Yuriel took the glass cup from the maid and angrily threw it against the opposite wall. The maid flinched in surprise and let out a small shriek. Then, she started cleaning up the pieces of broken glass, not daring to look at Yuriel.
Yuriel turned around, huffing. Frustration filled her to the brim.
What could she hope to accomplish with this character, ‘Yuriel’? She was a half-blood and the second princess, she had a flimsy support base and…
The image of the woman who had ‘commanded’ the emperor to give her a punishment flashed before Yuriel’s eyes.
The woman was out of her mind. Yuriel didn’t think she would ever be able to understand what was going through her head.
She had everything that Yuriel wanted. But the moment that Yuriel finally had them in her grasp, the woman made them seem insignificant and meaningless. She tossed it all into the mud.
You don’t need any of this? You want a punishment? You’re going to lower yourself?
She probably didn’t know how sweet and mouth-watering all of this was. It didn’t make sense otherwise.
Yuriel felt a surge of anger. What could she accomplish when the only card she had was Yuriel’s pretty face? Why wasn’t she allowed to play as a better character?
Can you really gain the ‘world’ with something like this?
…Had she been lied to?
Yuriel shook her head.
Impossible. That ‘deal’ had been real. God had promised her.
I woke up to the blinding light of the sun. I was face-down in the dirt in my loungewear. Stumbling, I used the wall to stand up.
I recognized the tall, sturdy wall. I had seen it many times while I was in the palace. It had to be the wall surrounding the palace.
“Why am I…”
Beyond the wall, I saw a soaring tower.
The tower I was supposed to be locked inside of… I had been banished from the tower. You might say I had been abandoned. Abandoned by the world. I had lost my place.
I staggered backward.
‘There’s nowhere for you to go back to anymore.’
I hunched over, clapping my hands over my ears. I was barefoot. The tears wouldn’t stop coming. I felt a rush of anger.
‘So hurry up and die.’
I staggered, then straightened. Someone was coming this way. Without a second thought, I turned and ran.
I should have done this from the start.
I would escape.
I would leave everything, forget everything, and escape. However long it took, however far my feet took me. I would escape this damned fate.
“I never agreed to this…!”
“I would like to buy whichever of your horses can run the farthest.”
The portly, middle-aged woman looked me up and down. Her eyes fixed themselves on my feet. I had bought a heavy, hooded cloak that reached to my ankles on the way here. But I was only now realizing that my bare feet had gone white with cold. I hadn’t noticed because I didn’t have any sensation in them.
We both looked back up from my feet. Our eyes met.
“Aren’t you cold?”
I ignored her.
“Name your price. I’ll give you any amount you ask.”
My loungewear had jewels sewn into it, and I’d ripped off the jewels and stuffed them into my pocket. They would take care of my travel expenses for some time. They might even be enough to settle down somewhere.
“So it would be wise to bring the horse immediately. I don’t have much patience.”
The owner looked me over one last time before disappearing inside. When she came back out, she was leading a horse with a sleek coat. She also had leather shoes in her hands.
“Miss, do you know how to ride a horse?”
I crawled up onto the saddle. As I was doing that, my hood fell down, exposing my hair to the wind.
Most people on the street had short hair. Long hair like this was a luxury that only the upper class could afford.
Seeing my long, glossy red hair, the owner’s face went from suspicion to certainty. I reached into my cloak, keeping my eyes on her.
To be honest, before I’d bought the cloak, I had bought something else first. My fingers wrapped around cold steel, and I drew my blade.
Up until now, I had been extremely cautious. This was someone else’s body and someone else’s world. Everything here belonged to someone else. But if the world had no intention of respecting me, I had no reason to respect it either.
I gathered my hair into one hand and gently cut it off with the blade in my other hand. It was intensely liberating to have my hair fall away.
My head felt lighter than ever before. The strands of my hair blew in the wind. I held out the heavy clump toward the owner.
“You can throw it away, or sell it, do whatever you want with it. I don’t need it anymore.”
I replaced my dagger into my cloak and pulled my hood back on.
The owner was briefly speechless.
I gripped the reins. Did I know how to ride? That wasn’t important right now. I couldn’t escape on foot. I couldn’t ride in a carriage. So a horse was the only option.
And who knows. I might have been a great rider in the past. Even though I didn’t have any recollection of it now.
“This horse already has an owner… Well, I suppose it’s not a problem but…”
The owner mumbled without letting go of the reins. I tugged on the reins to indicate that she should let go.
“She’s quite intelligent, so it shouldn’t be dangerous. But still-.”
“You sure are beating around the bush.”
I handed the owner a couple jewels from my pocket, which she quietly accepted. Then she let go of the reins.
I turned back to the owner for the last time.
“Don’t go too far. It will be hard to come back.”
It wouldn’t hurt for her to think I was an immature, run-away noble lady. And it was the truth, too.
“It will be advantageous for you to hold your tongue about having met me.”
The owner smacked the horse’s bottom, and I instinctively gripped the reins for dear life.
I was rocked uncontrollably as the horse began tearing down the dirt road. The wind beat against my shoulders.
At that moment, my vision went dark. It came back within a few seconds, but no matter how hard I tried to clutch onto the reins, they kept slipping through my fingers.
That was the moment that I realized I couldn’t feel my hands.
And there was something off about my body. Not that it was my body in the first place.
Sieger doubted his eyes. Someone was dashing to the outskirts on his horse. Sieger ran into the store.
“Hoy! You said you wouldn’t sell her!”
The owner was squatting on the floor, stupefied. But she jumped at Sieger’s voice and gripped his arms with a glad expression.
“You’re right on time!”
“Right on time? What were you thinking? You know that I called dibs on her 3 years ago. But you just up and sold her and that’s the first thing that comes out of your mouth?”
“Listen, I had a good reason!”
“What do you mean, you had a good reason! What reason could possibly be more compelling than mine!”
“L-Look at this!”
“…What’s up with this clump of hair? Did you trade her for this? Then you should have just told me! If I grew my hair out for 3 years, it would be longer…”
“It’s red hair.”
“She was a noble lady!”
“…Can’t you go check on her?”
“Then will you give me the horse?”
“You think that’s possible?”
“Then just listen to me!”
“Red hair is rare even among nobles! But that lady hacked off her red hair just like this, because it was bothering her! And she told me to do whatever I liked with it! And she clearly knew her way around. I don’t know what had her so jumpy and anxious, but she noticed right away that I was stalling and tossed a handful of jewels at me just like that!”
“I had no choice but to give her the horse because I was worried. It looked like she was in deep trouble. She seemed prepared to go find a horse somewhere else if I refused. Plus, if you defy a noble then…”
“What does that have to do with the horse-.”
“It seemed like it was her first time on a horse. That horse is trained so…”
Sieger was appalled. You sold a horse to someone who doesn’t even know how to ride?
“Anyway, I couldn’t say anything, but you have some standing in the palace! Couldn’t you-.”
You should have started with that!
Sieger grabbed the first horse he saw and jumped on. He kicked the horse’s sides, and dashed off at lightning speed in the direction he had seen the other horse go.
The horse might be smart and well-trained, but she wouldn’t be able to hold back with a wide, open field in front of her. And she didn’t get tired easily, meaning her rider would be worn out long before she was. And it was clear-as-day what kind of situation that would lead to.
Within moments, he saw the other horse galloping ahead. Luckily, the rider was still attached to her back. Sieger urged his horse onward and came up beside the other horse.
“Grab the reins like this! Like… Hey, are you listening to me?!”
The rider had her hood pulled on low over her head. She didn’t even move, let alone respond. Sieger let out a stream of curses under his breath. Then, he decided to take a different approach. He shouted,
“This is a knight from the imperial palace’s 8th Division speaking! Halt your horse…!”
The rider tipped to one side.
Sieger pulled his horse in dangerously close to the other horse’s right flank. Falling in between the two horses now would mean certain death.
He gritted his teeth and took his right foot out of the stirrup. He braced his foot against his saddle. Then, he leaned over and caught the rider in his arms. He tugged on the reins of her horse. After checking to see that the horse had halted, he kicked his own horse’s sides and widened the gap. Soon, his horse stopped as well.
The rider was limp and motionless in his arms even after managing to pull off that life-or-death stunt. Sieger had a bad feeling. As he sat her in front of him, he could feel her burning up through her cloak.
Sieger tried to pull off the rider’s hood, but a hand caught his wrist. Her skin felt hot on his wrist. That couldn’t be a good sign. The woman pulled back her hood with her other hand.
Under the midday sun, Sieger recognized the woman’s face.
The woman who was closest to the position of sovereign. The most noble and the cruelest woman in the empire. Now one of two princesses, it was her.
“Let me go,”
The princess said, her breath heated.
So, in other words, the princess who was supposed to be locked in the tower right now…
“What are you doing here?”
The princess’s grip around Sieger’s wrist tightened. Strangely enough, while her face told him that she was squeezing out every last ounce of her strength, the actual pressure around his wrist was nonexistent. Without a word, Sieger put his hand over the princess’s forehead.
He had never seen someone burning up to this degree before.
I don’t know what had her so jumpy and anxious, but she noticed right away that I was stalling and tossed a handful of jewels…”
Jumpy and anxious? This woman?
Sieger remembered everything that had happened in the hall that night, down to the smallest detail. He remembered how the maid who had died by his sword looked as she laughed. He remembered how the princess looked watching the tragedy unfold.
When the princess turned around, when she knelt at the emperor’s feet, in Sieger’s eyes, it looked like she was taking responsibility. It looked like she was trying to protect the dead maid.
The princess grabbed Sieger’s collar. Her eyes met his.
“I have to go.”
Those were her last words.
For a long time after that, Sieger held the unconscious princess in his arms.
He didn’t know if what he was feeling was disappointment, resignation, or hatred.
Sieger pushed his mess out of the way with his foot and laid a floor mattress on his bedroom floor. He had been carrying the princess on his back, and now he laid her on top of the mattress. He covered her with a blanket. He’d ended up bringing her to his home because it was obvious the mess they would be in if he brought her straight to the palace.
This whole time, he had been asking himself why he was going so far to help her but…
“Sieger, I brought water!”
“I have the washbasin!”
“I brought candy!”
“I brought towels!”
Four children ranging from four to ten years-old swarmed into the room. They tossed the various items onto the blanket in unison and gathered around the woman.
“Sieger, is she your bride?”
“You didn’t commit a crime, right?”
“Hey, stop copying me.”
“But why is she so sick?”
“She’s burning up!”
Sieger put a hand on his forehead.
“All of you, get out while I’m still feeling nice.”
“Sieger, Sieger. Don’t you need a grasshopper?”
The boy offered Sieger a grasshopper, which he held gingerly. Sieger accepted it – and promptly threw out the door.
The boy ran back outside the room. One action flowing into the next, Sieger locked the door and walked back over to the bed with a refreshed expression. He placed a wet towel on the woman’s forehead.
And as he was tucking her in… he was once again faced with the question of why he was doing all of this. He glared at the woman.
On the floor next to her, a girl lay on her stomach with her feet in the air. She asked,
“She’s really burning up. Shouldn’t we wipe her down?”
“…I don’t want to do that much for her.”
“What are you talking about? Oh, and Missus has been looking for you since this morning.”
“The missus next door, from the fruit store.”
Giggling, the smallest child had burrowed into the covers and was rubbing their face on the woman’s arm.
“You’ll be in big trouble if you keep doing that. Come out of there. Do you know who you’re rubbing your face on?”
For a moment, Sieger didn’t know how to respond. That was when it happened.
“Mister Knight! Mister Knight! Hurry out, Mister Knight! There’s been a problem!”
When Sieger came out of the house, he saw a middle-aged man in his yard, holding his young daughter’s hand.
“My daughter is going to be taken away! Please, do something…”
The thirst was overwhelming. I opened my eyes.
I heard shouting outside. There was crying too. I sat up. A dried towel dropped onto my knees. When I felt my forehead, it was damp.
“She’s awake! What should we do!”
The room was messy but not dirty. Two small children were watching me with guarded expressions, their backs pressed up against the wall. I pulled off the blanket and stood up. The room spun for a moment, but I blinked and it righted itself.
I stepped over a fallen drawer and headed to the window. The curtains were tightly drawn over it. When I pulled them aside, the first thing I saw was Sieger. He was being grabbed by the collar. That must mean this was his house.
Was meeting him God’s will as well? Just how far did his reach extend?
I already admired Sieger’s character. I respected how he wouldn’t stand by and watch someone die – even someone he hated. Despite the terrible things the princess had done, he had continued to save me. And as a result, he had been forced to kill Hess.
For Hess, it might have been a blessing to die by the hand of someone who understood her grievances. But for whoever was left behind, it only meant more suffering. That was doubly true for the man who had held onto his sword until the maid had passed.
My death too would…
There was a scream.
“What’s going on?”
The two children were worlds apart in their appearance, but their expressions in that moment were identical. Hugging each other tightly, they shook their heads in unison.
“We…we don’t know.”
I looked around the room for something to cover my face with. There was nothing suitable.
“Are you trying to go out?”
“Don’t go! I-It’s dangerous!”
I watched the child approach me hesitantly. And then I laughed.
Suddenly, my eyes were drawn to the curtains fluttering in the wind. They were thin enough that I could just see through to the outside.
“Who is this! Aren’t you that famous Lord Knight?”
The man was dragging a boy in his teens through the filthy alleyway by the boy’s hair. When he spotted Sieger, he shot him a white-toothed grin.
The man let go of the boy’s hair. There were red splotches around the boy’s mouth. His cheek was swollen and his teeth were stained with blood.
“What’s all this commotion, Hillakin?”
“What commotion? I was just looking for someone.”
Letting go of his daughter’s hand, the middle-aged man ran to his son. He collapsed to the ground in front of Hillakin’s feet.
“Wh-What have you done to my son! Wh-What-.”
“What do you mean, what?”
Hillakin landed a kick on the man’s chin.
The girl tried running to her father, but Sieger stopped her.
“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop there.”
“Look here, there seems to be some kind of misunderstanding. You realize I’m the victim here, right?”
Eyes flashing, Hillakin grabbed Sieger by the collar. Hillakin laughed sullenly with their faces mere inches apart. The man took that moment to try and scramble away from Hillakin with his son.
“But you know, it’s always beggars who play the victim…”
The boy screamed. Hillakin had stepped on the boy’s ankle, grinding his heel in. The man grabbed Hillakin’s ankle, gripping it so tightly that his knuckles began to turn white. He tried to pull Hillakin’s foot off of his son. Finally, he slammed his fist into HIllakin’s ankle.
“Please! I’m begging you!”
The boy wailed in agony. Hillakin just put his hands in his pockets and cackled, like the blow to his ankle didn’t even hurt. He ground his foot down even harder.
“I can’t believe you escaped this place only to suck up to the princess! Ah, this is so funny.”
The houses packed together along the alleyway were unusually quiet. Everyone was holding their breath, hoping that they wouldn’t get dragged in. Sieger ground his teeth.
Back when Sieger ran away from these slums to become a knight, the ones who controlled this street were the group of ruffians that he was a part of. After he left, he had heard that there was an influx of people from other areas. And then he was put on a leash by the princess. For two years, he simply hadn’t had the energy to pay attention to what was happening here.
When he returned to the outskirts, the slums had multiplied. What had previously been family homes were now eerie abandoned houses.
The outsiders, Hillakin included, were behind everything. He wasn’t sure where they were getting the capital, but they had really taken over the area with their loan sharking.
It was plain to see what was happening. People who owned the land they stood on and nothing more were losing even that.
“I’ll pay you back! I’ll pay you back, so please!”
“You will? How?”
“And I’m asking, how are you planning on paying?”
Hillakin moved his foot while cackling. The man hastily covered his son’s ankle with his body as if to protect it.
“I told you I won’t make her do anything hard. So why’d you have to go and hide her? Look at how much money you borrowed. We just need some insurance, that’s all. Don’t you agree?”
Hillakin crooked a finger at the man’s daughter who was hiding behind Sieger’s back.
“Hey, cutie, come here. If you keep hiding like that, your father will get hit again, you know? Do you want to see your brother become a cripple?”
Sieger slid his hand to his sword handle, and immediately, men who appeared to be Hillakin’s grunts appeared from the shadows. They took their positions in front of and behind Sieger, blocking his path. Sieger didn’t bat an eyelash. He’d noticed them long before.
“We’ve been getting a lot of important customers as of late, but we don’t have enough good, cute kids to serve them. I told you that I’d return her once you pay me back the money, didn’t I?”
Sieger grasped the shaking child’s arm and hid her behind his back, obstructing Hillakin’s view.
“Or male prostitutes are fine too. I heard they’re quite the treat. Oh, my bad. I damaged his face. That’s a shame.”
“Oh, then you’re fine if I take her?”
“M-My daughter… My daughter is…”
“Shut your mouth, Mister.”
The man closed his mouth at Sieger’s words. He was tearing up.
“Don’t you know that human trafficking is illegal?”
“Ha! Haha! A taste of palace life and you’ve become a good little boy. Oh, that’s not exactly true, the princess you whored yourself out for is the real pervert here, isn’t she? I heard she goes wild over slaves…”
“You’re under arrest.”
“Oh no, I’m so scared!”
“Does it seem like I’m joking to you?”
“And do you think we’re joking? Do you think we’ve been playing it safe all this time because we were scared of you? I wonder, can you really protect that beggar and those little brats?”
“What did you say?”
“Can you protect them day and night, hm? And that gaggle of street urchins that you took in. If you’re not confident, then don’t stick your nose in where it doesn’t belong, just to satisfy your meaningless justice. That’s how it is, right?”
Sieger’s eyes took on a different look. His pupils shrank and his grip around his sword tightened.
“It’s no use…”
The child behind Sieger’s back mumbled.
“The guards let them go free again…”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you think? It means that the guards have been paid off.”
All of a sudden, a voice cut in from behind him. Sieger stiffened. He knew who it was the moment he heard it.
She was leaning against the doorway of his house with her arms crossed. She straightened and started walking in their direction.
She was wearing cheap leather shoes but the dress she wore for loungewear was lavish beyond words. On her head she wore a hat with a wide brim, pulled down low. Stiff, white fabric had been wrapped around it like a veil with the ends slung over her shoulders. She didn’t look like someone in their right mind.
Without even realizing it himself, Sieger turned back to Hillakin and obscured her from his view. And then he growled in the lowest voice he could muster,
“What the hell are you doing? What are you wearing on your head?”
Sieger was lost for words.
“What’s with that crazy… woman? It looks like she came out of your house.”
“What does that matter!”
Sieger shouted irritably, turning around. But his reaction had the opposite effect, seeming to pique Hillakin’s interest instead. Hillakin’s eyes glinted uncommonly.
“Miss? Now who could you be? I don’t think we’ve met before.”
The woman didn’t respond right away.
Beneath the translucent fabric, her smile was like a painting illuminated by the sun. Hillakin’s expression was profound, as though he had seen the same thing that Sieger did.
“Who is this bastard?”
Her appearance was strange, but her voice made even that seem insignificant. It was exceedingly serene and disconnected from reality.
“…A loan shark.”
It felt like the woman glanced in Sieger’s direction. Sieger felt strange being at the end of her gaze because he couldn’t see her face. Because for some reason, she suddenly felt like a stranger.
“I know that much already.”
“…The boss’s right-hand man. In other words, the acting commander.”
The woman smiled.
Her voice was crystal clear. Even though she had done a crude job of disguising herself, the voice that pierced through her disguise strangely echoed in his ears. It was relaxed and lyrical but unbending, just like that person’s.
And then Sieger repeated the last part of the sentence to himself. Like that person’s? Who if not the princess?
He was flustered beyond words, and he rubbed his face with one hand. But she really was like that person.