Ruthiana felt the blinding light from behind her closed eyelids and woke up.
She recalled leaning on Makoto when she fell asleep, but she woke up to using his knees as a pillow.
"Have you awakened, milady?"
Ruthiana looked up at the ebony eyes looking down at her and blinked several times. Was this what people referred to as "a lap pillow"?
"...When did this happen? I'm sorry, Makoto. Your legs must have gone numb."
She apologized as she slowly got up, but Makoto smiled and replied.
"Not at all. My legs will not go numb over something like this. Now, let's have you go to the river to wash your face."
Makoto brought out a towel from their luggage and handed it to Ruthiana. She also noticed the others besides Gilbert and Franz were already awake and briskly moving about.
Ruthiana rushed to wash her face so that she could quickly dress herself and go help out.
The cold river water was refreshing, completely waking her up. She breathed in the clear morning air, stretched her body, and loosened her muscles that had tensed up from sleeping outside.
"Oh... Good morning, Miss Ruthiana."
When Ruthiana returned, Zest greeted her, an awkward still on his face, so she reflexively hugged him. She squeezed him as tightly as she could, causing Makoto to promptly separate the two. He was holding her like how one would grab a cat by the scruff of its neck.
"...What's with this behavior towards your master?"
"Please open your eyes. Sir Zest is troubled by your actions."
Just as Makoto pointed out, Zest's face was flushed and he was frozen stiff. Ruthiana was taken aback, her eyes wide open. She didn't think he would be that frightened.
"I'll greatly welcome that morning greeting, y'know?"
Gilbert woke up and brushed his hair back, a broad grin on his face.
"And I'll sincerely decline."
Ruthiana refused Gilbert. It was a definitive "NO". He was big, hard, and smelled like sweat. If she hugged him, there wouldn't be even an ounce of enjoyment in it for her.
Makoto was tall and had firm muscles, but she wouldn't hesitate to hug him. He didn't smell like sweat either. Plus, he was Makoto.
"...Please refrain from hugging me."
Makoto noticed that Ruthiana had her eyes fixed on him, sensed her intentions, and gave her a warning before she executed her plan.
"You never got angry when I squeezed you back when we were younger."
"I was angry. Milady simply chose not to listen."
"I wonder if it’s because you have gotten bigger that you've changed, Makoto."
"That's not it. Milady, as I said before, please don't hug me."
Ruthiana was the type of person who wanted to do something the more she was told she couldn't, but Makoto knew Ruthiana more than she knew herself, so he beautifully avoided her.
"I'm sure it'll feel amazing being hugged by the little lady~ Especially around her chest—urgh!"
"Sir Gilbert, I highly suggest you quickly go wash your face and cool your head. I'll prepare breakfast."
Makoto threw a towel at Gilbert's face. His cold glare added, "Else I submerge you in the river."
Licht muttered, "He's vulgar," while Franz, who woke up, also nodded. Gilbert didn't have a single ally.
Luwel Forest referred to the thick forest located to the northeast of the kingdom. Not many people had set foot deep inside the forest, and it was connected to the original forest. People theorized that demons dwelled farther inside the original forest, but there was no substantial proof backing it.
They gradually encountered more demons the farther they went in, but this group was composed of hand-picked elites. Gilbert killed them in one slice, Licht easily pierced them with his arrows, and Zest burned a whole group at once.
"I wonder what exactly demons are. Things would be much easier if a Demon King or something similar existed."
Heroes and demon kings were a staple to adventures. Achieving peace by defeating the Demon King was an easy concept to grasp, but such didn't exist in this world.
"Demon King... you read too many stories"—would be the response he would receive if he said that.
Makoto played the scene in his head as he combed Ruthiana's hair. Such was a standard scene one would see in a manga.
Because they could safely spend tonight inside an inn, Makoto was helping Ruthiana with her bedtime preparations just as he did back at the mansion. They were scheduled to arrive at Luwel Forest tomorrow.
"Demons are said to be creatures that have gone rogue after absorbing an excessive amount of the mana that circulates the world. The Demon King is the embodiment of evil in stories, but no such thing actually exists."
The amount of mana differed from place to place, but lands untouched by human hands were generally filled with strong mana. That was why people encountered demons more often in the frontier lands away from human settlement.
"Originally, demons would live in their own territories, so there was no need for subjugations. However, they would spill out into human territory if their numbers increase. That is why there is a need for the holy maiden once every several years."
Sacred tools with the power to purify were enshrined in all four corners of the nation. Their power kept the demons at bay, but this wouldn't last forever. Once their power weakened, they needed to be replenished.
"I'm sure they're already preparing to summon the holy maiden back in the royal capital."
"Yes. It wouldn't be a laughing matter if they managed to fail since the citizens believe that the holy maiden has already arrived."
Ruthiana's bitter smile was reflected in the mirror. News of the holy maiden's summoning had already been on full display everywhere. As the holy maiden's proxy, Ruthiana wore a hood and hid her blue eyes when in town.
Just by seeing her black hair peek out from her hood, everyone was delighted to see the holy maiden. Incidentally, Makoto also hid his black hair under a hat, knowing the commotion it might cause.
Makoto wondered if there was a need to go out of their way to summon the holy maiden with all things considered.
To restore the sacred tools' power, they need to be brought to the Grand Cathedral in the capital and back to their original locations—that was the sole job of the holy maiden.
"Only the holy maiden can touch the sacred tools."
Ruthiana opened her mouth as if answering Makoto's thoughts. They locked eyes through the mirror, and Makoto snicked, wondering if his thoughts appeared that clearly on his face.
"I don't care as long as milady is safe. So, I beg you to not do anything too dangerous, okay?"
"I won't do anything dangerous. I won't, okay? I'll be obedient."
Hearing the tomboy Ruthiana say she'll be obedient wasn't very convincing. Makoto continued to stare at her through the mirror, so she complained.
"Jeez, those eyes say you don't trust me. Oh, in that case, shall we 'pinky promise'?"
With a childish smile on her face, Ruthiana stuck her pinky out to Makoto. Pinky promises were another thing Makoto taught Ruthiana. It was a practice that didn't exist in this world.
As such, whenever the two wanted to promise each other something, Ruthiana would recall this and request a pinky promise.
"Link our fingers together. If you lie, you'll swallow a thousand needs. Link cut! ...Okay, it's a promise."
"Yes, yes, we made a pinky promise."
Makoto reminded her as he took Ruthiana's hand and touched her palm. The smooth, soft skin of her pale hand was slightly rougher from the journey. Makoto found this somewhat adorable and caressed her hand.
"Good night, milady."
He bid her goodnight as usual and kissed the palm of her hand.
"Eh?" Ruthiana looked with her eyes wide open as Makoto chuckled and left the room.
"...Why on the hand?"
Makoto said 'good night' as usual, but his actions were completely different. As Ruthiana's cheeks grew faintly red, she looked down at her own hand.
A gloom stagnated over Luwel Forest from its very entrance, keeping people away.
"There's already several of them as soon as we got here."
Franz readied his sword and muttered in a low voice. Gilbert and Franz were ready to fight at any moment.
"Rather than go farther in, it'll be better for us to lure them over here."
Demons would gather if they sensed a fight. They appeared to be drawn towards mana and the scent of blood. Three or four of them were already present, but that number would double in no time.
"Makoto, you will prioritize cleaning up the demons over me this time."
Makoto readied his sword next to Ruthiana, but she informed him of such. Up until now when they encountered demons, Makoto wouldn't leave Ruthiana's side.
Being that their circumstances were more dangerous than before, it was unthinkable for him to leave her side. She smiled in response to his blatant displeasure.
"We can deal with the demons faster with you in the front. In the end, such will lead to my safety, don't you agree?"
It was a matter of promptly dealing with the demons. Additionally, Makoto was a part of their fighting force, so he needed to properly do his job.
Makoto agreed for the time being with a bitter expression. He probably wouldn't hold back and fight earnestly. Makoto knew that Ruthiana never yielded her opinion, so he had no choice but to fight in the front as she instructed. He intended to vent all his frustration on the demons.
"...Zest, you too. You don't need to use defensive magic on me, okay?"
His face showed that he was surprised that she had noticed. Up until now when they were fighting demons, Zest would cast defensive magic on Ruthiana. Makoto probably didn't notice since he couldn't use magic, but Ruthiana knew.
"Your power will be necessary to eradicate the demons in one swoop, so you cannot use your power elsewhere."
The number of demons was slowly increasing. Zest was reluctant, but Ruthiana forced him to yield with a smile.
"I'm fine. So, concentrate on the fight, okay?"
The moment Ruthiana announced so, the demons started moving and Gilbert and the rest of the group fought back. Zest had no time to object and joined the fight.
As Makoto tightly gripped his sword, his heart was in disarray. He was resisting the urge to scream right now.
What the hell are you doing raising your own death flag, milady?!