Chapter 2 - A Strange Encounter
The head maid warned Azriel as she handed over several silver coins. Azriel placed them in the pocket of her apron and left the estate. She knew that she would be scolded for her laziness if she were to come back even a little late. Hastily, she crossed the garden and headed toward the rear gate.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?”
A man with dull blonde hair appeared from the drill hall and called to her. As soon as he saw her, he put on a peculiar smile and approached her.
Azriel quickly lowered her head, “I’m going to the market for an errand, Young Master.”
The man was Count Colte’s heir and Deborah’s only brother, Damon Colte. He scrutinized Azriel’s body with glistening eyes. Though she was thin and small, her sixteen-year-old body was maturing, and smooth curves were beginning to develop. Upon closer examination, he saw that her face was unbelievably beautiful—even more so than his sister who was said to be the prettiest in the land. Deborah also treated Azriel harshly for this reason and frequently slapped her across the face. It annoyed her to know that her whipping child had an unnecessarily pretty face.
‘She will be a stunning beauty if she dresses up properly and ages a little more,’ Damon smiled, smacking his lips.
“If you earn my favor, you won’t have to do such things. Why don’t you serve me while I take my bath?”
“I’m sorry, but this is an urgent errand.”
“Is that more urgent than me?”
Azriel took a step back and dodged Damon’s approaching hand, causing him to frown. She politely bade him farewell while grabbing the hem of her skirt.
“It’s a matter of urgency. I believe the generous Young Master would understand.”
As she quickly made her way to the rear gate, she could feel Damon’s sticky gaze on her back, which still ached from her burning wounds. His gaze stopped only when she was completely out of the castle. She coughed in nervousness and pressed her chest to swallow her cough. Her uneasy heart beat palpably under her hands. Damon’s attitude towards her was becoming more unusual as the days went by, and she knew exactly what it meant. How long could an orphan girl of slave origin avoid the young master’s touch?
‘I need to run away.’
But how? And to where? Though slavery had been abolished two years ago, a girl with no guardian and bearing a brand was bound to be in danger anywhere she went. She had learned this reality as a slave. In fact, Azriel had been rather lucky. At least she had not been sold to the nobles as a nightly toy.
People could not be trusted without caution, either. There were not many who would do favors for a girl without any power or guardians to protect her for no reason. She had realized this when she was sold by the very guardians who had once smiled at her and told her to consider them her parents.
‘But I can’t stay here forever.’
Even more dreadful events might await her even if she did manage to escape. She could very well end up regretting her decision and telling herself she was better off withstanding life with the Colte family. Knowing what could happen to someone who was left alone in the world made her even more scared and fearful. Nevertheless, she had been preparing to run away, ever since she abandoned hope that the one who had named her ‘Azriel Esthera’ would come to save her. Hidden inside a stack of straw and covered by a worn-out blanket in her room were dirty coins she had been persistently collecting for the past two years. Saving money was very difficult for someone like her—an underage girl with no wages. Even so, she had managed to collect quite a decent amount so far, but she still needed to save more until she had enough to run away and settle in another territory.
Once she arrived at the market, she bought three blocks of butter as the head maid ordered. While pocketing the change, she checked the clock hanging on the wall of the general store. Since she had been hasty, there was still some time left.
‘I can stop by the bookstore. I hope there’s a job for me.’
While clutching the paper bag containing the butter, she slipped into an alley deeper in the market. A bookstore with a rusty sign sitting in a secluded spot came into view. At the entrance, old books were piled up precariously high as if they would fall at any moment.
“Welcome, Azriel,” an old, bespectacled man greeted her as she passed through the piles of books.
“Hello, Grandpa Warden.”
“You are just in time. I have a job for you.”
A smile appeared on his wrinkled mouth as Warden handed her a package and an old book. Azriel received the items with a beam.
“I just need to write it in Limble again, right?”
“Yes. Bring it back when you’re done. I’ll give you five silver coins in exchange.”
Limble was the most widely used written language in the continent and generally used by commoners. People of higher rank usually used Lemm, an older form, rather than Limble. Lemm was also used for official documents within the kingdom and as a general text to communicate between two countries that spoke different languages. For that reason, precious books tended to be written in Lemm instead of Limble.
Azriel had been saving the money she earned from translating texts from Lemm into Limble. Since not many people knew Lemm, it was a fair-paying job. Five silver coins per book was about the same as the monthly wage set by Count Colte. Under normal circumstances, her wages should have been at least a hundred silver coins, but there was no way Count Colte would ever pay her that much.
“I will bring it back within a week.”
“It’s not even that thick,” Azriel said plainly as she eyed the book in her hand.
“How incredible,” Warden admired her softly. “I’ve been seeing you for a while, but I still can’t believe it. For God’s sake, where did you learn Lemm?”
“Well… Frankly, I’m not sure.”
“You say that every time. Psshh. Just say you don’t want to tell me.”
“It’s true. I have been able to read it for some time.”
“Huh. It’s not a language that anyone can learn so easily. I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that a young woman like you—who is neither a wizard nor an aristocrat—knows it.”
“I know,” she smiled vaguely. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
Lemm was a complex language that was difficult to learn. It had existed since ancient times—even before Iskam the Great. It was nearly extinct as a spoken language, which made it even harder to learn. Only the written form remained in use today. Even Count Colte, an aristocrat, could only stumble through it with the help of a dictionary by his side. The Countess and Damon barely managed to memorize its alphabet. As for Deborah, she had already given up on learning Lemm. Azriel, on the other hand, had been able to read Lemm since she was young. Not only could she read it but she could also use it as freely as Limble. To be more precise, she realized she had suddenly become fluent when she was ten.
‘Since I didn’t even know how to read Limble when I was young, I probably mastered it during the three years that I can’t recall. What in the world happened to me?’
She then wondered why she could not remember the process of learning Lemm when she could read the text so vividly. She sighed softly. The mystery perplexed her, but she was not idle enough to ponder over it too deeply. Azriel put an end to her wandering thoughts and hid the book and package well in the inner pocket in the lining of her apron.
“I should go now. Thank you so much, Grandpa Warden.”
“I should be the one thanking you. Be careful on your way back.”
She closed the door behind her as she slid back through the piles of books. Though she had been looking down at her feet as she left, she looked up in response to a weird feeling that had overcome her and met someone’s eyes between the pillars of books who stood taller than her.
They belonged to a pale man. His long, flowing, silver hair gleamed even in the shade of the alley. Pale skin, tall height, and grey eyes that resembled a cloudy sky… The white robe that covered his entire body was free of any dirt, let alone stains.
His image did not blend in at all with the unkempt surroundings. He seemed as if he had been taken out of a watercolor illustration in one of Deborah’s fairytale books and dropped into the alley. The stark contrast between him and the environment around him was heightened even more by his beautiful face, which seemed to be perfect in every way. He almost looked as if he was in a separate world even though they shared the same space. Suddenly, Azriel felt her skin crawl. She reflexively stepped back, and her body swayed as her knee caught on a pile of books.
As she fell backward, the many, precariously piled books collapsed in a row, making a loud noise. Luckily, she had not been hurt because much of the weight had been supported by other, nearby books, but she was still in horrible pain. The books were pressed against her wounded back, which had not yet healed since the morning. The pain was so great that she could not even utter a groan.
“What’s happen… My goodness!”
Warden, who had rushed out after hearing the commotion, was surprised by the mess. He reached a hand out to help Azriel up as she struggled.
“Are you not hurt?” he asked.
“I’m alright, but it’s my fault that your books…”
“Books, I can pile them up again, but how did you fall like this?”
“Over there…” Azriel began as she lifted her head, but soon she fell speechless. The space where the pale man had been standing was empty. Nothing was there. He had been right there for certain. Was it all her imagination?
“Over there?” Warden repeated.
“No, it’s nothing. I must have been mistaken.”
While shaking her head, she picked up the bag of butter, which had been rolling on the ground. When she looked inside, she saw that the butter was slightly crushed. She automatically sighed when she thought about how the head maid would be furious with her.
“How stressed you must have been to hallucinate something,” Warden clicked his tongue as he patted Azriel’s shoulder. Her bony and feeble shoulder was pitiable. “Be careful.”
“Okay,” Azriel nodded with a smile as she began to pick up the fallen books. “I will.”
As soon as she started to stack the books again, the old man waved her off.
“You’re running an errand, right? I know you are busy. You can get back on your way.”
“I’m the one responsible for this mess. I have this much time.”
“I was going to reorganize them, anyway. I can take this chance to sort them out. Go on, quickly.”
“Don’t say anymore but go now little girl, or you will get scolded more.”
“…I’m sorry, Grandpa Warden.”
Azriel said her goodbyes to Warden as he waved her off and left the bookstore. Her back was still aching, but she could endure it.
‘Oh, I’m late. I’m in trouble.’
As she scurried to turn a corner, her feet stumbled over a stone jutting out from the pavement. Her body tumbled forward as the sole of her ragged shoe snagged and ripped on the stone. With both her hands occupied with the bag of butter, she could not stretch them out to brace herself. Thinking that it was indeed a bad day, she shut her eyes. At that moment, a light and soft breeze brushed past her and tickled her cheek. Her body paused mid-fall. Then, a pair of arms approached her from behind and grabbed her waist, picking her up. They withdrew once she was righted. A scent akin to birch hovered around the tip of her nose. Azriel blankly looked back.
‘I wasn’t mistaken for sure.’
The pale man she had seen before was standing right behind her. He was so tall that Azriel had to tilt her head back to gaze up at him.