What single topic of discussion is causing the biggest stir right now in the Kingdom of Lagrange?
That was easy to answer. “Why, the mysterious thief known only as Lutin!”
I spread out the collection of newspapers I’d purchased. Each of them had an impressive number of column inches dedicated to this enigmatic criminal, whom the common folk hailed as a hero and the nobility decried as an evildoer.
It had been a short while since all that unfortunate business with me breaking off my engagement. Things had calmed down, and Lord Simeon and I had made a fresh start as an engaged couple. We were getting on well, in our own way. Every day was great fun!
And on that particular day, we were going on an outing together. “Look,” I told him, “every single paper has produced a special report about him!” It was such a relief that I didn’t need to hide my interests from Lord Simeon anymore. I could feel free to talk to him about whatever I liked.
And what had piqued my interest lately was this master of thievery and trickery, Lutin. His fame wasn’t limited to Lagrange—even in the surrounding countries, I doubt there was a single person who hadn’t heard his name. His fame had reached international proportions.
The most recent victim was Baron Bachelet, who’d lost a ceremonial sword the month before last. “Lutin disguised himself as an art dealer,” I said, poring over the articles before me in the carriage, “and got close to the baron by bringing him genuine articles. He built up enough trust that the baron let him appraise his family’s collection. Then he walked out with the sword, which is said to have a market value so high, even a million algiers would be too paltry a sum to buy it.” I exhaled. “One million algiers… I think I’d have to write somewhere in the region of two hundred books to earn that much.”
As I tried to calculate my earnings, Lord Simeon, sitting beside me, wore a stunned expression. “Now you’re ‘fangirling’ over a common criminal, is that right? I don’t see what’s so fantastic about stealing other people’s property.”
The reproach in his voice distracted me from my mental mathematics. I looked up at him. Oh, that cold glare of his is so wonderful! Why isn’t he holding a riding crop right now!? I wish he’d carry it around with him everywhere! It should be as much a part of his daily attire as his glasses! “No,” I replied, “No, he doesn’t light my fangirl fire at all. As you say, there’s nothing
admirable about robbery. I just think it’s an interesting subject. It’s raised such a furor that the papers are all printing special features full of speculation about when he’ll strike again. Everyone’s filled with trepidation thinking they might be next. It’s rather exciting, isn’t it?”
Lutin only targeted the wealthy and well-bred, and each time he employed a new, elaborate gambit. All of this raised him high in the estimation of the lower classes. The wording in the mass-market tabloids aimed at that audience frequently took on a tone of admiration. In all honesty, I did find myself getting swept up in the drama of it all. Who can hear the words “mysterious thief” and not feel their heart begin to pound?
But, while I’d have no qualms about enjoying it in a fictional story, I couldn’t bring myself to applaud real people’s suffering. Every noble house was on tenterhooks, wondering when they would be targeted.
My family would never be targeted, incidentally. I was quite sure of that. What would we have that would be worth his effort to steal? Even our estate was minuscule in the grand scheme of things. I sincerely doubted that Lutin even knew of our existence.
On the other hand… “Lord Simeon, your estate is full of precious jewels and works of art, isn’t it? He could come at any moment. Aren’t you concerned that you might be his next target?” In terms of size alone, House Flaubert’s estate was easily five times the size of House Clarac’s. It was entirely plausible that Lutin would set upon them next. I found Lord Simeon’s apathy a little puzzling.
“Indeed, we’ve told all the servants to be on their guard. However, vigilance against possible intruders is a fact of life for us. It’s not something unique to this Lutin fellow, nor did it begin today or yesterday.”
“I know, but he’s far from an ordinary burglar.”
“He executes each theft with an unusual degree of skill, I’ll grant you. I have the impression he’s so devoted to fooling people with his clever tricks that he’d never take a crude approach like forcing his way in with violence. I’ve heard no report of him having caused anyone physical harm so far, in which case I’d say there’s no need for any excess concern. I’d be decidedly unimpressed if one or two items from our collection were stolen. It would be an unforgivable crime, but my house’s stability doesn’t depend on those one or two items. We’d survive.”
For him to talk so casually about this highlighted the differences in our birth and upbringing. I suppose their treasures are something they treasure, but that’s all. They’re not something that puts food on the table. As he says, they could lose a few without much impact.
But being robbed would surely, in and of itself, have quite an impact. A normal person couldn’t be so indifferent to the possibility that they expressed no fear whatsoever. Could they? Does his estate really have that many valuables lying around? They must be swimming in them. That’s rich people, I suppose!
I’d long since accepted this disparity between us, and I was sure we wouldn’t see eye to eye, so I continued without agreeing or disagreeing with him. “Apparently the police still don’t have anything resembling a lead. He’s been active for a while now. I wonder why they’ve been unable to arrest him.”
“Their means to do so are quite limited,” Lord Simeon replied. “They’ve tried to gather eyewitness statements, make a likeness of him, investigate whether any stolen goods have made their way to the black market, and so on. He’s always one step ahead, and all they can do is react. It’s far from easy.”
I nodded. “And eyewitness statements can only help so much when they’re dealing with a master of disguise. He looks like a different person every time… Oh, but what if they arranged for officers to stake out any estates that he’s likely to target?”
“Do you know how many noble houses there are in this country?” he said, shaking his head. “If we include the wealthiest middle-class families as well, it’s far more than the police would be able to manage. There simply aren’t enough policemen for that.”
“Then wouldn’t it be worthwhile for the Order to combine their efforts with those of the police force?” I asked, putting down the newspaper in my hand and turning my whole body to face him. This was actually the main thing I’d wanted to say. “Has there been no kind of order from His Highness the Crown Prince related to this? If you took charge, capturing Lutin wouldn’t seem quite so impossible.”
I was definitely not on Lutin’s side. I hoped he would be arrested soon so that the number of victims wouldn’t increase any further.
And what I hoped most of all was that Lord Simeon would be the one to do it.
The Demon Vice Captain and the Master Thief in an epic showdown! Now THAT’S something I can fangirl over! Lord Simeon still has a lot to learn. A thief on his own doesn’t do it for me, but pit him against Lord Simeon, and suddenly my fire is ablaze!
I pictured the scene. A thief who’s committed countless crimes and repeatedly slipped through the police’s fingers…and along comes Lord Simeon, hunting him down with relentless coldness. Behind his glasses, his eyes glint with a brutal, almost villainous light. Lutin gnashes his teeth, humiliated, as Lord Simeon torments him.
Just my own delusion—I mean, imagination—was enough that it almost set off a violent nosebleed! I’ll be standing by with a handkerchief, so please, make it happen!
“I believe wholeheartedly that you’d be able to catch him!” I continued. I looked up at Lord Simeon, full of anticipation. “And, if there’s any way I can be of assistance, just let me know!” Because I can turn it into an excellent novel, too!
He sighed and rapped me lightly on the forehead. “If this is about research for your writing, find somewhere to do it that won’t put you in danger. Don’t go poking your nose into a criminal
Rats. He’d seen straight through my ruse.
Not to be outdone, I replied with an innocent shrug. “But how could I ever be in danger if I’m with you, Lord Simeon?”
“Anyway,” he said, “catching criminals is the police’s job. The Royal Order of Knights acts as the royal guard. This isn’t a matter for us at all.”
“But you did say that the police are unlikely to manage it on their own.”
“Nonetheless, we can’t step on their toes. They have their jurisdiction, and we have ours.” “Even if an order came directly from His Highness?”
“He’d never give such an order unless it was an incident that directly involved the royal family. No one could give or accept an order that ignored the boundaries of the system, not even His Highness—and not even His Majesty the King himself. Such reckless abuse of authority would lead to a breakdown of law and order.”
A cold and heartless answer, but with reasoning that was irritatingly sound.
Despite being called “knights” as per tradition, they no longer galloped into battle on horseback as in the days of yore. Nowadays, their duties were not so unlike those of the police. That’s why I thought it wouldn’t be such a stretch for them to work together on this one case…but evidently things weren’t so simple. The modern era had also brought with it strict dividing lines between different parts of the system. Interfering in any matters outside of one’s own domain was simply not allowed.
Of course, I knew all this already. It’s not as if I’m a child. I understand that society has rules and you need to follow them. I simply thought His Highness, or His Majesty, might be anxious enough about the situation to give a special order, just this once. It seemed as though it might work!
Instead, I was left mourning the dying light of my fangirl hopes and dreams. “But what if,” I ventured, “Lutin were to target the royal family’s treasures?”
My last stubborn gambit. Lord Simeon rolled his eyes. “Yes, then we’d be called into action. This would be if, and only if, the likes of this common criminal were brave enough to try breaking into the palace of all places.”
Why wouldn’t he be brave enough? That’s why they’re also calling him “Lutin the Mischievous Fairy,” I thought to myself. He craves the limelight so strongly that he goes out of his way to leave his signature at the scene of every crime he commits. He puts on an unnecessary show each time, just to surprise the public. He probably wants fame more than the goods themselves. Why wouldn’t he keep upping the ante by going after the royal family’s secret treasures?
By the same token, if the action took place in the palace, I wouldn’t be able to spy on the
proceedings. If things went down that route, I’d also be quite unhappy.
“What if you just happened to encounter him yourself? Then jurisdiction wouldn’t come into it, correct?”
“Indeed, it wouldn’t, although that’s quite a large ‘if.’ Anyway, let’s not blather on about this all day. We’ve arrived.”
At his prompting, I looked through the window as our carriage entered the park. It was a mild late-autumn afternoon, and crowds of people had come to enjoy a relaxing day out. Stalls selling light refreshments lined the paths, the merchants’ eyes hungry for the contents of the visitors’ coin purses. Street performers filled the air with jaunty music.
In the center of the park, a vast circus tent had been erected. That was our destination. Young and old alike walked toward it, their eyes gleaming. The circus troupe’s visit was another popular point of discussion in the city of Sans-Terre.
We were lucky enough—or rather, we had paid enough—to have ringside seats, giving us an incredible view. A variety of beasts performed impressive feats right before our very eyes.
I’d never seen a tiger at such close range before. It’s gigantic! And its fur looks like velvet. Those legs are so thick and sturdy, and the claws at the ends of them look so dangerous… It’s slightly terrifying that there’s not even a fence between us. But it’s still so cute, somehow. I want to squish my finger against its giant paw pads!
The bear riding a ball was adorable as well. Not to mention the ducks, who’d clearly been included as a crowd-pleaser. They wore little cravats, and they walked in procession, shaking their bottoms and going quack, quack, quack. They were so unbearably cute, it made me fangirl a little.
The human performers weren’t about to let the animals outshine them. Some of their movements were practically inhuman, like the female contortionist who bent her body into alarming shapes, and the man who did tricks atop a terrifyingly high tightrope. Not to mention the trapeze artists, who swung from one trapeze to the next at a dizzying height. Or the people who could keep ten objects in the air at once, throwing and catching them without ever letting them drop to the floor. Not only that, but two and then three people doing it, all perfectly synchronized. I was so amazed by their superhuman feats that I hardly had time to breathe.
“Wow!” I exclaimed over and over, unable to contain my joy. “How many people are in that formation? I’m scared they’ll all collapse!”
“I wouldn’t worry, they’re carefully balanced. They’ve practiced it over and over to ensure they don’t collapse.”
“You say that, but look! They’ve tumbled down! Oh no, I hope they’re all right!”
“That was on purpose. It’s all just to give the audience a fright. See, they’re on their feet again.”
For every exclamation I made about the program in front of me, Lord Simeon had an equally cold and rational answer. His tone was so serious and composed that I felt he was putting something of a damper on my enjoyment. Does he really find the circus that boring? I turned slightly to look at him, and to my surprise, I was struck by a tender smile. My heart missed a beat at the surprise attack.
It wasn’t a black-hearted smile that hid a villainous streak underneath. That version of Lord Simeon was the one I cherished above all else, but the sight of him like this, with a pure, genuine smile on his face, sent a thrill straight through me as well.
Bewildered by this rush of excitement, which felt entirely different from fangirling, I instinctively cast my eyes downward.
“Lord Simeon, do you find this boring?”
“No, not at all.”
He let a laugh slip out. It tickled my ears.
“Yes, I could watch this all day and never tire of it.”
I paused. What does he mean by “this”? Watch WHAT all day and never tire of it?
I reflected on my enthusiastic outbursts. They had been a bit childish, perhaps. I considered that I might have behaved somewhat improperly.
Embarrassed, I looked back at the ring and put all my focus on the show again. I can’t meet Lord Simeon’s gaze, somehow. When he’s the Demon Vice Captain I can gladly stare at him in full fangirl mode, but when he turns into Prince Charming, I don’t know where to look.
At that very moment, a new figure appeared in the ring. Someone very large indeed—taller even than Lord Simeon, who was himself rather tall. A cloak covered his entire body from neck to feet, but even through the fabric it was clear that he had a fine physique. The width of his shoulders matched what you’d expect, for example.
His exposed face, however, was as beautiful as a rose. Golden hair framed his face exquisitely, like an ancient statue. The face itself was finely chiseled as well. More than a few women in nearby seats raised swooning cries of admiration.
His beauty was of a different genre again than Lord Simeon and Prince Severin’s. How to describe it? Intense, perhaps? Beauty is beauty, but his was not the kind that would make him an object of desire. His looks were the kind that you’d rather gaze at from a distance. I asked myself, What is it that makes him so strangely alluring? Is it his lips? They’re so exceptionally glossy. (Are they painted with something?) Or maybe it’s his long eyelashes, almost like a doll’s. (They don’t appear to be stuck on…)
This bewitching young man walked a slow circuit of the ring, then stood in the center and flung his cloak to the ground.
In that moment, a clamor erupted throughout the tent.
My mouth, too, fell open in astonishment. I stared, fixated. This one dramatic, boastful sweep of the hand had revealed a nearly naked male figure, only a small cloth covering his loins. He struck a ridiculously beautiful pose, showing the audience his muscled body. How can I describe it, but…strapping?
Not that “strapping” did him justice at all. I’d never seen muscles bulge like that before! His body was quite spectacular, with not the slightest trace of excess flesh. His physique was so burly, his muscles so hulking, that it almost appeared as if he was hewn of rock, or maybe forged of steel.
So beautiful from the neck up, but so muscular from the neck down…
I thought of ancient statues again. Those did have finely hewn muscles as well! Only, they were always designed with careful balance in mind, to make sure the statue as a whole would be beautiful to look at. One that was all muscle like this would be a very odd-looking statue!
But the disparity between head and body had a strangely alluring effect of its own. The man had a peculiar sort of beauty, one that sent a chill through all those watching, that made it hard to tear one’s eyes away, even with the strongest will in the world. It felt like he’d cast a spell on us all.
This shocking spectacle left me lightheaded. The bewilderment I’d felt a moment ago had been swept away in an instant. This unique type of beauty, this inscrutable spell I was under, occupied my entire consciousness.
Subconsciously, my trembling hand reached into my bag and grasped my notebook and pen. As I moved to pull them out, Lord Simeon’s hand shot out and held my arm in place.
“Halt. What do you intend on writing?”
“I need a record of that muscleman’s pose, of course! And not writing, drawing. You might not know it, but I have quite a talent for sketching.”
“Why do you feel compelled to draw a sketch of him!?”
“It will make excellent reference material! Haven’t I taught you anything? I can’t simply look at such a unique character once and then forget all about him. I must have reference material I can rely on in the future!”
“Quite, but…” He paused. “My concern is that he’s so very unique, if you use his likeness in your work without permission, it might not be viewed so favorably. I’m certain it would not, in fact. You’d be better off not to keep any record. For that matter, better not to keep him in your memory at all.”
I’d have gawked at Lord Simeon, but I couldn’t wrest my eyes from the bulging pectoral and abdominal muscles of the man in the ring. “Do you feel able to forget such a unique sight as this!?”
“From the very depths of my heart, I promise you, I hope and dream of forgetting it.” “The very moment you make such a statement, it becomes quite impossible!”
A set of weights were brought to the man on a cart, and his bulging frame now held them aloft. A man who could lift one such weight would be common enough, and holding two might not be so unusual either. But the number increased to three, then four. First he flaunted his menacing muscles, I thought, and now his menacingly superhuman strength. “I’ll wager he could even lift a carriage without exerting himself at all.”
“The weights themselves are probably dummies, you know. I imagine they’re light as a feather and he’s just playacting that they’re heavy.” But Lord Simeon, too, adjusted his glasses and kept his gaze fixed on the ring.
As if to answer his doubts, the muscleman threw one of the weights. It landed with a heavy thud that shook the ground.
“Light as a feather, you say?” “…I may have misjudged.”
The tumult of voices reacting in the audience persisted, a heady mixture of fear and fascination. Next he lifted people into the air, one on his left arm and one on his right. Then others climbed on those people, forming an ever-climbing display in the style of the acrobatics we’d witnessed earlier. The only difference was that this time, the base of the tower was but a single man, his protruding muscles supporting everyone above him.
Ultimately, three acrobats rested on each arm, making for a total of six. I wonder how much they weigh in total. Though it’s right before my eyes, I can scarcely believe one man can bear so much!
One by one, the acrobats leapt down with dramatic somersaults. Afterward, they all delivered a bow. The crowd erupted with wild cheering and rapturous applause.
I applauded as well, every bit as rapt as the others, while endeavoring to sear the image into my memory. I doubt my writing skills can do him justice, but I must make every effort to capture this formidable image in words. “How spectacular!” I said to Lord Simeon. “The world is full of such weird and wonderful people, and I had no idea! The woman who looked a bit like a jellyfish was quite a sight as well, but this man seemed almost inhuman! It wasn’t only his appearance that made a shocking impression!”
“Indeed, he was most impressive.” Even when agreeing with me, Lord Simeon’s voice remained cool.
Dissatisfied, I turned to look at him once more. “My word, Lord Simeon, how can you be so emotionless? How can you see that display of sheer power and skill—and muscle—and be so unmoved? This is something that’s meant to overwhelm you! Let yourself be overwhelmed!”
“This is the circus,” he replied. “I came here fully expecting to see feats that were outside the
realm of normal human ability. Should I be overwhelmed by seeing what I expected?”
“But coming to the circus and reacting so coldly is such a waste! You’re supposed to be fully invested in the spectacle and enjoy it with surprise and wonderment!”
“I’m confident that you’ve enjoyed it with enough surprise and wonderment for both of us.” “But two people’s surprise and wonderment should multiply into four!”
He frowned. “I’m not sure I follow your arithmetic.”
Though we were engrossed in this conversation, the sound of a quiet chuckle nearby drew us back to reality. Lord Simeon turned to look. A young man in the audience was laughing, while a woman next to him told him to stop in an urgent whisper.
“I’m sorry,” said the man, turning toward us. “You just seemed to be enjoying yourselves so much, I got caught up in it.” He had a young face, perhaps a year or two over twenty. His high- class attire painted him as one of the nobility, but I had no recollection of him.
However, Lord Simeon looked at the older lady sitting in the seat beyond and murmured his surprise. “I hadn’t realized it was you, Countess Pautrier. I must apologize for not saying anything sooner.”
She responded to his greeting with a polite nod. She was elderly, with a peaceful air about her. “Oh, pish posh. I hadn’t said a word to you either. I arrived late, you see, so I didn’t want to interrupt you and your companion.”
I knew her as well. It was Countess Simone of House Pautrier. At her advanced age, she rarely made appearances in society, but she was nonetheless renowned as the wife of Earl Pautrier, whose house rivaled House Flaubert in prominence. Amongst her inferiors, however, she was often a source of gossip for a different reason altogether.
She turned and offered a kind smile and nod of the head to me as well.
“Good day, Countess Pautrier,” I said in reply. “It’s a great pleasure to see you again after so long.”
“Good day to you, Marielle. I’m delighted to have been able to come here today with my grandson, even if it was quite unbecoming of someone my age!”
She hadn’t forgotten my name. Very kind of her, though she presumably only remembered it because I was with Lord Simeon. What struck me most of all was the complete lack of the acerbic sneer that was often seen on her face when she made appearances in society. Instead, she wore a buoyant smile, even if it did seem to embarrass her somewhat.
And only this young man can put such a smile on her face, I thought. I glanced at him again. His light brown hair was slightly on the long side, and the blue of his eyes was as deep as the ocean. He possessed a refined air that immediately marked him out as one of good upbringing. And such gentle features, so easy on the eyes… Nothing like that wall of muscle. The third type of male beauty I’ve seen today, in fact. A calm young man, and readily identifiable as Countess
“I must express my apologies for not introducing myself either. My name is Cedric. I understand you are Miss Marielle, and…” He hesitated. “You’ll have to excuse me, but might I ask your name? I’ve spent many years living abroad, you see.”
Lord Simeon introduced himself in return. “Simeon Flaubert. A pleasure.”
“You’re familiar with House Flaubert, I’m sure,” said Countess Simone, cutting in to explain in more detail. “This is Earl Flaubert’s son and heir. He’s the Vice Captain of the Royal Order of Knights, not to mention a close confidant of His Highness the Crown Prince. He’s a highly esteemed individual.”
A light touch of wonder appeared on Lord Cedric’s face. “Goodness, I had no idea. Meeting you truly is an honor.”
“The honor is all mine, I assure you. I’ve long been awaiting a chance to meet the future Earl Pautrier.”
In the shadow of such perfect politeness from Lord Simeon, I frantically held back the curiosity that was welling up inside me. To think that one of the most talked-about figures in noble society, moreso even than Lutin, would happen to appear in front of me! I was grateful for my good fortune at such a chance encounter.
We watched the subsequent performance while enjoying a pleasant flow of conversation with Countess Simone and Lord Cedric. As always, I let myself blend into the background. As far as possible, I let Lord Simeon do all the talking, while I sat and observed Lord Cedric. I didn’t stare openly, of course—such a thing would be unthinkable. I hid my burning curiosity behind a suitably courteous smile.
And yet, in a strange way, it seemed that Lord Cedric’s eyes kept finding mine. In those brilliant blue eyes, I sensed a growing curiosity toward me.
By the time we left the tent, the sun had sunk considerably, and a chill wind was blowing. I hunched my shoulders and gathered up the collar of my overcoat. It seemed that winter had arrived at last. The trees lining the path looked cold and bare.
Soon I’ll need to start wearing a scarf, I suppose. But the moment I had that thought, I found myself wrapped in something soft and warm. Lord Simeon had given me his silk shawl.
“Thank you,” I said, “but I fear you must be cold as well.”
“It’s quite all right. This temperature isn’t enough to bother me.” His smile showed a very grown-up degree of forbearance. At this, my heart pounded in my chest once again. Though I’d been cold just a moment ago, I was feverishly hot all of a sudden, and I found it hard to look at Lord Simeon.
I’d been having this sort of reaction rather often lately. Where I’d previously taken Lord Simeon’s behavior in high spirits, finding it wonderfully gallant, now it was frequently becoming
too much for me, making me unable to control my emotions. Afraid, I did my utmost to take my attention away from the turmoil inside of me. I wanted to cling on to my reason—my ability to watch and analyze everything from a distance.
He was my ideal male archetype, the brutal, black-hearted military officer. Inside he may have been clumsily over-serious, but sometimes I still got a glimpse of that masterfully cunning individual—the skilled tactician who formed the very core of my fangirl yearnings.
And, I told myself, the man I’m marrying in a purely political alliance.
That was more than enough. I had no need for him to see me as anything else. As long as I could fangirl over him, I was satisfied.
As we walked on, I successfully calmed myself down. A river of other ladies and gentlemen flowed from the tent alongside us, toward the array of carriages that waited in the same area as ours.
In deference to her age, we accompanied Countess Simone to her carriage and saw her off, rather than returning to ours straight away.
“I wish you a safe journey,” said Lord Simeon.
“Thank you, I bid you the same,” she replied. “And you must bring Marielle to our party next week.”
That party does ring a bell, I thought. Were we planning to go?
Lord Simeon smiled and gave a nod of assent. “Of course, we’ll attend with the utmost joy.”
“Naturally, we’ll be glad to see your parents there as well, but as this will be my grandson’s formal debut into society, I’d like to introduce him to as many people in his own age range as possible. My husband and I make only rare appearances at social gatherings, as you know, so it’s rather a challenge for us. With the future in mind, it would be a shame for him not to start forging connections sooner rather than later. I realize it’s quite bold of me to ask, but if you could help at all in this regard, I would be most appreciative.”
Indeed, his time spent living abroad meant Lord Cedric had not a single acquaintance amongst the nobility of Lagrange. Nor, in fact, did anyone know his face. This was, of course, quite an uneasy state of affairs for the future heir to an earldom, so Countess Simone’s anxiety was more than reasonable. Even if the current earl and countess lent him their support, forging connections amongst the younger generation would be a challenge, as the two of them had largely retired from society due to their age.
Given that we’d only met Lord Cedric now for the first time, and only by chance, it was indeed a touch forward of her to ask us to help him. However, she’d expressed her worries about her grandson, and her desire to secure his position in society however possible, in such frank terms that it would be difficult to refuse. Besides, a close relationship with the soon-to-be Earl Pautrier would be highly beneficial for us as well.
To put it bluntly, agreeing would put House Pautrier in our debt, so refusing would have been madness. “I’ll do anything I can to help. I’m sure quite a number of my friends will be present as well, and I can introduce them to Lord Cedric.”
“That would be marvelous. I am exceedingly grateful to you, and shall look forward to seeing you there!” Countess Simone was apparently in such joy, she was moved to tears. When one reaches her age, it must not take much to have a big emotional impact, I mused.
She thanked Lord Simeon several times, and told me she was grateful for my help as well. Well, I can’t provide any useful contacts, but I do have heaps of information that might be useful. I’ll try to help in that way instead!
She climbed into the carriage, but Lord Cedric stayed outside. He asked his grandmother if she’d wait a moment, then closed the door.
He turned back to face us. “I must apologize as well for asking this of you. I realize it’s quite impudent to ask such a favor the very first time we meet. However, as my grandmother said, I have absolutely nobody in this country. If the two of you can assist with that even slightly, it would be an immense relief.”
“You’ve been living in Linden, is that right?” asked Lord Simeon. “It may be a foreign country in the strictest sense, but it’s not far away and the culture is rather similar. I’m sure as soon as you get to know a few people here, you’ll fit right in.”
“You’re probably right,” he said, doubt lingering in his voice. Despite having a firm promise that he’d receive the help he’d asked for, Lord Cedric still looked decidedly uneasy.
Lord Simeon cocked his head expectantly, sensing that there was more to be said here. After a few more moments of hesitation, Lord Cedric steeled his nerve and spoke again.
“I have another request. There’s something I’d like you to help me with in your role as Vice Captain of the royal guard. As soon as I learned who you were, I realized how much I could use your assistance.”
Lord Simeon paused for a second, then asked coolly, “You need assistance from the Royal Order of Knights?”
His facial expression didn’t change, but I knew. He’s switched into Demon Vice Captain mode! He’s watching Lord Cedric with his steely gaze. I love it when he has that look in his eyes! It’s the absolute best!
On the inside, I had secretly reached the stage where my breathing was heavy and labored. Suddenly, he rapped me on the forehead.
Not so secret after all. How did he know without even turning around!? Does he have a sixth sense for my fangirling!? If so, that in itself is quite wonderful!
Watching our silent back and forth with some perplexity, Lord Cedric answered, his voice wavering with every word, “I wouldn’t put it that way, exactly. However, I would say I have a
problem that ordinary people might struggle to solve.”
He glanced furtively at the carriage, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “I have reason to believe I’m in danger. I don’t want to worry my grandparents, so I haven’t been sure who I could turn to. I admit that it’s very presumptuous of me indeed, but if there’s any way I might be able to beg your assistance, I would be eternally grateful. Pitiful though it may be, I’m thoroughly inexperienced when it comes to the realm of physical altercations. If I were forced to defend my life, I’d have neither the means nor the knowledge of how to do so. I have no choice but to put my faith in another.”
“And this problem, is it one you brought with you from Linden?” Because if so, you ought to tell the police—that’s what Lord Simeon’s inner voice was saying, I sensed. If he’d done something unfortunate in Linden and was now finding it difficult to make the whole thing go away, I was sure that Lord Simeon had no intention of taking on his burden.
But Lord Cedric shook his head. “It began only after I came here. As you’re no doubt aware, the loss of my house’s heirs left me as the only direct descendent, and I was welcomed back as such. Certainly, my grandmother and grandfather have accepted me as the heir, but amongst my relatives, not everyone seems quite so receptive to the idea.”
“I see,” Lord Simeon murmured. I nodded internally as well. A family quarrel, then. “Based on what you’ve said, you could discuss it with Earl Pautrier openly, could you not?”
“I considered that as well, but his age has left him very prone to bouts of ill health. I fear the shock of this may be too much for him. I have the same worry with regard to my grandmother, as well. If there’s any way to avoid it, I’d much prefer not to involve them. In any case, I suspect it might be counterproductive for my grandfather to leap to my defense. I have no desire to make a big song and dance about this. I’d only like to pinpoint whoever’s responsible and make them promise never to engage in such foolish behavior ever again.”
Foolish behavior? Interesting. I wondered what exactly had happened. If someone connected to the family’s succession crisis was behaving maliciously, there’d no doubt be a heavy scent of danger in the air. In a story, this would be a very familiar plot development. Is Lord Cedric saying that his life has been threatened, perhaps?
I looked up at Lord Simeon’s face. He appeared to be quite disgruntled, and very reluctant to get involved in all this. Before he could open his mouth to refuse, I stepped forward without a second’s hesitation and said, “I’m unsure to what extent we’ll be able to help you, but if you believe we can be of use to you, we’ll gladly combine our efforts with yours. House Pautrier having a clear line of succession is not only a personal matter, but one that has an effect on society as a whole. If a prominent house with a long pedigree fell into ruin, it wouldn’t be good for the country. Furthermore, we mustn’t turn a blind eye to a friend in need, especially one we’ve only just met. Don’t you agree, Lord Simeon?”
He returned my beaming smile with an intense, full-force smile of his own. I chuckled inside. Don’t think you can beat me! When you make that face, Vice Captain, it’s like catnip to me. It’s the source of all my fangirl desires. It’s a reward, not a punishment.
Go on! Glare at me more! Make it truly glacial!
Our smiles faced off against one another in silence for a moment. Then he sighed and looked away. I won! I thought, clenching my metaphorical fist.
“Thank you! Oh, thank you! If you’ll grant me your aid, it’s more deeply reassuring than you can possibly know!” With a very emotional demeanor, Lord Cedric took my hand. Refined young noble or otherwise, he was still a man, with big, strong hands to match. His hands surrounded mine and swallowed them whole. “Though I truly am sorry to be making such an ill- mannered request of you.”
“You needn’t worry! Let’s think of it as helping one another. Let’s work together to try and solve your problem, not only for the sake of House Pautrier’s future, but to ensure that our future is enjoyable as well!”
“Thank you, Miss Marielle,” he replied.
Lord Simeon cleared his throat. With a touch of aggression, he contributed, “Yes, indeed.” Then he stepped forward, brushed me aside and presented his outstretched hand to Lord Cedric. “As the heirs of our respective houses, we’ll be acquainted for a long time to come. Let’s start off on the right foot and try to help one another.”
What single topic of discussion is causing the biggest stir right now in the Kingdom of Lagrange?