time since I said it… too”
Someday, the day would probably come when he would say ‘thank you’ as well.
They were far from opening their hearts to each other, but he was honestly happy that they had been able to hold a proper conversation.
And thus, their first day drew to a close.
The next morning. Though she had been given the room, Nephie couldn’t possibly sleep on that top floor, so they both slept in the throne room that night.
Well, I couldn’t sleep a wink.
He hadn’t slept the night before either, so he’d thought he would be able to quickly fall asleep, but when he thought of Nephie next to him, he ended up wide awake. Yet despite that, he didn’t have the courage to actually do something, and when he thought of how she would hate him, he couldn’t do anything.
Nephie herself really was tired, she had curled up on the carpet and slept.
However, this too was one of the reasons Zagan couldn’t sleep. With her looking that defenceless, telling himself to not think anything was unreasonable. She had seemed cold during the night, so he had put his own cloak over her in place of bedding, but that might not have been good; for some reason, thinking of the lovely girl wearing his cloak, his heart pounded. And as he worried endlessly about that kind of thing, the sun had risen before he noticed.
His stomach growled pathetically.
“…I guess I should eat.”
Zagan went down to the basement storeroom and brought out two portions of preserved meat and milk. He didn’t know when Nephie would be waking up, but he decided to make it so she could eat right away at least.
When he returned to the throne room, Nephie was kneeling, waiting for him. His cloak she had slept in was neatly folded and it seemed like it would be a waste to wear it again.
“You’re up then?”
“Yes, good morning, master.”
Zagan couldn’t help but break into a smile.
So she’ll give a proper greeting.
He himself was puzzled at how to return the greeting and held his head with ‘Huh, what kind of response are you supposed to give to good morning?’ going through it.
Should he say ‘morning’ back? Or reply with ‘hello’? He did think ‘good day’ was wrong, though. Now that he thought of it, how many years had it been since he’d had a proper greeting?
Nephie watched his agonising in blank amazement, and cleared her throat with a cough.
“I brought some food, go ahead and eat.”
As he spoke, he couldn’t help but hate himself a little.
Can’t I even give a greeting properly…?
When had he become such a worthless person?
Now that he thought about it, he had the feeling he might have been worthless from the start.
Even as she looked at Zagan worry to himself, Nephie obediently took the dried meat and cup of milk.
“Thank you, master.”
As he was depressed at his own worthlessness, Nephie timidly looked up at him.
“What is it?”
“What… should I do?”
“Hmm, let’s see…”
Even after a night, he couldn’t think of what he should have her do.
Should I have her clean?
However, just looking into a room yesterday was a disaster.
There were close to fifty such rooms in the castle, and they hadn’t even been cleaned once. It was far too much for a single person, and he somehow had the feeling that if he were to order her, she’d work at it until it was done.
In the first place, Zagan wasn’t fussy about his surroundings, nor did he have any interest in their cleanliness, so having her go through such a mind-numbing experience wouldn’t sit right with him.
What then should he have her do?
Not having her do anything would probably unsettle her too…
The girl had been trained to think of herself as a sacrifice or a lab rat. Yet he didn’t think that being told to just stand around by the man who bought her would make her rejoice with ‘Ah, I don’t have to do anything.’
Nephie made a surprised face.
“Master, you are eating the same thing?”
“Hm? Is there something strange about that?”
She seemed to want to say something, but instead, let her gaze wander around the room as if she couldn’t put it into words.
“Just say it, it’s not like I’ll get angry.”
Managed Zagan, even as he cursed himself for not being able to put it more gently.
Her expression didn’t change, but she opened her mouth as if it was awfully hard to say.
“I am honoured to simply receive food. However, for you to eat the same food as well, master… it’s strange…”
In her own way, she was questioning him the best she could.
Zagan folded his arms and thought. What on earth was it that she found strange? The things in front of him were simply milk poured into a dirty cup, and dried meat from some time or another.
Hmm? There were folks eating this kind of thing in the town yesterday, weren’t there?
That was right, the slaves he saw in Kianoides. Seeing them in the streets was fairly pitiful, but when he thought about it properly, he ate the same kind of things.
With a thoughtful noise and nod, Zagan opened his mouth.
“Is it that this is a plain meal, perhaps?”
“Ah, yes… I think it’s the kind of food slaves like me are given.”
In other words, rather than a meal, it was ‘feed’.
However, rather than take offence, she was simply lamenting. No, it was more like—
Is she… worried?
No, that was probably slightly wrong. She most likely wouldn’t open her heart in a single day.
Rather than that, it seemed like the kind of sympathetic response you would give when, for example, you can’t endure looking at the person, no matter who they may be, and thought, ‘If I don’t do anything for them, won’t they just die?’
As he chewed roughly at his own food, he gazed at the wrinkled dry meat.
Yes, that’s right. You can’t even call this food a meal.
He’d eaten nothing but this kind of food since his thieving days, so hadn’t thought to question it. Other than dry meat, he’d eaten hard bread, but that would soon go mouldy and be inedible. Even so, he’d forced himself to eat it a few times, and then felt woeful with the stomach ache afterwards.
Looking back on me going nowhere since yesterday, really reminds me of that bread.
He’d heard it said that your first love tasted of lemon, but it seemed it was really sour enough to turn the stomach.
If he was to talk about what he really thought was tasty, it would be alcohol. The alcohol that Barbarus had brought when he was messing around was delicious, but even then, the accompaniment was dried meat.
Not knowing how to buy alcohol himself, his life ended up continuing on dried meat.
“I wonder what normal people eat…”
At his involuntary murmur, Nephie seemed to resolve herself and opened her mouth.
She took a short, deep breath and spoke.
“This may be impertinent, but, shall I make something?”
Zagan stood with a clatter and grabbed Nephie’s hand tightly as she recoiled in surprise.
“You can cook?”
“I learnt by watching, so I can’t guarantee the taste, but…”
Oh, what a talent.
And made by the girl he loved, at that. That choice hadn’t even occurred to Zagan.
A desire for food is supposed to be one of humanity’s three great needs, isn’t it…
He hadn’t thought to fulfil those desires, only to research magic.
His eyes burned.
Were these tears welling up within him? He was honestly surprised he still had something like tears in him.
Zagan drained his milk in a single gulp.
“Phew, Nephie, I’ve decided what we should do.”
“Yes, what might that be?”
“Shopping in town!”
There were no ingredients other than dried meat and milk in the castle, and even Zagan knew you couldn’t make a meal with those alone.
Looking up at him blankly, Nephie too then clapped her hands in agreement.
She might have thought she needed to give some kind of reaction, but Zagan was somewhat embarrassed.
The biggest town around was Kianoides, but there were also several smaller towns and villages around the abandoned castle. Zagan was heading towards one of these, but as he left the castle, he noticed a problem.
Now that I think about it, I used everything I owned to buy Nephie…
He was undoubtedly penniless.
He had been spurred on by the voice in his heart but hadn’t given a thought to the consequences. Because Kianoides was a trade town, it had roads stretching from it to all the areas around it, these were dotted with towns and you would normally use a carriage to move between them. If you walked along the road, you’d soon find a shared carriage or something.
It was just as he was about to enter one of these carriages that he finally noticed he had no money.
“Not getting one?”
Zagan shook his head at the inquisitive driver — a cat-faced therianthrope.
“Ahh, it looks like I forgot something, go on ahead?”
The carriage left with its wheels clattering.
Behind Zagan, who was fruitlessly watching the carriage leave, Nephie tilted her head.
“Shall we return to the castle?”
“Nah, there’s no need.”
“Is that so…?”
If they went back to the castle, there still wouldn’t be even a single copper coin there. He might be able to sell some of the torture implements, but calling in an appraiser would cost a fair amount of money.
Actually, we need something for Nephie to wear too.
Since yesterday, the girl had been wearing that pure white dress, and it was now dirty because the castle itself was dirty.
Somehow, he’d have to get some money.
To distract from that, Zagan murmured with a dignified expression.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been out at this hour, walking every once in a while is nice too.”
He set off after the cart as he gave his painful excuse, and Nephie followed along.
When he glanced back, Nephie had taken the hem of her skirt in her hands and was trotting along to keep up. There was a difference in their strides, but the dress and those shoes might be hard to walk in. With a little awareness, he walked slower.
As they walked, Zagan worried.
Should I have attacked the carriage and taken their money and goods?
He hadn’t done so recently, but he’d eaten like that in the past.
But he’d scared Nephie last night when he used attack magic. And what would she think of a man committing highway robbery right in front of her?
I guess highway robbery really is no good.
How, then, would he get some money?
Nephie had said she could cook, so he’d even started to think of disposing of the castle and opening a cafe for light meals when a scream came down from the road.
“Mm? Ah, it’s probably some highway robbery or something, there are bandits around here sometimes.”
In the distance, they could see a group of men attacking the carriage with long-bladed hatchets. There were about a dozen armed men, a harmless group of bandits.
They were just normal humans, not mages. They’d not necessarily been trained like knights, and didn’t have any troublesome tools like holy knights. They were just normal people being violent with edged weapons.
That was Zagan’s recognition of them.
They had dragged along the passengers and dropped them, and were taking the money. They might intend to take the young women along, as they moved them to somewhere else. Maybe they’d sell them to slavers, or use them as playthings, at any rate, there wasn’t a pleasant end awaiting them. Zagan felt sorry for the abducted children, but he’d done similar things himself, and didn’t think it was a particularly tragic scene.
As he watched it happen unconcernedly, he noticed Nephie had begun to tremble.
She was feigning calm, but her complexion had completely paled and her lips were quivering. Her dark eyes were focused on the people being robbed.
Zagan’s breath caught.
Was Nephie captured like this too perhaps?
Nephie wasn’t initially held by slave dealers, she must have been living peacefully somewhere. She might have remembered those painful memories.
Zagan pointed at the bandits.
“Nephie, look closely. Those kind of people are trash.”
Her voice held a touch of dejection. He didn’t know what she was dejected about, but Zagan gathered magic in his pointing finger.
Immediately after, a streak of lightning shot off like an arrow.
Nephie let out an adorable scream as she covered her face.
A number of the bandits were touched by the tendrils of lightning and were scattered.
Nephie opened and closed her mouth as if she couldn’t speak. The bandits stiffened at the sudden attack magic too, as if they couldn’t understand what had happened.
I’m not going to say anything pushy like ‘I’ll protect you’.
Nephie might have been scared seeing the attack magic, but under no circumstances would the bandits be able to keep their cool when scared. They were like weeds or pebbles, nothing to be afraid of.
That’s why he wanted to show her that even bandits were like harmless little animals.
Even so, it seemed they understood an enemy had appeared.
“D-don’t panic! Even if he’s a mage, they can’t use magic over and over. Get him before he can use it again!”
At the voice of what seemed to be the leader, the bandits rushed at him with weapons in hand.
“Get behind me.”
Saying so to Nephie, whose voice was trembling, Zagan moved forward.
The closest bandit was about two heads taller than Zagan. His bulging arm muscles might have been wider than Nephie’s waist.
That huge man attacked with his axe. It was a brutal attack that would probably bisect a huge tree. Zagan’s head would be crushed like an egg.
The axe swung downward, right at Zagan’s head.
However, the one to let out a call of surprise was the huge man. Zagan had blocked the axe bare-handed. Not only that, but even when the giant pulled and strained, he couldn’t budge the axe in the slightest.
“Challenging a mage in physical strength certainly is a foolish idea.”
When speaking of mages, most people would imagine someone shut away in the dark, researching, surrounded by books, with dull movements. However, they could use magic to call down lightning, control fire, and even create invisible shields. They were beyond humans, and first devoted that almighty power to protect themselves.
Their skin was tough enough that an average blade wouldn’t even harm it, their legs were fast enough to overtake a swift horse, their arms could tear even iron, and their heart was strong enough that they could fight for an entire day and night without becoming short of breath.
As they aged, mages wielded even more fantastical powers. No matter how much a knight trained, they were monsters that a human body could not stand against.
That was the existence known as a mage.
Zagan strengthened his grip. The axe began to crack and groan, and the giant’s eyes widened.
“I-it can’t be…”
The axe shattered like glass with a crash, and the man let out a dumbfounded exclamation.
The man had fallen to his knees, crestfallen, and Zagan slapped his forehead lightly, as one might squash a bug.
With a pig-like cry, the giant was blown back to the carriage. Landing on top of a bandit that was unlucky enough to be there.
…It seemed that it was their leader. With their commander crushed, the other bandits hid away in the shade of the carriage and bushes.
“Geh, h-help… Sir! Help us!”
They were begging for their lives, but their words weren’t directed to Zagan. A robed man relaxedly appeared in front of Zagan after lurking somewhere.
He was a mage.
Apparently, the bandits had hired a mage.
“Hmmm… A mage saving people? How strange.” The mage rubbed his chin dubiously, and held his other hand aloft. “However, this is part of the contract as well. I don’t know who you are, but you should regret showing yourself before me.”
Flames burst forth the moment Zagan noticed a small magic circle on the palm of his hand. The heat was enough to take your breath away, and the surrounding bushes caught alight, as the bandits hiding within shrieked in agony.
Carefully observing both the mage’s and fire’s movements, Zagan murmured.
“I see, drawing another circle using the flames as a medium, huh.”
The fire wasn’t spreading uncontrollably. It was rushing forth, drawing a circle with the mage at its centre. It wasn’t attack magic, it was constructing a magic circle of restraint. A huge circle spread out, engulfing Zagan and the carriage. It seemed like the mage saw Zagan as a formidable enemy, and was using large-scale magic.
Well, there’s no reason to deliberately wait for that.
The tongues of flame approached him. Nephie gasped behind him, but Zagan was standing before her.
He irritatedly waved his arm.
The fire seemed to melt away, and even the burning bushes and carriage were extinguished. All that was left was the light of the magic circle at his feet.
Even so, the mage raised his arms and cried loudly.
“Not bad. But you were too slow, become ash!”
The magic circle shone—
And, nothing happened.
Even now, the magic circle was shining.
However, it wasn’t the mage’s circle anymore.
Zagan let out an ostentatious sigh.
“Can’t you use a single spell without drawing a huge circle like this?”
When he shook off the fire, Zagan had taken ownership of the circle from the mage. The same way Barbarus had moved into Zagan’s bounded field yesterday.
“This is what happens to trash.”
Zagan raised his index finger to the sky, then swung it down, drawing a line.
The magic circle shone brighter and burst.
A lance of light rained straight down from the sky.
It was a focused lightning strike. And though it wasn’t too strong, it was strong enough to shatter castle walls should Zagan fire it at them.
The mage took the attack straight on, and disappeared without a trace.
The terrifying thing was that even with that attack, the carriage and the passengers weren’t even scratched.
The mage had caused a single flame and even swallowed up his allies, and Zagan had just erased his target. This showed the difference in their abilities. Zagan slowly approached the carriage. There were still bandits there.
“What is it? Come on. Surely after stealing, you’re resolved to be stolen from?”
“H-hee, what’d we even do!?”
Were they really in the position to ask that?
The leader, who had finally extricated himself from the giant, fell onto his backside and scooted backwards.
“Who knows. There was just an eyesore over there, right? Are you lot the same kind of thing?”
With a scream, the bandit’s eyes rolled up into his head and he fainted… Judging from the unpleasant smell, he’d pitifully wet himself too.
Seeing the state of their leader, the other bandits threw down their weapons and surrendered. After making sure none would stand against him, Zagan turned back to Nephie. He’d meant to open a safe path for her, but she was still petrified with eyes wide open.
Huh? Did I make another mistake?
A cold sweat overcame him, but Zagan cleared his throat and feigned calm.
“You see, Nephie. Bandits are completely harmless trash. They can’t hurt you, they might be an eyesore, but they behave if you just stroke them a little.”
“They attacked a carriage, are they really harmless…?”
Despite her lack of expression, Nephie’s question was unrelenting.
When she’s surprised, she replies pretty sharply, huh…
She’d been shocked, but he was happy to be able to see this side of her.
However, looking at the two of them, it seemed someone couldn’t stand it and started gushing. And as if the dam had broken, laughter poured forth.
“You’re amazing, mage-san!”
Together with the voice, the passengers gathered around Zagan.
“You’re the one that didn’t get on earlier, right?”
“Thanks, you saved us.”
“I guess there are good mages too.”
Zagan’s eyes swirled at being spoken to like that. It wasn’t the first time he’d kicked bandits around, and sometimes he’d even saved people passing by, but it was the first time he’d been thanked like this.
Zagan wasn’t the only one surrounded.
“Are you the mage’s attendant?”
“Such a beautiful girl.”
“You’ve got a good master.”
Nephie was being jostled too. Zagan understood.
Maybe it’s because Nephie is with me?
He was sure that if he were alone, they’d run off like normal. He didn’t know what they thought because of her presence, but it seemed to make them feel something other than fear.
Zagan felt slightly uncomfortable at having been seriously considering robbing them earlier.
Then, the driver took out a small bag.
“Hey, would you like to ride with us in exchange for your protection? We’ll pay you of course… though it’s not much.”
With the small bag being pushed into his hands, he couldn’t do anything other than accept. From the weight and feel of it, he could tell there were about ten gold coins inside.
It would have been a paltry sum before, but now, he was extremely grateful for it. It was plenty of money to buy the ingredients and Nephie’s clothes.
What is this? Is money really that moving?
So it seemed that if he just destroyed some villains, money would come floating down for him.
After he held a slight hope — he thought properly about it, and realised he was one of those villains that should be instantly destroyed and felt weak in the knees.
Before he could fall, he and Nephie were herded into the carriage. As they sat next to each other, their eyes met.
“Why… did you save these people?”
“Eh? Ahh… that’s right, I ended up saving them.”
He had only wanted to show Nephie that bandits were nothing to be scared of, and hadn’t realised he was saving the passengers.
But, isn’t this a chance to win some affection?
An ulterior motive grew. He needed a clever phrase to open Nephie’s heart. While praying to Barbarus, who had given him good advice up until now, Zagan answered as if to say it was only natural.
“I was just showing some stuck-up trash its place.”
Why can I never say anything but that kind of thiinnng!?
Was his pride getting in the way?
He’d thought of honeyed words like that it was to protect Nephie, or that he wouldn’t abandon the weak, yet what flowed from his mouth was a bluff as useless as dog crap.
Zagan despaired as he threw the chance right into the trash himself. So, he didn’t notice that Nephie actually seemed to look up at him in deeper interest.
“See you, mate. You can ride when you like, it’s free for you.”
Zagan had gotten into the carriage and ended up coming to Kianoides, they stopped, and the cat-faced driver left him behind with those words.
The town was as noisy as always. Looking in one direction, you would see a noblewoman enjoying her shopping, looking in another you would see a filthy punk selling drugs. It was a chaotic city, but by the same token, it had anything and everything.
Now then, where to go?
Gathering ingredients was their goal for the time being, but there currently wasn’t anything in the castle that Nephie would need for her life there.
In the first place, what does a girl need for her life?
Zagan was ignorant there. After clearing his throat with a cough, he looked at Nephie.
“Nephie, most things are available in this town. You can choose what you need.”
“Even being given rags would satisfy me.”
Zagan wanted to cry at her answer, bereft of hopes and dreams.
Of course. A girl that doesn’t know what will become of her the next day wouldn’t desire anything.
But in that case, what should he buy her?
As he worried, he looked at the townspeople.
It wasn’t that there weren’t nobles in resplendent dresses, but everyone seemed to be wearing clothes that were easy to move in. And as far as footwear went, there were a lot of boots, sandals, and things easy to run in.
Nephie had a dragging dress and sharp-heeled shoes, so walking around the town shopping seemed like it would be difficult.
“…Hmm, for now, let’s pick out some clothes.”
“Yeah, it’s hard to move in that outfit, right?”
She’d staggered on the stairs yesterday, and had held the hem of the skirt up as she walked today. Nephie blinked as if she’d been told something unbelievable, but didn’t seem to be curious or displeased.
While he regretted not asking the driver where women’s clothes were sold, he soon found a store that seemed to sell them after walking a little. It seemed to specialise in travelling wear, but a complete set of women’s clothing was decorating a wooden mannequin. They would probably sell something usable for everyday wear.
Zagan opened the door, and the shop suddenly fell silent. Apparently seeing a mage’s clothing had put them on guard.
A young girl that seemed to be a saleswoman soon came forward. She was a winged person, with green wings on her back, splendidly displaying the store’s products on her body, with a name tag atop her full chest with ‘Manuela’ written on it.
The saleswoman — Manuela — spoke with a tight smile.
“W-welcome. What kind of clothes are you looking for, sir mage?”
Frankly, it wasn’t a particularly welcoming atmosphere, but he was honestly glad that a female employee had come forward.
Zagan pointed at Nephie behind him.
“Choose some appropriate clothes for her.”
Manuela looked at Nephie and her mouth dropped open.
“Phwa, what a pretty girl…”
Apparently, even the same sex thought so. Though it wasn’t about himself, for some reason, Zagan’s mood improved.
However, Manuela’s expression soon clouded as her gaze fell on the collar around her neck.
I really do need to get rid of that collar, huh.
Being faced with those gazes each time he entered a store, he wouldn’t be able to even step outside. Being told she might run away if he were to remove the collar had nothing to do with it. Zagan wanted to save Nephie. Of course, he had the ulterior motive of wanting her to like him, but making her his by putting a collar on her had no meaning. That would doubtless lead to the terrified faces that always greeted him as a mage.
Nephie was taken by the saleswoman and disappeared into the store. Zagan wasn’t sure where he should stand, so for now, he avoided the entrance and stood against the wall.
As he did, Manuela soon returned.
“Is this ensemble to your tastes?”
“Hmm… Wait, huh?”
Looking at Nephie as she returned from within the store, Zagan’s eyes shot open.
The only things wrapped around her bare flesh were leather belts.
So far as they went, they were in the shape of clothes. Her nipples and crotch were miraculously covered. But apart from that, everything was laid bare, her jewel-like skin, and the unexpectedly large swell of her breasts weren’t covered in the slightest.
The collar was arranged to look like it was part of the outfit, and could even seem half artistic, but he hadn’t made that kind of request at all. If there were any male customers or employees around, Zagan would have had to gouge out their eyes.
Nephie reddened right to her pale ears and twisted her body as if to hide it.
It was an inconceivable reaction from her calmly lifting her skirt the night before. People that truly wanted to die would have no shame. From that point of view, he was a little happy that she seemed to have a little more will to live, but this wasn’t the time for that.
Her white hair swayed smoothly, and the girl covered her body.
“U-ummm… please… don’t look…”
Nephie’s voice, which seemed on the verge of vanishing, brought him back to himself, and Manuela seemed to puff out her chest in pride for some reason.
“How is it? I think it’s a perfect combination, if I do say so myself.”
“What’s perfect about that!? I said to pick suitable clothes, didn’t I?”
“Eh…? I tried to match them to your tastes…”
Just how was he seen?
Well, I am a villainous mage bringing a cute girl like this along with a collar around her neck.
The word mage itself was something like a synonym for evil. Thinking about it properly, the saleswoman’s reaction was perfectly reasonable.
…No, even so he wouldn’t think it would be these clothes.
Holding his head, Zagan spoke.
“Normal clothes that you need for everyday life.”
“Eh… And I’ve got such a good base to work with.”
Even as the saleswoman looked frankly disappointed, she once more took Nephie back into the store.
“Wait. Leave that thing in your hand behind.”
Incorrigibly, Manuela was holding something sensational that looked like underwear. Nephie noticed that and her eyes started to well with tears. At Zagan’s glare, even she held both hands up and backed off.
“N-no way. It was a joke, just a joke.”
It didn’t look like that in the slightest, and Zagan watched her leave suspiciously. The saleswoman let go of the clothes and Nephie seemed to relax from the bottom of her heart. Finally, Nephie returned after her second change.
“Now, what do you think?”
This time, Zagan couldn’t help but let out a sigh of admiration.
She was wearing a deep blue dress, with an apron, decorated with fancy lace. Her feet were protected by boots that seemed easy to walk in. They were a servant’s clothes, but he thought they were honestly lovely. Manuela began to explain, in apparent dissatisfaction.
“It’s an orthodox maid style, but the dress and the apron are both made of silk, while also being usable as an attendant’s clothing. The boots are also furnished with healing magic, and ease the burden of standing work.”
It didn’t look bad, and it seemed functional. Looking over it again, it seemed like a good product.
“How is it, Nephie?”
“If I receive it from you, master, I do not mind.”
“…Oi, if you say that, you can wear the clothes from earlier again.”
The winged employee next to her had a gleam in her eyes, as she pulled out the leather belt outfit. Nephie frantically shook her head, and he felt like it was the first time he’d seen her react so quickly.
“T-this is fine, master!”
“Indeed, then we’ll go with this.”
Manuela clicked her tongue in displeasure. What an ill-tempered employee.
After the bill was settled, she whispered something in Nephie’s ear.
“How nice, your master treasures you.”
Zagan couldn’t hear what was said, but Nephie’s eyes seemed to open slightly wider. And then, she nodded hesitantly.
Her expression seemed somehow happy.
Leaving the store behind, Zagan asked.
“What did the saleswoman say?”
“That you’re a good master.”
It was probably just putting it nicely, but he didn’t really see the need for her to go out of her way to say that. Regardless of Zagan’s tilted head, Nephie stroked her brand new clothes.
“Am I… treasured?”
Her voice shaking as to whether she could believe it, her words vanished into the wind with no one hearing them.
Now then, where to next?
Having changed into her new clothes, Nephie seemed able to walk much more easily. They should be fine walking here and there now. Then, he felt something pulling on his cuff.
Looking back, he saw Nephie had timidly grabbed the cuff of his robe. She herself didn’t seem to have noticed as she tilted her head in puzzlement.
I see, maybe she’s scared after that saleswoman messed with her.
When he thought of how she had resigned herself to whatever would be done to her yesterday, she was currently so charming that that happiness passed to him.
They continued walking carefully, Zagan in order to not shake her hand off, and with Nephie not realising what she was doing.
As they walked, the clamour of metal reached their ears. Looking that way, it seemed to be a blacksmiths. There were swords and armour for knights and soldiers, and a stack of other small metal constructions. Amongst them, was a slave collar.
“We’re going into that store.”
Zagan headed towards the blacksmiths, and Nephie followed him.
The inside was a workshop, merchandise was lined up along the walls and on shelves. Within, several men were hammering hot metal.
When he called out to the men, one of them shot up in surprise.
Well, that was a common reaction to a mage suddenly calling to you.
Ever so slowly, the man turned his head.
“W-what is it?”
“I’ve got something for you to look at.”
The one that came forward was a dwarven man. He didn’t have a beard, so Zagan couldn’t really tell his age. He looked like a boy, but he might be middle-aged. Dwarves were skilled with their hands, and their speciality was delicate ornaments and gadgets.
Zagan had Nephie stand in front of him.
“I’d like you to look at her collar… do you know how to remove it?”
Nephie shook suddenly, and then looked at him with a disbelieving face.
Huh? Oh yeah, did I tell her I’d remove the collar?
He had a feeling he hadn’t.
Even if he couldn’t remove it right away, knowing that he intended to would probably put her at ease, he utterly despaired at his poor conversational skills.
Nephie timidly opened her mouth.
“With that collar, it’s like you’re always Marchosias’ property. That’s not something you need.”
Zagan covered his face as he spoke about Nephie as a ‘thing’ again. However, Nephie’s cheeks reddened slightly and she nodded.
He didn’t know what he was saying ‘indeed’ so, but it was all he could do to answer with that.
Then, the dwarf swordsmith spoke sullenly.
“Remove it? This collar?”
“…Please desist with your jokes. It’s a magic tool is it not? We can’t hope to deal with that.”
Nephie’s shoulders slumped slightly, but Zagan already knew that much.
“I want to ask about its structure. If you break the lock, would you be able to remove it.”
The swordsmith examined the collar closely at that question.
Finally, he displayed the lock. Six shafts ran from the lump of metal with a keyhole and seemed to connect to the collar.
“Please look at this lock. It is fixed into the structure of the collar, if the lock were removed, the collar would fall apart. Normally, that is.”
The addendum of ‘normally’ probably meant that he didn’t know what was added to it with magic. Zagan nodded in return.
“Because magic is a power that overturns the concepts of nature, it is bound by its original nature. If it was built like that, the lock might even be a decoration.”
“And, this is difficult to say, but…” The swordsmith had a hesitant look, and as if he didn’t want Nephie to hear, he moved away from her and spoke quietly. “It probably has a trap within it.”
“Yes, if it’s not removed correctly, it will activate and… in the worst case, the little lady’s head might have something awful happen to it…”
He didn’t even want to think what that awful thing could be. That was probably why the swordsmith had prevaricated.
Removing it by force is dangerous after all then.
Zagan had more than enough strength to simply destroy the collar. However, it seemed that holding back was for the best with the collar being a remnant of a Demon Lord.
“I think it would be for the best to remove it with the original key.”
“Well, that’d be true.”
He knew that, but the auctioneers hadn’t been able to manage that.
I had an inkling, but…
However, it was the truth that there was nothing he could do now.
For now, he’d found out what he wanted to, so he took several silver coins from his pocket, the change from buying Nephie’s clothes.
“Here, as thanks.”
“No, I haven’t done anything for a reward. And more importantly, I wouldn’t take it from you.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
With a pained smile, the dwarf swordsmith spoke.
“You saved me.”
Zagan tilted his head, not remembering it in the slightest.
“It’s already been a year. My carriage was attacked, and you saved me and my daughter. We ran off in fear, but you let us go without getting angry. Please, forgive me.”
Apparently, in some mob he’d kicked around, there was a mage or something that had attacked him. And as a result, Zagan had saved him and his daughter — he was old enough to have a daughter. He didn’t intend to demand repayment, but he was thankful he didn’t have to pay now. Zagan softly returned the coins to his pocket.
“Then I’ll leave it here, but forget about that pointless thing, I don’t remember it anyhow.”
He said that, feeling like it would distract from not giving him the coins, but the swordsmith had an amused smile.
“I won’t forget it. Come here anytime if you need something.”
So saying, he saw them off, and Zagan and Nephie left the store behind.
What’s with today?
The people around were so friendly it felt creepy. It probably wasn’t just that he had Nephie with him.
Zagan hadn’t noticed. That his face which usually seemed to hate everything was set in a much softer expression now.
After that, by the time they had finished their shopping, the sun was beginning to set. It was impossible, he couldn’t go back to the castle and make Nephie cook, so they entered a small diner.
Perhaps because it wasn’t really the time, there weren’t many customers. Including them, there were about ten people there. The wooden floor creaked sharply every time the employees walked, echoing up to the ceiling. Lamps hung from the rafters, softly lighting each table.
He didn’t know anything in the menu — for Zagan, even the names of pieces of cuisine were unknown — but ordered something that seemed like it was meat, something like a salad, and bread.
He didn’t often eat vegetables, but Nephie had a figure that made it impossible to think she only ate meat.
As they were waiting for their food, he noticed Nephie seemed to want to say something.
“What is it?”
She mumbled, then touched her collar.
“Do you intend to remove this collar, master?”
“Hm? Oh yeah, I didn’t say. I do.”
He’d put it ambiguously earlier, so she didn’t seem to have been able to confirm it. Being asked that up front was somehow embarrassing, and Zagan answered bluntly. He wasn’t able to give any assurances like ‘of course!’
Nephie opened and closed her mouth several times in apparent conflict, but no words came out.
Even so, she seemed to resolve herself, and the girl in a maid uniform opened her mouth.
“If I didn’t have the collar, don’t you think… I’d run away?
Nephie was an elf, and a white-haired one that had huge amounts of magic. If she didn’t have the collar, she’d probably be able to use magic.
It was this collar that was the proof she was bound under Zagan.
Zagan had tried to have it removed at the blacksmiths.
Well, it’s not like it doesn’t bother me.
Of course, Zagan had thought of that risk. A girl that he had spent the ridiculous sum of one million pieces of gold to obtain running away wasn’t a laughing matter. He would be ruined, both as a man, and as a mage.
And he thought that might happen.
Different from Zagan, Nephie had no reason to support herself.
However, even so, even if she were to run away —
Even so, I want to remove it.
Zagan couldn’t seem to put those feelings into words. So what came from his mouth in the end was:
“Hmph, either way, I can’t remove it right now. Don’t get your hopes up pointlessly.”
He held his head in his hands.
Why couldn’t he have at least said ‘Even so, I want to remove it’?
It’s probably because I want her to stay by my side.
That was probably why he’d said not to hope, but there was no reason for the ‘pointlessly’.
Was ‘how to talk to girls’ in some grimoire somewhere? He would be fine with a scam right now, so he wished earnestly for someone to tell him that.
Yet, Nephie still nodded her head, seeming somewhat satisfied.
He had the feeling he’d said something awful to the girl, and dropped his head into his hands again. Though this time, his collapse was short-lived. Their food was soon delivered.
It was a meal that he’d never even seen before, but he’d seen it often in his dreams in the past. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d used a knife and fork, but could at least remember how. Even as Zagan began to cut the meat, Nephie stared blankly at the food.
“What’s wrong, don’t you know how to use a spoon or fork?”
He remembered hearing about countries in the far east that used pieces of wood called ‘chopsticks’ to eat. The isolated northern lands of the elves might not use knives and forks.
He remembered that and asked, but Nephie shook her head with a shiver.
“No… that’s not…”
“Then eat. It’s not like you’re full, is it?”
He asked harshly again, but Nephie was probably used to it, as she only looked curious, and not scared. If anything, he should have noticed earlier.
As a mage, Zagan could stave off his hunger with magic, but Nephie’s magic was restrained by the collar. She didn’t look like she had much stamina either, and she’d only eaten dried meat and milk since that morning, which couldn’t even be called a meal.
As if affirming his words, Nephie’s stomach let out a cute growl. Nephie’s pointed ears went slightly red.
“Um… I can eat as well?”
“Is there a reason you couldn’t?”
Or is this too simple a meal too?
But the reaction seemed different from that morning. Then, he suddenly remembered her circumstances.
“…Is this the first time you’ve eaten like this perhaps?”
Nephie nodded deeply.
Right, I see… Nephie’s the same…
Zagan had thought she was being stubborn at first, but finally felt he understood. She was the same as him when he was powerless, homeless, and despairing at the world. So Zagan was able to answer as if it was nothing.
“Then don’t worry about it. It’s similar for me. Eat what you think looks tasty. There’s no one here that you need to hold back in front of.”
“Just eat. It’s a small restaurant, but it’s much better than the dried meat this morning.”
He said that, and lifted the meat to his mouth, but didn’t really know the flavour.
Is she upset about the thing with the collar earlier? How should I invite her to eat normally later?
With those questions and worries, he couldn’t even taste it.
Nephie brought a closed hand up before her mouth. The outer corners of her eyes dropped slightly, he might be imagining it, but it seemed like she was smiling.
Then, she put her hands together before taking her fork up.
“Thank you for the food.”
The first thing she reached for was a tomato. She tried to stab it with her fork, but it didn’t go well, and it slipped away. Her expression didn’t change in the slightest, but the tips of her pointed ears reddened. It seemed like she was embarrassed in her own way.
Noticing Zagan’s gaze, Nephie shook suddenly, and this time took up a spoon. She delicately scooped the tomato into the bowl-like depression in it, and finally put it between her peach coloured lips.
It rolled atop her tongue, and she made a curious expression. Almost certainly because it didn’t taste of anything.
You won’t taste it by licking it, chew it!
He wanted to give her some words of encouragement, but didn’t have any confidence he could say it nicely. And above all, Nephie would be embarrassed to be told that. Encouraging her in his heart, he watched her, and Nephie finally bit into the tomato.
There was the sound of something being crushed and juice gushing out, and Nephie’s eyes opened widely.
“H-how is it…?”
She moved her mouth in silence for a while, as if she couldn’t answer, then nodded deeply. At that moment, her pure-white hair fell down onto her chest.
“I think… it’s tasty.” She said, then shook her head as if the words weren’t enough and she rethought it. “It’s… the first time… I’ve eaten one.”
Come to think of it, she’d said she’d learnt to cook by ‘watching’, she might not have been in a situation where she could eat properly. He probably should have lamented that situation, but instead, he felt a well of empathy and his face relaxed.
“Do you like it?”
“I don’t… really know.” She said, and scooped another tomato up with the spoon. “I thought… it would be sweeter. But, it’s very juicy… It’s the first time I’ve eaten something like this.”
Ahh, small tomatoes do look like candy.
Zagan had thought they were candy too, and taken some from a store; when he tried to eat it, he was disappointed at its sourness. Then afterwards, he was caught by the owner and heavily beaten.
That’s right, she’s a girl, they like sweet things.
He had a feeling this was the first thing that could be called Nephie’s inclination that he knew. He’d try ordering her a sweet dessert or something later.
Whilst he thought about that, he reached out his fork for a tomato.
However, it slipped away, the same as it had for Nephie.
He tried a second time, and a third, but he couldn’t get it. Thinking about it properly, he didn’t normally use a fork. He had just decided to switch to the spoon when that tomato was gently scooped up on Nephie’s spoon.
She held that spoon out to Zagan.
Zagan’s eyes shot open.
Is this… being fed…?
He’d seen it once, somewhere in the past. A man and woman that seemed to have a good relationship fed each other sweets — though it was tomatoes here.
Back then, he’d felt a hatred he couldn’t explain, and hadn’t held any particular feelings towards it. To think that the day would come where he would be faced with it.
Her face was calm, but the tips of Nephie’s ears had gone bright red. As he had stared for a while, her cheeks had flushed as well.
That aside, isn’t this the spoon that’s touched Nephie’s mouth?
Could he put that in his own mouth?
Tense, Zagan moved his mouth to the spoon. The tomato rolled into his mouth. He bit into it and the sour juice filled his mouth.
“…It is.” Then, Nephie whispered appealingly. “Master, you haven’t ordered me to do anything.”
Before now, he wasn’t sure how to talk to her. Even though he thought he wanted to give her a role, he didn’t know what to order her to do.
Nephie’s expression still didn’t change, but she nodded as if affirming something to herself.
“Master… I want to be of use to you… will you allow me to be?”
That was the instant where Nephie first requested something for herself. However, he oddly couldn’t feel any attempt to flatter him in her words. Surely, even having a desire would cause her to hesitate.
And yet, it wasn’t for her that she asked, but for me?
Zagan could naturally answer, for that time alone.
“I will. You may do as you wish, Nephie.”
…In the end, he could only say it haughtily.
However, Nephie nodded with a serious face.
“I will, I shall give my best efforts.”
It was a rather formal answer, but even so, he was happy she was showing her own will.
“R-right. Please do.”
Zagan stabbed at a tomato again, and this time managed it. He went to move it to his mouth, but then his thoughts stopped, and he presented it to Nephie.
Nephie tilted her head slightly as if she didn’t understand his action.
Didn’t you just do that yourself?
Did she do it without realising? She seemed a bit too embarrassed for that though. However, Zagan was embarrassed too. He stayed like that for a long time, and even with magic, it was hard to keep it up.
“You like them, right? You can eat it.”
It was at him saying that, that Nephie finally realised he was repaying her for earlier. It wasn’t just her ears, her cheeks went red as well, even so, she slowly opened her mouth.
Her bright white teeth were visible through her peach lips. The tongue that poked forth from them seemed strangely coquettish. The tip of her tongue touched the bright red tomato, and it rolled into her mouth as she seemed to let a gasp out. After it left the fork, the juice inside rolled along her chin.
Seeming unable to bear the embarrassment, Nephie covered her face.
It felt like he was teasing her. However, rather than regretting it, he wanted to see more of that expression.
“How is it?”
He asked ostentatiously, and Nephie nodded seriously through the gaps in her fingers.
However, the exchange between them was observed by everyone inside the restaurant, and realising that fact, the two got flustered and ended up having to leave the store behind.
The clumsy pair calmed down for the time being by recognising their master/servant relationship.