Why was McKenna lying there naked…? Shouldn't he be in the Western Kingdom? I had no idea why Heinley's closest aide and a knight was lying in Duke Elgy's bed. Moreover, he was groaning as if he were in pain.
A moment later, I realized I was peering at the man through the window like a spy. I was about to leave the window to knock on the door, but McKenna's gaze suddenly locked onto mine. His eyes widened, and he hastily drew a blanket over himself.
"Your Majesty? Why are you here?"
"That's what I want to ask you."
"Huh? Oh yes, this is…"
McKenna's eyes darted around in panic. He opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but then the door squealed open and the merry voice of Duke Elgy filtered through the room.
"McKenna, you don't have to dress when you'll have to take it off anyway."
Duke Elgy held a box in his hand, but he stopped dead when he saw me by the window. A look of surprise stole over his face, then he whistled and laughed wildly.
"We've been caught again."
McKenna cried out in frustration.
"Stop the weird jokes from now on!"
"How fun. I like this."
"No! I mean, this is a joke. Sorry."
Did he think that I didn't know what a joke was? That seemed to be the case when McKenna suddenly apologized to me instead of protesting against the Duke Elgy.
"It's fine. If you're busy, shall I come later?"
I would just close the curtain and play along, but McKenna continued to protest.
"Please, it's a misunderstanding!"
I don't know why everyone tried to take me so seriously. McKenna hurriedly tried to make his explanation.
"I was on an errand for King Heinley, and I was injured and ended up here—"
His words stopped and he doubled over in pain.
I almost ran into the room to help him.
"Are you alright?"
The blanket slipped, revealing a bandage around his torso. He kept on groaning, and I saw that the linen was spotted with red.
My eyes widened in amazement, and Duke Elgy quickly dragged McKenna back into bed, murmuring at him to be quiet.
"See, this is why you're called bird-headed."
Duke Elgy opened the box he brought. I couldn't see its contents from my vantage point, but from what I saw Duke Elgy pull out of it, I guessed that it was a first aid kit. Instead of treating the wound, however, he immediately turned to me.
"Can you come back later, Your Majesty?"
Was I disturbing them? However, McKenna's injury seemed serious. Could Duke Elgy treat it by himself?
"Shall I call a doctor for you?"
It could cause a fuss if McKenna was discovered here, but it was hard to ignore the wound, and his hands were trembling in agony. However, McKenna shook his head.
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
The palace had places where visitors could come and go, but the southern palace was not one of them. Why would McKenna, a close aide of a foreign king, be found in the middle of the southern palace? I wrung my hands worriedly.
'I don't know what's going on here, but…'
It would be difficult to explain away a suspiciously injured person, so I turned towards Duke Elgy.
"Duke. I have a favor to ask of you."
He smiled as he held a bandage in his hands.
"Even when I asked you to go, you didn't. I wonder what you're going to say to me?"
"Are you still a friend of King Heinley's?"
"Well, that is an unexpected question."
He burst into laughter.
"Why are you asking that all of a sudden, Your Highness?"
"When you meet King Heinley, tell him his blue bird is dead."
His laughter suddenly disappeared. He raised his eyebrows and looked at me with a curious expression.
"The blue bird is dead?"
McKenna started coughing loudly.
"Yes. And that even in the future it will die—"
I didn't know how to finish it. At this point, Heinley was clever enough to work out what Sovieshu had ordered. I didn't bother to talk about the roast bird because it was too horrible.
I took two steps back and saw McKenna behind Duke Elgy's shoulder. He was still clearing his throat awkwardly and staring at me.
"Is she saying that you'll be killed as soon as you're discovered?"
After Empress Navier gracefully departed, Duke Elgy turned back to McKenna.
"I suppose she knows I was hit by an arrow."
"Is there something strange going on behind her?"
"She said it with such a grim look."
Duke Elgy pretended to slice his throat with his finger, imitating the Empress's words of 'In the future, it will die.' However, McKenna shook his head.
"She probably meant that whoever shot the arrow would continue to do so in the future."
"She said it with a straight face. Like you were going to be killed."
"No. Oh, why do you keep doing that?"
McKenna suddenly moaned in pain, clutching his head with both his hands.
"What is it, Bird Head? Hurts?"
"The letter you told me to deliver. I didn't…"
"You mean that incredibly sappy letter?"
"Sappy! It was a very clean and simple letter!"
"So you did read it."
"Be thankful I didn't say it was made of butter instead."
Duke Elgy approached the bed McKenna was lying in, then took out the gauze, tweezers, and disinfectant out of the first aid kit.
"When you're delivering Heinley's letter in the middle of this, you're basically promoting 'I'm the blue bird.'"
McKenna sighed. He had yet another problem. From the look of things, it seemed that he couldn't go back and forth from the Empress' chambers anymore. He didn't know how many more secret messages he had to deliver in the future.
I returned to my room, but all I could think about were Duke Elgy and McKenna. I wondered why the knight was here and why he was hurt. My eyes alighted on the blue feather on my desk. The feather was retrieved from the window sill…and reminded me of McKenna's blue hair.
Heinley's bird was injured, and McKenna was hurt too…was that a coincidence? A person couldn't change into something else.
The strange timing frustrated me, and my suspicion only grew the next day.
Around breakfast time, Laura came into the room and caused a commotion.
"You were looking for a bird that was hurt yesterday!"
"Is there an injured bird?"
"Yes! I heard someone say they saw Duke Elgy hugging an injured bird!"
Yesterday's events seemed all the more strange after I heard Laura's story. A blue bird was wounded by an arrow, Duke Elgy rescued the injured bird, and a hurt McKenna lay in his room…
Meanwhile, McKenna was in the palace on an errand for Heinley, and no one knew he was here…
As soon as I finished holding my audience duties, I went straight to the court mage to consult him.
"Can a person change their form with magic?"
The court mage looked at me peculiarly, but he answered with a serious tone.
"You mean into birds, Your Majesty?"
"Yes, but it doesn't have to be a bird. It can be any animal."
The mage crossed his arms in thought.
"No. There is no mage that is characterized by animal transformation."
Was I off the mark that McKenna was the blue bird? But the mage's words did not end there.
"But there is a record of the 'Bird Headed Tribe'."
Have I heard this before? That name seemed to stir a memory.
"It's not a well-known story. The records are very old, and I'm not even sure it's true."
"But if it is, there's a claim that werewolves may be part of that group."
McKenna and werewolves…did not seem to match. The mage smiled and waved his hand.
"It's a strange claim. Even if that was real, they wouldn't be monsters like werewolves. The Bird Headed Tribe was said to be no different from walking and talking people, whereas werewolves went mad at the full moon. The Bird Heads did not have that trait."
"Where are the tribe members now?"
"Gone. Their numbers naturally diminished, faded only into legend."
"Is there any chance that any of them would be alive?"
"Perhaps. If they are, they wouldn't reveal themselves."
The mage chuckled to himself.
"You can tell by the fact they were recorded not as the 'The Bird Tribe' but rather 'The Bird Headed Tribe' that they did not have good relations with normal people."
Was it possible that McKenna could be a part of that tribe? What if the blue bird that flew to me was actually McKenna? It was a far-reaching conclusion, but it was my best guess.
"Why are you asking all of a sudden, Your Majesty?"
The mage looked at me with interested eyes. Perhaps he wanted to know I had found some traces of such people.
"I was only curious."
I made up an excuse and left the mage's laboratory.
McKenna was either the bird or not. Was it a coincidence that he and the bird were injured at the same time? I ended up breaking several pen nibs while mulling over this question.
"Your Majesty, shouldn't you take a rest today?"
The court officials who knew of my fainting spell kept suggesting that I take a break from work.
I changed my pen nib again.
'I should be happy that McKenna's the bird, right?'
That meant that Heinley's blue bird lived. I was concerned that I might have done something unbecoming in front of him, but I soon shook the thought. I never patted his rear, or hugged or kissed him, or changed my clothes in front of him. It was only with Queen that I—
Was Queen another one of Heinley's subordinates?
I snapped my pen nib in horror.
"It's not that she's weak, it's that she's full of vigor."
My ears caught the sound of a court official whispering, and I started from my thoughts.
"I'm tired, so I'll go first."
I hurriedly walked out of the room. The thought that Queen was a member of the Bird Head clan was like thorns in my body.
'I'll ask Heinley later.'
If Queen was one of Heinley's subordinates…
I arrived at the western palace thinking all kinds of horrified thoughts, when I spotted one of Sovieshu's servants standing in the hallway in front of my room. The servant was holding some kind of wheeled, elongated stand, and a cloth concealed the top of it. My ladies-in-waiting surrounded it with wide eyes.
"Your Majesty the Empress! "
The servant greeted me as soon as he saw me.
"What is this?"
The voice that emerged from my mouth wasn't as confident as I wanted. I still remembered the last "gift" Sovieshu had sent me.
The servant spoke with pride.
"It is a gift from the Emperor to Her Majesty."
The cloth covering the stand was pulled off, revealing the identity of the "gift." It was a blue bird in a cage.
'Thank goodness it's alive this time.'
It was a beautiful and elegant gift, but I could only see this as some kind of mockery.
'Does he intend for me to think of the roast bird every time I see this?'
Whether Heinley's bird was actually dead or not, Sovieshu wanted to hurt me thoroughly. The servant left, and the ladies-in-waiting moved the cage into the parlor room. The bird seemed quite gentle in personality, and it stared at me intelligently as tears pricked my eyes.
Whenever I looked at the bird, I could only remember yesterday's shock. I couldn't bring myself to look after it. Finally, I called for Countess Eliza to return the cage.
Rashta was nervous. Several days had passed since Sovieshu had promised to make her empress. She thought he would have notified the empress of divorce by now, but he had yet to act.
"What is he thinking…?"
Rashta hugged her large doll and paced nervously around the room. This morning, her anxiety grew even higher when Sovieshu prepared a beautiful blue bird to give to Empress Navier.
A blue bird. An elegant blue bird fit to be raised by a noble. As soon as Rashta wanted a bird of her own, Sovieshu had chosen to gift one to the Empress instead. She was set to explode into a fit of anger.
However, Rashta paused and heard the sound of something being dragged outside her door. She set down her doll and peeked outside. A man was passing down the hall, pulling a cage on a wheeled stand.
"What is that?"
The servant replied with a rather worried face.
"This bird was given by the Emperor to the Empress."
"But why bring the bird back here?"
"Her Majesty asked that it be taken back."
The servant seemed nervous as he spoke, as if he were afraid to return the gift to the Emperor.
"His Majesty isn't here at this time of day, so you'll have to leave the bird in the hallway. But if the bird is left out here, it might catch a cold."
The servant only looked even more worried. Rashta quickly stepped out and reached out her hand.
"Please give it to Rashta. Delise will deliver it."
At the same time, Koshar was travelling down a long road. He was filled with unease. It wasn't that he was worried that he could not succeed the Troby family, nor that his reputation had plummeted. He did not have to worry about eating or lodging either, as he had plenty of money and jewelry from Marquis Farang and Empress Navier. The thoughts that occupied his mind were far different.
How could he get revenge on Sovieshu and Rashta? What could he do so that his sister could comfortably reign as empress?
Just then, a voice called him from behind. Koshar tugged the reigns on his horse and looked back.
"Lord Koshar! Lord Koshar!"
A man with a bristling beard was running towards him.
Koshar's hand went to the sword on his waist, but he spied no weapon on the bearded man as he approached. The man stopped in front of Koshar, bending over to catch his breath, before finally speaking.
"Too—too fast, too fast, too fast…haa, haa—I thought I missed you."
"I'm from the Western Kingdom. I was sent by King Heinley."
"The Western Kingdom?"
At present, Koshar was located on the border of the Northern Kingdom. Why would someone from the Western Kingdom come here?
"Why the Western King?"
"He told me to bring you back. He wants to talk about your sister."