Attendants and servants rushed here and there as they hurriedly prepared for departure. They brought out ten horses to the courtyard of the Nakte manor and loaded both sides with luggage of equal weight for balance. These bags contained several days’ worth of food and water for the journey. The horses were already saddled, but no one had yet gotten on any of them.
“I’ll definitely bring Cenate home, so prepare for his welcome back,” Rufus said as he bid his wife farewell in the living room. His eyes, which were usually terrifying and cold to his subordinates, were filled with only kindness as he softly ran his fingers through Fernenna’s hair.
“I wonder about that,” Fernenna muttered with a vague smile on her face. “Do you really think our boy is in Syros?”
“Father-in-law has stated so.”
“But, you’ve already checked there…”
“Yes, I already looked. That’s true, but I had not gone there myself and Syros is a town affiliated with the emperor. We probably couldn’t do a thorough search. I have no choice now but to believe in any clue, no matter how small it can be.”
Fernenna wasn’t completely convinced by Rufus’ composed argument, as expressed by her biting her lip. She took a quick glance towards the door before whispering in a voice so soft that no one else could hear, “I cannot trust whatever that sorcerer says.”
She recalled what happened the other day and knit her brow. She had overheard her father Cenate personally order Rufus to bring the heavy orb out from the storeroom. She was furious that her husband was being used as a servant and headed over there to give a piece of her mind.
She had been under the impression that the storeroom was merely an unused corner of the estate filled with only junk and dust, but she learned that it was a secret underground room. The light coming in from the long, narrow windows near the ceiling illuminated only the desk inside. And where the light didn’t reach were rows of shelves, unglazed clay pots, various dried plants, unfamiliar minerals, and piles of old texts all tightly packed together. And from this limited amount of light, she spotted the one managing the room: the black-cloaked sorcerer. He was thin and old, and she understood why he was incapable of grabbing the orb himself.
“I know everyone says we can’t let servants enter there due to family’s secrets,” Fernenna continues, “but I doubt Grandmother would ever employ a sorcerer. She was an ardent realist. I just know that sorcerer was hired by Father. If not, then he’s a scam or a fraud. He is only pretending to do things normal people wouldn’t understand for show so he could gain food and a place to stay. The sorcerer said something this time, right? Do you really believe trust him? I’m sure what he did is no better than throwing a stick on the ground to determine which path to take on at a crossroad.”
Fernenna continued to grumble, so Rufus let out a warm chuckle. “You’re too harsh on your father. I had used everything at my disposal but still couldn’t find him. If Father-in-law has chosen an unconventional method, then he must have determined that it was pointless to expend the same energy I had. In other words, he simply recognized that I had nothing else to offer.”
“I’m not saying I don’t trust Father because I hate him or anything,” Fernenna pouted. Rufus was about to chuckle since his wife didn’t deny her hatred of her father, but he managed to maintain his face. Fernenna hadn’t noticed and crossed her arms across her chest as if unable to bear the cold. “That sorcerer is creepy. His name is Origin, but rather than the god Olgu, the Holder of Hidden Powers, he should have derived his name from Naruge, the God of Darkness… I was only in that room for a short period, but I kept wondering if he was actually breathing. It felt like I was with a corpse.”
“Yeah, I also thought he seemed like he came out from a cemetery,” Rufus joked, but Fernenna’s face tensed and she shook her head in disappointment.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help but complain right now. You were suddenly called back from the east, and now you’re being sent straight to the south. Really, what does Father think you are?”
“It means he relies on me; he trusts me.” But then Rufus suddenly asked, “By the way, my dear clever wife, have you received any news from your loyal maid?”
Fernenna looked dejected and answered, “I’m sorry. I haven’t heard anything. Our boy is maybe…no, is really trying to hide from us.” What if he never comes back? What if they were abandoned by their son?
Her head, which had been full of nothing but anger, was instantly overtaken by unease. As it filled with thoughts of her son, helplessness and loneliness caused her body to tremble.
Rufus gently wrapped himself around her and gave her a kiss on her temple. In that position, he whispered in an almost imperceivable voice, “What if… that maid died together with Cenate?”
“That’s impossible.” Before he could finish his sentence, Fernenna decisively rejected the notion. “Our boy is most certainly alive. I know it. Please, Rufus, if you’re going to believe Father, believe in me first. Don’t think of your own son as dead.”
Eyes full of stubborn conviction stared back at him, causing Rufus to slightly flinch. He had begun to think that his wife was too far deep into her delusion in her attempt to escape reality. He himself didn’t want to believe that his son was dead. He was heading to Syros right now because he believed the boy was still alive. However, he couldn’t bring himself to be as steadfast in that hope as his wife. The gods always acted upon the world in ways humans could never comprehend. His rationale refused to let him say anything with absolute certainty. In a way, he could lessen the shock that could come from that worst-case scenario by always considering all possibilities.
After several moments of silence, he showed a slightly lonely smile. “I want to believe that.” But he quickly turned around and left the room to escape, knowing that his response broke his wife’s heart.
Around this time, said missing son knew nothing of how his disappearance affected his parents as he diligently helped out in a bookstore.
Cestus sorted the new arrivals, arranged them on the shelves, and inserted the record card customers would sign inside. If he found any books with bindings coming undone or glue coming off, he would carefully put them to the side to be repaired by the store owner’s skillful hands. Although he was now capable of performing simple repairs on the spot.
“You’ve gotten better, Cestus. It’ll save me a bunch of time if you keep working here. Though, I’m not saying that I’ll hand the business over to you… but once you’re an adult, you can become the secretary for some book-loving, rich guy.” The aging owner was fully content with Cestus’ work and started casually chatting while watching him work. “This town got mild weather, so there’s plenty of nobles coming here for vacation. The emperor’s vacation home is even on a nearby island. Did you know?”
“Yes,” Cestus gave a short and simple answer. To prevent displaying his disturbance, he fixed his eyes on the book in his hand. It was a classic masterpiece. Among all coincidences, he had once seen it as a play in that aforementioned vacation home.
He had only been Fedoras’ adopted son for about a year, but Fedoras had trained him as much as he could within that short period. He brought Cestus to the imperial capital as well as the vacation home his far predecessors had built. But that was not all. He also showed Cestus various other public ordinances like the playhouse, temple, and aqueducts.
Back then, Cestus was simply awestruck and dazzled by the magnificence every day, unable to comprehend what he was feeling. But now, albeit faintly, he felt like he understood why Fedoras had shown him such. A long history and culture were “treasures” that exceed the simple notion of monetary wealth. Be proud of and continue to preserve them—that was what Fedoras was trying to tell him.
“I heard that a previous emperor has a collection of original manuscripts hidden somewhere in that vacation home. He had everything—from terrible gibberish to gems historians and philosophers use to this day. Don’t you want to take a look?” the store owner joked.
Cestus dryly laughed. “Yes, I do. I heard that there were even some that would have been considered trash if they weren’t written by an emperor. It sort of gives a sense of relatability to someone as great as the emperors of the past.”
“No doubt about that. Hahaha!” But the owner’s laughter overlapped with Nera calling for Cestus from outside. He noticed her and asked, “Oh, what’s the matter?”
The store was not open yet. Nera usually waited outside, but she came in, causing Cestus to blink in surprise. She seemed restless, like something was chasing her.
“What’s gotten you so panicked?”
“Did something happen?”
When the owner and Cestus rushed to her side, Nera looked at each with a tense expression and quickly lowered her head. “I apologize! I know this is terrible of me, but please allow Cestus to quit as of today.”
“What?!” The one who shouted was the boy himself. “Why do I have to—” he asked in confusion, but he then realized the answer and gulped. Then he suddenly turned pale and dropped the book in his hand.
The owner quickly caught it, looked suspiciously at the pair of siblings, and asked, “You guys are stuck in a tight spot or something? The type you can’t tell others?”
“I apologize,” Nera apologized again but offered no explanation.
The owner stood there silently and frowned, but he eventually let out a deep sigh and disappeared deeper inside the store. The sound of the safe being opened and closed could be heard, and the man came back out with a small bag in his hand. The siblings watched on in suspicion as the owner sat down at the accounting desk and began silently flicking away at the abacus in front of them. After counting and taking out a certain number of silver coins, he pushed the coins toward the two. “Take it. That’s your salary up till now.”
“Mr. Cornis…” Cestus hesitated before standing in front of the desk, but the owner didn’t even raise his face when he motioned for the boy to leave.
“Jeez, you sure are a useless kid! Just when I thought you got potential, you done gone and popped that question. I hired you when you got no relatives or a place to stay, yet this is how you repay me? So ungrateful. Hurry up and leave!”
This complete 180° change made Cestus tremble a little and gulp. Tears of sadness and shock welled in his eyes. They would spill if he blinked, so he kept his eyes wide open as his movements suddenly became uncoordinated when he put the silver coins into this bag.
“I’m sorry. Thank you for taking care of me,” Cestus managed to say all that through his hoarse voice. Then he tightly clenched his teeth and silently took Nera’s hand as they left for the road.
“Wait, Cestus. Mr. Cornis—” Nellis said
“It’s fine. Let’s go,” Cestus said and pulled Nera’s hand, his gaze still focused downward. Nera never went against him, but she planted her feet firmly this time, causing Cestus to look up, flustered. He turned around and saw the owner standing in front of his store.
“You idiots!” His face was red and a complete mess. Exactly like Cestus. “Listen up! I don’t want anything to do with you two anymore! Get out of here. Even if you send me a letter telling me you’re sorry, I’ll tear it up right away! Y-you cursed piece of trash!”
As he shouted insults, he raised his arm and threw over something. Cestus picked it up as it rolled near his feet and stared at it. The tears he had been trying to hold back overflowed and left circular stains on the road. He squeezed the small protective stone in his hand and silently bowed.
His pace was quick as he left the bookstore. Not once did his feet stop until he reached the elevated area overlooking the port. All the while, he continued to hold onto Nera’s hand tightly. When he finally stopped, Nera knelt down beside him and softly embraced the boy. Cestus kept his fists clenched and didn’t make any attempt to cling or draw closer to her.
Nera softly whispered, “Mr. Cornis is an awkward man, isn’t he?”
“Yeah.” Cestus nodded, indicating that he already knew. His sudden resignation without any prior discussion surely broke the store owner’s heart. The man probably felt that the orphans he took care of didn’t trust him and had simply abandoned him. There was no way he could calmly process this shock. The way he told them that he won’t tell anyone no matter the circumstances, that they cut ties and didn’t need to bother keeping contact—such antagonistic behavior probably took everything out of him. If they had more time, could they have parted differently? If only they could disclose their situation earlier. Even just a little hint would have been fine.
Cestus rubbed away his tears, took a deep breath, and raised his head. “So, Nera, did you have enough time to clear our room?”
“Yes, since we don’t have many possessions.” Nera slightly lifted the two bags of different sizes on her shoulders and nodded with a smile.
Cestus finally noticed them and quickly reached out. “I’ll take one. So… where do you think we should go?” After asking, he suddenly furrowed his brow. “Wait, which side found us? Grandfather? Or the emperor?”
“I do not know.” Nera’s voice was low as she nervously answered, “I simply felt an unpleasant presence. It was like we were being watched… and not in the normal way.”
“What does that mean? You didn’t see our pursuer’s figure?”
“I didn’t see anyone. At the very least, not visibly. In any case, I’m certain those with physical forms will soon be making their way to this city. I doubt we will be able to continue avoiding their eyes in hiding anymore.” Despite her enigmatic explanation, her tone indicated that she was firmly speaking the truth.
Cestus scratched his head in frustration, but after turning around and looking at the sky, he answered, “I got it. In any case, we have to escape, right? If we’re dealing with someone different now, we must be vigilant. Then, how about the Orgenia Forest?”
“The Great Forest?” Nera’s eyes widened.
“Yeah. If we walk west alongside the coast from here, we can encounter the border of the forest. Although the legend says that only those of the Fidae Tribe can enter, there are towns and villages dotting the coast. We can procure food and water there while we search for a spot where we can enter the forest. And if we do encounter any Fidae Tribe members, we could get them to hide us. And if that happens, then naturally…”
He swallowed back the rest of his words. He put on a nonchalant look, tilted his head, and asked Nera with upturned eyes, “What do you think?” However, there was an intense sadness looming in those gray eyes.
The Fidae Tribe lived in the Orgenia Forest. If they agree to shelter these two, they wouldn’t be found very easily since the tribe uses the dragon’s power to hide. At the same time, this meant that Cestus could never leave the forest for the rest of his life… never to see his mother again.
Nera looked at Cestus with a pained expression and was at a loss on how to answer. But in the end, she couldn’t come up with a better option. “Yes, I agree. Let’s go. However, it will take too long to walk on land and will leave clear tracks. Let’s borrow a small boat. If we’re at sea, the Goddess Audia’s power will protect us.”
“That’s a good idea… but do we have the money?”
Cestus suddenly returned to looking his age. Nera unintentionally chuckled, but she apologized for her rudeness, although she continued to giggle. She playfully said, “There’s no need to worry. We’ve become quite rich in this one year.”
“Then, it’s fine,” Cestus mumbled. He scratched the tip of his nose in embarrassment. Then he made a serious face and looked up at Nera. “But, Nera, you don’t have to force yourself for my sake. With the money, and with going to Orgenia.”
“What are you saying, young master? No matter how much you’ve matured, going by yourself is far too dangerous. If you’re worried about me, then there is no need, for I am not forcing myself.”
“But you’ve often skipped out or lessened your meals.” He said, and Nera’s smile stiffened for a moment as she realized that the boy had found out. But she soon changed it into a vague smile to hide her embarrassment. Cestus glared right at her and crossed his arms. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Yeah, I’m still a child, but a child still notices a lot of things. I can understand what it means to force yourself.”
“Lord Cenate… my apologies. I did not intend to deceive you, nor was I attempting to deceive you. However… yes, I concede that I had forgone my meals on several occasions. But I truly did not have an appetite during those times. I’ve always been a light eater, so please do not glare at me like that.”
There was no lie in her consoling voice. He had become very sensitive to lies since the more frequently adults lied to him, the more perceptive he became of them. He conceded and forgave her, unfolding his arms and nodding with a grimace. “Fine. So, let’s go look for a boat. But, Nera, you constantly bicker with me to eat, so you have to eat too. Please don’t do it anymore.”
“Yes, I understand.” Nera gave a bemused smile and politely bowed. Cestus had a grim expression, but that didn’t last as he soon took Nera’s hand and ran down the road to the port.
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