“This is all because Lord Erwan passed away.”
“If only he got the title before he died...”
“That madman Wedrick Isidore wouldn’t have become the duke.”
I could hear whispers coming from the cells around me.
Six months ago, the duchy of Cereus had lost its heir, Erwan Iliad Cereus. He’d been seriously ill his whole life and had died before inheriting the title. The dukedom had passed instead to his cousin, Wedrick Beses Isidore.
Immediately after becoming the new duke of Cereus, Wedrick had allied with rebel forces and thrown the region into war, but the hapless and disorganized rebels had been easily suppressed by the imperial army. Many young men were killed or severely injured in the fighting, and a harsh punishment had been given to all the remaining citizens of the duchy. Anyone who had assisted the rebel forces in any way had been condemned to death by hanging.
The problem was that I was one of these unfortunate souls.
“This can’t be happening...”
I tugged and pulled at my hair with trembling hands.
I was only nineteen years old.
“Why... Why me...”
Just a few days ago, I was known as the most skilled doctor in the region. My job had been to save the lives of the countless wounded soldiers who’d streamed in from the battlefield. For this, I had been deemed a traitor who had played “a significant role in supporting the rebel forces.” Despite my protests, I’d been immediately imprisoned and sentenced to death.
I’d been praised as a genius since I was thirteen, and just before becoming an adult I set up my own medical practice. I thought I’d be able to build up my reputation and live in comfort.
“It’s so unfair.”
A commoner like me had no personal loyalty to the imperial family or the duchy. It was enough for me to just live peacefully, taking each day as it came. But in a bad twist of fortune, I’d suddenly become a “rebel.” All I’d done was follow orders to save dying people.
The injustice of it all made me want to scream and cry.
I sniffled and looked up. It was an old lady—a fellow prisoner in my cell.
“Is it really so unfair?” She asked.
“Of course!” I replied sullenly. “I’ve saved countless lives and now I’m being put to death for it. It’s not as if I could’ve abandoned all those soldiers.”
The woman, wrapped in a tattered cloak, inched closer to me and said, “Miss, you’re a doctor?”
I glanced at her a little suspiciously. I’d been famed throughout Cereus as the genius female doctor. Most people would have recognized me right away. It was clear she was an outsider who had somehow been locked up with us.
I cleared my throat. “I’m actually a very skilled doctor. Too skilled to die, in fact.”
“Truly?” Her eyes lit up. “Then can you take a look at my head? It aches and throbs and doesn’t give me any peace.”
“Give me your hand,” I said.
Even on the brink of execution, I was a doctor to the end. I grasped her hand, and after a few moments I began my diagnosis.
“Your pain is caused by the mana inside you colliding together. Did you get this mana from someone else? It seems very powerful.”
Her eyes grew wide at my questions.
“H-how did you know? No other doctor was able to figure this out...”
“Well, I am known around here as a genius,” I said weakly, “Take a draught of evening primrose tea every morning and stay away from beef for the time being. A mixture of crushed dianthus flower and essar grass will also work wonders. Your symptoms should disappear shortly.”
“You shouldn’t take any mana from unknown sources. There can be serious consequences.”
I let out a deep sigh. Although I’d given her the proper medical advice, the fact was that she was trapped in here with me as a prisoner. I wouldn’t be able to help her. But her eyes gleamed.
“Thank you, Miss Genius Doctor. And in return, what do you want from me? Anything you desire.”
I only had one, desperate wish.
“I want to be free.”
“That... I cannot grant. Only the emperor can do that. What else do you want?”
I thought she’d give me anything I wanted...
Instead, I asked for the next best thing.
“I’m an orphan. I’ve never met my parents. Can you tell me who they are?”
In my final hours, it struck me that I had not one family member who could visit me in this prison cell. It weighed heavily on me that there wasn’t a single person in the world who would mourn my death.
“Ah... My crystal ball was smashed to pieces on my way here. If only I had it, then I would have told you what you wish to know.”
Clearly her words had been an empty promise.
There was nothing left that I desired.
“Then I don’t need anything. What else is there? I’m going to die tomorrow anyway. Just forget about it.”
“Hmm...” She narrowed her eyes. “I cannot save you, but I can give you another chance at life.”
“Change the future, miss,” she said
I stared at her blankly.
“I will turn back the hands of time.”
That was the last memory I had as a nineteen-year-old. When I regained consciousness, I’d turned back into my thirteen-year-old self.
I blinked at the sight of my face in the mirror. A young girl with short, chestnut-brown hair and bright green eyes stared back at me. Was this what the old woman had meant by giving me “another chance at life?”
I’d be able to live a different life, a life where I wouldn’t be crushed and executed in the rebellion.
Looking down at my clothes, I realized that it was summer. I remembered these clothes very well. They were the ones I’d worn on the day that I left the orphanage, when I went to work as an assistant under the village physician.
“I’m going to run away.” I’d have to leave the orphanage soon to find work anyway. I possessed endless amounts of medical knowledge. I knew I would be able to quickly make a living. After all, doctors were always in high demand wherever you went. “I’ll leave Cereus and run to some safe place.”
As I gathered my few meager belongings and planned my next steps, I heard a chorus of voices around me.
“Rita! Don’t forget about us!”
“Come back and play with us!”
“It’s not fair we have to leave when we’re thirteen!”
“You were kinda scary but you’re so smart!”
“No, she was always nice to us!”
The children I’d grown up with in the orphanage gathered around me in a noisy, weepy circle.
“Rita, I heard you’re going to be Doctor Zietvan’s assistant?” asked Miss Elburn.
Miss Elburn was one of the teachers at the orphanage, and she’d always treated me kindly, like I was her younger sister. She was the one who’d rescued me from the river where I’d been found abandoned in a basket. She’d even been the one to give me my name, “Rita”.
“It’s not much, but here’s a small gift for you. Promise me that you’ll make your dream come true and become an incredible doctor.”
She stroked my hair lovingly and handed me a notebook, along with a pen. Her eyes were red but she was smiling widely. The notebook and pen she’d chosen for me were of the highest quality material. She’d have had to scrimp and save for months to be able to buy this.
It felt like a blow to my chest. The people here, everyone I loved, were fated to die when the imperial army swept through Cereus in a few years’ time.
Was it right to escape alone, simply so that I could live?
I stared at the people surrounding me, all of whom looked at me with loving eyes. Though I’d never had a family, I’d been happy here. “I...” I clutched the gift tightly and took a deep breath. I couldn’t run away alone, knowing the future as I did. “I’m not going to work for Doctor Zietvan. I’m going to Cereus Castle.”
“What...?” said Miss Elburn, shocked. “What do you mean?”
“I heard Lord Pearlman, the duke’s physician, is looking for an assistant.”
“But he’s always looking for assistants,” muttered one of the children, “He always kicks them out after a week.”
“He won’t kick me out,” I said, and held my head up high.
“Because I’m a genius.”
I could say this bluntly, knowing that all the medical knowledge of my nineteen-year-old self was inside my head.
One of the children stared at me. “But why do you want to go work for that grumpy old man?”
“It’s because...” I spoke honestly. “I’m too nice and kind-hearted.”
I wanted to tell them everything, that I’d chosen to stay in Cereus because of them, but I didn’t.
Miss Elburn scratched her head. “Well, ah... It’s true, our Rita is very smart and kind...”
That is how I left the orphanage and began making my way towards Cereus Castle.
The duke’s personal physician, Viscount Arga Ayten Pearlman, was renowned throughout the area for his skill as a doctor. He also ran an enormous medicinal herb business and was constantly in need of assistants.
Even more than his skill, however, he was famous for having high standards and a bad temper. None of his assistants had ever stayed longer than a week.
“This is the only way I can get into the castle.”
In the end, I had made the decision a true medical professional would make. Instead of saving myself, I’d chosen to stay here in order to make sure the duchy did not fall into the hands of a madman. I had to do whatever I could to stop Wedrick Isidore from becoming the next duke of Cereus.
“I need to save Erwan Cereus, no matter what.”
I had to save the life of this pitiful duke, the one who’d died at nineteen—the same age I had been.
“What had his condition been like?”
I tried to remember how he was the last time I’d seen him. He’d been tremendously thin and hadn’t been able to stop coughing. I’d never bothered to examine him closely in the past, assuming that he was in the hands of Dr. Pearlman.
“I’d better strengthen his immune system and keep a close eye on him from now on,” I thought. If I were able to save him, he’d safely inherit the dukedom and Cereus would be spared the bloodbath that would come.
As for me, my work would be completed once the young duke inherited. Pearlman was only in his thirties, and he would most definitely keep his place as the chief physician. After I made sure Cereus was safe, then I could begin to live my own life. Perhaps I could have my own family, or maybe try to find my parents.
I didn't have a single clue who they were. I didn’t want or need anything from them, as I had plenty of my own wits for survival. But in prison, at the end of my life, I had suddenly found myself with the desire to know who they were. Had they really abandoned me? Or had they been forced to give me up? I figured I had nothing to lose by solving the one great mystery of my life.
Even if I couldn’t find them, I could think about getting married, or having my own children—something I’d never even considered in my previous life.
“First things first, I need to deal with Erwan Cereus.”
Clutching the referral that Ms. Elburn had written for me, I made my way to Cereus Castle with swift feet and a determined heart.