Tamed or Captured
Jackal, who had learned late that Asha had gone to the audience room, also followed them with a teapot in hand and watched them from the doorway.
Dart committed an unforgivable act of treason.
For the time being, since Karaf was asleep, they had kept Dart alive and imprisoned him, although it was unlikely he would leave the prison alive.
His pursuit of the throne had endangered the empire, so it seemed fitting that he would meet his end in the square.
However, Asha knew that it was Karaf’s prerogative to deal with Dart, so she refrained from making rash decisions.
“For now, please calm down and have a cup of tea.”
As Asha looked towards the door, Jackal hurried back with the tea.
After taking a sip, Asha smiled and remarked.
“This one is really delicious.”
Jackal’s face brightened up.
The High Priest also picked up a cup of tea with trembling hands, but his haggard face did not easily relax.
Asha spoke to him and kept him company until he calmed down, then she sent him away.
The High Priest left with little strength, yet even after his departure, Asha remained seated on the sofa, lost in deep thought for a while.
But then, at that moment.
“…… Lady Vanessa, I entrust his fate to you.”
Asha’s surprise was evident as she looked at the door. Standing there was Duran, who spoke with a serious tone.
“Lady Vanessa is the Empire’s butterfly. I believe only you can determine the fate of the flowers.”
“But His Majesty might oppose my decision……”
“His Majesty will respect any decision you make.”
Duran replied without hesitation.
Asha fell silent for a moment before expressing her own thoughts.
“I want to meet him face to face.”
Accompanied by Duran, Asha made her way to the underground dungeon where Jackal had been held before.
At the end of the dark and damp corridor, it was Dart who was now imprisoned.
He sat weakly against the wall, his body wrapped tightly in bandages, and shackles bound his arms and legs.
His hair was disheveled, but amid the darkness, his silver hair did not lose its shine and gave off a strange glow.
Asha approached him, making no attempt to conceal her presence.
As her footsteps echoed, he turned his head slightly to look in her direction.
Asha stood before the iron bars, meeting his gray eyes.
He no longer hid his true form, allowing his hostility and rebellion to be fully visible as he stared back at her.
When Asha called out his true name in a majestic voice, Dart responded with a mocking smile on his lips.
“Have you come to kill me, Vanessa?”
“Then are you here to witness my pathetic state? Did you want to feel the joy of seeing what a traitor is going through?”
Asha calmly responded to his deliberate provocation.
“No. I came to see that the one and only chrysanthemum of the empire is doing well.”
Dart’s rebellious gaze wavered slightly.
After a while, he asked in a low voice.
“……Why did you spare my life?”
“A long time ago, God Etzheim said the same to me. To care for and cherish all flowers without discrimination. That was the oracle I received.”
Dart’s expression revealed disbelief.
Asha recalled the words that God had spoken to her in the past.
[Sometimes there are flowers that break everyone’s expectations and show surprising appearances. For example, a flower can bloom alone between the cracks in the marble, although no one believed that it could bloom.]
Asha believed that Dart was that flower.
Asha said softly.
“I will follow the will of God, Priest Dart.”
Asha reached out a hand towards him.
Extending her hand towards him, as soon as their hands touched, both of them were transported to God Etzheim’s flower garden.
Dart’s eyes widened. It was the first time for him that he visits this place, but soon his expression turned sorrowful as he noticed something.
Amid the cracks on a marble slab in front of him, a white chrysanthemum resembling him bloomed.
However, the flower was infested with spider mites, mealybugs, and various aphids, and was rotting.
Dart looked down as he instinctively recognized that the flower represented him.
It was the sole remaining chrysanthemum in this garden, a flower that blossomed where it should not have.
He reached out to pluck the dying flower with his own hand, yearning to cease to exist in this world.
But then, from behind him, Asha’s hand emerged and gently caressed the flower.
As her touch made contact, astonishingly, the white chrysanthemum instantly regained vibrancy and began to bloom beautifully.
Dart watched in awe, his eyes trembling, then slowly turned to face Asha.
Asha met his gaze calmly and stated.
“The High Priest came to see me earlier.”
Dart’s face immediately darkened, filled with sorrow.
“Even though you committed a crime, the High Priest still considers you his son. He asked me to save you and apologized on your behalf with tears in his eyes.”
Dart didn’t answer, but his eyes were red, he looked like he was going to burst into tears at any moment.
“Don’t you have a home and a family you want to protect? Will you give up so easily on those precious people who extend their hands to help you?”
Dart envisioned the temple where he had grown up and the gentle smile of the High Priest.
Asha pressed on further.
“Is power more important to you than all those things?”
He looked down.
“…… It’s not like that.”
Asha’s expression softened slightly.
“I hope you will serve the Empire in the temple, dedicating your life to repentance. That’s why I saved you, and it is the judgment I bestow upon you. Your surname, ‘Chrysanthemum,’ will be revived. If your father is guilty of anything, it is only for loving a butterfly. And that is by no means a sin.”
Asha finished speaking and began to walk away.
But then, at that moment.
Asha stopped walking.
Dart’s face showed real bewilderment as he looked down at his trembling hands.
Although his words trailed off, Asha understood what he meant and responded calmly.
“Just as I was given a chance to live again, I believe you deserve a second chance at life as well. Everyone I have known has changed after receiving a second chance. I believe you can change too.”
“What are you talking about…?”
Dart asked, his eyes widened in astonishment. Asha responded with a slightly mischievous smile.
“Ah, I haven’t told you yet. My true ability is not prophecy, but regression. I came back from the past to make amends.”
Dart could only stammer, unable to find the words to express his disbelief.
“Darkness allows the light to shine even brighter. I believe that darkness is necessary too. Just as plants require photosynthesis to grow, they also need time to rest.”
As Asha finished speaking, she looked somewhere.
Her gaze fell on a cliff where Karaf’s flower was blooming.
There, the once bud-like black rose had grown into an enormous and beautiful blossom, radiating splendor.
It was a breathtaking sight that sent shivers down one’s spine just by looking at it.
However, Asha noticed something and stifled a laugh.
Resting on top of the black roses, not as a boy but as a grown-up Karaf, lay comfortably on his side, sound asleep.
It seemed he had fallen asleep after exerting all his strength to bloom the flowers.
For some reason, his appearance was cute, like a little fairy.
Asha contemplated approaching him for a closer look but decided to let him continue his peaceful sleep.
The two of them snapped back to reality as if they were sucked into a black hole.
Now that Asha had conveyed everything she wished to say, she began walking down the dark corridor once again.
Dart hurriedly approached the iron bars, watching her retreating figure, but he himself didn’t know what to say, only able to gaze silently at her.
Asha’s blonde hair glowed in the dark as if a halo was shining behind her.
Dart couldn’t take his eyes off her back until she was gone.
Tears welled up in his eyes.
Suddenly, Dart noticed a dim white light emanating from his hands as he gripped the iron bars.
Absentmindedly, he lifted his hand and touched his injured arm, and to his astonishment, the wound had completely healed.
This was his true power, the power he had possessed all along.
Dart’s eyes widened in realization.
The ability he had always believed in, the ‘ability to control monsters’, was nothing but a facade, a counterfeit power born from his inner desires, borrowed from the monsters who craved the blossoming of flowers.
Gazing at the gentle silver-white light softly illuminating the confines of his enclosure, Dart made a firm decision.
Instead of returning to the temple, he resolved to wander the world, utilizing his power for the greater good in unseen places.
Even if he embarked on a pilgrimage to heal the afflicted, it could never fully erase the sins he had committed.
However, he still yearned to wield the power bestowed upon him by the butterfly, to use it for good.
He no longer wanted to remain as the shameful son who could no longer face his father, the one who had raised him.
Like the lotus flower that blooms amid the mud, he would cultivate his own flower, blossoming as both a lotus and a chrysanthemum.
* * * * *
Asha diligently attended to various tasks concerning the restoration of the temple and the villages damaged by monsters.
Working alongside Jackal day and night, they made significant progress on urgent matters.
Late at night, Jackal sneaked up on Asha silently as she sat at her desk.
He put his hand on her shoulder and asked quietly.
“Do you still have more to do?”
“Oh, I’m almost done.”
Asha replied, setting aside the final document she had just stamped.
Assuming the workload was finally coming to an end, she stretched her arms and let out a yawn. However, at that moment, Jackal began massaging her shoulders.
“What are you doing, Jackal?”
“Just stay still. I’ll help you relax.”
With his large hands, he massages her tight shoulders, neck, and arms.
Having personally treated the members of Lycaon, Jackal possessed a knack for massage as well.
Feeling the comforting warmth of his hands, Asha involuntarily closed her eyes, surrendering to the soothing sensations.
His hands were quite warm and it felt like she was getting a real hot stone massage.
“I’m feeling much better now. You must be tired too.”
As Asha turned her body to face him and looked at him, Jackal leaned closer, bringing his face closer to hers.
“I can go for four days without sleep.”
Asha’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Yeah. Underestimating the stamina of a wild horse is a big mistake.”
Somehow his words sounded odd to her.
Unbeknownst to Asha, she gulped nervously.
An unusual tension filled the air as their faces came closer, their eyes resting momentarily on each other’s lips.