Softly unearthing the soil with her gloved hands, she mixed in some new fertilizer before pressing in the plants’ roots again like how it was before. Even if she had a little goal in mind, these chosen plants were the type that would easily grow wildly if left alone. She let out a sigh.
「That should do it, I hope…」
Arche Mashie murmured that, wiping the sweat off her forehead as she assessed the plant in front of her. ‘Not bad, if I do say so myself,’ she nodded in satisfaction.
Arche’s walnut-colored, long hair fell to her cheeks, disheveled underneath the hood she had worn. It was as if the challenge of keeping her hair neat, went hand in hand with the plant she had painstakingly adjusted. The sensation of her hair clinging to her sweaty face felt gross. Irritated, Arche took her gloves and hood off, putting her hair in order once again.
That hair was nothing but a pain when she was working. ‘Should I cut it?’ She’d thought that countless times. But Arche knew that you couldn’t call her work, as well as her personality very feminine. So she kept growing out her hair as a final act of rebellion. There was a reason she wanted to do that.
Speaking of Arche’s work, she was a gardener.
Although she was still a novice, she considered herself skilled despite that. She knew she was a beginner, but she’d received a certain level of approval from her father, one of the royal palace’s purveyors as a gardener.
The Mashie family had inherited the job of gardener for generations. And on top of that, they received the splendid position of the royal palace’s purveyor. That was why Arche or her father could come and go from this palace, even though they were nothing but humble commoners.
Her father held pride in being a gardener, strict and uncompromising. Even now, she still remembered the joy she felt the day he praised her. She’d been called in by her usually silent father, and given a brand new pair of pruning shears. Until then, she had just used a pair of training shears, only helping out and following her father.
Her father had given her her own pair of shears, saying, 「Try it yourself from now on.」 That was more than enough.
The incessant sunlight was dazzling and gentle, the green leaves proudly reflecting back that light. The dark clouds that had spread over the sky until just a few days ago had cleared away as if they’d never been there. The gentle blue sky spread overhead in their place.
All this was thanks to the heroes, the saviors of the world. Not just Arche knew that, everyone in this entire country – no, the entire world did.
The demon king had recently come back after a previous hero sealed it away hundreds of years ago. Thanks to the hero party led by Yulifalet Lila Schtorenvihein, it had completely been destroyed for sure this time. It had just been some months since this happened.
With his sparkling golden hair and vivid green eyes like fresh leaves, he possessed looks that were masculine yet held a sweetness somewhere in them. Now at last, men and women of all ages admired him and longed to be him, that hero, Yulifalet. There were others that faced the demon king along with him: the shrine princess Clementine, boasted to be the kingdom’s living jewel; and the leader of the knights, famed as killing even a dragon with his unparalleled swordsmanship. And then, there was one more.
Thanks to them, Arche could still diligently do her work as a gardener even today. That’s right. The reason she could still touch these precious plants was—
——because of that gentleman, right?
Even she knew that her face turned red just at remembering his face.
That one last person from the earlier mentioned saviors of the world. That man had black hair that showed his endless magical power, the beautiful head magician of the royal palace.
His name was Agedilus Von Lancent. The fact of the matter is, he was Arche’s crush.
They first met when Arche had finally gotten used to looking after the plants in a small nook of the palace courtyard. It was so small you couldn’t even call it ‘a corner’.
Looking back at it, she thought she’d gotten carried away. Her care for that one corner she was in charge for ended faster than usual. Strange feelings welled up within her. ‘Can’t I look after these just a little more?’ That’s what she thought.
Her father or older coworkers didn’t warn her or anything – in fact, they did nothing but praise her. So she was convinced her talents were finally becoming reliable, certain. Even though there were so many things she still had to learn. Even she herself was now embarrassed.
But back then, she didn’t realize it was embarrassing in the slightest.
That’s why Arche began walking through the courtyard, with her own pair of pruning shears in hand. As expected, she didn’t have the courage to do it in the center or in the corridors where she’d be noticed by many people. But if it was somewhere no one could see, then no doubt it’d be no problem. A spontaneous smile grew on her lips.
The Mashie family had continued inheriting the title of gardener for generations; there was absolutely nothing she regretted…. Well, she couldn’t say that, but in the end, she thought gardening was her calling. Since touching plants was fun, and she felt so happy and proud whenever she skilfully raised a plant.
Her footsteps lightened with her exhilarated heart, and she felt like humming a song. But that feeling suddenly fell apart.
She looked in front. She looked to her left and right. Nothing but greenery spread out on all sides. In the gaps between that greenery, or, what was beyond the greenery were the white walls of the palace. Where was she? As she looked behind to where she’d come from, the same sight extended in front and to her sides too.
This might be bad. No, actually, this really was bad. She’d gotten lost. Forget that she could make her father worry, there was even a possibility that she’d be arrested as a trespasser.
This was no laughing matter. She let out an internal scream at what she’d gotten herself into. Well, for now she decided to jump into the overgrown greenery in the direction of the palace. She figured if she walked in the direction of the palace, she’d eventually find someone.
She didn’t even want to think about what would happen if she got awkwardly found by some nobles or guards. But that was still much better than staying lost here without anyone finding her.
How long had she desperately held back her tears, pushing her way through the rustling greenery? It was nothing but rigorous asceticism for Arche.
As she pushed through the greenery, Arche let out a small shout at the suddenly different open area in front of her. She looked around her surroundings, relieved at how it clearly looked like a place someone was taking care of.
The place Arche had gotten lost in, she realized after looking around carefully, was in fact no garden. There were plants that had been planted with such order and organization that even she, a gardener by occupation, couldn’t help but praise it as magnificent. The plants were medicinal plants or herbs, and the trees planted low to the ground were either medicinal or tea trees too. They were all plants used in magic, that Arche didn’t know much about.
——This was a medicinal plants garden.
She realized that rather late. And then, the relief she’d just felt suddenly disappeared like it’d never been real, her face turning as pale as it could.
In this palace, the only ones allowed to use a plot of land for a medicinal garden were the White Lily Court where the medical officers gathered, and one more. The Black Lotus Court, where the magicians gathered.
‘What do I do now…?’ Despair filled Arche’s chest. Coming and going from the royal palace, Arche knew very well that the courts whose names began with a color and a flower were considered very important even within the royal palace.
The White Lily Court and the Black Lotus Court both weren’t places Arche could just step into. The only gardeners allowed here were ones like her father, skilled people who had received permission from the owner of the medicinal plant garden.
‘I gotta leave, fast.’ But even as she thought that, she didn’t know the way home. She restlessly looked around, the tears that should have gone away by now felt like they’d leap out again. That was when she noticed a moving object in the corner of her vision – or, rather, a human figure.
She didn’t even know whose garden it was, but she saw a moving figure in the corner in a black robe, wearing the hood low over their eyes so she couldn’t make out the person’s face.
But the black robe signified that this was the Black Lotus Court. Arche had been thinking, ‘this might not be either the White Lily Court or the Black Lotus Court!’ all this time. In fact, she’d actually been hoping for that. But now, this knocked her into even further despair.
Whether the person noticed her or not, they were pruning and harvesting a popular tree whose leaves were commonly used in medicinal tea. Even Arche knew that tree very well. The person continued working without even paying any care to Arche’s presence.
Their white hands were covered in dirt… No, it was because they were covered in dirt that the white stood out so much. Those hands continued cutting off the green leaves with shears made of silver. Snap, snap. Arche did nothing but watch the series of unhesitating movements. But when those silver shears approached some certain green leaves, she instinctively raised her voice.
The silver shears suddenly stopped moving.
‘Crap, I messed up,’ she thought, but it was too late. The previously crouching figure stood up, facing Arche. In that second, the robe covering his face gently fell behind.
「Who are you?」
She couldn’t answer even to the sharp voice asking her who she was. Arche then forgot how to speak entirely.
Black. A black that rejected everything yet endlessly took everything in, too black to be on someone’s body. A black that would make everyone instinctively feel fear. The black on the robes he was wearing was no match for it, it was real black.
There was 『something』 pictured there in his black hair.
He held a much higher position than Arche, with beauty that wasn’t feminine nor masculine. He was just absolutely beautiful, right out of the picture story books she’d read when she was little. He had beauty that would no doubt mesmerize anyone that looked at him. His eyes, with orange and purple mixed together just like the sunrise, gazed at her coolly.
Just what was this?
That question came to Arche’s mind. She didn’t know a being like this could be real. This being that was scary yet beautiful, beautiful yet scary. Was this being really allowed to be here in this world? Arche didn’t know the answer to that question. She just thought, ‘He’s scary,’ like that was the most natural thing to think.
She stood there unmoving as『that』 being moved its lips, so unthinkably different from what Arche thought.
「The barrier didn’t respond to you, so you probably don’t have any ill intentions. Are you lost?」
She couldn’t do anything but nod. That 『creature in human form』 scrutinized Arche with his sunrise-colored eyes, breathing a sigh.
「What a pain…」
Arche instinctively trembled as if surprised at his uninterested, beautiful voice. He completely ignored that, as if to say he was used to getting this reaction. The beautiful person then nimbly drew a short line in the air with his finger, covered in dirt but still beautiful.
And then, he pointed behind Arche, making her blink as she didn’t understand what he meant.
「That’s connected to the original road. Leave now.」
The beautiful person said that, implying there was nothing more to be said. He once again picked up his shears and sat down.
Arche timidly looked back at the direction he’d pointed in, but nothing had changed. When she looked again at the beautiful person, he had started cutting new green leaves again with a snap.
「I told you to leave. Are those ears just for show? I’m going to overlook you getting lost here – is there anything more I should do for you?」
His tone was fine, and what he said was fine, but it was all filled with disagreeableness to the brim. Arche wanted to leave here right away. She looked once again to the greenery behind her, and stepped forward there. But, before that, she once again looked over to the beautiful person.
His tone said more than his words: ‘You aren’t done yet?’ Her heart felt like it was about to break at the sound of his thoroughly annoyed, irritated voice, and at the sound of her own heart as it was far too tense. But Arche held that back with sheer willpower, and opened her mouth.
「Um, about the leaves you were going to cut earlier! The new light green leaves of those kinds go on the market to be used in the first tea of the season! The dark green ones have a better taste and are more delicious! Um, so, that’s why…」
So, what? What was she even saying? She was being so foolish in front of a man with black hair that showed his immense magical ability. Even without that, he was still clearly socially superior to her.
She knew it was too late to cry over spilled milk, but she still regretted it. She was already stricken with embarrassment, and now he might say another line that endlessly pierced through her heart. He’d said that he’d overlook her getting lost but what if he changed his mind after all?
As Arche was full of fear and anxiety, in front of her the beautiful person turned his face up.
The sunrise-colored eyes watching Arche were slightly but definitely opened wide. It was an expression as if he’d been told something unexpected. His face until then was doll-like, but now it wore a hint of human weakness. Arche was the one that opened her eyes wide at it.
「W-well then, I’ll take my leave now!」
Unable to keep looking at that expression, she jumped into the greenery he’d pointed out. She plunged forward, pushing away the rustling greenery. Her face felt hot. Her heart was throbbing wildly.
Before long, what leapt out of the greenery was that one corner of the courtyard she usually looked after. 「So that’s what ‘connected’ meant,’ Arche murmured in understanding, out of breath. And then, she sat down there until her father came to check up on her and called her.