Read at Watashi wa Sugoi Desu!
Chapter 11: The Secretary
They left promptly.
The other guards followed the carriage on parallel paths, horseshoes clacking as they moved back and forth.
Gripping his straw hat with both hands, Ashiyowa shrank into the luxurious seat.
Other than the bamboo blinds that covered the front of the carriage, its walls and ceiling were enclosed with boards and the seats were covered with cloth so soft, it would sink under the slightest weight.
They passed by each scenery as soon as it came into sight.
The bamboo blinds swayed back and forth, rattling under the wind.
――W-Why…? Was it because I was clumsy with the audience? Was I that disrespectful?
Ashiyowa felt gloomy thinking about it, his heart weighed down by such questions.
But if this was to apprehend a criminal, it didn’t explain the carriage, much less the guards in grey trailing behind on horses. At the speed that they were travelling, Ashiyowa was brought back to reality in a flash.
Despite his fear, they continued past the gates and into the Capital, taking a shortcut this time instead of the main road, and raced to the Imperial Castle. They entered through another gate instead of the main entrance at the same dizzying speed.
The carriage garnered a few curious gazes as they passed through, the horses in a sprint and kicking up clouds of dust from the ground with their horseshoes. But, the person in the carriage remained unseen. At most, the people sighed in awe at the guards.
Once the carriage stopped, the guard that carried Ashiyowa into the carriage approached him and the blinds were rolled up.
“Ashi-dono, please, over here.”
He lowered his head at Ashiyowa, extending his hand. Ashiyowa remained still on the seat. He couldn’t breathe.
“W-what kind of punishment am I to face?”
At those words, the guard’s head, still in a bow, jerked in surprise.
“Punishment, you say?”
“――Oh, um… His Majesty has summoned me because I’ve done something wrong… Isn’t that right?”
The guard raised his head. He had a masculine face with tanned skin, and his well-formed muscles were obvious even through his clothes and armour.
“We will explain the details inside. Just know that this is nothing fatal to Ashi-dono. Come, let us head inside.”
It was unexpected to have such gentleness come from those black eyes. Squeezing his straw hat, Ashiyowa had a quick glance around. The guards surrounded the carriage and observed Ashiyowa carefully, waiting for him to move.
It seemed that he couldn’t run away anymore.
He had no choice but to head inside to know what this was all about――. Ashiyowa let go of the straw hat he was tightly gripping and took the guard’s hand.
Once again, he was dragged to the edge of the carriage and carried down. The soldier didn’t let go of Ashiyowa’s hand until he confirmed that he could stand properly and walk straight.
Ashiyowa had left his wooden cane in the previous carriage, the one that was supposed to take him back home. Though it felt a little uncomfortable, he continued walking forward.
The palace guards, decked in brown armor above their blue and green clothing, bowed to them and lowered their spears as they watched the Imperial guards pass through. Their grey cloaks fluttered back and forth, left and right, and following them, Ashiyowa entered the dark building.
The Sun was slowly beginning to set, and candles were lit up one after another.
“Over here, over here.”
“Not much further now.”
That said, the place Ashiyowa was led to was not the same hall as the audience, but a different room.
On the floor, which was polished to the point you could see your own reflection, was a chair with a black backrest, right in the centre of the room. Opposite to it was a stool placed against the wall. It was elegantly decorated, a seating arrangement fit for a noble. The window shutters were closed and the lit up candles made the room smell like oil.
Ashiyowa was lost, wondering if he should just remain standing on the floor, or if he was even allowed to sit on the chairs they prepared.
He moved towards the stool, more closely resembling an ornamental altar. Ashiyowa clung to his hat, squeezing it tightly, and shook his head.
At a glance, even Ashiyowa could tell that this was unfitting for an unrefined man such as himself, having only lived hidden in the mountains. He stepped back.
“I couldn’t possibly…”
The more they insisted, the more reluctant he became. Shaking his head as he stepped back even further, and bumping into the Imperial guard standing behind him.
“Ah. I-I’m sorry.”
“Not at all, please excuse my impoliteness.”
The guard knelt on the spot and bowed his head. Ashiyowa almost jumped in surprise. Afraid of him, he moved further away.
Avoiding the guards stationed at the entrance, he moved away from the chairs. Instead, he slowly made his way to one of the corners near a window. He held his straw hat in front of his mouth like a shield, his face completely pale.
For a while, everything came to a standstill, only to be set in motion again as a presence approached the room.
“――Why are you not seated?”
The guards spread apart, forming a path. In between them, Ashiyowa caught a glimpse of a nobleman entering the room, questioning the guards upon glancing at the situation before him. The guard with the masculine face kneeled and lowered his head.
The nobleman was tall and wore grey robes similar to the Imperial guards. Except, he had no armor or weapons, and his sleeves were long enough to reach the floor. On his waist, he wore a thin grey band, matching the rest of his clothing.
His hair looked grey as well, mixed with white strands and he wore a headpiece over his head, held together by a string tied at his chin. His eyes were black, and he was fairly tanned.
He approached Ashiyowa calmly, making sure not to scare him. While his face, creased with wrinkles, seemed as strict as can be, he was the very definition of gentleness right then. That being said, he still carried a certain air of dignity.
“I apologize for startling you with the Imperial guards. I came to pick you up from your temporary accommodation earlier today but was told that you had already left. As you can see, there was no choice but to catch up by horse. Please have a seat, we have much to discuss――”
Ashiyowa glanced at the chairs that the man had gestured him towards, finally separating from the wall he was leaning on. While closing the distance between himself and the man, he approached the chairs. The man placed his hand not on the stool, but on the backrest of the black chair, offering it to Ashiyowa.
“I’m fine with this.”
The grey-haired nobleman paused for a moment, before politely bowing.
“Well then, excuse me.”
But upon saying that, he pushed the chair away from himself and towards Ashiyowa, signalling the Imperial guard to have a servant bring in another black chair. Ashiyowa finally sat down, unconsciously rubbing his right leg. The nobleman sat right in front of him.
“Pardon me for the late introduction. I am the appointed secretary of the Ryokuen Palace, part of the ‘Grey Wolves’. You may call me as you please.”
Ashiyowa raised his eyebrows. It was a name he would never get used to hearing.
The Grey Wolves were a nickname given to the Imperial guards and troops that served the kingdom. They were named after the grey wolves that were said to have served the Imperial family in the legend of the founding of the nation. This title not only served to unite the guards, but was also said to be the reason why their armor, cloaks and robes were grey.
The nobleman continued, despite Ashiyowa’s confusion and silence.
“Right now, Ashi-dono is to attend another audience with His Majesty. We don’t have much time, so we will have you meet him as you are.”
“H-His Majesty, you say… Um, may I ask why?”
In response to the nobleman’s attempt at comforting him, Ashiyowa stared at him, before lowering his gaze once again. Upon doing so, he couldn’t help but feel ashamed of how incredibly out of place he was. His ragged clothing and shoes came into sight, goosebumps forming on his skin.
“After today’s audience is concluded, His Majesty wishes to meet Ashi-dono again. This time, closer――”
Those blue eyes were shrouded in darkness, a shade Ashiyowa had never seen before.
“I-I’m afraid…. Please, um…”
His white skin was unimaginably pale.
I can’t be near him… I can’t do it.
Ashiyowa shook his head, spaced out for a moment, and tried searching for words.
“P-Please…. Please allow me to decline.”
He left the mansion earlier today thinking that there was no chance he would ever return to the capital. His heart belonged to the mountains――To the little hut he called home, surrounded by rivers and hills.
“His Majesty should be arriving in another room shortly. We shall take you there to meet him.”
Ashiyowa grabbed his hat with one hand and placed the other onto one of the patches scattered across his robes, worn out after having been washed thoroughly many times. He stood up from his seat.
“I-I can’t be seen like this. To have an audience in this state would be too disrespectful. I-I’m from the mountains. To have His Majesty lay his eyes on me like this… Please, have mercy…!”
Ashiyowa spoke in a voice loud enough to surprise even himself, and moved without hesitation, abandoning his straw hat as he headed for the corridor, squeezing in between the guards.
The sound of footsteps followed him. Ashiyowa went as fast as his right leg would allow him- no, he ignored the pain, pressing on.
Candles lit up the wide corridor. From the other side, he spotted one of the Palace guards, not in grey, chasing after him and immediately rushed down the stairs, sneaking into the garden, where small round pebbles were scattered above the ground.
“Ashi-dono, please wait.”
But, it was only a matter of time before the guards caught up. They surrounded him, spreading across the dirtied white pebbles, before closing in to capture him.