With a clang, the table tilted, and the glass slid off. A beat later, I realized that I couldn’t reach it, and the glass crashed to the floor, shattering with an ear-piercing thud, the cold contents soaking under my feet. But I could neither crouch down to wipe my shoes nor apologize for the fact that I had broken the glass. Because, just before the sound of shattering glass pierced the air, we were surrounded on all sides by a hostile group.
“Yo! What the hell are youse guys doin’ in here!?”
“Don’t think we’re lettin’ youse off the hook!”
“Yo! Git over here! Take that!”
Furious verbal threats were directed my way. I felt the blood drain from my entire body all at once, making it difficult to breathe. All I felt was dread that I would never experience the light of day again… Not unless I could come up with some kind of death-defying explanation to give them. My breathing became more and more labored.
In that instant, I forgot how to breathe. Should I inhale or exhale? What action must my body perform to stay alive? The strange and thunderous sound of blood coursing through my veins was deafening, as if my heart was located right behind my ears. They were so loud, a vivid image of my heart exploding near my ears and turning me into a chunk of meat covered in blood crossed my mind.
“Relax,” came a voice, accompanied by a gentle tap on my tense shoulder, sending the earlier explosion’s echoes fading into the distance. “Dontcha worry. Jus’ leave it to me.”
Before me, a petite woman stepped forward, unwavering despite the intimidating men surrounding us. Without a trace of fear in her small frame, she confronted the aggressive group. She then clapped her hands loudly in front of her chest, grabbing the men’s attention. “Come on, quit makin’ such a fuss. That’s all I’m askin’.”
The men exchanged puzzled glances as the woman’s smile remained unwavering, unaffected by their threats. Standing behind her, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease, wondering if the men would escalate the situation. I couldn’t help but reflect on how I had ended up here like this. How could we have found ourselves in such dire straits, in a place frequented by those who didn’t dare tread out in the daylight?
Thus, Joshua Juukulius cursed his fate. This journey into despair had begun just several days prior.
Rich, vivid colors and sophisticated, skillful brushwork—these were the hallmarks of extraordinary artistry that could, at times, create an experience that was powerful enough to reshape the viewer’s life. People defined this as art, and those who channeled their inner worlds into such creations were bestowed with the title of artists.
The works crafted by these artists invariably stirred envy within those lacking the ability to conceive such beauty. And envy was a driving force behind the amassing of vast wealth, transcending any age and era.
On occasion, those of affluence extended their patronage to these artists, commissioning masterpieces for their own personal pleasure. Many even acquired these creations in an endeavor to sate their desires for possession and a heightened degree of self-importance.
Throughout the ages, exceptional art has consistently aroused fervent desires in the hearts of many individuals. Yet, behind these desires lurked those scheming to exploit them for ill-gotten gains. Hence…
“Hmmm…” The girl with purple hair let out a soft hum as she stared intently at the object before her. Her locks cascaded in soft waves of purple, with a charming, well-defined profile and crystal clear, pale blue eyes exuding intelligence. She was adorned in an outfit of white, with a white fox collar wrapped around her neck despite the day’s warm weather.
At first glance, she appeared to be a gorgeous young girl with a certain ethereal air about her. However, her remarkable background was not defined by such external factors alone. For she happened to hold one of the most significant positions in the Kingdom of Lugunica, standing amongst the top five individuals of importance.
What had captured her attention and made her hum in interest was a single piece of artwork, at which she gazed as if to appraise it. It was a masterpiece of meticulous brushwork, depicting a delicate, slumbering woman resting her cheekbone on her hand. This piece, known as “Sleeping Miderine,” was a distinguished work of art, dating over 100 years back.
The painting was grand, encased in a frame that was as tall as the girl. The bold strokes of the brush and the faint scent of oil hung in the air—it was a moment of profound assessment. Yet, her evaluation was not driven by a desire for ownership.
“W-What do you think, Lady Anastasia?” Beside the girl conducting the evaluation stood a gray-haired elderly gentleman, looking somewhat unsettled. The slender gentleman pressed a handkerchief to his cheek as he awaited her verdict.
Straightening up her previously hunched posture, the girl gently touched a hand to her cheek, and smiled gracefully.
“I hate bein’ the one to tell ya this, Mr. Olsen, but it’s a phony. I’m so sorry.” With that, the girl, Anastasia Hoshin, extended her sympathy to the unfortunate customer who had fallen victim to a counterfeit piece of art.
Currently, the Dragon Kingdom of Lugunica had found itself in the midst of a prolonged period of crisis due to its absence of a king. In order to prevent chaos, the Council of Wise Men, an assembly of senior nobles, together with the Royal Knights, worked diligently to manage the situation. However, the lingering unrest stemming from the vacant throne was undeniable.
Therefore, a competition was being conducted to determine the next person to fill this void, known as the Royal Selection. And Anastasia Hoshin was one of the candidates taking part in it. Half a year had passed since the royal selection commenced at the royal castle. During that time, the candidates had engaged in various activities to prove their worthiness, and Anastasia was no exception. And today, she had been invited by a renowned art collector in the capital as part of her efforts.
“I was bracing myself for this,” Olsen lamented, “but actually hearing that it’s a fake… Well, it’s more disheartening than I imagined. What a shame for a collector!”
Nico Olsen sighed with a weary look on his face as he spoke. He only barely managed to keep his composure, as he was standing before a guest. But once that guest took her leave, he would surely collapse into a heap. After all, one of his favorite masterpieces was evaluated as a forgery. For a collector of his caliber, it was tantamount to the sudden loss of a darling lover.
“I deeply sympathize with you, Lord Olsen.” A handsome man sitting on the visitor’s couch consoled the despondent Olsen. This was Julius Juukulius, a tall man donning a knight’s uniform and carrying a knight’s sword at his waist. He was a member of the Royal Guard of the Kingdom of Lugunica, and a knight in the service of Anastasia. “Your collection of masterpieces is so well-respected. It’s a shame to think they’d be subjected to such a terrible fate.”
Julius’s consideration brought a smile to Olsen’s glum face. “I appreciate your concern,” he replied. “I apologize for displaying such embarrassment, especially considering my connection with the Juukulius family through your brother, Joshua.”
“Please, no need to apologize. I have only heard good things about you from my brother. So I was hoping to deliver good news today, but… ”
As they exchanged words, Julius couldn’t help but steal a glance at Anastasia, delicately sipping from a cup of tea she had been served.
“What is it?” she asked, tilting her head. “You ain’t thinkin’ there’s somethin’ wrong with my appraisal, are you? Sure, I coulda lied jus’ to make him happy. But why would I do somethin’ so unacceptable to my pride?”
“Such was not my intention,” replied Julius sincerely. “I only regret the misfortune of the event that occurred. If possible, I would have hoped that you could have dispelled Lord Olsen’s sorrow.”
“Hmph, see? You are making me look like the bad guy,” Anastasia huffed. “Well, as a connoisseur, I’m used to that kinda reaction, so it don’t really bother me.”
Julius found himself somewhat vexed by the sulky tone in her voice. Feeling somewhat satisfied at the sight of his confused, furrowed brows, Anastasia set down her cup and thanked the man for the tea.
“Gettin’ back to the story. I’m sure Mr. Olsen’s feelin’ disappointed he was given a phony. However, he’s a master art collector, so bein’ able to fool someone like him is quite the feat. Honestly speakin’, if I hadn’t been asked to appraise it, I wouldn’t have suspected anythin’ myself.”
“Lady Anastasia… please be a little more considerate of Lord Olsen’s feelings,” Julius started. But Olsen halted him before he ended up offending his master.
“No, it’s fine. She… Lady Anastasia is right,” replied Olsen in agreement with Anastasia, who raised her shapely eyebrows at his words.
“Oh, dear. Mr. Olsen, no need to use titles here. This is business, after all. At least lemme loosen up a bit when I’m doin’ merchant work, or I’ll get burnt out.”
“Ah, my apologies,” Olsen responded. “But I just can’t get used to it. As a royal selection candidate, you hold one of the most prestigious positions in this country. How can I treat you as a mere business partner?”
“In that case, you shouldn’t have called us to appraise the painting, yea?” Anastasia criticized. “It didn’t even hafta be us. There’s gotta be at least a few other connoisseurs out there, no?”
“Indeed, you are correct,” he agreed. “It’s tough. But you understand, don’t you?”
Anastasia placed her hand over her mouth, chuckling. “That’s why we didn’t cut corners either. I hope you appreciate it, though, right?” To this, Olsen relaxed his expression. Julius, however, continued to watch their exchange with a slight sense of tension.
Baron Nico Olsen, while not holding a particularly high rank among Lugnica’s nobility, was a renowned art collector, and a notable figure in his own right. Widely respected in the realm of the arts, Olsen could certainly be called a major figure in a less conspicuous sect of the kingdom.
As a royal selection candidate seeking to garner the support of as many influential individuals as possible, Anastasia had everything to gain and nothing to lose by establishing a connection with him. In fact, he was someone she should have reached out to. Therefore, it seemed like a stroke of good fortune that Olsen had approached her first with his proposal.
“So the famous Sleeping Miderine is a fake,” Julius thought aloud. “Lady Anastasia, please forgive my lack of knowledge, but how exactly does one determine the authenticity of a painting?”
“Hm? Well, let’s see. In most cases, I can usually tell by the artist’s signature or the paint they used. Of course, fakes are painted after the originals, so the materials used tend to be newer.”
“I see…” Julius responded, glancing at the fake Sleeping Miderine, placed in a corner of the parlor and covered with a white cloth.
Unfortunately, Julius did not have the expertise to distinguish the authenticity of a painting. But upon Anastasia’s explanation, he nodded in apparent understanding. Yet, recognizing such nuances naturally required not only proper knowledge, but a discerning eye, honed through extensive exposure to various artworks. Lady Anastasia’s insight is truly astounding.
“I am continually amazed by your keen eye, my lady,” he praised. “I never realized that you possessed such an extensive knowledge of art.”
“I may not look it, but I happen to dabble in art collectin’ myself, y’know,” Anastasia responded. “Although I’m afraid I can’t hold a candle to the true collectors, especially you, Mr. Olsen.”
“I assure you, it’s not a mere matter of having a large collection,” Olsen spoke softly, shaking his head languidly. “As you see, even I’ve fallen victim to counterfeits such as this. It’s nothing to be proud of.” No words could relieve him of his humiliation. What Olsen truly needed was not mere consolation, but some progress in the situation.
“Lord Olsen, may I ask where you acquired this painting?” Julius inquired.
“Although I understand your suspicions of the dealer, he’s someone I’ve known and trusted for a long time as an art dealer,” Olsen explained. “He was probably unaware of its inauthenticity himself. I’m practically certain.”
“How can ya judge the authenticity of someone’s favor if ya can’t even recognize the authenticity of a paintin’ yourself?”
Anastasia’s relentless inquiry challenged Olsen’s initial denial, leaving Julius momentarily breathless. However, Olsen softened his demeanor, replying, “That’s pretty harsh. You waste no time with flattery or consolation. You operate in a world where such things are unnecessary. Which is precisely why I called you here.”
“I reckon ya might be givin’ me way too much credit. It’s a bit scary bein’ raised up so high, but…sure. Anyway…” With stern gazes fixed on each other, she adjusted her posture and returned her attention to the painting, gesturing at it with her hand. “Mr. Olsen, what made ya think it was a phony?”
“Well…” Olsen hesitated.
“Like I said, that phony’s a masterpiece,” Anastasia interrupted. “If ya didn’t have any doubts, ya wouldn’t even bother appraisin’ it in the first place. So where’d those suspicions come from? Ain’t that far more important than where the paintin’ is from? Or is it just me?”
“Can’t pull the wool over your eyes, I see,” Olsen conceded. Anastasia, with one eye closed, watched him cast his gaze down in contemplation. He then reached into his pocket, retrieved a letter, and placed it on the desk—a plain, unremarkable letter.
“You see, this letter arrived at my home the other day. The sender didn’t even leave a name. All they wrote was a single sentence: The Sleeping Miderine you own is a fake.”
“May I have a look?” Julius took the letter from the desk and scanned its contents. He adjusted his posture to make it easier for Anastasia to see, who had been peering over his shoulder. As they examined the letter side by side, they confirmed that indeed, it contained a single sentence, just as Olsen had said.
“It’s concise an’ to the point…not that I mean to be praisin’ it,” remarked Anastasia. “But that’s all ya got? Nothin’ else at all from that sender?”
“No, not a single thing after that. Of course, it could just as well have been a mere prank. It’s well known that I possess the Sleeping Miderine. It could simply have been some prankster who knows about it playing tricks. It’s just that…” Olsen hesitated before continuing.
“Your pride as a collector would not permit you to let it slide, is that it?” Julius offered.
“That’s exactly right,” Olsen concurred. He turned his cloudy, yellow eyes toward Anastasia, peering through his deeply wrinkled face. “That’s why I turned to you, Miss Anastasia, to appraise the authenticity of the artwork. I’ve heard that you were a collector of art yourself, and one of Kararagi’s finest connoisseurs. So I thought, in that case…”
“As a member of the Lugunican nobility, an’ for the purpose of assessin’ one of the royal selection candidates, ya brought this matter to my attention… I reckon yer quite straightforward yerself, Mr. Olsen,” Anastasia concluded.
“Your words are rather direct,” Olsen replied, raising a brow, “but I also know that your Hoshin Company has many opportunities to deal in works of art. Given our mutual involvement in the art world, shouldn’t we be more concerned about such forgeries circulating in the market?”
Anastasia met his gaze, and a quiet struggle ensued between the two for a moment. Both were influential figures—one a royal selection candidate, the other a member of the nobility, both negotiating with silence.
Eventually, the silent standoff came to an end, with Anastasia raising her hands. “No need to provoke me. I ain’t thrilled about it, either. So long as we’re in business, we can’t afford to be damagin’ our reputation wit’ subpar work. So, give me some time.”
“Splendid,” Olsen replied. “As for how to use that time, may I ask you more about that later?”
“Sure. I reckon we’ll be gettin’ pretty busy ourselves, too,” Anastasia said as she rose and stretched her back. Julius rose with her and handed her her jacket. She accepted it with a small nod of gratitude to Olsen, a soft ‘ah’ escaping her lips. Then, she smiled softly and held up a finger.
“Oh yeah—an’ this is important—if we happen to stumble upon the real Sleeping Miderine, Mr. Olsen… How much are ya willin’ to pay for it?” she inquired in a blend of cunning charm and business acumen.
“Still, that was pretty surprising,” Julius said as they departed Baron Olsen’s estate and climbed into the awaiting dragon carriage.
“Hm?” Anastasia, settling into the plush comfort of the seat inside the elegant Juukulius family dragon carriage, tilted her head in response to Julius’s unexpected comment. “Surprisin’? What was?”
“Our discussion with Lord Olsen. I honestly had no idea about your hobby of collecting artwork, Lady Anastasia. So…”
“What? Hard to believe a quick-witted gal like me could have an appreciation for art?”
“No, no. I meant nothing of the sort,” he replied hastily in an attempt to correct himself.
“Oh, I’m jus’ kiddin’ around,” Anastasia chuckled reassuringly, finally settling into her seat. “I know you’d never think somethin’ like that, Julius. Although yer not entirely off the mark. I ain’t necessarily a fan of paintin’ or the arts.”
“But you had an engaging conversation with Lord Olsen,” Julius continued. “And most importantly, you have enough expertise in the subject of paintings to be considered a connoisseur. So…”
“That don’t mean I’ve fallen in love with art, though, y’know?” Anastasia replied, her thoughts a bit more pragmatic and straightforward than Julius’s. “Though I reckon it’d be nice if that were the case.
“It’s true that I got some art on hand, but they’re for givin’ as gifts to those who want ‘em. Bein’ a connoisseur’s essential for a merchant, that’s why I studied it,” Anastasia explained. Of course, I understand people’s passion for the arts, an’ their natural appreciation for ‘em. How can I do business with ‘em if I don’t? It just ain’t aligned with my own desires for ownership.
“I do appreciate Mr. Olsen’s honesty as a collector, like how he contacted us to check the authenticity of his own paintin’,” she continued.
“That’s because you have an admirable trait of affirming the desires of others,” Julius acknowledged.
“You’re a tad mistaken,” Anastasia clarified with a smile. “I prefer affirmin’ my own desires more than others’. I jus’ think that bein’ honest about what ya want makes life easier an’ happier.”
Anastasia was known for her ability to understand and respect the desires of others. She had made her philosophy evident in the hall on the day that marked the beginning of the royal selection. Such was Anastasia Hoshin’s approach to life.
“I reckon Mr. Olsen gathered from our conversation that I ain’t much of a collector at all. But my philosophy an’ his appreciation for art can coexist. That’s why I get along well with collectors. Ain’t his proposal in line wit’ such expectations?”
“Baron Olsen has yet to disclose who he will support during the royal selection. Are you considering this a litmus test for determining his position?” Julius inquired.
“Well, it’s only natural that people wanna support those that get ‘em. Also, frustratin’ as it is, it ain’t fun seein’ fakes goin’ around. So it works out for both of us.” It’s scary, Anastasia thought, lips forming a wry grin at Olsen’s old-fashioned behavior.
He refused to let his mistake in acquiring a counterfeit go beyond a mere blow to his pride. Such avarice ain’t bad. I reckon he’s someone I’d rather have as a business partner than oppose as an enemy. However, what truly piqued her interest even beyond Olsen was something else.
“It ain’t every day we see a phony of that caliber. We definitely gotta find out who’s behind it an’ put a stop to ‘em.”
“Lady Anastasia, are you perhaps taking this on as your true mission?” Julius asked, narrowing his eyes as he questioned her true intention.
“No way,” she said dismissively as she pointed out the window to distract him. “Oh, look, we’re almost back at yer mansion, ain’t we? We gotta prepare to unload the goods we got. Come on, come on.” Across from her, Julius only let out a small sigh as the roof of the mansion came into view.
Back at the mansion…
“W-What the—!? T-This is the Sleeping Miderine! Why on earth is this here!” Joshua exclaimed in utter shock at the sight of the painting being lowered from the dragon carriage.
This was Julius’s brother. Yet despite his striking resemblance to his older brother, the expression he wore was one rarely, if ever, seen on Julius’s face. His monocle slid down, perfectly capturing the magnitude of his astonishment.
Anastasia watched Joshua’s reaction with a satisfied nod. “Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly the reaction I expected. Thanks, Joshua. I’m totally satisfied.”
“What do you mean you ‘expected’, Lady Anastasia?” Joshua asked.
“I’m of course talkin’ ‘bout yer over-the-top reaction. Oh, how funny,” Anastasia responded amusingly with a hand over her mouth as Joshua looked at her in disbelief.
Watching their interaction from the sidelines, Julius shook his head exhaustingly. “Lady Anastasia, please don’t toy with my brother so much. And Joshua, you need to calm down too.”
“How am I supposed to calm down?” Joshua retorted. “Why is this painting here? Isn’t this one of Baron Olsen’s collections?”
“You’re right about that. As a matter of fact, it was Baron Olsen himself who entrusted it into our hands. Though technically, this painting isn’t really the Sleeping Miderine. It’s a fake.”
“A fake!?” Joshua exclaimed aghast as he gazed at the magnificent framed painting sitting on the floor of the entrance hall. His expression gradually evolved from one of sheer surprise to one of contemplative appreciation of the artistry.
From an early age, Joshua had been plagued by physical fragility, confining him indoors more often than not. Rather than outdoor adventures, he spent much of his time buried in a book, dabbling in poetry, and cultivating his painting skills. Consequently, he ended up acquiring a deep knowledge of the arts, and a profound affection for them. In this regard, Julius was far behind his brother in the area of familiarity with artistic pursuits.
“So it’s really a fake?” Joshua remarked, his voice laced with disbelief. “Ever since I’ve seen it at Baron Olsen’s residence, I could only imagine that it would be genuine.”
“Regrettably, I lack the confidence in my own abilities to accurately evaluate a piece of artwork. However, Lady Anastasia’s discerning eye is beyond compare. Even the baron himself trusted her judgment,” Julius explained.
“Which means, this is a counterfeit with the capability of deceiving even the meticulous eyes of Baron Olsen himself…”
For someone with his deep understanding of art, an esteemed art collector such as Olsen was in a class of his own. Joshua grappled with the shock of the notion that even Baron Olsen could be hoodwinked.
“Mr. Olsen mentioned that y’all are good friends, ain’t ya, Joshua?” Anastasia questioned.
“Good friends might be an exaggeration,” Joshua admitted. “We simply had the chance to show each other our paintings through a common acquaintance. And ever since, he’s been nothing but kind to me. He even showed me this Sleeping Miderine. It was utterly overwhelming.”
“Joshua is an artist in his own right,” Julius added. “Some of his creations even grace the walls of my room. As his older brother, I take great pride in his talent.”
“J-Julius…” Joshua stammered, bashful under Julius’s praise. Yet Julius’s words were not mere flattery. He had intended to show Anastasia Joshua’s works later. Despite his amateur perspective, they were remarkable masterpieces in his eyes. Julius couldn’t help but nurture the hope that his younger brother might one day ascend the ranks of the master painters.
“It’s simply a painting masquerading as a masterpiece,” Joshua said dismissively. “You are giving me too much credit, my dear brother.”
“There is nothing wrong with making a living doing what you love. In fact, I find it admirable.”
“Haha. It would indeed be nice if I could do that,” Joshua responded modestly, seeming to take Julius’s words with a grain of salt. Julius hoped to break that bad habit of self-depreciation, but before he could continue speaking, Anastasia clapped her hands before her chest, interrupting the brothers’ conversation to get their attention.
With a brief glance at the fake painting, she spoke. “As lovely as it is seein’ y’all bondin’ over there, let’s move on to the main issue. For the sake of our esteemed Mr. Olsen, we gotta find the copycat responsible for this. I reckon we’re gonna hafta start lookin’ for clues one by one,” she declared.
“Clues from the copycat? How would one even go about…” Joshua trailed off in uncertainty.
“Oh, are you talking about that letter Baron Olsen received?”” Julius asked.
“Yeah, exactly,” Anastasia affirmed, retrieving a letter from her pocket that had been left in her possession with the painting. She unfolded it, revealing a single, unambiguous sentence. The writer’s handwriting was devoid of any trace of the author’s identity. Searching for the informant, as they called him for the sake of convenience, through this letter seemed impractical.
“Or maybe not…” Anastasia mumbled.
“If our copycat were really so talented, this ain’t likely to be his only piece, right? Which must mean that Mr. Olsen ain’t the only person that this informant has tipped off, no?”
“I get it. So are you suggesting that this person may have sent a similar letter to other collectors who might have other counterfeit pieces by the same copycat?” Julius asked for clarification.
“Well, I’m sure relieved that no one sent somethin’ like this to me,” Anastasia commented with a relieved sigh, modestly rejoicing at her good fortune. “Had it turned out that the ones I’d gone through all the trouble of collectin’ were fakes, too, I reckon my credibility woulda also been shattered, not to mention my self-respect.”
Julius, on the other hand, couldn’t help but marvel at Anastasia’s logical reasoning. Upon hearing that they would be searching for the copycat, he assumed it would be as elusive as grasping at a cloud.
“I never thought of all that, Lady Anastasia. Have you ever done something like this before?” Julius asked.
“Searchin’ for a copycat? Nah, I’ ain’t never done nothin’ like that. I jus’ try to find the possibility that makes the most sense.”
“Even so, I was very surprised,” Julius admitted, charmed by Anastasia’s bashful, blushing response. He continued speaking while looking at the painting. “However, if you had already deducted so much, why did you borrow the painting from Baron Olsen? It does not seem that there is much we can learn from it.” Anastasia’s speculations made so much sense, he found the reason for this puzzling.
“Oh, that?” she responded. “Well, the paintin’ itself ain’t what’s important to me right now. I jus’ wanna confirm somethin’ using that well-done phony. Joshua?”
“Eh, um, me? Yes! What is it?” Joshua asked, caught off guard. Julius furrowed his brow, for he also couldn’t understand why she called his name. Anastasia held up a finger in front of the two brothers.
“I want ya to help us wit’ somethin’ for a sec, Joshua.”
“M-Me? Sure, I don’t mind…”
“Really? Great, that’ll be a big help, alright. I’d expect nothin’ less from a man from the Juukulius house.” Lady Anastasia smiled as she spoke warmly, gesturing toward the Sleeping Miderine with her hand. “Ya mentioned earlier that ya got mutual friends wit’ Mr. Olsen, right? I’d be thrilled if ya could show this paintin’ to all those art-lovin’ friends of yours.”
“Wowee! Julius was right, this is awfully impressive,” Anastasia exclaimed, eyes sparkling as she admired the various paintings adorning the room.
Within her gaze were landscape paintings depicting a variety of vistas. Some were of the royal capital, while others appeared to be distant, fantasy landscapes that appeared to have sprung right off the pages of a storybook.
While some pieces made one want to avert their eyes due to their amateurish nature, there were others that exuded a certain level of confidence. They were all displayed side by side, not as a mere art collection, but as a collection of works by a dear family member. It was Joshua Juukulius’s own personal art gallery within Juukulius Manor.
Although to call it a “gallery” might be a bit of an overstatement. The artworks were of varying quality, and their value as art pieces was subjective. At least, that’s what the artist himself believed.
“Ya know,” Anastasia began, “Julius mightn’t look it, but he’s somethin’ of a family guy. So I reckoned he was jus’ bein’ nice wit’ his words. But it seems he wasn’t kiddin’. I’m impressed.”
Anastasia’s unreserved and straightforward manner of speaking did offer some relief. However, it hinted at a particular evaluation of Julius, which couldn’t be easily overlooked. Julius Juukulius, the Finest of Knights, was a man of honor, and an exemplary knight through and through.
“Do not doubt my brother’s eye for art,” Joshua said defensively. “I simply cannot produce results that meet my brother’s evaluation. He is always looking ahead toward the future.”
“Ah, so both of y’all are family guys. I hadn’t realized,” Anastasia remarked, sticking out her tongue playfully. She gazed at the paintings with a hint of apology.
Since painting was simply a hobby for him, Joshua rarely revealed his works to anyone other than family. So taking this as an opportunity, he began to explain his paintings to Anastasia, even though she hadn’t asked.
“All I have are landscapes, but very few of them are actual places I’ve seen. I mostly paint the scenes that I imagine from books or scenes that I have heard about from my father or my brother. Like scenes from their travels, for example.”
“Ya mean ya drew somethin’ like this from yer imagination? That’s pretty darn impressive, ain’t it? I ain’t very crafty wit’ my hands, so I admire ya for bein’ able to paint like this. I’m envious.” Anastasia looked at the paintings sullenly as she spoke, and Joshua scratched his own cheek with a troubled look on his face.
Today was the day they had invited his acquaintances to the mansion, in accordance with Anastasia’s request. As they awaited their arrival, Joshua fulfilled Anastasia’s wish by showing her the paintings he had created.
However, for Joshua, this situation came with a complex mix of emotions. If only Julius were here to keep Lady Anastasia company.
Unfortunately, Julius had adamantly declined attending this day’s gathering.
Julius offered considerate words of reasoning before leaving: “I do not wish to make your friends uncomfortable, Joshua. So please just enjoy yourselves as you normally would. And please take good care of Lady Anastasia.”
Because of this, Mimi from the Hoshin Company had come in his place. However, her carefree nature meant that she spent most of her time in the dining room, snacking away, pretty much leaving Anastasia unattended.
“I don’t mind having my brother around at all, but…” Joshua said to himself.
However, he was well aware of the artists’ tendency of eccentricity, and therefore could not predict how they would interact with Julius, a royal knight. In that sense, Julius’s considerate remark was undeniably accurate, making Joshua’s feelings as a younger brother quite complex.
“Hmm…” A voice interrupted his inner musings.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was lost in thought. Is something the matter?”
“Nah. I just thought you might be goin’ through some stuff at your age. Must be tough,” Anastasia offered comfortingly.
“It’s nowhere near as tough as what you and my brother face, Lady Anastasia,” Joshua replied, slightly embarrassed as she peered into his contemplative expression. However, in response to his words, Anastasia straightened her back and placed a finger on her lips.
“Oh? Well, ain’t no point in comparin’ our struggles, y’know. That don’t change nothin’ for the person experiencing’ it, so there’s no need to be underminin’ yer own achievements.”
“Y’know, Joshua? I reckon yer serious, worryin’ personality shines through in yer paintin’s. I ain’t so skilled in that field, but ain’t such sensibilities what make art enjoyable?”
Standing inside before a conspicuously large piece, Anastasia looked up at it. It was a depiction of the very Juukulius Manor in which they stood. For Joshua, this was the mansion he had called home since birth, and thus the very origin of his world.
He had dedicated a significant portion of his life to complete this single piece. That time was the equivalent to the time he invested in confronting his own world head-on.
“Yer paintin’ skills are pretty darn impressive. Ain’t ya ever consider a future as an artist?”
Joshua remained silent, gasping slightly as her question caught him off guard. Nonetheless, it was an anticipated and familiar inquiry. After all, it was only natural to assume that one who could handle a paintbrush so well would consider pursuing that path.
Joshua responded with his usual faint smile. “Unfortunately, I do not possess that level of talent. Both you and my brother greatly overestimate me, Lady Anastasia.”
“Well, perhaps. Bein’ an artist requires dedicatin’ your whole life to it, an’ only those who can truly commit can make it. Besides—” She paused for a beat before continuing without turning around. “It ain’t always guaranteed that yer abilities an’ desires will align.”
Her words felt several times sharper than what had silenced Joshua just before. So sharp, the heart they pierced felt as if it had been torn apart by their sting. “Um, Lady Anastasia?”
Unsure if he grasped the true intent behind her words, he furrowed his brow. But Anastasia only raised her hand in response to Joshua’s questioning tone.
“Sorry, sorry. Didn’t mean to cause ya any confusion. I reckon yer paintin’s are way better than ya give yerself credit for. If ya improved just a tad more, I’d even like to sell ‘em.”
“I am honored by that. However, I do not paint for the sake of money,” Joshua replied humbly.
“Ain’t that even better, then? Imagine havin’ something ya only do for fun end up bein’ worth something.”
Well, I don’t know about that. Joshua didn’t want to criticize Anastasia’s values, but he couldn’t help but have reservations. I do, of course, believe everyone’s values are unique. And I also agree with Anastasia’s philosophy on respecting those diverse perspectives. But—
Honestly, Joshua had never been particularly fond of Anastasia. The fact that the Juukulius family supported her was mostly because of Julius, who was the next heir of the family. For Joshua, he had merely been following his brother’s request to assist her. But he was uncertain whether Anastasia was suitable for the kingdom’s throne. He had yet to determine whether or not he truly wished to support her wholeheartedly.
“Missy! Missy! The guests are here! And they look suuuper important! So cool!” The excited voice of Mimi rang out from downstairs. It seemed their visitors had arrived, and she wasted no time being the first of their servants to report it.
The pitter-patter of Mimi’s footsteps clattered beneath the staircase, prompting Joshua and Anastasia to exchange glances.
“Sounds like our guests are here. Shall we go give ‘em a warm welcome?”
“Yes, let’s…” Joshua said. “Um, I know I’ve said this before, but please allow me to say it again. My friends may come off as somewhat eccentric, but please remember, they are not bad people.”
“I know, I know,” Anastasia reassured. “Julius already warned me to keep yer buddies outta trouble, so don’t worry. Anyway, they’re art lovers, right? In that case, I reckon they could become customers of our company. I’ll deal with ‘em properly.”
“Deal with them…?” What exactly does she mean, ‘deal with them’? Unable to muster the courage to ask her directly, Joshua accompanied Anastasia to the room where Mimi was waiting, heading downstairs to greet their guests.
“So, thanks to Joshua’s friends, I gathered quite a few interestin’ things,” Anastasia reported to Julius upon their reunion at the mansion after the guests had left.
“Interesting things, you say?” Julius asked.
Seated at the same table, Joshua nodded in agreement. “Today, I showed my art enthusiast friends the fake Sleeping Miderine,” he explained. “Seeing the actual painting in person, some of them said intriguing things.”
“Is that to say that everything went as Lady Anastasia had anticipated?”
“Bullseye!” Anastasia affirmed. “Seems some of ‘em also got a mysterious letter from someone. Polite anonymous reports sayin’ one of their paintin’s a phony, with the name of the paintin’!’”
“So what did they do after they received those letters?” Julius asked with a stern expression, having confirmed the existence of multiple counterfeits in circulation.
“Absolutely nothin’ at all,” she replied. It seemed that although the art enthusiasts had indeed read the contents of the letters, they had simply put them aside. “Ya see, they were all well-authenticated masterpieces, havin’ already passed all their appraisals ‘til now. So nobody really felt any need to doubt ‘em jus’ ‘cause one anonymous person sent ‘em a letter.”
“However, they seem to have changed their mind after seeing the Sleeping Miderine,” Joshua continued. “Baron Olsen wouldn’t have let go of this painting unless he was certain it was fake. That seems to have been a deciding factor for them.”
“Which means that if there’s really a copycat out there who can produce such elaborate imitations, then as the letter suggested, their own masterpieces also run the risk of being possible fakes,” Julius summed up.
Upon learning that not only the magnificent Sleeping Miderine before them, but their own collection of masterpieces could be fake, the connoisseurs had flown into a panic and ran home, having forgotten even the most basic of etiquette. Undoubtedly, they had also been in a rush to validate the authenticity of their own pieces in their possession. In that regard, Joshua, aside from his interest in art, was relieved that he wasn’t a collector.
“So, now that we’ve confirmed that, as Lady Anastasia suspected, letters were indeed delivered to other collectors… What now? It seems like a dead end in terms of leads,” Julius pondered aloud.
“A dead end? No, it ain’t nothin’ of the sort. For starters, we ruled out the possibility of the sender jus’ bein’ a prankster wit’ grudge against Mr. Olsen, right? And it’s gotta be someone who can discern the authenticity of paintin’s, too. Now, if only we knew their motive…”
“Motive?” Julius speculated. “To eradicate the circulation of counterfeit paintings throughout the world, perhaps?”
“Ahaha! Julius, you’re a riot! Puttin’ on such a serious face, then comin’ up with such jokes!” Anastasia laughed and applauded, but Julius looked unamused. Without a doubt, these were Julius’s true thoughts, but they had been received as a far-fetched dream. It is said that twenty percent of masterpieces currently circulating in the world are fakes. Criminals scheming to exploit people’s desires never stop existing. It’s futile to even dream of eradicating every existing fake in the world. However, the informant’s action of sending these letters in the first place did seem to suggest some hostility toward the copycat.
“Well, what if the informant was actually the copycat himself?” Joshua suggested. “It could simply be a mischievous act to mock the collectors who are unable to detect the phonies on their own.”
“Haha, that’d be pretty amusin’ too. If that were the case, findin’ the sender would mean findin’ the copycat at the same time. Like hittin’ two birds wit’ one stone! Super convenient.” Anastasia clapped her hand in enthusiasm.
“In this case, I don’t think the other party is necessarily thinking about gain or loss…” Julius said with a wry smile.
However, with the limited information Joshua had on the culprit, that was about the best they could come up with. After all, what benefit would the sender even gain from engaging in such actions?
“Or maybe their actions are completely unrelated to gains and losses?” Joshua speculated.
“Nah, that definitely ain’t the case,” Anastasia dismissed, wagging a finger at Joshua, who was getting desperate. “Whether material or psychological, humans never engage in actions completely detached from some sorta benefit. So there’s gotta be someone gainin’ something, for better or worse. An’ whoever that is, is none other than our sender.”
“Lady Anastasia, what kind of possibilities are you considering?” Julius asked.
“Me? Well, let’s see. I don’t think whoever’s sendin’ these letters is doin’ it for money. As Joshua would say, this won’t yield any gains. Of course, if they exposed the phonies an’ came back sellin’ the originals, that’d be a different story.”
“At the moment, there don’t seem to have been any such offers,” Joshua confirmed.
“Then the sender’s target’s gotta be the copycat’s, no? Maybe it’s an attack on the copycat, or some other motive. Either way, it’s still up in the air.”
“I see. So they’re fixated on the copycat?” Julius inquired. Anastasia’s speculations certainly carried conviction, especially considering her ability to discern the authenticity of paintings. Suddenly, Joshua felt oddly embarrassed by the ineptitude of his own deductions.
Sensing Joshua’s embarrassment, Julius nodded and said, “There’s no need to worry about it. What you said earlier also showed a keen observation. I would not have come up with that myself. I’m sure even Lady Anastasia was impressed. Isn’t that right?”
“Thank you for that, Julius,” Joshua acknowledged. “But had it really been an idea I came up with, I’m sure you and Lady Anastasia would have both said something right away. No need to be so modest with me.”
“Says the one being so modest himself…” Anastasia murmured while adjusting her scarf, watching Joshua and Julius talk. Then, with a slight shift in her own demeanor, she continued, “While it’s good to get an idea of the culprit’s identity, gettin’ too hung up on it now might lead to biases and preconceptions. Anyways, I got a feelin’ there’ll be some movement soon. Don’tcha agree?”
“I understand what you’re saying about preconceptions,” Joshua noted. “But movement, you say? From which side? The informant or the copycat?”
“Hmm, well, neither of ‘em. Rather, from your friends from earlier.” Julius and Joshua exchanged glances at Anastasia’s matter-of-fact reply. Smiling at their reactions, she pointed at the window and started counting down: “Three, two, one…”
Taken aback, they both glanced over silently, half-doubtful, half-expecting. “Anand… zero. Ah well, I reckon that woulda been way too convenient,” Anastasia said with a shrug, flashing an embarrassed smile.
Just then, before the Juukulius Manor gate, a dragon carriage approached. It was a rather eccentric carriage, belonging to one of the enthusiasts who had just stopped by several hours back. And thus, Anastasia’s prediction that one of his friends would make a movement, turned out to be remarkably accurate.
“I reckon I shoulda waited another five seconds or so,” she mused, turning around, one eye closed. “That really woulda been somethin’.” Julius respectfully bowed as if in admiration, and Joshua hastily followed suit. However, in Joshua’s mind, he was more impressed by Anastasia’s uncanny foresight, rather than mere admiration. What she had done could be called predicting and directing the thoughts and actions of others. And if she could do that—
“It’s as if she’s able to read minds.” Such an idea was terribly frightening to Joshua, causing his shoulders to tremble against his will. Although he couldn’t quite pinpoint the reason for that trembling.
Only three days had passed since they accepted Nico Olsen’s request, and they now found themselves approaching the residence of Azla Eastern.
“It appears that nobody is home,” Julius said, turning back toward the others. They were on an unremarkable corner of the commoner’s district, with the lively bustle of the royal capital echoing in the distance.
There’s no nameplate on the door, but this is undeniably the correct address. The lack of response must mean that either the person in question is absent, or that he lives a more nocturnal lifestyle that seems to be common among artists. In any case, there is no other way to obtain the detailed information we need than to ask the person directly.
“But it is indeed rather surprising. To think that we would identify a suspect of the informant so quickly,” Julius remarked.
“Is it?” Anastasia asked. “Thanks to Joshua, we came across a few other copycat victims amongst his friends. I reckon they wouldn’t make such a fuss had it been anyone else. But bein’ a matter of their own, everyone got desperate. Even if we did nothin’, I reckon they’d go off lookin’ for the culprit on their own, an’ let us know whatever they find.”
Joshua looked at her in surprise. Raising a finger, she continued her proud explanation. “But seein’ as we provided the information first, think of it as a favor in return.”
Certainly, things had turned out just as Anastasia had described. After discovering the possibility of a phony amongst their own art collection, the art enthusiasts spared no effort in searching for the identity of who sent the anonymous letters to their homes. As a result, Joshua and his friends had become a hub for such information, piecing clues together in an attempt to narrow down a culprit.
Their currently available information suggested it was a tall young man with rust-colored hair, clean-cut but lacking extravagance, who also enjoyed painting by himself. And while several names came up, at the top of the list was the one called Azla Eastern.
Azla was a young man residing in the royal capital, often seen coming and going from a trading company, engaged in tasks such as handling materials. It was said that on rare days off, he would take up a brush and paint portraits in the square.
“While the description matches, we can’t do much if he doesn’t respond. Should we set him aside for now and move on to our other suspects?” Julius suggested.
“Ya seem to be enjoyin’ this, Julius,” Anastasia teased.
“I am…sorry about that,” Julius said, clearing his throat. “Although I routinely have the opportunity to patrol as a knight, it is not very often that I get the chance to conduct a serious investigation such as this.”
Julius, while admonishing himself for his words and actions, was not dressed in the white uniform of the knights, but in his everyday attire. At Anastasia’s request, this was a deliberate measure to avoid intimidating the other party.
Nevertheless, the effect was questionable, as Julius’s appearance did not detract from his dignity and grace, as his style of dress was still sophisticated despite being his own personal wear.
“Your refinement simply cannot be hidden… Truly impressive, dear brother,” Joshua praised.
“Joshua’s brotherly favoritism toward you notwithstandin’, it’s actually the fact that we’re all so eye-catchin’ that’s bothersome. We’re so good-lookin’ standin’ side by side, our disguises are practically pointless.”
“I am at a loss for how to apologize for that,” Julius replied. “But first of all, it would certainly help if you could also take the initiative and disguise your own beauty, Lady Anastasia…”
“Well, I don’t need you tellin’ me that… But all jokes aside, I don’t reckon we should be lingerin’ around for too long.”
Anastasia turned her head, letting out a thoughtful “Hmm…” However, she abruptly interrupted her train of thought. With a decisive expression, she clapped her hands in front of her chest. “Alright, I got it. Hey, don’t y’all hear a baby cryin’ inside the house?”
“Huh? A baby? I don’t hear anything…” Joshua said, confused at Anastasia’s sudden suggestion.
“I see,” Julius nodded in an understanding manner. “If there is a baby crying inside, then this is indeed an urgent matter. We must hurry.”
Disregarding the confused Joshua, Julius moved swiftly, placing his hand on the door of the Azla residence.
From the cuff of his sleeve, a quasi-spirit named Ia emerged, emitting a faint red glow. Ia flew straight into the keyhole of the front door, and within seconds, the lock clicked open.
“J-Julius!? Isn’t this a crime…!?” Joshua exclaimed.
“No, this is an emergency,” Julius clarified. “We must make sure that the baby is safe. Lady Anastasia has entrusted me with discretion in situations like this.”
“W-What a bad influence…!”
“Come on now,” Anastasia interrupted. “If we start fussin’ outside the house, people will start suspectin’ us.”
As Julius slipped in through the open door, Anastasia forcefully pushed the hesitant Joshua inside, right into the Azla residence.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Joshua apologized. “I didn’t mean to offend. I just couldn’t imagine my brother doing something wrong. So the problem must be with your suggestion, Lady Anastasia…”
“Well, yer quick to say sorry, ain’t ya? But there ain’t nobody here to apologize to. So relax.”
“Even so, it feels a bit heartless to find comfort in that…” Joshua, who had his eyes closed, slightly opened them and slowly surveyed the interior of the house.
Indeed, as Anastasia said, it seemed to be unoccupied. In that regard, Joshua was relieved that they weren’t reprimanded for entering without permission. However, for Joshua, that reassurance would not last very long. Because what lay before them was…
“Lady Anastasia,” Julius started.
“Yeah, I noticed it, too…” she replied, bringing her tone down a notch. “The place’s been ransacked.”
From their change in demeanor, Joshua could also sense that this was a dire situation. The Azla residence was in a state of disarray, and appeared to have been that way since long before they had broken inside.
This chaos had nothing to do with the presence or absence of tidiness. Furniture had been overturned, dishes were shattered, and signs of resistance had left their mark. The most concerning issue was the bloodstains on the floor.
Although the amount was scant, the floor was dotted with traces of blood. It was unclear whether this blood belonged to the homeowner, Azla, or to someone else.
“Whatever happened here was certainly out of the ordinary,” Julius observed. “There were physical altercations, followed by…”
“The kidnappin’ of the homeowner. That’s how it seems.” Squatting near the bloodstains on the floor, Anastasia looked at the window in the back of the room. Upon closer inspection, the bloodstains were leading in that direction, accompanied by a sizable shoe print left behind on the windowsill.
“After enterin’ through the back, they waited for Azla’s return before attackin’ an’ abductin’ him… that scenario makes the most sense, don’t it?”
“But who?! Who attacked him, who?” Joshua asked, dumbfounded.
“Well, if my assumption’s correct, then Azla’s definitely the whistleblower sendin’ out all them letters. But that’d be a pain for the copycat, meanin’ it’s gotta be the copycat himself who’s our prime suspect.”
Joshua, despite finding himself burning with anxiety, couldn’t help but agree with Anastasia’s deduction. Her composure contributed greatly, as for a person in the midst of such discomfort, composure served as a beacon. Anastasia’s soft way of speaking was more than enough to create such an impression in Joshua.
“Lady Anastasia, this seems like a situation in need of the guards,” Julius announced. “I will return shortly. May I entrust this place into your care?”
“Yeah, I reckon that’s best,” she agreed.
“Understood. Joshua, I entrust Lady Anastasia to you. I’ll call upon the guards and return promptly.”
“Y-Yes!” Joshua responded. “Julius, please be careful.” With that, Julius and Anastasia proceeded to take their next actions.
Leaving them in charge of the mansion’s security, Julius had entrusted Anastasia to Joshua, and quickly made his way to a guards’ station. As long as they had a case, it would be the guards’ duty to search for Azla from this point forward.
“Wait, Lady Anastasia!” Joshua called out. “Shouldn’t you wait here for my brother to return!?” However, disregarding Joshua, Anastasia immediately headed out of the room. He hurried after her.
Without looking back at him, she responded, “Listen. Once the guards come swarmin’ in, things are gonna get crazy. So before that happens, we gotta do what only we can. Somethin’ that can’t be done wit’ Julius around.”
“Something we can’t do with my brother around…?” Joshua asked, dumbstruck. “Does such a thing even exist in this world?”
“It might sound astonishin’, but I assure you, it exists,” Anastasia replied with a wry smile. “Take this, for example…”
With that, she headed to the house neighboring the Azla residence, and pounded on the door, calling out: “Hellooo? Yer neighbor, Mr. Azla, was jus’ attacked. Didn’t y’all happen to see anythin’?”
“W-Wait!” Taken aback by Anastasia’s boldness, Joshua’s face turned pale as he glanced between Anastasia’s profile and the door of the neighboring house. “I-Is it really okay to say something like that so directly? If they do know something, won’t they have already reported it to the guards?”
“Shh.” Placing a finger on her lips, Anastasia motioned for Joshua to be quiet. He couldn’t make heads or tails of her intentions. However, until now, Anastasia had demonstrated a consistent track record that defied expectations, leading them to Azla. Trusting that, Joshua shut his mouth.
“Hmm, nothin’ at all…” Anastasia muttered. “In that case, on to the folks ‘cross the street.” Unphased, she moved on to the next house.
Joshua, although puzzled, had no choice but to follow her lead. He had been entrusted by Julius to look after her. Swirling in a vortex of uncertainty about what he could do, he knew he couldn’t abandon his duty.
Keeping the momentum, Anastasia went around the vicinity of the Azla residence, asking questions to people left and right. And as a matter of course, she was ignored by everyone she asked. In the end, they came up with no clues, leaving Joshua to slump his shoulders in defeat.
After their numerous unsuccessful attempts, Joshua was waiting for Julius to return with the guards, when a rough voice shot out in their direction.
“Yo! Youse two over there! Ya got some questions or somethin’, don’tcha?” The owner of the voice was a man with a rather aggressive aura. He was surrounded by men with equally intimidating vibes. Joshua felt an uncomfortable cold sweat run down his back.
“Uh, well you see… Oh, we’re not suspicious individuals…” Shielding Anastasia behind him, Joshua tried to hold off the men.
Anastasia, however, spoke out from behind Joshua. “Yeah, yeah, we’re in a bit of a pickle. Mind spillin’ the beans, fellas?”
“L-Lady Anast…mmmph!” As Joshua tried to call out her name, a hand reached from behind and covered his mouth, rendering him speechless. At that moment, he heard Anastasia’s voice whisper softly into his ear.
“Don’t say my name.”
“Ah—” Releasing her hand from Joshua’s mouth, Anastasia stepped forward gracefully. He realized she had removed her familiar hat and scarf, transforming her appearance from her usual self.
Joshua realized that this was an effort to keep her identity as Anastasia Hoshin a secret. He also realized that the situation had gone just as she had anticipated. Taking a deep breath, Joshua steeled himself. “Well then, what should I call you for now?”
“For now, let’s go wit’ Ana. Gotta keep everythin’ under wraps, y’know? Alright, time for a social studies field trip.”
Surrounded by the men, Joshua felt a cold shiver run up his spine. Anastasia, on the contrary, winked playfully in complete composure. Astounded by her poise, Joshua realized that Anastasia had left her hat and scarf at the Azla residence as a message to Julius. He continued to follow along, all while pondering: “Are you sure we can trust this person, dear brother?”
And thus, they were led away by the men quietly, Joshua all the while addressing the absent Julius with his concerns.
One day, Anastasia Hoshin, one of the candidates for the throne of the Kingdom of Lugunica, received an unusual request from Baron Nico Olsen, an art collector.
The content of the request was rather peculiar: to locate the master forger responsible for replicating the baron’s treasured masterpiece, Sleeping Miderine. Anastasia, who occasionally dealt with artworks in her trade, shared a mutual interest with the baron in preventing the circulation of such exquisite forgeries and securing his support.
Upon accepting the task, Anastasia and her team began their investigation. Three days into their inquiry, they stumbled upon information regarding an individual who appeared to have reported the forger—a man known as Azla. Upon visiting his residence, signs of a possible assault and abduction had become evident.
In their pursuit of more information, Anastasia and her team began questioning the people in the vicinity. Suddenly, a group of rugged-looking individuals who seemed to know something emerged. They then guided them to a dimly lit tavern, which appeared to be their hideout.
“Are ya the ones who killed Azla Eastern?” Anastasia asked abruptly, catching Joshua off guard, making him let out a squeal. Inside the dimly lit tavern were a number of shadowy figures, all exuding violent air.
With Joshua, who was painfully aware of his slender build, it was a fair match in terms of arm and leg thickness against these formidable opponents. Amidst this group, Anastasia, who was even more delicate than Joshua, exuded a sense of brazen confidence. However, she knew that poise alone wouldn’t shield them from the others’ simmering anger.
Suddenly, a rough-looking man, startled by the inquiry, slammed his hand onto the table. “Uh-oh.” A sense of impending doom washed over Joshua, but it was too late. The table tilted, causing the glass to gracefully slide and shatter upon the floor.
“Wha—what the hell are youse guys doin’ here?” one of them demanded.
“Yeah! Don’t think youse can waltz in here and leave unscathed!” another chimed in.
“You heard ‘em! Come at me, punk!” shouted a third.
Anastasia and Joshua found themselves encircled by the angry men, who hurled insults in a deafening chorus, their fervor so overwhelming that the latter half of their words were indistinguishable.
Joshua’s vision blurred, overwhelmed by the men’s intensity. His heart raced as if it might leap from his chest, and nausea surged within him. But even in this dire situation, Anastasia remained unfazed.
“Well, now, let’s not make such a ruckus,” she calmly interjected with a graceful smile, unaffected by the men’s chaotic uproar. She boldly continued to inquire about Azla’s whereabouts amidst her rowdy acquaintances. “Would you be willing to hear us out? We have a request.”
“A-A-Ana?! Do you have a plan?” Joshua asked, his voice trembling. In awe of her bravery asking these ruffians about Azla’s whereabouts, he knew there had to be a plan behind her actions.
On initial assessment, the group before them seemed to number no fewer than ten. Even in a one-on-one confrontation, Joshua knew he couldn’t adequately protect Anastasia. It seemed hopeless. “If only Julius were…”
Restraining the words that nearly escaped his lips, Joshua shut his eyes tightly. Julius, who had been accompanying them during the investigation, had separated from them to report the vandalism at Azla’s home to the guards. Naturally, had Julius been present, there would have been no reason for Joshua to feel apprehensive, regardless of the number of opponents they faced. However…
“If Julius were around, I reckon they wouldn’t dare come near us in the first place,” Anastasia said, finishing his unspoken thought.
“So that was your intention, after all.” Joshua exasperated.
“Oh, absolutely,” she replied, a playful wink accentuating her demeanor. “If ya wanna win big, ya gotta bet big! Remember that, Joshua.” Joshua couldn’t fathom how she could remain so composed.
The men’s posture didn’t appear to be a mere bluff to Joshua. They genuinely seemed intent on getting rid of both himself and Anastasia completely, who they deemed little more than unwelcome guests. Anastasia, who held one of the most esteemed positions in the country, unaccompanied by none of her comrades—neither Ricardo, nor Mimi, nor above all, Julius Juukulius.
“Joshua, I entrust Lady Anastasia to you.” In that fleeting moment, as Joshua remembered his absent brother, the last words Julius had entrusted to him echoed in his mind.
I can’t even begin to imagine how taken aback he will be once he returns with the guards only to find us gone. And how worried he will be. Despite such thoughts, he reminded himself he had been entrusted with a specific duty. Now, he bore the responsibility for the well-being of Lady Anastasia Hoshin, the person who mattered most to Julius.
Holding his breath, Joshua forced his golden eyes open and surveyed the interior of the tavern. The men continued to eye them with simmering hostility. However, his attention wasn’t fixed on them; he had something else in mind, a strategy to navigate this challenging situation. For example, the ornamental swords mounted on the tavern’s walls. “Ana, over here!” he called out.
In a split second, Joshua’s hesitation faded. He quickly grabbed Anastasia’s arm and forcefully pushed through the encircling group. It seemed neither Anastasia nor the men had anticipated Joshua’s decisive move. Capitalizing on their momentary surprise, Joshua managed to slip through. Then, he reached for one of the decorative swords hanging on the wall.
Drawing the sword from its scabbard, Joshua positioned himself protectively behind Anastasia. Witnessing Joshua’s desperate resistance, one of the men taunted him with a sneer. “Hey now, you’re kidding, right?”
But it wasn’t just that man who found it amusing. The others seemed to regard Joshua’s actions as mere bluster. Instead of anger, their recent fury had morphed into amusement, akin to a cat toying with a mouse.
However, Joshua was dead serious, with no intention of jesting or playing games. Holding a sword he had no desire to wield for a joke was the last thing he’d ever do.
“Do not expect me to hold back,” Joshua warned. “I haven’t swung a sword in nearly ten years.”
“Getta load of that!” one of the men taunted. “Punk says he ain’t holdin’ back! Ooh, I’m so scared I’m pissin’ my pants! Yo, Mr. Swordsman! Ya gonna cut us all down or what?”
“I’m not a swordsman,” Joshua corrected him. “I’m a knight.”
“Eh?” The man’s boorish grin disappeared. Of course, Joshua knew that this would only further agitate him. He knew this, but it was all he could do to provoke him. Because…
“I’m the son of a knight. Even if these feeble arms may disqualify me from such a position, my spirit will not break. Above all,” Joshua lifted his head, his trembling arms gripping the sword firmly as he stared down the man, “I’m the brother of the most knightly man in the country. How can I back down here?!” With an uncharacteristic rage in his voice, Joshua stepped forward and swung the sword.
“What the—!?” the man exclaimed, his voice cracking. It was a feeble move. A decade without wielding a sword was no exaggeration. A boy ten years younger could have managed a more decent swing. Yet, even so, it served to strike down those with malicious intent. A sword wielded to protect the righteous against malice—it was truly a knight’s sword.
“Urk!” In the spur of the moment, the man raised his arm to shield himself, but blood dripped from his hand as Joshua’s blow struck.
The ornate sword that had been on display was indeed nothing more than decoration. The blade, neglected and lacking proper maintenance, was dull. Combined with the knight’s lack of skill, it only managed to nick the thin skin of the man’s hand. Yet, it was a strike sufficient to display Joshua’s resolve. And it was enough to infuriate the men who had been basking in their superiority of tormenting the weak.
“You sonuva—!” The man, whose palm had been shallowly cut, lunged at Joshua in a fury. His palm appeared to be a far more dangerous weapon than the sword of the hapless knight. But before it could reach its target…
“Really, boys always gotta be showin’ off, don’t they?” Anastasia, shielded behind him, uttered with a sigh. Her voice resonated deeper in his consciousness than the furious clamor of the enraged man. Distracted by her voice, Joshua was yanked by the collar and stumbled backward.
In that instant, the man’s arm, still dripping with blood, passed right before his eyes as he narrowly avoided it. As Joshua staggered backward, his falling body was supported by a slender, delicate arm. “L-Lady Anastasia…”
“It’s Ana. But given that ya did look pretty cool out there, I reckon I’ll let this one slide,” Anastasia said, directing a soft smile at Joshua, who accidentally called her by her real name in the heat of the moment.
But we’re not entirely safe yet, Joshua told himself after seeing Anastasia’s smile. If that guy takes one more step, his dangerous palm could easily reach us.
“What the hell are ya punks cozyin’ up there fer!? Ya punks are—”
“Why am I cozyin’ up, you ask?” Anastasia said, poking her head out from behind Joshua. “I mean, I got two knights here to protect me. What’s there to be scared of?” She stuck her tongue out playfully.
“Two…?” Before Joshua could fully comprehend the meaning of her words, the answer made a dramatic appearance before them. In an instant, with a deafening crash, the closed doors of the tavern burst open.
From the other side of the busted doors, behind where the men stood dumbfounded, emerged a handsome man with light purple hair. “Sorry about that. I guess I knocked a bit too hard.”
“J-Julius! Why are you here!?” Joshua gaped in amazement as Julius entered the shop in what seemed like a miracle. Witnessing his brother’s reaction, Julius briefly let a sense of relief, a sentiment shared only among family, appear at the corners of his mouth.
“Oh, nothing,” he said with a shake of his head as he quickly composed himself. “When I returned with the guards, I couldn’t find a trace of the two of you. I thought something might have happened, so I conducted a search in the area…and found this.”
“That’s Lady Anastasia’s…” He noticed the white fox fur collar that Julius held up. It was something Anastasia always wore, but she had undoubtedly discarded it when the men brought her to the tavern to conceal her identity. It must have tipped him off to the men’s base of operations.
“Lady Anastasia, are you—mmph!”
“Ya been way too careless since earlier,” Anastasia said, cutting off Joshua’s words by pushing her finger to his lips. “It’s Ana. I only let it slide that one time.”
“I see, that’s what you’re going for,” Julius said, grasping Anastasia’s intent in using her alias. “In that case, I am Juli.”
“You’re really fond of that name, aren’t ya?” Anastasia said, giggling at his choice of pseudonym for reasons Joshua didn’t understand.
“Y-You bastards! How dare you ignore us!” The men regained their composure in the midst of the invaders’ calm exchange. “So there’s one more pretty boy. So what!? You’re just a—”
“Sorry, but we are tired of your insults,” Julius coolly responded, cutting the man off. “Never mind me, but the two behind me, especially.”
The man who had confronted Joshua barked at Julius in the same manner. Or at least, he tried to, but to no avail. In the middle of his words, Julius appeared to have vanished from the man’s sight. In reality, he had crouched down low and slipped through them like the wind. But the fact that their eyes couldn’t even keep up made the gap in their strength abundantly clear.
As Julius made his entrance, Joshua and Anastasia whispered in relief. “That’s my brother,” Joshua commended.
“And that’s my knight,” Anastasia added. Immediately following, the man who had been barking at them tumbled headfirst to the floor.
Julius’s long legs swung out, sweeping the man off his feet. The man, who was still looking for the vanished Julius, collapsed before he could realize what had happened. In an instant, Julius rose before the other stupefied men who had just watched him take one of their comrades down. He stood protectively with Joshua and Anastasia behind him.
“Twelve in sight, two more behind the bar. Hiding is futile. Insults will be repaid with revenge. However…” Julius unfastened his knight’s sword from his hip, and handed it to Joshua behind him. Joshua took the sword and was immediately surprised by its weight, to which Julius smiled. “You did well, Joshua.”
Joshua, having been praised, however, couldn’t find the right words to say.
“Today, I am not a knight,” Julius said, turning his attention toward the men. “Therefore, I shall not use the sword. Instead, I will engage you as Juli, a wandering mercenary, with these fists. How does that sound?”
Hearing this, Joshua’s vision blurred with tears as the men rekindled their rage. As they surged forward with incomprehensible insults, Julius casually rotated his arms and stepped forward.
“Juli, don’t hurt yerself,” Anastasia cautioned.
“Understood,” he replied. Encouraged by Anastasia’s unwavering support, Julius struck with fists like an arrow. A blow to their leader’s chest sent him flying, causing those behind him to lose their momentum.
Although superior in number, it was not enough to secure victory, hence the fate of the men had been sealed. In a matter of seconds, all fifteen men, including the first one who fell, were wiped out.
And thus, looking down at the fallen men, Julius sighed, unscathed. He reflected on his victory, attained from his position unreachable by anyone else. “This can hardly be called an elegant outcome.”
“Look, it ain’t us who raided Azla’s house! We been lookin’ for ‘im too!” Perhaps due to the overwhelming defeat of the fifteen men, they had become more cooperative in answering Anastasia’s questions. However, the answers they obtained were far from what they had hoped for.
“So y’all been lookin’ for Azla, too, huh? Is that why y’all were askin’ us ‘bout him, too?” Anastasia asked.
“Yup. Cost us a good deal of dough too, ya know?” one of the men answered.
“In short, you were lured in by the reward. Meaning that someone hired you and instructed you to find Azla Eastern. Is that correct?” Under Julius’s gentle prodding, the man sitting on the floor nodded several times. Julius maintained a soft attitude, keeping his courtesy toward the other party. However, that didn’t diminish their fear of being beaten down. The men’s faces were pale.
“I’d expect nothing less of you, my dear brother. Even hundreds of them would be no match for you.”
“No matter how skilled I am, hundreds of them would probably make me hesitate. Of course, if those hundreds were targeting you or Lady Anastasia, I wouldn’t think twice.”
“Julius…” Joshua was impressed by Julius’s attitude. But Anastasia cut into their display of brotherly love with a clap of her hands.
“Alright, alright, enough sappy siblin’ comedy.” Then she turned to the slightly embarrassed Julius. “Thanks again for helpin’ us, Juli. Ya did a great job trackin’ our leads.”
“Well, seeing it so boldly placed right in the middle of the road, it was pretty hard to miss. Honestly, I am relieved that somebody else did not pick it up before me. It sends a chill down my spine simply thinking about it.”
“Right in the middle o’ the road?” Anastasia remarked. “Honestly, that girl really has a knack for carelessness…”
“No, no, it’s nothin’. Speakin’ of which, it’s pretty refreshin’ bein’ called Ana by you, Juli,” Anastasia said cheerfully to Julius, still in disguise.
Cracking a smile, he responded softly, “Anytime you wish… But putting that aside, it seems there are others besides us looking for Lord Azla.”
“Seems like it. Hey, y’all ever ask your employer why they been lookin’ for Azla in the first place?” Anastasia inquired of the men.
“N-No, we ain’t ask nothin’…” the man responded. “But…”
“But they were actin’ all jittery. Sayin’ some crap about how we’ll all be in cahoots if we don’t hurry it up.” It was unclear how reliable the man’s impression of their employer was, but he didn’t seem to be lying. After a few more questions that didn’t yield much more useful information, Anastasia and her companions quietly left the tavern.
“Seems y’all ain’t lookin’ to draw any attention. I reckon y’all get outta here before the guards show up.” With those parting words of advice from Anastasia, they left.
“Even still, this situation has become quite complicated, hasn’t it?” Julius said.
“Sure has,” Anastasia replied with a sigh. “Seems both us and them guys from earlier jus’ missed Azla. Meanin’ if Azla’s kidnappin’ was someone else’s doing…”
“That means there are at least three factions after him,” Julius added, finishing her thought.
As they left the tavern and gathered in a shop facing the main street to organize their information, the conclusion they reached left the trio with solemn expressions.
The ruffians in the tavern failed to secure Azla. And after confirming that they weren’t the ones who ransacked his house, the only other explanation was that another faction was responsible. And without a doubt, it was the faction that abducted him who currently held the most advantageous position.
“They say the one who hired those ruffians is a woman named Amilét…”
“Amilét Megis… A pretty notorious antiques dealer, handlin’ stolen goods and stuff,” Anastasia explained. “There’s a buncha unsavory rumors about her goin’ ‘round.”
“Why would someone like her be after Lord Azla?” Joshua questioned, tilting his head in confusion. Julius wore an expression of contemplation. However, Anastasia muttered in agreement.
“Lady Anastasia? Did you figure something out?” Julius asked.
“Wait, Juli,” Anastasia cautioned. “Those guys from earlier might still be followin’ us. Let’s not let our guards down, ‘kay?”
“I see. Well then, Ana, what did you notice?”
“Hehehe… The enemy’s motive,” Anastasia replied with a knowing smile. “Listen up.” She motioned for the wide-eyed brothers to listen carefully and huddle up. “The antique dealer Amilét’s motive’s pretty straightforward. She’s after Lord Azla, who’s been exposin’ art phonies ‘cause it disrupts her business.”
“Disrupts her business, you say? Does that mean…”
“That she was knowingly selling counterfeit paintings,” Joshua blurted out, excited as he came to understand Anastasia’s speculations. Whoops, how embarrassing. That was unprofessional of me, wasn’t it? But to his surprise, Anastasia nodded in agreement with his answer.
“Joshua, ya hit the nail on the head,” Anastasia affirmed. “The antique dealer Amilét’s been knowingly sellin’ phonies to her customers.”
“Meaning Lord Azla’s accusations are an inconvenience to her… If she has been selling fakes as the real deal all this time, the price difference must be enormous.”
“And it ain’t always easygoin’ folks like Mr. Olsen who wanna buy art. I reckon there’s a buncha art lovers millin’ around in the rough-an’-tumble businesses, too.”
Anastasia’s speculations made sense. Indeed, if this were the case, the antique dealer who had been dealing with counterfeits would not only suffer great financial losses, but could also be in grave danger. It only made sense that they would panic and try to take Azla into custody to silence him.
“But they slipped up, lettin’ someone else get first dibs on Azla before ‘em.”
“In that case, it is reasonable to assume that Ms. Amilét and the copycat are connected, is it not?” Julius asked. “To buy and sell counterfeits, one must presumably have a hand in the business.”
“Yep, ya got it,” she agreed. “They’d need a direct link to the copycat. Though I reckon findin’ Ms. Amilét’s whereabouts will be jus’ as challengin’ as findin’ Azla himself.”
“If she’s aware that she’s being pursued, wouldn’t she be on the run?” Joshua wondered. Despite coming to understand her situation, we still haven’t gotten to the heart of the matter. Frankly speaking, although our initial goal was to find the copycat, on an emotional level, we can’t just forget about Azla. We still don’t know his reason for exposing the fakes. However, without his whistleblowing…
“At the very least, we wouldn’t have known that the Sleeping Miderine is a fake, and the tarnished pride of the collectors would have gone unnoticed,” Joshua continued.
“Well, Joshua, ain’t ya enthusiastic?” Leaning on her cheek and smiling, Anastasia’s words made him embarrassed.
“Uh, no, sorry. I got a bit carried away…”
“It’s fine, relax. Anybody’d get all worked up upon findin’ out somethin’ they loved was a phony.”
It’s sometimes difficult to deal with how this girl can take such reckless actions, and even influence the otherwise upright Julius. I do believe it is simply her way of dealing with things, but either way, I don’t mind.
“So, Ana, what do we do from here?” Julius asked. “We still don’t have any leads.”
“Hmm, that’s true. We already struck out in this direction. Guess we’d better start lookin’ for leads from another side.”
“Another side? Um, do you have more shenanigans planned?” Joshua couldn’t help but let his true feelings slip.
“Joshua, that’s a rude way of asking,” Julius commented, rubbing his brow in frustration. Joshua quickly covered his mouth, realizing his gaffe, but Anastasia was not offended.
“No need to apologize. If anythin’, it looks like Joshua’s startin’ to understand me better. Though I ain’t sure I can meet those expectations…”
“You mean because Ricardo and the others aren’t here right now?” Julius asked.
“Unlike Joshua,” Anastasia continued, “my knight ain’t all that charmin’.”
“Right now, I’m more a mercenary than a knight, though,” concluded Julius. Anastasia made a somewhat unamused expression at his seamless response. It was as if she had been outwitted, and Joshua was impressed by his witty remark.
Although they originally got along well, their chemistry had improved even more since becoming master and servant. Considering the battle for the royal selection, this was as good as it could get. However, at the same time…
“It also means that my brother is changing,” Joshua thought. Just as that sense of desolation escaped his mouth, another voice called out to them, cutting him off.
“Oh, Miss! I found you. I’m glad you’re here!” Upon closer inspection, an orange-haired kitten boy approached them near the window from outside the store. It was Mimi’s younger brother, Hetaro. He wore a relieved look on his gentle face as he patted his chest with a sigh. “I was so worried, Miss! When I got to the address, there were guards all over the place!”
“Oh, that was Azla’s place,” Anastasia said. “Sorry, I didn’t have time to let y’all know about it. Anywho, how’d y’all manage to find us?”
“Julius and Joshua have a really unique scent,” Hetaro explained.
Joshua was taken aback by Hetaro’s sniffing. “Huh? Not only my brother, but me as well?”
“Joshua, why are you so surprised?” Julius asked with a stare. Joshua had assumed that it was only natural for Julius to have a flowery scent, but was genuinely surprised to find himself treated the same way.
“Julius and Joshua have a similar scent,” Hetaro continued. “Both have a mix of hard and soft scents, but Joshua’s might be a bit more oily.”
“O-Oily?” Joshua asked, dumbfounded.
“It must be the smell of art supplies,” Julius thought. “I also get that from Joshua at times.”
Joshua sniffed his sleeve, but couldn’t detect anything unusual. Although it would be odd to compare his sense of smell to Hetaro’s, who was a demi-human. I guess it’s best not to worry about that.
“By the way, Hetaro, why were you looking for us?” Joshua asked.
“That would be for my other shenanigan.” Anastasia laughed with a mischievous smile, poking fun at Joshua’s earlier comment. “So, Hetaro, how’d y’all manage?”
Hetaro, who didn’t understand this exchange, tilted his head at Joshua, who shrugged his shoulders. “Just as you said, Miss, there was someone who had been collecting old paintings that weren’t very famous, and we were able to track down their workplace somehow.”
“Oh my, y’all kids are awfully capable, ain’t y’all?” Anastasia nodded in response to Hetaro’s report, petting the young cat-boy’s head. He blushed and smiled bashfully. “If y’all figured out that much, I reckon that’s all we need.”
However, the Juukulius brothers tilted their heads in response to his report. As far as they were concerned, it was another piece of the puzzle leading them to the copycat. “Ana, I don’t quite follow. I’m sorry, but could you explain?” Julius asked.
“Yep, I’ll explain as we go,” Anastasia said, stretching slightly and wrapping the white fox fur collar that she had been holding around her neck once more. “Although I hate leavin’, it’s about time I return to bein’ Anastasia.”
Although the weather on this day was warm enough to deem a scarf unnecessary, the fair-skinned girl wore it naturally and with grace, without so much as a hint of discomfort. “There’s the Anastasia we all know and love,” Julius remarked at the sight of his mistress. “Beautiful.”
“Well, you ain’t wrong. Come on, Julius and Joshua, let’s skedaddle.”
“Right, understood. So, um, where are we going?” asked Joshua.
“It’s obvious, ain’t it?” Anastasia shrugged at Joshua’s flustered question. Then, she wore her typical mischievous grin and replied boldly, “We’re headin’ to the copycat’s place.”
Following Anastasia, they headed toward their destination—the residence of the copycat. According to the information provided by Hetaro, it was the gallery of an obscure painter named Hogey Marshepo.
“I’ve never heard of him. It’s an unfamiliar name,” Joshua remarked.
“Ain’t it more convenient that way for a copycat?” Anastasia pointed out. “If he’d been famous, people would recognize his painting style. Bein’ an unknown artist is essential for a copycat.”
“But for someone to create such impressive paintings…” Thinking of the forgery that was the Sleeping Miderine, Joshua couldn’t help but wonder.
The Sleeping Miderine, the masterpiece that Anastasia had identified as a fake, was indeed one that had deceived many as an authentic painting for years. With that level of skill, it’s plausible that the copycat has considerable talent of their own—talent that makes them far more gifted than someone like me, who only wields his brush as a hobby.
“There is always a reason behind people’s actions,” Julius speculated. “There must be a significant reason for this person, Hogey, to become a forger.”
“Is there really a convincing reason to paint forgeries?” Joshua questioned.
“I would not know. I suppose I am as much of an art lover as anyone else. In that respect, you are probably much more capable than I am, Joshua. Lady Anastasia—”
“What made you think that Hogey Marshepo was the copycat?” Julius asked as they walked and talked. In response to his question, Anastasia raised a finger mid-gait.
“Lemme refresh your memory,” she began. “Remember how to tell between a fake paintin’ and the real deal?”
“If I recall correctly, the style and technique are important, but so are the materials used,” he replied. “Sometimes, counterfeit artists use materials that were not available at the time of the original work, which can be a clue.”
“Bingo,” Anastasia confirmed. “An’ those materials include paints, brushes, and… paper. Paper’s a material, too, ain’t it?”
Joshua’s eyes widened in realization at Anastasia’s confident statement. “I get it! To create forgeries of art from a specific time, you would need paper from the same period. So, they must have gathered up unsold paintings from that time…”
“And used it as a canvas to make a new paintin’,” she finished. “Well, I reckon that’s one way to do it.”
“I had no idea…” Paper-making techniques have changed significantly from the past to today. Paper, which used to be made from animal skins, has evolved into something entirely different. The same goes for art supplies.
“They went out of their way to collect old, unsold paintings, then painted their own fresh works right on top… The world of forgery is built upon some extraordinary ideas, isn’t it?” Julius mused.
“Well, yeah, that’s another part of it. Anyways, we’re here,” Anastasia said, pointing to their location: the gallery of Hogey Marshepo.
And if our previous speculations were correct…
“Azla Eastern might be here, too.”
“For both the art dealer sellin’ the phonies and the painter creatin’ ‘em, the presence of an accuser would be nothin’ short of problematic… So this gotta be the place.”
Upon hearing Anastasia’s words, Julius questioned his mistress with a serious look in his eyes: “Well then, shall we go inside?”
If it is indeed true that Azla is inside, the more time we take, the more risk that his life is in danger. In such a case, a frontal assault would be the most appropriate choice.
“To think that I could ever have such a thought… Could this be her influence?” Joshua lamented.
“Well,” Anastasia interrupted, “I don’t think rushin’ in is the best idea. Not ‘cause of your worryin’, Joshua, but ‘cause it’s an art gallery, after all. Why don’t we try knockin’ politely?” With a wry smile directed at the doubtful Joshua, Anastasia knocked on the gallery door. After a moment, a flurry of footsteps approached from inside.
The door opened, and a thin, bearded, middle-aged man revealed himself. “Sorry to keep you waitin’. Folks don’t come ‘round much these days. If you don’t mind me askin’, who might you fine folks be?”
“Pleasure to meet ya, I’m Anastasia Hoshin. If y’all ever heard of the Hoshin Company, we’re a kinda big deal.”
Seeing Anastasia confidently take charge and introduce herself, the man’s expression quickly changed. It was evident from the man’s reaction that he was well-informed. “Well I’ll be, the Hoshin Company? Well, even before that, the moniker you just mentioned…”
It was endearing that someone would get so nervous when met with a candidate, recognizable in name and face, for the royal selection that had been rocking the entire kingdom. Joshua sympathized with him.
“So, you’re Mr. Hogey Marshepo, ain’t ya?” Anastasia asked.
“Well, yep, that’s about right. Name’s Hogey Marshepo…” Even though he was flustered, Hogey managed to confirm his identity. In response, Anastasia nodded multiple times with a friendly smile. And then, keeping the momentum of her nods, Anastasia looked at Hogey with her light blue eyes.
“Ya see, I reckon that it was you, Mr. Hogey Marshepo, who mighta been the one responsible for forgin’ that fake Sleeping Miderine painting,” Anastasia said bluntly. “Whaddya say? My assessment way off?”
Hogey froze, speechless at her straightforward interrogation. Observing from the sidelines, Joshua couldn’t help but think aloud, “Going straight for the heart of your opponent to gain control… Isn’t it a tactic that only manipulative adults use?”
“Joshua, that isn’t a very nice thing to ask,” rebuked Julius, wearing a stern expression.
Hogey led the three into his gallery, where he surprisingly confirmed their suspicions with unexpected candor. He readily admitted to being the copycat responsible for the counterfeit painting, the Sleeping Miderine. “As you’ve figured out, I am indeed the forger you’re talking about.”
The sincerity of his words and actions was enough to make one inclined to question him. But as they looked around the gallery, such suspicions were quickly cast aside. Because at the very moment, Hogey had been in the process of creating one of his works. Forgeries, to be precise. Forgeries of numerous famous paintings that anyone with even a passing interest in art would recognize.
“Quite the extravagant undertakin’, ain’t it? I mean, if famous paintin’s like these started poppin’ up left an’ right, ain’t that jus’ asking for loads of unwanted attention?” Anastasia asked.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so careless,” Hogey explained, scratching his head. “I have no plans to sell these, mind you. I’m just trying to see if I am capable of recreating them myself.”
Joshua responded bluntly to Hogey as he studied the forgeries. “And have you confirmed that ability?” It was a simple query, one that had arisen naturally within Joshua.
The forgeries of famed artworks on display were of remarkable quality. While many were still works in progress, to Joshua’s eyes, they held hardly a difference to the originals. Without a doubt, these fakes were painted in a near-identical process to the genuine versions.
“If you’re capable of painting such works…” Joshua started.
“Sadly, I still fall short,” Hogey said, averting his gaze. “I can’t hold a candle to the real deal. All I can manage is a feeble imitation, nothing more.”
For some reason, despite his words, it was Joshua who felt a sense of disappointment. But it wasn’t the disappointment born from the lofty standards of being an artist. He was well aware of that. However, he couldn’t precisely grasp what exactly it could be.
As Joshua and Hogey conversed, Anastasia contemplated their discussion while admiring the paintings. “Lady Anastasia, what are your thoughts?” Julius inquired, to which she let out a thoughtful hum.
Julius’s question served as a confirmation of Anastasia’s earlier speculation. Namely, the idea that Hogey, the forger himself, was the mastermind behind the attempt to silence Azla, the accuser.
However, that theory started to waver within Anastasia’s mind once Hogey himself readily affirmed their suspicions. She couldn’t understand why he would answer her question so easily if he were indeed the copycat and had reason to conceal his own works as forgeries.
“Well, when ya hit upon somethin’ ya don’t understand, it jus’ makes sense to ask,” Anastasia said. “Hogey, ya ever hear the name ‘Azla Eastern’?”
“Huh!?” As soon as she brought up Azla’s name, Hogey’s expression noticeably tensed.
“Oh dear, that’s a greater reaction than I was expectin’,” Anastasia remarked. That only makes things more confusin’, she thought. So is he a cold-hearted copycat, or an art connoisseur wit’ a guilty conscience?
However, Hogey, seemingly resigned to the accusation, nodded and said, “So, you heard my pieces were forgeries from my son, huh?”
“Huh?” Hearing Hogey’s unexpected confession, Anastasia and Julius were taken aback.
“My son… Azla… he spilled the beans about my craft, didn’t he? He always despised me working as a forger.”
“Please wait a moment,” Julius said. “Your response deviates slightly from our expectations.” We had assumed that Hogey and Azla had a perpetrator-victim relationship, but now, a new connection has been unveiled: Hogey is Azla’s father.
“Allow me to confirm once more, Lord Hogey. Azla Eastern…is your son? Your biological child?”
“Yes, indeed, that’s the truth,” Hogey confirmed. “I met his mother many years ago, when I was just a young man. But with my financial hardships, I couldn’t marry her like I wanted. Being an unsuccessful painter isn’t exactly an ideal occupation for supporting a family.”
“I see, it’s all startin’ to make sense,” Anastasia surmised. “An’ that’s when Amilét Megis approached ya askin’ ya to paint more phonies to assist her own business.”
“That’s the gist of it,” Hogey said, reluctantly nodding in agreement.
It must have been a bitter decision, Julius thought. Hogey, unable to marry his wife due to financial issues, chose the path of a counterfeit artist. He then used the proceeds from his forged works to support his wife and child.
“But my dear wife passed away two years ago, and that’s when my son learned the truth—that he was raised by his father’s dirty money earned by a shady living. And that made him angry.”
“So the reason he exposed your forgeries by reporting them to the owners was…?” Julius asked.
“I suppose it was his way of seeking revenge,” Hogey said, slumping his shoulders heavily. He stood before his unfinished painting and traced the edges with his finger. “I haven’t the foggiest idea what exactly he studied, but he must have done some pretty extensive research, seeing as how my forgeries led him straight my way. He begged me to stop making them right away. His hatred for my work—his own father’s work—was entirely justified. But I’ve been doing this for well over twenty years now. It’s too late for me to change now.”
Hence, Hogey rejected his son’s pleas and decided to continue his life as a copycat artist. Azla’s subsequent accusations were the result of his building resentment and desire for revenge against his father.
“In that case, it seems rather… Lady Anastasia?” Julius asked.
“Hmm, well, I get the story an’ all, but still… Ain’t it a bit unsettlin’?”
“Unsettling? Isn’t it more heartbreaking to have such a misunderstanding occur between a parent and child?” Julius asked, trying to decipher his master’s cryptic words.
However, Anastasia herself couldn’t quite articulate her feelings. Hogey’s explanation made sense. His son’s anger toward him and the subsequent accusations had incurred the wrath of the criminal underworld involved in the counterfeit business.
As they hadn’t met Azla in person, it was difficult to make further deductions. That’s when Joshua, who had been silent until now, spoke up: “Could Azla’s anger really be simply about the forgeries?”
Even Joshua himself seemed surprised by the words he had involuntarily blurted out. Everyone turned their attention to him.
“Joshua, what do you mean by that? Are you suggesting that Lord Hogey is lying?”
At Julius’s question, Joshua looked away and touched his own chest. “No, no, I don’t think he’s lying. I only meant that words can fall short at times. Even between families, not everything can always be fully understood.”
This answer made Julius hold his breath. Joshua turned his gaze toward Anastasia. Anastasia’s light blue eyes stared back, filled with curiosity and expectation. “Well, Joshua? Whaddya think? Speak up.”
“I can’t say there was no anger at all,” Joshua began. “I imagine Azla must have felt some dissatisfaction upon learning he was brought up thanks to forgeries. But given how deeply Azla was involved in art, to the extent of being able to discern authentic pieces from counterfeits, I don’t think that was the only reason.”
As he spoke, Joshua stood in front of the unfinished forgery—or rather, the painting. He narrowed his eyes at the vibrantly colored world it depicted. “That Sleeping Miderine was magnificent. All the works here are. The value of a painting isn’t determined solely by its authenticity. Authenticity is transcendental.”
“My artwork couldn’t possibly have so much value…” Hogey started.
“That’s an insult to the collectors who desired your paintings,” Joshua said with deliberate force, staring down Hogey. Although he hadn’t had much experience in holding others accountable, this time, he felt it was necessary. As one who lacked such a gift, he felt the need to speak up for those who were unaware of their own. “Azla told you to stop making forgeries, didn’t he?”
“Yes, that’s right. He told me to stop making forgeries. It’s just that…”
“That’s because he wanted you to paint your own art.”
“Eh?” Hogey, whose face could neither confirm nor deny his own actions, was dumbfounded at that statement.
Seeing the oblivious look on his face, bitter emotions filled Joshua’s heart. Perhaps it was frustration, or something close to it. To think that someone who could create such magnificent paintings would give up on their own talent. “You are an incredible person. Why don’t you realize that?”
“It’s just that…”
Joshua approached Hogey, who shook his head with uncertainty. “You have talent. You can create such magnificent art. You have an expressive power that rivals renowned masterpieces, so why!?”
At this emotional outburst, Julius gently gripped Joshua’s shoulder. “Joshua, calm down.”
Feeling the touch of his brother’s hand, Joshua realized he had become too heated and apologized. But my apology is not for my words. I stand by what I said. I’m sure Azla would feel the same.
“I second Joshua’s opinion,” Anastasia chimed in.
“But it’s a risky gamble,” Julius said. “To accuse your own father, who works as a counterfeit artist, of his work being counterfeit…”
“That’s why he ain’t mentioning his father by name,” Anastasia concluded. “Simply bringin’ to light that the paintin’s were phonies woulda made it easier to back out… But draggin’ Amilét into it, well, she probably had it comin’.” Given that they were wittingly sellin’ phonies, a day of reckonin’ was bound to come. But that don’t mean there won’t be anger directed at Azla.
“To think my own flesh and blood would do such a thing…” Hogey lamented.
“I would like to second Joshua’s opinion that words aren’t always enough.” Julius’s gaze briefly shifted towards Anastasia, and she nodded in agreement. “Of course, this is merely speculation, and we would need to hear the details from Azla himself.”
At this point, it was safe to dismiss the theory that Hogey had tried to eliminate Azla for accusing him of his forgeries. Although their father-son relationship in no way exonerated them from suspicion, the unfolding of events made it evident that it would have been an unlikely scenario. However, one question remained: “So who abducted Azla?” Joshua thought aloud.
“What!? My boy was abducted?” Hogey was taken aback by Joshua’s contemplative words, clearly unaware of the situation.
Seeing Hogey more surprised at this than when he was accused of being a forger, Joshua made up his mind to explain the situation from the beginning. “Well, it all started when the collector, Baron Nico Olsen, requested Lady Anastasia to authenticate his Sleeping Miderine…”
“Oh, no…” Upon hearing the beginning of Joshua’s explanation of the investigation, Anastasia muttered to herself. She covered her face with her hands and began to groan.
“Lady Anastasia?” Joshua said. “What happened?”
“To think that I been actin’ all high an’ mighty only to just realize somethin’ so obvious… So embarrasin’.”
“Well, um…” Joshua was puzzled by Anastasia’s attitude. However, Julius understood the intention behind her distress.
“So, do you have any leads on Azla Eastern’s whereabouts?” Julius asked. In response to his question, Anastasia slowly removed her hand from her face and spoke.
“Yeah, got it,” she said. “Let’s go question the mastermind right now. Oh, Hogey, I reckon ya should come wit’ us.” With a vexed expression, Anastasia led the three of them out of the gallery. Given her attitude, she seemed fairly confident about Azla’s whereabouts.
Half-convinced, Joshua and the others followed her lead. Along the way, Hogey was given an explanation about the situation, and his face paled as he contemplated the danger his child might be in.
“You ain’t need to worry so much. Azla is safe. Since he’s…”
“Wait, this is…” Joshua said in surprise, his eyes widening as he realized where Anastasia was headed. It was a place familiar not only to Joshua, but to Julius as well. Because the owner of this mansion was none other than someone they were already acquainted with.
“Seems everythin’ went jus’ as you planned, Mr. Olsen,” Anastasia remarked.
“My, my, you managed to find your way here in just three days. Truly, your insights are remarkable.” And thus, Baron Nico Olsen, the very man who had triggered this investigation, welcomed Anastasia’s visit as if he had been eagerly anticipating it.
The mastermind behind it all was none other than Baron Nico Olsen. And indeed, all unfolded precisely according to his plan. Azla, the son of a master forger, wanted little more than to make his father quit. However, recognizing that his direct appeals were in vain, he resorted to more drastic measures.
It was he who dispatched those letters to the owners of the forged paintings, exposing them as fakes. Yet, even this audacious move failed to elicit his desired response. So in his frustration, he decided to take a more extreme action—exposing the information to Nico Olsen, the art collector in possession of the counterfeit Sleeping Miderine.
This was his last ditch effort to cut off any means of escape for Hogey, his father, and end his career as a forger. Nico Olsen, however, respected Azla’s plea and longing.
“Of course,” Olsen explained, “initially, I was filled with anger toward the counterfeit artist. But then I had a change of heart. I became intrigued by the world of this artist who was capable of crafting such exquisite forgeries.”
“So, you chose to assist in ending Mr. Hogey’s career as a counterfeit artist. But what prompted you to involve Lady Anastasia?” Julius asked.
“As I understood it at first,” Anastasia recalled, “it was also part of my assessment. Mr. Olsen was committed to fulfillin’ his duties as a baron an’ preservin’ his honor as a collector.”
Anastasia crossed her arms, shooting a disapproving glare in Olsen’s direction. As Olsen welcomed Anastasia and her group into his residence and began to serve tea, he offered a faint smile and nodded.
“I could have visited Lord Hogey directly after hearing Azla’s complaint,” Olsen admitted. “But where’s the thrill in that? It was also our way of getting back at the counterfeit artist, you see.”
“Baron Olsen, ya truly are an intriguin’ character,” Anastasia remarked. Olsen, unperturbed by her comment, openly confessed that he had orchestrated the entire affair. In fact, he appeared to find it rather amusing. Anastasia, on the verge of reprimanding him, was momentarily taken aback.
“Wait, then what about Lord Azla’s home being ransacked?”
“I anticipated that once the counterfeit allegations surfaced, it would naturally draw the attention of some unamused dealers who might target him. So I took the initiative to stage an abduction. The bloodstains left at the scene were Azla’s idea, actually. Pretty effective bluff, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Baron Olsen…” Julius was at a loss for words at the man’s audacity. Of course, considering his position, Olsen’s actions should have warranted severe consequences, but one could also argue that it was Olsen’s protection of Azla that had prevented any harm from coming to him.
“So even that was all part of Baron Olsen’s schemin’, huh?” Anastasia said with a sigh. “Then I reckon Hogey an’ Azla are havin’ a touching’ family reunion in another room now?”
“Yes,” Olsen confirmed. “Artists often believe that it is enough to put their thoughts into their works. However, that’s not entirely correct. People still need to communicate with each other.”
“So, does our discussion pass accordin’ to your own personal beliefs, Mr. Nico Olsen?” Anastasia asked.
“Well, I sure would have liked to see Lord Hogey squirm a little more, but yes,” Olsen replied with a mischievous grin. Anastasia let out a sigh, deflating her pouty cheeks and relaxing her expression. It was indeed a quintessentially Anastasia-like, business-like smile.
“Well, I did reckon that everythin’ was in yer hands, Mr. Olsen, which wasn’t interestin’ at all,” Anastasia started. “But I’m glad to say we might finally be outdoin’ ya.”
“Oh, outdo me, you say?” Olsen asked with surprise.
“We gotcha some souvenirs. My youngsters should be deliverin’ ‘em soon. Jus’ watch—three, two, one…” Anastasia counted the seconds on her fingers, uttering “Zero” the moment she put down the last one.
“Hey! Sorry for the wait, Miss! Take a look! We got the lady you were looking for!” With a clamor, a figure burst into the parlor of the Olsen residence. The owner of the resounding footsteps was Ricardo, a hulking, dog-faced demi-human with a towering physique.
Having anticipated Ricardo’s arrival, Anastasia smiled and said, “Thanks for your help. So, whatcha do with ‘em?”
“Bringing her along would’ve just caused a big ruckus, y’know? So I tied her up and left her rolling around in the dog cart! When I went to check out that tavern those good-for-nothings you mentioned were in, jackpot! Hahahahaha!” Ricardo laughed, his mouth open wide as he made his report. Joshua and Julius had a pretty good idea of who he had captured.
“Do you mean… Miss Amilét?” Julius confirmed.
“I figured if they had hired someone to catch Azla, they’d want to know how it went, y’know?” Anastasia explained. “And I was right on the mark. Here’s your souvenir, Mr. Olsen.”
Until that point, Olsen had always been one step ahead in everything. But now, he sighed in admiration. “I see, I’ve been outsmarted.”
It was Amilét Megis, the antique dealer who had been selling the counterfeit works. And the most likely person responsible for selling the Sleeping Miderine to Olsen.
“Any talk ‘bout damages oughta be between you an’ Amilét, Mr. Olsen. But seein’ as we’re the intermediaries, kindly steer clear of any rough antics,” Anastasia warned.
“I never intended to in the first place, but sure, you have my word. Also, my hat goes off to you.” Olsen rose from his chair and knelt before Anastasia. Then, the baron took a deep breath, and bowed deeply. “I apologize for testing you, Lady Anastasia. You exceeded my expectations. As a nobleman and a collector, I salute you.”
Such was Olsen’s declaration of defeat. At the same time, it could also be taken as his clear declaration of his position in the royal selection.
“An’ wit’ that, the case is closed” Anastasia said with a triumphant smile. But Joshua, having been dragged around in all this, felt a mix of complex emotions.
“In the end, everything went according to Lady Anastasia’s plan. Indeed, what she sees is different from what we do. Don’t you agree, Joshua?”
“Your words are always correct, Julius. However, I must admit that today’s events were a bit of a shock.”
The Juukulius brothers spoke amongst themselves in the mansion that night after the incident had been brought to a close. It had only lasted three days, but they were three intense days. Although the majority of the situation had culminated on the final day, Joshua was overcome with sudden fatigue from the non-stop action.
Fortunately, with the intervention of Baron Nico Olsen, although the father-son duo of Azla and Hogey were not completely absolved of guilt, they wouldn’t face severe punishment. From that point onward, as his son desired, Hogey would abandon his life as a forger and receive Olsen’s endorsement in creating his own artwork.
The specifics of the interactions between the dealer Amilét and the buyer Olsen remained shrouded in mystery. But it was evident that she had deceived more than just Olsen. In order to avoid retaliation from even more dangerous adversaries, she had no choice but to surrender unconditionally to Olsen. The incident of the counterfeit painting, as well as the matter of who he would support for the royal selection, was concurrently settled, and the situation drew to a close.
“You seem a bit displeased. Is something bothering you?” Julius asked.
“Well… I do think it’s great that things came full circle. But I still can’t be certain if Hogey can actually paint his own art.”
“Hmm.” Seeing Joshua lost in thought, Julius narrowed his eyes while brushing his own bangs. Unexpectedly, these recent events had led to Joshua spending a substantial amount of time with Anastasia, inadvertently exposing him to different perspectives. This experience, centered around art and paintings, had proven to be a significant opportunity for Joshua to expand his horizons.
Perhaps owing to the circumstances of Joshua’s congenital health conditions, Julius harbored a deep desire for his brother to be able to see a more diverse world. This was his genuine wish. Certainly, during his early childhood, Joshua grappled with frail health, rarely venturing beyond the confines of their home. However, as he grew older, his constitution improved, albeit not dramatically, and he was no longer haunted by the fear of illness.
Still, the reality remains. Pursuing the path of knighthood that he once yearned for will prove challenging. Nonetheless, Joshua shouldn’t let this stop him from opening all the other doors available to him. And I believe Lady Anastasia is the person who can help broaden his horizons. Her philosophy of validating other people’s desires will surely manifest greatly once she becomes Queen.
“Ah, my apologies. I was lost in thought for a moment. Hogey’s predicament is still shrouded in uncertainty. After all these years, he’s never painted a single artwork for himself. Can he truly create his own original works with those brushes? Only time will tell. However…”
Julius’s words trailed off as he quietly gazed at Joshua. Under that gaze, Joshua shifted his posture nervously and averted his yellow eyes. Julius nodded at his younger brother, who lacked assertiveness, but was filled with potential beyond himself.
“Today, I witnessed a person who, despite not wielding a sword for over ten years, was capable of picking one up for the sake of another. That alone gives me hope,” Julius said proudly.
“It could get worse,” Julius continued. “There’s certainly apprehension about that. But at the same time, I want to have hope. I want to wish for a tomorrow brighter than today, a simple and common wish.”
Azla’s wish for his father was simple: that he could become a celebrated painter that everyone could take pride in. Julius preferred a tomorrow in which Hogey could fulfill that over one in which he could not. “He hadn’t completely abandoned this path, so then it’s all about changing his mindset.”
Even if it was as a forger, Hogey continued to wield his paintbrush. So there was a chance. Moreover, in the grand scheme of things, it did not concern anyone else. Even if one were to face death tomorrow, there was no inherent reason not to change.
Julius had already decided that the path he walked was the only path for him. There was no haste, and no turning back. Knighthood was the way of life that Julius himself aspired for, and what he wished to be.
“Joshua, I hope you find something like that for yourself too. Time is not an issue. I will take care of the matters concerning the Juukulius family and Lady Anastasia.”
“Simply share with me your heartfelt wishes, and I will support you to the best of my abilities. That is the pledge that I, Julius Juukulius, take as the brother of Joshua Juukulius.”
Joshua had many friends, many of whom would gladly offer their support. However, among them, none could fight more bravely than Julius. Such was Julius’s pride, not only as a knight, but as an elder brother.
Upon hearing Julius’s pledge, Joshua spoke up unexpectedly. “Please don’t laugh when you hear this.” Seeing Julius look up at him, he hesitated before continuing timidly. “After everything that just happened, I’ve developed a strong desire to paint. If possible, I’d love to capture the landscapes I’ve witnessed with my own eyes.”
“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” Julius said supportively. “You have the freedom to paint any breathtaking scenery you envision.” Hearing Joshua’s unusual desire made Julius aware of a warmth in his heart. Expressing one’s wishes and desires was truly a delightful thing to do.
“What would you like to see?” Julius asked. “There are many beautiful things both in and around the royal capital. Oh, that’s right, Joshua, you once mentioned you wanted to see the Watergate City, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Priestella,” Joshua replied. “A place known for its scenic beauty. I would be thrilled to visit someday.”
“Then let’s propose it to Lady Anastasia. She will surely find a way to bring us there in her own unexpected way.”
Strangely, even though they had yet to utter a word, Julius could already imagine Anastasia and Ricardo eagerly conspiring to fulfill Joshua’s wish. Julius softened his expression. Seeing this, Joshua lowered his gaze and started to speak. “Someday, please allow me to paint a portrait of you, Brother.”
“Of me?” Julius asked in surprise. “But Joshua, you’ve never painted portraits…”
“Yes, that’s true. I’ve never attempted it before. But I want to give it a try.” Joshua peeked up from his lowered gaze with a bashful expression. He appeared somewhat anxious, as if he were being too hasty with his requests. However, Julius was genuinely delighted by his brother’s enthusiastic plea.
So, in accordance with his brother’s wish, Julius offered a knightly bow in acceptance. “It would be an honor.”