Interlude: To Freedom
A monster was crammed into a cramped cage. Chained and gagged, it couldn’t move.
The stench of blood and feces and urine filled the dark room. The moans, struggling, and writhing of those suffering the same fate echoed incessantly.
The monster couldn’t understand why it was there, why it was in so much pain.
It couldn’t even remember that in the past, it had spoken human language and had even fallen in love with someone.
Rejected, feared, cursed, and hurt by the person it loved, it fell into despair. It no longer dreamed of its hated past.
The pain, the inexplicable hunger and craving swirling and boiling in the pit of its stomach, was suffocating.
He desperately wanted humans. That smooth skin, that soft flesh, that warm blood. Oh, how it wanted them so bad.
It wanted to hear them scream for help.
They had never acknowledged him as a human being, except in the end, when they cried out, “Help me! You’re human, aren’t you?” It was the only thing that gave comfort to the mind of the beast that had lost its humanity.
It could only feel human warmth by sipping their blood and devouring their flesh.
It shook his body, and the chains creaked.
If only I wasn’t chained. If only I didn’t have this gag. If only I wasn’t in this cage.
A sliver of light streamed through, shining on the thing on the floor.
The key to the chains, the gag, the cage. The key to wanton slaughter.
A ball was a social gathering of the nobility. It was a place for politics, love, and gourmet food. But in the eyes of a lesser being like me—even lesser than commoners—it was nothing more than a place of extravagance.
The venue was a room in the castle—a huge rectangular hall. There was a large, open space in the center for dancing, and circular tables lined the walls.
Elaborate dishes lay on the table, from fruits shaped into flying birds to sweets in the form of a castle.
The huge, flower-shaped lights hanging from the ceiling sparkled with countless candles. The attires of the guests were just as dazzling as the light illuminated them.
I was standing at the entrance to the hall with Zero, Albus and Lily, with a frown.
“Should I really be going in here?” I grumbled. “Honestly, wouldn’t one witch be enough to guard the kid?”
Albus glared at me. “You’re still on that? What if I get assassinated while Zero is distracted by food? It’ll be your fault then.”
I hated how I couldn’t deny that possibility. If that happened, wouldn’t it be Zero’s fault, then, not mine?
“Isn’t this supposed to be Pooch’s job?”
“Holdem’s busy guarding the outside! We have to make sure that all guests are safe, not just me. Either way, you need to stay in the hall. Stop complaining already.”
“If I were in my usual attire, I’d be more than happy to guard you.”
I’m not even sure I can walk in this cramped outfit, let alone protect you.
Albus’s robe seemed a little more classy than usual.
I was not used to countless buttons that constricted my body, the obnoxious laces, and the annoyingly long hems.
I wanted to take it off right now, and if I could, I would tear it to shreds. But considering the price of these clothes, I couldn’t do that either. That’s also why I wanted to be freed from the outfit as soon as possible.
“Give it up, Mercenary,” Zero said. “Simply think of this place as a dangerous battlefield, and what you are wearing is a kind of restraints. It should make it bearable.” She chuckled.
I couldn’t look at her directly. I had always thought that too much beauty could be poisonous, but I’d gotten used to it lately. Or so I thought, until she wore this dress.
The jet-black fabric, with its subtle silver embroidery, was tailored to fit around Zero’s chest down to her hips, accentuating her lines. There was a slight bulge from her waist down that obscured the lines of her body. The hem was so long that it dragged across the floor, except for the front part, where the skirt only went below her knees, as Zero didn’t like it when she couldn’t move around freely.
The black veil hiding half her face only served to highlight her red lips. I had no idea where to look.
Her appearance could be summed up in one word: bewitching.
Averting my gaze from Zero, I looked down at my feet to see Lily trembling in the pale-scarlet dress she was forced to wear. She couldn’t take it off by herself, nor could she take refuge in the storeroom for fear of dirtying the outfit, so she had no choice but to follow us.
Feeling out-of-place, she kept whimpering, repeating a routine of clinging to my legs then moving away then coming back again. She’d probably die of nervous breakdown if I left her behind.
Zero held out her arms to me. She wanted me to carry her, which was better for me, honestly. If I carried her, she’d be too close, putting her out of my field of vision.
As I lifted Zero up on my shoulders, Lily looked up and pleaded, “Me too!”
“I won’t have any arm to move if I carry you as well.”
Normally, she would just stick herself on my nape, but right now she was wearing a dress.
“You can drop me if I get in the way, so please!”
Zero and Albus’ eyes bored into me. Shit. If I refuse, I’ll be a douchebag. As I reluctantly picked Lily up, she let out a breath of relief.
“I’m more like a bellhop than a guard at this point. Wait, shouldn’t carrying Albus be the best option here?”
Albus’ eyes widened, and Zero clicked her tongue.
“He’s right, Zero! Let’s switch!”
“As much as I would love to, I do not think the Chief Mage should appear riding on a Beastfallen’s shoulders. The most dignified way to make an appearance is to enter the hall on your feet.”
“Stop with the nonsense and get in there. The guests are waiting for you.” With both of my arms occupied, I slapped Albus’ butt with my tail.
“Ouch! That hurt.” Albus took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
The door to the great hall opened.
Blinding light pierced my eyes for a second. All gazes fell on us.
The entrance to the hall was one level higher than the venue, so the people in the hall could clearly see who entered.
I hadn’t seen this much attention since I was publicly executed in the port city of Ideaverna.
All manners of emotions—curiosity, flattery, malice, fear—mixed together and came crashing at me like a wave. I almost took a step back under the pressure, but I held my ground when I saw Albus looking straight ahead, her feet firm on the floor.
So this is her world.
“Now this is something,” I said.
“Indeed. A spectacular view,” Zero agreed.
“Right? My legs were shaking the first time I gave a speech too, and to be honest, I’m still just barely holding it together at the moment.”
Lily was already half-crying, burying her face in my arms, hiding herself.
Albus stepped forward and quietly raised one hand, and the hall settled down into complete silence. After a while, Albus spoke.
“On behalf of the late king, now a pure soul, I, the Chief Mage welcome you all, whether you are from home or abroad. I am delighted that so many of you have responded to my invitation to this gathering to celebrate and wish for the coexistence of Mages and ordinary people, and to avoid future conflict. Our nation has lost its king and is in the midst of turmoil. However, I believe that the turmoil will soon be over, and we will see more peace and prosperity. I hope you will all enjoy yourselves to your heart’s content today.”
She raised her arms to her chest, her long hem flaring, then slid one leg back and bent down at the waist in a perfect bow. It was quite the impressive gesture.
The guests in the hall looked at each other, trying to figure out how to react.