Chapter 26: Ailette, A Hurt Child
TW: This chapter references possible child abuse (specifically its effects rather than any descriptions of it happening) and possible self-harm.
“It seems you two owe me your lives,” Adeus spoke briefly before putting on a strange smile.
‘What’s going on?’
My head couldn’t keep up with what was happening in front of me.
I could hear the loud drum-like sound of my fluctuating heartbeats.
I calmed my heart, which was out of control due to my surprise.
“You’re quite nimble.”
“It’s nothing compared to Your Excellency.”
“No, I’m being serious.
You instantly came and subdued them despite being pretty far away.
It would’ve been impossible to do unless you were extraordinarily quick.”
Theodore turned his head and stared at the crowd Adeus had darted from before returning his gaze to where he was standing now.
“Have you learned martial arts?”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Adeus smiled calmly as he pressed the man down with his knee, as if he were enjoying a leisurely afternoon tea.
“You’re better than the useless Imperial knights.”
Theodore tutted his tongue before shouting at the crowd with a displeased voice.
“…For how long will you stand there gawking? We’ve caught him, so hurry and apprehend him.”
When Theodore yelled, the Imperial knights came back to themselves and began quickly moving.
Several of them detained the man who was underneath Adeus’ knee.
The tied-up man got to his feet.
I could feel my heart start violently thumping again when he gave Theodore a vicious glare.
Feeling like I was about to collapse to my knees, I tightly grabbed onto Theodore’s thick arm with a trembling hand.
Theodore, who glanced at my pale face and trembling hand, spoke in a cold and low voice.
“This bastard has tried to kill the Grand Duchess twice now.
Take him and lock him up in the basement.”
How shall we interrogate him?”
“Leave him alone until I get there.”
“I’ll receive his confession myself.”
The knight shut his mouth, surprised by Theodore’s sharp voice.
He then took the ever-furious man and left.
As the man left my vision, the tension in my body instantly lessened.
I couldn’t help but drop to the ground, exhausted.
“Your Highness!” Theodore and Adeus’ urgent voices called out as soon as I fell.
“Are you hurt somewhere? You might have gotten injured when the carriage toppled over, so let’s go to the doctor.”
“N-No, I’m okay.
I’m not hurt.
I was just so surprised that…”
I’d never experienced war before, and I was also inexperienced with death and swords, so obviously something like today’s incident would startle me.
Who would be calm enough to say “Yeah? Try it!” when someone tried to kill you by swinging a sword around right before your eyes? Well, other than the man in front of me, of course.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Thank you for helping.”
At the sincerity in my trembling voice, Adeus jolted.
“It couldn’t have been easy to step up, so I truly thank…”
When I was about to give my thanks once more, Theodore cut off my words with displeased eyes.
“The floor is cold.
Can you stand?”
When I nodded, Theodore grabbed my hand and helped me up easily.
Although I was standing, I was still shocked, and my legs were wobbly.
Theodore frowned while looking down at my pale face.
Then, he spoke in a low voice to the Imperial knights who were cleaning up the mess.
“They’re only Imperial knights by name.”
All of these Imperial knights flinched and trembled.
“The Grand Duchess was almost hurt, and they couldn’t even apprehend a single assassin.”
As Theodore continued to rebuke them, they all bowed their heads as if receiving a punishment.
The crowd that had been watching the parade was now all watching this situation.
Since the Imperial knights were under Theodore’s jurisdiction, it normally wouldn’t have mattered, but right now they were “outside” and many people were witnessing it.
Plus, the honor of the Imperial knights was the same as that of the Imperial family.
What Theodore was doing right now was no different than tarnishing the Imperial family’s honor.
“I’m fine, so…”
When I was about to dissuade Theodore, a dignified voice cut off my words.
“When the assassin appeared, the Imperial knights protected me and my children.
Isn’t it obvious that the Imperial knights would protect the Imperial family?”
The Emperor, who had gotten off of his horse, approached us.
Because there were many eyes watching, he wore a benevolent smile.
“The Imperial knights are trained to protect members of the Imperial family in the first place.
Earlier, they all raised their swords to protect us, so we should be complimenting them.”
“…Are you telling me to compliment them for not protecting my wife, who was right next to you?”
“What if my wife was hurt because of that, Your Majesty?”
Wordlessly, the Emperor gently crinkled his eyes.
He was definitely smiling, but it was still strangely tense.
I swallowed back some dry spit and turned my head.
As I did so, I met the gaze of Dahlia, who was riding a carriage far away.
“What,” “a,” “shame,” Dahlia mouthed toward me with a superficial laugh.
Reina laughed next to her as if telling me, “Serves you right.”
‘Gosh, should I just…’
When I clenched my fists, the Emperor approached.
Then, he stood still and stared at Theodore.
“Speak, Your Majesty.”
“There are many eyes watching, so let’s end things here.”
It was a clear command.
“This is a festival centring around the two of us.
Lots of people came just to see us, so we can’t ruin it any more than we already have.”
“…Are you saying you want to continue the parade?”
“Did you not hear what the assassin said just now?”
A combative silence pressed down heavily onto my shoulders.
“He definitely said he was a ‘rebel.’ His target is either Your Majesty or me.
He definitely didn’t commit this crime alone, so there will be other members of the rebel forces watching this parade.”
“There’s also the danger of assassination.
The parade ends here.
Let’s finish it and return home.”
“It seems you’re still far from it.”
The Emperor donned a silent smile.
In his eyes, which contained no mirth, was a strong desire for power.
Looking at that, I couldn’t help but shudder.
The Emperor came close to Theodore and spoke quietly so only we could hear him.
“That’s why we need to continue the parade so they can see.”
“Look around you.
All these people have gathered here to adore us.
Right now, those rebel forces will look like the ‘assailants’ here.”
The Emperor couldn’t hold back his laughter.
“Do you know what a rebellion is? Rebellions are dependent on whether the public sentiment makes you an enemy or hero of the Empire.
Do you think people really focus on whether they are doing something good or bad? What’s important is whether it’s good or bad for my own life.”
“So, Sir Lapileon, we need to calmly continue the parade.
Now, you should also go and prepare.
You’ll be able to move again if you catch the horse that ran away and tie it back up.
Before the Emperor could finish speaking, Theodore took me into his arms and picked me up.
Surprised at suddenly being lifted into the air, I tightly wrapped my arms around Theodore’s neck.
I could feel his sturdy arms and firm muscles with my whole body.
“P-People are staring…”
While lowering my face, which was red with embarrassment, I mumbled to try and get him to put me down.
Theodore, who was calmly ignoring the Emperor, replied to me in a soft voice.
“When we get back, we should ask Uncle to check our condition.
You must have been very startled today, so you should rest.”
Huh? I could feel Adeus, who was next to us, staring at Theodore.
“We’re going back?”
“Yeah,” Theodore responded to my question with a nonchalant nod.
‘Do you not see the scary eyes staring at you right now?’
I hadn’t turned my head, but it felt like I could still feel the prickling gaze.
“Sir Lapileon,” The Emperor called Theodore quietly so that others would not hear.
However, Theodore outwardly ignored the Emperor this time.
It was clearly deliberate.
Turning his body, Theodore approached the horseman who had just managed to gather the scattered horses.
Then, he quickly chose a single horse.
“I’ll borrow this horse.”
Just like last time, Theodore lifted me onto the horse.
Since it was the second time, I wasn’t too surprised, but…
‘The Emperor’s eyes are too scary!’
I tried hard to duck my head and avoid the Emperor.
Afterward, Theodore easily got on behind me and grabbed onto the horse’s reins.
I’ll talk to you about today’s events later.
You can leave.”
“Yes, I’ll wait for you to call me, Your Excellency.”
After bowing in goodbye, Adeus turned around and disappeared into the crowd.
Upon seeing that, Theodore slowly turned the horse away.
“Are we really leaving?”
“Well, do you want to stay?”
“Then let’s go.
I don’t want to become more of a spectacle than we already are, anyway.”
The Emperor is looking at us with a gaze that says he’ll kill us if we leave!
“Even if I’m not here, the Imperial knights will protect the Imperial family, so it doesn’t matter.”
After finishing his words, Theodore bowed his head toward the Emperor.
When the Emperor opened his mouth to say something, Theodore ignored him and urged the horse forward into a gallop.
I-It was scary.
As soon as the horse stopped, my body trembled.
It was on a completely different level than the last horse ride.
If the last horse ride was just a taste, today was the real deal.
“…? I said we’re here.”
Above my head, I could hear a calm… no, a slightly taken aback Theodore.
Yeah, I know we’re here.
I know! But, but…
“W-What can I do when my hands won’t move?!”
My two arms, which were tightly wrapped around Theodore’s waist, would not loosen up.
The horse had definitely stopped, but I was so scared that I couldn’t let Theodore go.
Exaggerating it a bit, I stared up at Theodore with teary eyes.
At my gaze, Theodore angled his head away a little, but he still didn’t move until I calmed down.
“If you’re this scared of something as small as horseback riding, are you not scared of me, who could kill you with a single drop of my blood?”
“Well, that’s because you won’t kill me!”
‘If I make one wrong move, the horse might drop me to the floor and kill me! It’s not like I can communicate with a horse!’
With my two arms wrapped tightly around his waist, I buried my face into his sturdy chest and inhaled deeply.
Theodore’s muscles must have tensed up, for I could feel them hardening.
At the same time, I could hear his loud heartbeats.
The steady sound of his heart helped to calm me down.
“Is it really okay that we left like that?”
“Why would there be a problem with me coming to my estate as I please?”
“No, I mean how you ignored His Majesty’s words in favor of coming here.”
Theodore responded indifferently.
Since he definitely needs me in battle, throwing me away would result in more losses than gains.
Even if he doesn’t like it, he can’t kill me quite yet.”
Was that something to say so calmly?
“Are you better now?”
Theodore asked, feeling that my breaths had evened out.
I nodded slowly and retracted my arms from around his waist.
Theodore briefly froze before easily dismounting the horse.
Then, he outstretched his two hands to me.
Reaching for him with trembling hands, I grabbed onto his firm arms.
No matter how tightly I squeezed, his strong arms didn’t shake in the slightest.
I could see the veins on the back of his hand protruding.
He was clearly flexing his arms so they wouldn’t shake in case I got surprised or scared.
Because of that, I was able to safely come down.
As soon as my feet touched the ground, I was able to take a deep breath.
And right when I turned my body to thank him…
I heard a weak child’s voice from somewhere.
It was so weak that it seemed like a candle that would lose its flame if a light wind blew.
“I heard something.”
I turned my head toward the estate entrance, where the voice came from.
It was someone with a tiny figure that appeared to be only around five or six years old, with tangled silver hair that had never been brushed.
The figure had small clothes that didn’t fit their skinny body and familiar red eyes.
A child I had never seen before was standing there.
I could tell the child’s condition was critical from a single glance.
‘Who is that?’
While I was looking over this child of unknown identity, Theodore stepped closer and said their name.
“Do you know this child?”
When I turned my head, Theodore was donning a rare surprised expression.
“She’s the sole survivor among my extended family.
I heard she lived with her mom since she wasn’t a direct descendant.
To my knowledge, the Lapileon family sends an ample amount of funds for her child-rearing expenses every month.
I haven’t seen her since she was much younger…!”
Theodore didn’t finish his sentence, and I couldn’t hear the rest of his sentence, either.
This was because the child who’d asked about a fairy had stumbled toward us before weakly falling flat on her face.
Both of us darted toward her.
I quickly lifted the feeble child into my arms, then checked to see if she was hurt anywhere.
Luckily, it seemed her face and head were uninjured.
I could tell as I embraced her that she was much too light and weak, as if putting even a little bit of strength into my hands would make her crumble.
Her loud breaths were hot.
It was clear at a glance that her condition wasn’t good.
“Finneas… We should show her to Sir Finneas!”
Her short breaths were irregular and seemed like they might stop at any second.
Theodore, who nodded at my shout, quickly got back onto the horse.
“Wait here for a moment.
I’ll ride the horse and bring Uncle back with me.”
When I nodded, Theodore quickly urged the horse forward.
This speed was completely different from when I’d been on the horse with him.
The sound of the horse’s gallops rapidly disappeared.
Left alone, I hugged the child close to me so her body wouldn’t touch the floor.
‘This doesn’t feel good.’
I took out a handkerchief and wiped at her dust-covered face and scabby lips.
What could’ve happened to this young child to make her bite her lips like this? To make her lips be this bruised and covered in scabs?
‘There was an ample amount of funds for her child-rearing expenses?’
I quickly scanned the child’s body.
If that was true, it didn’t make sense.
Aliette wasn’t wearing a single expensive-looking item.
The clothes weren’t her size, and the one shoe she had was shredded to pieces.
Not to mention, the exposed skin on the inside of her forearm showed scars indicating it’d been cut several times.
Although it was unclear what exactly had happened, it was clear that the situation wasn’t good.
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