When they called out to me, my consciousness returned to the present.
Before me was Count Schtazen. He was a middle-aged knight who never spoke more than necessary, with a sturdy build well-suited to his profession as a military man.
But he gave off a sense of security that made it strangely easy to rely on him. That such a man should also possess the “Vera” title for scholars was even more curious.
His pale gold hair made me think him a man from the north; many people of the north possess silver hair, or barely tinted gold hair. Their eyes were often blue or aqua, and the Count had aqua-colored eyes.
(Though can I just say it’s even more mysterious why a man of such caliber is acting as the commander of my personal guard?)
“Your Highness, this is the itinerary for our return to the Royal Capital.”
He knelt, and submitted the report with both hands.
I accepted it.
“Thank you. I’ll be in your care.”
Though his eyes widened ever-so-slightly in surprise, he immediately gave the barest of nods before taking his leave. Since it was so sudden, everyone was busy with preparations for our return.
Though I hadn’t interacted with anyone aside from my maid-servants since I woke up, after the incident, I started seeing knight escorts more often. It seemed up to that point they’d been performing their guard duties in the most unobtrusive ways possible, but with the “falling incident” and the “attempted poisoning” happening back-to-back, apparently this was no time to be worrying about such things.
(It’s not like I’m running away.)
It’s not like I was tucking tail and running home to the capital because I thought it was safer than here.
I understood all too well… the murderous intent aimed at me.
Until this point, I hadn’t properly recognized the murderous intent aimed at me. Even though they said someone was targeting me, it had just seemed such a distant thing.
But now it was different.
My enemy, who was targeting my life.
It was quite possible that even then I really didn’t understand what it meant, having someone after my life.
But just then, I was clearly aware of how I’d been casually and naturally passing the time in the middle of certain danger.
The life where I went from work, to home, to my part time job, occasionally hanging out with friends and complaining to them, never once thinking my life was in peril, was long gone.
(I will have retribution.)
I was no saint.
I didn’t have the kind of cute personality that would just take things quietly and cry myself to sleep, either.
If someone punches me on my right cheek, I’m going to return it double. I’m the type to take people up on any fights they pick, no matter how stupid I know it is.
My still being alive was my greatest revenge right then.
But there’s no way in hell that was ever going to be enough.
Because Ellelucia was no longer there.
(I don’t care if this anger isn’t justified. I’m just fine taking this out on them.)
If they hurt you, hurt them back.
I thought about the terrorist attacks that happened in America. The sort of swamp such major powers had fallen into. The vicious, spiraling cycle of vengeance begetting vengeance… a chain of losses.
But there was no way for me to write it off anymore.
(Despite all that, I’m such a coward… My hands are just so small…)
That’s why there’s no way for me to lay down judgement on them personally. There’s no way for me to hurt them back… no way for me to kill someone with a hand like this, either.
I think that no matter how much we hate someone, no matter how many times we face the desire to kill someone, it would be impossible for a person from 21st century Japan who lived a completely average life to follow through.
What I can do… that’s…
(Find out who the culprit is.)
I’m not talking about the man on soup duty who was recognized as the perpetrator.
Supposing there was another perpetrator… someone completely different.
The perpetrator is obviously also at fault.
But someone who ordered my murder.
That person is the true culprit.
(I’ll see the person who ordered this in court.)
That was the retribution I considered.
It’s the most I could do, as someone who could only act indirectly.
I made it my objective to move toward.
(Let’s focus on gathering intelligence for a while.)
That I couldn’t go about gathering information directly was irritating, and it was frustrating that I couldn’t remember anything about the falling incident.
It was possible that Alterie had seen the culprit.
If I could have just remembered, we might have been able to wrap up both incidents in one fell swoop!
Though I could’ve always done it like in those detective novels, going around and asking all kinds of people, I’d stand out like a sore thumb and wouldn’t have any way to explain my actions.
To be completely honest about the falling incident, at first I suspected it might be possible that Alterie had attempted suicide.
Because I could, in some way, feel the emptiness in the heart of the girl called “the Doll Princess.”
Even if I could say for certain that she didn’t jump off herself, going to a place like that when she knew it was dangerous… and she may have even been testing herself.
The wind is strong on that balcony over the lake. All the more at night. Alterie’s body is ridiculously light, so it wouldn’t be strange at all if she lost her balance in a place like that… an accident borne of conscious neglect.
(But now I know that sure as hell wasn’t the case.)
Little by little Alterie was coming back to life in me, and I finally understood that that definitely wasn’t the case.
It wasn’t that I understood every single thing Alterie felt. It was just a vague sense of things.
But just think about it for a minute and you’d understand.
All that knowledge of Alterie’s that’s been slowly filtering to the surface is something she gave her utmost to study until it was a part of her.
(Why would she…?)
I think it was nothing less than proof of how hard she was willing to work to become a worthy crown princess.
Because she really understood just how much her existence meant to the kingdom.
I could finally say for certain that the falling incident was no accident.
(That’s why… I won’t run.)
I had no intention of running off to safety.
(But this is the Away field, so it’s time to get Home.)
The enemy knew me, but I didn’t have the slightest clue what my enemy was like.
That was why, at the very least, I wanted a Home field advantage.
Even so, there was no mistaking how much of an overwhelming disadvantage I was at, seriously.
(But because I decided I wouldn’t run…)
I was fine. I wasn’t about to go jumping into danger on my own.
I wasn’t about to go and waste all of Alterie’s earnest efforts.
I was the Crown Princess.
(I’m just going to put out the sparks at my feet.)
Self-defense was indispensable.
Even if that defense was a bit over-the-top, it would be within forgivable limits. Probably.
The next day, as all the arrangements had been made, I received my usual morning greeting from the duke.
With the exception of Lilia who stood in waiting at my side, the other maids were all making haste to carry my things to the carriage. My knight escorts, with the exception of two standing behind me, were all running after other preparations.
“There was that danger of poisoning. A normal escort is simply insufficient. To return so quickly… We should contact the capital, and await the instructions of His Highness the Prince.”
When I informed him of my return to the royal palace, Duke Elsvelt fiercely opposed it.
Moreover, he talked on and on much too loquaciously as to the reasons.
Well, not like I don’t understand. If I just sent him on his merry way without explaining anything, of course it would end up a big deal.
“I’m going home.”
But I clearly informed him again.
The duke stared at me as if in shock.
It was likely because that was the first time Alterie had ever declared her intentions like that.
It’s also possible that he hadn’t yet heard that my voice was back.
“I’m going back to the palace.”
I met the duke’s blue-green eyes and repeated myself.
Those eyes that could blue or green, depending on the light.
I finally realized that my eye color was inherited from this man.
“… Do you suspect Elsvelt?”
The duke asked as if wringing his voice from his body.
As he steadily met my gaze with eyes that did not turn away… I thought this might be the first time wee had ever faced each other directly.
His words felt uncommonly heavy to me, even as he spoke them.
He was utterly exhausted.
Likely he was taking considerable care with his appearance.
His short beard was neatly trimmed, and his sleek, black hair was beginning to tint with steely gray. His long, slender coat considered the trends, and hadn’t a single wrinkle.
Though he looked younger than his 44 years, his eyes looked terribly hollow. It was as if he were an old man, immersed in resignation and despair.
I answered, praying it would reach him.
I’m not sure who sucked in a gasp, whether it was the duke, or one of the maids, or even one of the guards. It might have been all of them.
But whoever it was, I knew for sure my answer got across.
I chose not to state my reasons.
So long as I was unsure of where the true mastermind might have eyes, it would be better not to say anything more than necessary.
In this place, my only advantage while still Away was that while Alterie was a mere girl of 12, inside of her was “me” — a woman possessed of 33 years worth of experience.
I need them to keep underestimating me, thinking that they’re just dealing with a 12-year-old sheltered princess, for as long as possible.
“I understand. … Would you at least permit my son to join your guard as an escort?”
The duke didn’t especially question me, either. Yet, somehow he spoke as if in supplication.
I tilted my head. Would the duke’s son be useful as a guard?
“The Duke’s sons, Master Dior and Master Rael, are both stationed with the Eastern Division.”
Lilia explained for me.
Broadly divided, the Dardinian armed forces was possessed of six divisions. A division to each of the cardinal directions, a division for the center, and then the Imperial Guard. Within these, the lords each held their own private forces. Since Elsvelt was the lynchpin of the east, it wasn’t strange at all for the duke’s sons to be stationed with the Eastern Division.
For Dardinian aristocrats, any who were not legitimate children were simply normal people. Boys younger than the second son generally had no choice but to become either men of the cloth, or join the military.
“You have my permission.”
I nodded, and stood up.
The duke, looking somewhat relieved, offered a single bow.
Frankly, no matter how many times I met this person, I was never going to think of him as my father. But I could still sense that this person and I were connected by blood.
“Thank you for your care.”
“Not at all. And to you, Your Highness, I shall pray that your journey is safe and that no illness befall you.”
Saying so, the Duke sketched the holy mark before me, to pray for my safety.
I nodded to him in response.
This wasn’t anything near enough to reconcile our circumstances.
I couldn’t just set aside the hurt in my chest as I thought of my mother.
Even so, I felt we were able to meet each other halfway.
The duke probably thought so, too.
At my departure, the duke came outside to see me off.
The duke remained, standing on the castle drawbridge, until he could no longer see my carriage.