True to their words, Vernon instructed Nia, while Gilliana took charge of preparing meals for the child.
Meanwhile, Hiss effortlessly cleaned the premises using his ingenious magical tools, leaving no trace except for the area the commander had specifically mentioned in advance.
Thanks to the exceptional skills of these capable individuals, the training center swiftly transformed into a clean and inviting space, permeated with the comforting aroma of food.
Indeed, it was an idyllic scene of communal child care.
However, amidst the gratitude and camaraderie, the members couldn’t help but cast skeptical glances at Lucia, sitting beside them, as if she were an evil stepmother.
“… Commander, isn’t this a bit harsh?”
“He’s right, Leader. She’s just a five-year-old child. It’s been days already. She shouldn’t be treated like a slave in a salt mine.”
The previously critical members redirected their sympathetic gazes toward the figure wriggling on the floor of the lodging.
At the center of their attention was Nia, diligently scrubbing the wooden floor with a neatly folded rag held in her small, delicate hands.
“Commander, should I clean that up?”
Hiss spoke up.
“No! N-Nia can do it!”
Was this the power of a saint?
As the young child spoke with a radiant smile, Lucia, burdened with guilt, felt momentarily blinded by the sheer brilliance of her innocence.
The four adults sat on the sofa, fidgeting uncomfortably, their legs swinging up and down, silently observing the child crawling around and cleaning.
“Heh. Such a small child…!”
“Damn it! I wish I could help. Those stains won’t come off just by wiping.”
Indeed, the child’s movements were awkward, and it proved challenging to remove the stubborn black stains that had seeped into the wooden floor of the training center with just water.
“In that case, it’s even better.”
Lucia murmured under her breath, prompting the two individuals beside her to abandon the sofa and engage in a whispered conversation with disdain evident on their faces.
“… Um, because there is a reason.”
Despite their murmurs, the child continued her task diligently.
Despite the pitiable sight, the child, who used to tremble at the sight of strangers, seemed to be adjusting better than anticipated, perhaps due to having a sense of purpose now.
“… Commander, it’s already May.”
Beside Lucia, who was attentively observing Nia, Hiss spoke up.
“Hmm, It’s May.”
Lucia’s indifference elicited an eye roll from Hiss.
He stuck by her side, saying nothing.
“It’s your birthday.”
Lucia’s apathetic response made Hiss subtly raise the corner of his mouth, as if acknowledging her words as the correct answer.
Quickly averting his gaze, Hiss made sure she wouldn’t notice his expression.
‘He’s so predictable.’
Lucia, who had likely anticipated his attitude, purposefully avoided looking at him.
Hiss, whom Lucia had taken in at the age of 17 during her first monster extermination expedition, knew his recurring behavior around this time of year.
Among the members, Hiss was the only one who secretly visited and saw her face during the five years of training every May.
Perhaps he was the only one who knew for certain that the child wasn’t hers, but Lucia was aware.
She knew that Hiss wouldn’t question her.
‘I wonder if I’ve ever given him a present? Maybe I should do something for him this year.’
She contemplated momentarily, but it was clear that she would soon forget.
When did the training center, which rarely received visitors, suddenly become so bustling with people?
Lucia, as always, didn’t even flinch upon hearing the knocking on the door, fully intending to ignore it.
However, the two attentive members reacted immediately.
Eager to play the role of caretakers for this lodging, they opened the door with light footsteps.
“How can we assist you?”
“Who is it? Who?”
‘As if it’s their own house.’
Even though it wasn’t her own house, Lucia felt annoyed by their casual behavior.
“Sir Leon Ruins sent these.”
‘…What? Leon Ruins?’
Lucia recalled the man who had emanated a threatening aura just a few days ago.
“Huh? That Leon Ruins?”
“The leader of the White Mage Corps? Let me see.”
Vernon swiftly received the delivery receipt from the courier.
“It’s genuine, Leader. It appears that the leader of the White Mage Corps has sent something.”
Lucia lazily rose from the sofa, as if inconvenienced by the situation.
And as soon as she stood up, she was taken aback by the sight at the entrance.
Couriers filled the space, carrying boxes adorned with large and small ribbons, wrapped in adorable wrapping paper.
“…What on earth is this?”
Meanwhile, while Lucia stood in surprise, Vernon and Gilliana were left speechless.
Their eyes glistened with tears as they gazed at their leader.
Amidst the inexplicable cheers from the others, Lucia was rendered speechless as the flood of gifts continued to pour in relentlessly, inundating the living room and obstructing every passage in the house.
The dynamic scene before her seemed to mirror the exhilarating rush of someone’s heart, as if they had finally released the brake and surged forward with full force.
[I can’t hide it anymore.]
That was the message written on the card thrown by the courier, who seemed oppressed by Lucia’s aura as they hastily retreated.
“What does this mean?”
He was the epitome of a gentleman, the son of a conservative royalist chancellor, flawless in every aspect. If one were to speculate, he might find Lucia’s behavior contradictory to his own ethical standards.
Of course, she had kept her promise with the emperor to become a Sword Master, but on the other hand, she was also an unconventional knight who had given birth to a child during those five years.
What made his intentions even more perplexing was that the gifts arrived without distinction of gender.
‘If he were being kind, he would have sent gifts specifically for a girl. So, does he intend to drive me and the child away?’
Perhaps Leon disapproved of her using the royal accommodations for her personal affairs and thus planned to fill the place with gifts to force her out…
…but, of course, that was far from the truth.
Lucia completely misunderstood the situation.
Leon simply didn’t know the gender of the child, so he sent gifts for both possibilities.
Though it left a bitter taste, she decided not to dwell on the matter too much, as was her usual approach.
These conservative nobles had their own refined methods of eliminating those they disliked, and such harassment was something she was all too familiar with.
The only annoyance now was Gilliana and Vernon, who were enthusiastically opening the numerous gift boxes.
“Wow, how adorable! Look at this! Can you believe they made such a tiny dress? Although, I wouldn’t mind something a bit more… daring.”
“Check this out! A delicate rocking horse for a child’s toy. The price must be astronomical, typical of a Marquis family!”
“Stop opening them. It’ll be difficult to return everything.”
Observing their excitement, Lucia’s expression hardened as she spoke up.
“What? Leader? You can’t be serious!”
“Exactly, why would you want to return such lovely gifts?!”
They clung to the presents possessively, their gazes defensive as they locked onto Lucia.
“Don’t you see that there’s no room to even walk?”
Lucia looked at them with pity in her eyes, silently conveying that they were far from understanding.
However, naturally, they failed to comprehend. They wore defiant expressions, as if they were boasting.
“Leader, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but it’s impolite to return gifts that were given with such clear intentions.”
After Vernon spoke earnestly, he leaned in to whisper to Gilliana.
“Gilliana, if Sir Leon is being so proactive, shouldn’t we support him?”
“Absolutely. It’s rare for someone to go to such lengths for someone who even has a child. If this isn’t true love, then what is?”
In contrast to Lucia’s complete cluelessness, her companions accurately deciphered the meaning behind the gifts.
‘Yes, that’s right. It would be rude to return just this.’
Avoiding conflict was not within Lucia’s principles as a swordsman.
Her expression darkened, as if contemplating a vengeful act.
If someone were aware of the situation, they would have been tempted to pat Leon on the shoulder with a look of admiration upon witnessing such a sight.
“Leader, we finally have clothes that Nia can wear. Wow, there must be about 30 sets?”
Gilliana spoke as she unwrapped the gifts with matching wrapping paper.
Soon, they revealed simple dresses suitable for a young child.
They appeared to be more fitting and comfortable for Nia, who had been awkwardly wearing Lucia’s clothes.
‘Speaking of which, where is Nia?’
The child, who had been diligently wiping the living room floor, was nowhere to be seen.
With the influx of gifts, she wouldn’t have gone outside, so she must have been in either the kitchen or the reception room.
As Lucia anxiously glanced at the reception room door visible through the gaps between the boxes, she noticed a large box shifting slightly, with small feet sticking out.
Upon hearing her name called, Lucia swiftly caught the box that slipped from the child’s hands.
“I-I didn’t mean to…!”
The child hastily hid her hands behind her back, her voice quivering.
Facing Lucia’s bewildered gaze, Nia stammered,
“Um, well, there were so many. But, it’s clean…”
The child, speaking in incomprehensible fragments, squirmed as if something on her hands was unclean.
Lucia was somewhat taken aback.
This was a development she hadn’t anticipated.
‘…Does she still feel that way?’
It made sense considering it had only been a week since she rescued Nia from that horribly filthy place, and although she hadn’t yet interacted with the other members, she seemed to be adjusting well.
She had even decisively shared the only bed available with her.
From Lucia’s perspective, if the child viewed herself as unclean, there wasn’t much she could do about it.
However, Lucia had overlooked something.
A five-year-old child wouldn’t cower anxiously at the perilous edge of the bed, even when it was the closest place to her.
Having never lived in close proximity with anyone, she didn’t realize that such a dry and detached lifestyle with a child was far from normal.
And then it happened.
“Little Leader! Try this on. Isn’t it pretty?”
Gilliana approached Nia, holding up a white dress.
The dress, adorned with numerous tiny bows, exuded a cute and comfortable vibe.
In response, the child recoiled as Gilliana approached, speaking with determination.
“Nia, Nia doesn’t want it. I want to keep wearing this…!”
Clutching the short sleeves of the blouse that enveloped her, Nia tightly held onto it, unwilling to let Lucia’s clothes be taken away.
“Eh, that dress is dirty now. Let’s put on something new~!”
Although Gilliana’s innocent words lacked tact, they seemed to wound the child, whose golden eyes flickered with intensity as tears welled up rapidly.
“Uh-oh? Why? Don’t you like it? Little Leader?”
A perplexed Gilliana waved the tiny dress in front of her, and the whimpering child retreated as if the dress were a monster, shaking her head.
It felt as though they had regressed to the very first day they met, the only difference being that the burlap sack had been replaced by Lucia’s blouse.
While Lucia had superficially convinced herself that she was taking care of the child under the guise of tidying up the mess she had caused, Nia’s heart remained confined within the warehouse, unable to take a single step forward.