An Unsettling Presence
Shirley didn’t know anything about it, originally being from the Empire, but the Kingdom has the second highest amount of volcanoes in the known world behind the Trading Country, so for quite some time, heated baths have been popular, even amongst the commoners.
Even the communal nature of the Deficit House’s baths had become popular now, and it seems that this bathing culture had even been picked up by the royal family, surprisingly.
“Fueee… The bath is so big, huh?”
“Mm. It’s maybe four times as big as the one in the Deficit House.”
Left utterly speechless… Well, not quite, but even if they didn’t react in a completely exaggerated way, Sophie and Tio were still overwhelmed as they stepped inside.
Rather than tubs, petals were scattered across the surface of what could only be called a swimming pool with how large it was, giving off the wafting scent of fragrant flowers. And although that alone was already enough to loudly scream how expensive it all was, the pièce de résistance was the marble sculpture of a dragon with many heads dominating the centre of the baths, spouting water from each of its mouths.
If you asked any average person off the street, this would be the stereotypical image they had of a royal bath. ‘Is it really okay for us to be here?’ Sophie and Tio thought as they looked around, since the two of them who had never seen anything half as luxurious as this before in their lives.
“But, I’m surprised. When I thought about a king or a noble taking a bath… I had an image of them sitting in a bathtub, being washed by servants all over.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s like… It’s like they took the bath at the Deficit House and made it way bigger and more luxurious.”
As Tio looked ahead, she saw a row of showers and faucets along the wall. To put it simply, it had the same sort of design as the public bathhouse they were used to, where you were expected to wash yourself.
“Well, baths like these truly are unique to the Kingdom, after all.”
Indeed, when Shirley was expected to become the next Empress, whenever she bathed she had multiple maids attending to her hair and body, so she had never thought at the time that multiple people could share a bath this way.
Whilst public baths are becoming commonplace nowadays, as expected the people who are still hesitant about it usually come from the upper crust. From their point of view, it’s hard to imagine actually bathing at the same time and place as a servant.
“Of course, there are some unique people who don’t seem to see it that way.”
“W-Whatever is this!? Impossible, you are expected to wash yourself!? I-Indeed, this way you can bathe at your own pace… W-What a novel idea…!”
Hilda, for example, the Princess of the Land of Demons, didn’t seem to mind much as she was utterly fascinated by the bath itself. She poked and prodded at the showerheads out of sheer curiosity.
“Hyaaaaaa!? W-What is this!? How dare you show such insolence to your Princess!?”
“Ahahahaha! Are you okay? Here, you use it like this…”
As a result, the Princess of the Land of Demons was soaked from head to toe in warm water, for which she thoroughly rebuked the showerhead for its lèse-majesté.
After Sophie managed to stifle her laughs enough to help her out, Hilda’s beautiful drill-like hair had been completely soaked, with those silver locks of hair now plastered to her thin body.
“Uu… My rolls are…”
“Well, they’d become like that once you took a bath anyway, so don’t worry about it too much.”
“Even if that’s the case…”
“…In any case, it seems like Your Highness is not quite accustomed to this? Sophie, Tio, please teach her everything, this is a valuable experience for you two as well. I need to stay on guard.”
It was possible that the Phantom Thief could be watching right now, waiting for their moment (and if the Phantom Thief was indeed a man, she would turn him into a real ghost on the end of her blade for it).
It would also be counterproductive to seem too vigilant though and heighten the thief’s nerves. Therefore, Shirley washed set about washing her body, but kept a careful eye on her surroundings.
At that time, there were indeed two sets of eyes trained on Shirley. Or, more specifically, that chest of hers that bounced and swayed every time she moved. It was Hilda, who had covered herself completely in suds by mistake, and Sophie, who was teaching for former how to use the bath sponge properly.
“T-They are so grand… I had not the chance to look at a woman’s chest before now, but this public bath provides a good opportunity.”
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea to suddenly admire them like that, but… Yeah, they sure are big.”
Both of them looked down at their own chests as one. They were like walls of pure white. Like the walls of a castle, they had no room to bounce or sway.
They were still only children. So, they knew this was only normal. Rather, they should instead be looking forward to the future.
“…? What’s wrong?”
However… It was still small in the grand scheme of things, but the two of them couldn’t help but look at the chest of Tio, who was washing herself at the neighbouring faucet.
Just what was this feeling of utter defeat? Hilda felt both a longing melancholy and deep-seated envy as she laid her hands across her own chest.
“That’s right… My mother’s were small as well… They weren’t big at all…”
“Don’t cry, Hilda! It’ll be okay! We’ll start growing together today!”
Sophie and Hilda, who suddenly seemed like kindred spirits, embraced each other in a comforting hug. It was a truly passionate embrace, as if they had both met the only person in the world who could truly understand them.
“…? I don’t really get it, but me too.”
Tio didn’t understand what they were making a fuss about, but she wrapped her arms around the two hugging girls. Shirley couldn’t suppress a smile as she watched what seemed like a heartwarming embrace of friendship, but suddenly Tio tilted her head to the side as if she’d suddenly remembered something.
“Oh yeah, mum, what happened to Leia?”
“Naturally, I asked her if she wanted to come. But she told me that she would be a little late since she was checking on her equipment… Ah, here she is.”
“Thanks for waitiiiing! Wait, whoaaaaa!? It’s huuuuuge!! It’s bigger than my house!”
As Leia entered through the steam and gawked at the size of the bathroom, Sophie turned to look at her with a certain expectation in mind.
Although she was a half-elf, Leia’s body was similar to a hobbit’s, so she had probably already long since accepted her fate.
It may be a rude thing to say, but if they could confirm that even a fifteen-year-old could be small, it would be some comfort.
“I’m gonna jump in right now!? That’s okay, right!?”
“Please wash first.”
” “……Tch!” ”
But, they had never seen them before, what remained tucked away behind the breastplate she always wore. That unfathomable hidden power of hers.
Leia, who was ready to cannonball into that massive bath, didn’t notice the tension in the air. Rather, when she jumped up and down in excitement, those things on her chest actually bounced even more dramatically.
Even if their size might not have been huge, what was there was emphasized by how short she was.
It was as if they had grown in inverse proportion to her height. When they saw that, the two girls lost just a little bit of hope in their future potential.
Is it height? Do you grow less the taller you are? As she saw those two girls muttering darkly like that, Tio put her hands on their shoulders in a gesture of kindness.
“There’s no point in getting hung up over people’s differences. The most important thing is learning to love yourself for who you are.”
“Again with your weirdly philosophical lines!”
“Kuh… Do not think I’ll settle for such a fate…!”
It’s said that three girls together ends up with a raucous noise, so what would happen when you gathered five?
Yet although the children’s shouting seemed completely out of place in that luxurious royal bathroom, no one chided them for it.
“Well then, I’ll be getting in first～♪”
Leia, who finished washing up in record time, dipped her feet into the bath. At the same time, Shirley spoke to the multi-headed dragon sculpture.
“Now then, please excuse me for intruding upon your bath, Your Royal Highness.”
“Oh ho? So you found us out?”
“S-Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Alicia suddenly appeared from behind the back of that statue that billowed water from its mouths. Philia and Lumiliana appeared from behind her as well.
“I was hoping to surprise you, but you seem to have seen right through me?”
“What’s more, she knew exactly who it was… Lady Shirley, if I may ask for future reference as a fellow warrior, just however did you do that?”
“It was nothing major. I just felt the presence of someone I was familiar with.”
“…No, even if you say it isn’t, that really does sound like something quite major.”
Shirley and the others began to soak themselves in the bath. That fragrance infused water covered in scattered petals warmed the body in such a way that didn’t just wash away all of their fatigue, it also put them at ease in such a way that they weren’t even nervous about bathing side by side with a Queen.
Perhaps that was the effect of this so-called aroma. It might not be an exaggeration to say that within a few seconds of stepping into it, one could tell it was the grandest bath that had ever been built. Shirley, who had become a bit of a bath enthusiast, couldn’t help but be caught off guard by its excellence either.
“Mmmmmmmmm~ This is paradise, huh~…?”
“I-It is certainly quite relaxing, but… This is shameful, isn’t it? In the Empire, people would never show off their bodies like this to others, even amongst the same sex.”
“Oh, my, is that so? You didn’t mention that when you stepped in here with me a while ago.”
“That’s so, but… When the number of people increases like this, after all it’s…”
The bathroom was getting even noisier. As it did, Sophie asked Shirley a question.
“Hey, mama. Is it really fine for us to take a bath at the same time as the Queen?”
“It isn’t a problem. If there really were a problem with it, there would have been a guard posted at the changing room to turn us away.”
“That’s right. Not just me, but my husband and sons also use the baths just like everyone else, so please feel at ease. Bathtime should be free and open to everyone, after all.”
A lot of one’s authority does lie in their clothing. Perhaps not wanting to imitate the legend of the Naked Emperor, the royal family wasn’t arrogant enough to try and assert their authority in a place like a bathroom.
“More importantly, why don’t we share some fun stories together? Since it’s just us girls here, why don’t we discuss love!”
“Hey, Shirley, do you have anyone like that in your life lately?”
“Why would you ask me that all of a sudden… I am sorry to disappoint, but I do not. I have no interest in finding a partner, either. I’m satisfied with things the way they are.”
Alicia had asked her that out of curiosity as to whether she had buried those particular demons in her past, but as Shirley shook her head, she couldn’t be sure if her answer was because of what had happened ten years ago.
Sophie and Tio put a hand to their chests as they sighed with relief as they were watching Shirley anxiously, whilst Leia sent up a solemn prayer for the heart of her friend who was in the men’s bath next door.
“Is that so? Well then… Your name was Leia, wasn’t it? What about you?”
“Uwaaah!? Y-You mean me!? No way, no way, there’s no way I have anyone like that!”
“…Is that so? You always fight with Cudd, but you seem to be pretty friendly with him in a way…”
Leia wasn’t expecting that sudden line from questioning from Shirley of all people as her face went red, whilst Alicia’s eyes began to gleam. Were the other girls interested too? It seemed like all eyes were on Leia.
“What is this!? Are you actually interested in him!?”
“What do you mean, interested!? I just can’t get rid of the guy, that’s all! So it’s nothing like that!”
“…Is… That so? I thought that you were close with each other since you joined the same party together…”
“That’s ’cause… T-That guy would get into trouble if he was alone, so since we’ve known him for ages, I guess I have to help him out…”
“My, my, my!”
“…I-It’s just like that romance novel I borrowed from my friend…! I never thought that this could happen in real life…”
“Y O U ‘ R E W R O N G!”
“…What a shame.”
Alicia beamed at her with eyes full of cunning curiosity. Sophie leaned forward, eager to be taken on a ride by the colourful romance story. Philia, whose face had turned red, did her best to hide her growing interest. Lumiliana looked at her sympathetically but wasn’t about to jump in to save the poor girl either.
Leia couldn’t expect any help from them, nor from Shirley who had unintentionally joined in with that unexpected question. She looked desperately at Tio and Hilda as a last resort, but Tio either didn’t care or was simply enjoying the bath too much, whilst Hilda looked somehow dissatisfied.
“Muu… For some reason, I cannot keep up with this story at all.”
“Oh my? Is that so? When I was your age, children were always enamoured with stories like these.”
“I’ve only ever really talked with the steward and father… So I don’t quite understand this story. Much less around my age, I haven’t ever spoken to a boy either?”
“…Hmm. I had heard stories about His Majesty King Zector before, but I never imagined it went this far.”
It seemed that Zector’s overprotectiveness had even affected Hilda’s ability to make friends. It would make sense for as a royal for her time spent in the company of boys her age to be limited, but it seemed like he was going far further than just that.
“…If only I had that power…”
“…? Mum, did you say something?”
“No, nothing at all… Wha!?”
As Shirley found herself admiring and feeling a certain kinship with Zector who exerted his authority and power to not let even a single insect come close to his beloved daughter, in the very next instant she sprang up from the bath in a state of full readiness. As if in reaction to that, Lumiliana jumped up as well to shield Philia.
“W-What’s wrong, Lumiliana?”
“…Lady Shirley, just now…”
“…My apologies, I felt a presence.”
“I’m not quite sure what this is about, but… Isn’t it just a patrol? There have been a lot more guards set due to the current situation.”
“That’s probably the case. I was probably just being too cautious.”
Shirley said that to try and put the people in the bath at ease, sinking back into the water. But she never took her eyes off that grate, where she had felt an unmistakable presence.
(No mistake, I definitely felt that someone was staring from there… What’s more, that lurid gaze… It wasn’t looking at me…?)
I have a discord channel that you can now bully me on (or get alerts for new chapters, if that’s more your speed). So please come visit (´･ω･`) https://discord.gg/FHFnHKt
With this, we’re only two chapters away from catching the raw. The author is releasing pretty regularly every Monday lately, so that’s the kind of schedule you should expect once I do catch up.