Zero reached for my cheeks. She told me to crouch down, so I did.
She pressed her forehead against mine. “If you do not want to, you do not have to show yourself to others. I simply want to see you dress up for me. I am certain that the outfit that the lass prepared will look wonderful on your white fur. Oh, yes. It will look good on your human form as well. The lass is a fine witch herself. She can see your true form.”
Zero mentioned that witches could see a Beastfallen’s original form. My human form.
“Tell me something, Witch.”
“What is it, Mercenary?”
“Which one do you like more? Me, the monster, or me, the human?”
Zero smiled. She pulled her head away, her violet eyes peering into mine.
“You ask me which I like better, the ocean or the waves? Both are you, and I like both. It does not matter whether you are a beast warrior or a powerless human. Or if you have red or black fur. Or if you are bald or bearded. You are too fixated on appearances. You are who you are, no matter what you look like. Am I wrong?”
I don’t really know how to answer that.
A year ago, when Zero asked me if I wanted to be human, I thought “yes” without hesitation. But what if Zero… what if there was someone who didn’t care what I looked like?
The words of the manservant at the inn flashed through my mind.
He said that when he reverted to his human form, he felt out of place, confused. He couldn’t do what he used to do, and he lost his ability to fight.
Perhaps Zero was offering me what I had always wanted.
The cannibalistic urges gnawing at me a year ago had vanished. The more a Beastfallen yearned to become human, the faster they turned into a real beast. If that’s true, does that mean I don’t want to be human anymore?
“What is the matter, Mercenary? You look distressed. If it is a confession of love, I am always ready to listen.” Zero flashed an impish smile.
Frowning, I shook my head. “If you say looks doesn’t matter, then who cares what I clothes I wear?”
“So you do not mind if I am completely naked?”
“We’re talking about clothes, so you’re supposed to be wearing something!”
Zero cackled. She slipped away and thrust her index finger to my chest. “It goes without saying, but I do not mind if you are completely naked. But sometimes I like to see you in a different attire. I believe that among my selfish desires, this one is quite mild.”
“So you’re actually aware that you’re selfish.”
“For witches, staying true to one’s desires is a virtue.” She sounded proud for some reason.
I heaved a sigh. Then again, it’s only clothes.
I wouldn’t have to worry about being ridiculed if I put on some decent clothes only in front of Zero, and Albus would probably lighten up a bit if she saw me. If I only had to endure a little bit of cramped clothes, it might be worth it.
The door flung open, and the priest barged into the room.
“I’m sorry to interrupt your shameless flirting, but we have important matters to discuss.” He sat down on a chair and crossed his legs.
I jumped to my feet, my hair bristling. “W-Were you listening?! How long have you been outside?!”
“From around the ‘Which one do you like more?’ part.”
“Stop! Wipe it out of your memory! Eavesdropping is not cool, you ass! Why didn’t you just come in right away?!”
“I’m not rude enough to interrupt your conversation at that point.”
“Well done, priest,” Zero said. “You are one thoughtful man.”
“Hey, witch! How can you even compliment him in this situation?!”
I was so embarrassed that my whole body was about to break out in a sweat. I wanted to rip out my throat with my sharp claws. I wanted to kill the priest and make him forget it all happened.
But both Zero and the priest looked calm, unaware of my thoughts.
“There is no need to be so embarrassed,” Zero said. “We have an intimate relationship.”
“No, we don’t!”
“You’re always all over each other, so why be embarrassed now?” the priest said.
“Hell no! We’re not all over each other!”
I think. I carried her because she didn’t want to walk, and we slept on the same bed, but only because it was better that way for various reasons. I supposed from an objective standpoint, we did look kinda flirty, but from my subjective point of view, I only did what was necessary.
And then the rest was Zero being selfish and demanding. Anyway, it’s not my fault!
The priest laughed it off. “I don’t care about any of that.”
“What are these important matters?” Zero asked like nothing happened.
At this point, I couldn’t just stand there with my fist clenched tightly in the air. I had a lot to say. I could even bolt out of the room like Lily, but I grit my teeth, holding back the urge.
“That witch named Albus doesn’t seem well-liked.”
My tense mouth slackened. “What?”
The priest began to enumerate the criticisms about Albus that he had collected from all over the castle.
Albus assassinated the king and was planning to take over the kingdom.
Thirteenth was not actually dead. Albus and Thirteenth were linked, and the latter’s execution a year ago must have been a sham to curry favor to the king.
She treated people without Magical talent like trash.
Any Church follower in the castle was thrown to jail.
She did not allow those who were more gifted than her to use Magic.
She locked up a large number of Beastfallen, skinned them alive, and used their hide as offering for Magic.
The list was long.
“Probably just gossip,” I said.
“They were right about Thirteenth’s execution being a sham, though,” Zero added.
“I don’t mean to defend a witch,” the priest said, “but if you look at something maliciously, even proper actions will look wicked. In other words, she is being shunned to the extent that she gets this kind of bad reputation. And that leads to the assassination plot.”
“What?! Hey, are you sure about that?!”
“I didn’t ask for details because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, but I’m quite sure they’re planning to carry out the plot on the day of the ball. It’s the only time outsiders are invited to the castle, and if the chief Mage is assassinated in front of a crowd, there’s no way to keep it secret.”
Zero and I exchanged glances. If the whole kingdom, the whole world, found out about Albus’s dead, it could lead to disaster.
The ward that was keeping the Mages in Wenias in check would disappear, and there’d be no one to lead them. What’s worse, the king was already dead.
“Why are you telling us?” Zero asked. “Does the Church not want her dead?”
“You don’t understand. It has to be the Church that defeats the witch. Why? Because the only one who can suppress the ensuing chaos is the Church. And in the Church’s opinion—that is, in my own opinion—now is not yet the time to defeat the witches of Wenias. We are not ready yet.”
Zero nodded. “Then we must do something about it ourselves. Since we do not know who the mastermind is, the only thing we can do is to protect the lass.”
“Or we could just cancel the ball.”
“If you’re not aware of your own stupidity—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it! We can’t cancel it! I know that, so stop threatening me with your staff every single time, you homicidal priest!”
The kingdom had spent a lot of money, time, and manpower preparing for this politically-significant ball. Cancelling it was not an option.
But we had no idea who the mastermind was, or where they’d be coming from, or if there was even an assassination plot at all. To protect Albus, we’d have to stick close to her.
I frowned. Zero looked at me with a smile.
The priest stood up and opened the door, urging me to step out. “To the clothes fitting. You’re not guarding a nation’s top brass in that outfit.”