As Fleon continued to agonise, Ashley moved to her seat closer to Dane. If she had continued to sit next to the gloominess that was her other brother, he was sure to completely rub off her cheeks away no matter how painful it was for her.
Dane, who had watched the entire thing, stroked Ashley’s cheek affectionately.
“Is your cheek okay?”
“Yeah, it was nothing much.”
Compared to being cut down by a sword. As she casually recalled her past, the girl looked up.
Then, she blinked a couple of times as she was taken aback by how serious Dane’s prettily open eyes looked.
“Why are you staring at me like that?”
“Because you looked completely fine. … How disappointing.”
She stared at Dane who was mumbling to himself before smiling brightly.
“I’m really alright. This was not the first time Fleon did such a thing. Right?”
“It’s true that this was not the first or second time brother has done this to but this is happening to your cheeks quite often lately.”
Unlike Fleon, Dane was quick to notice. Since when was Ashley so tolerant to pain?
Fleon had always been unable to control his strength and had hence bothered Ashley but she had become quite adept in dealing with him. Until a year ago, her cheeks had never swelled quite like this. And until then, she had always been careful not to trip and avoid hits.
Dane pointed out the change which he had noticed at some point.
‘A year ago.’
Since the week he visited his maternal home.
The changes were subtle but after being with her for so many years, he noticed quickly. Fleon might have been a little slow on the uptake but he was beginning to feel suspicious while the quick-witted Dane had known for a long time.
Ashley was becoming strange.
Meanwhile, Ashley leaned against Dane’s shoulders before slowly looking up and scanning the room. They had all been gathered near the brazier on the floor at the side of the room. Everyone had given her the warmest seat there which made her back too warm and her seat too uncomfortable to sit in.
Dane said that he was worried that she would soon catch a cold because of a seat and placed a cloak on Ashley though she had no idea where he got the cloak from. She thought it would be too hot but it was comfortable enough. The girl lowered her head before letting out a small smile.
“I wish everyday could be like today.”
Ray who was bringing over the snacks that they were cooking over the brazier and Fleon who was pushing Ray to bring them faster quickly raised their heads towards the girl’s direction with their eyes widened.
“I wouldn’t mind a day like this to be repeated.”
The girl might have been smiling but she felt distant as she shook her head gently.
Dane and Fleon thought of the same thing. One was sure while the other one was still absolutely clueless but they had instinctively noticed something. The two exchanged glances.
“You know, you said something very misleading just now?”
Ashley stared at Fleon.
“Why would you want such a boring day to be repeated?”
Fleon squatted in front of her before holding her chin firmly.
‘Oh, even when he acts like a gangster, the sight is wonderful enough to be a painting.’
Then, once again, her brother’s hand landed on Ashley’s cheek but this time it did not hurt as much as before.
“From now on, as long as you and I are together, such days will continue to repeat themselves.”
“There will be more fun and exciting days to look forward to is what I’m saying. Do you understand?”
“… Yeah, I suppose so.”
“I’m not done talking yet.”
Fleon grabbed Ashley’s cheeks and stared into her eyes.
“Since some time ago, even when you smile, your eyes look like they’re about to cry. Did you not know that your ugly face is getting uglier? Smile. When you smile, you look pre… I mean, right, you’ll look less ugly so smile!”
“Brother, you were doing so well. It could have ended touchingly.”
Dane snorted before giggling.
“Isn’t that what the 6th Prince always does?”
Even Ray had not forgotten to be blunt. As if it was natural at this point, Fleon lost it. Bearing witness to the whole thing, Ashley could only shake her head.
“Enough! What’s so important about this? Next time, when you’re hurt, just say it hurts! Dane, stop laughing! And Ray, you are getting fired.”
“If you get rid of me, who’s going to protect you, my Prince?”
Ray let out a small smile before handing him the well-baked snacks. Fleon could only raise his eyebrows before raising his chin and smirking.
“This cheeky thing. How can a servant be this cheeky.”
“My apologies for being such a cheeky servant. However, didn’t you learn how to use the sword from this cheeky servant?”
“Urgh, you, you. That’s supposed to be a secret…”
“Ah, that was supposed to be a secret?”
When Fleon began to slowly approach him, Ray stepped back. A long wooden sword then struck Ray’s original spot. Crash. An ear-splitting sound rang in their ears. Only then did Ashley notice the existence of the wooden sword Fleon was using which had previously been placed next to their table for some time.
‘Fleon who hates to exercise is now learning swordsmanship.’
He was also learning from his promised enemy.
“I’ve told you before, my Prince. You have to tighten your arms more when you slash down, like this.”
“Keep quiet! You! The fact that you’re actually good at this is a lie, right?”
“I have brought the Prince who had not an ounce of talent this far. I’m not just good at this, I’m very good at this.”
Fleon’s room was spacious enough for their antics which left the rest of the room unscathed.
Ray even showed off his skills by removing fragile items in advance whilst avoiding Fleon’s clumsy movements. Watching them, Ashley eventually choked on her snacks which threw Dane into another fit of giggles as he passed her a glass of water.
“The two of them never change.”
“They haven’t changed for a long time.”
At Ashley’s murmurs, Dane replied softly and warmly.
“And it’s going to stay this way.”
Dane grabbed a handful of Ashley’s curly hair before kissing it playfully. Dane truly thought so from the bottom of his heart.
‘No matter what you’re hiding.’
Ashley widened her eyes. Then, slowly, he lowered his gaze.
He briefly held something intangible in his gaze before immediately getting rid of it before whispering in a surprisingly friendly manner.
“Both you and I too.”
Certainly, Ashley had been acting strange. This was clear. And she had become even more strange recently.
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
One day she would go around saying how ridiculous something was under her breath and the next day she would carry around a notebook he had never seen before. The book was the size of two palms fitted together and bound with a brown piece of leather. It looked like a notebook or diary that Ashley was using.
Dane and Fleon had both discussed whether or not it was a notebook or diary. Whatever it might have been, they had concluded that it must have been very precious to Ashley.
Because she was always carrying it in her arms.
‘It’s like she would never allow it to disappear.’
Ashley was smiling like before but something felt different. Fleon could not put his finger on how exactly she was different but he knew that she was not the same.
And then, Ashley started disappearing.
“Brother, have you found her?”
“No! Where has this motherfucking brat gone to?”
Dane’s back seemed to be soaked in cold sweat. He had stopped in his tracks, grabbing his chin as he agonised. The place they had moved in a hurry to was the Terena Palace’s kitchen. Then, he grabbed a little girl with red hair and asked her.
“Did you swap clothes with Ashley?”
“I asked if you swapped clothes with her again today.”
A year ago, when Ashley had been sent to the 4th Administration Office as a staff, she had borrowed this little girl’s clothes because they were similar in size. Only a little while after did Dane find out that Ashley would often wear her maid clothing and disappear somewhere on her day off.
“N-no… My apologies! My Prince! I’ve committed a crime!”
“You don’t need to apologise but can you speak clearly? Did you swap clothes with Ashley today?”
“The Princess said she was going to the l-library today…”
When the maid spoke about how she was carrying a lot of books, Dane immediately knew it was a lie.
‘The Imperial Library is too far for her to walk there.’
The 4th Administration Office was right next to the library. Ashley would have known how far the library was better than anyone. Then where exactly did she go with that little body of hers and a pile of books?
Someone tapped on his shoulder.
Dane turned to face Ray who had been following him all this while.
“There’s a place she might have gone to.”
“Are you sure?”
Dane whispered when he saw Ray make a face he had never seen before.
“You better not be lying.”
His bright eyes shone dangerously for a split second as they looked at Ray. Staring back at such a gaze, Ray’s lips twitched.
Ray replied stiffly and Dane nodded.
— In the Forbidden Forest.
The mysterious forest that had existed since the First Emperor was an area within the Imperial Palace that did not belong to anyone.
It was located next to the western palaces but it was not located in the west. The forest that had been with the Empire for the entirety of its 2000 years gave birth to countless legends, rumours and hence, it had built for itself a notable reputation.
The most famous of these stories was one of how it was like a maze that no one could get out of to explain the countless missing persons cases related to the forest.
‘The palace closest to the Forbidden Forest is Ashley’s Terena Palace.’
He only hoped that the girl was safe. And not too far away, he noticed a small body hanging on top of the fence surrounding the forest and his anxiousness finally morphed to relief.
“… See, I told you she’d be here.”
Ray had chirped in a joke but his face was relentlessly serious when he slit the hound’s neck. Blood gushed out like a fountain behind the lightning-like trajectory. It all happened in a flash.
Ray quickly hid the hound’s carcass from Ashley.
“… Don’t look.”
Just as Ray uttered those words, Dane timely covered Ashley’s eyes, preventing her from seeing the hound.
“… There’s nothing good to see here.”
Looking at how Ray was wielding his sword angrily, Dane could only click his tongue lightly. Then, he tried not to grip Ashley’s hand too hard as he held it. He would have rather had to wipe tears off her cheeks than her sweat.
“It took a long time to find you, Ashley.”
Her trembling body was enough to show that she had been shocked. He lowered his gaze. Even now, he felt sorry for those small and dry palms of hers.
‘It’d be fine if she had told him something. Anything…’
As her tremors subsided, the voice he had hoped to hear from for half a day could finally be heard.
For a brief moment, Dane wondered if his name had been this nice to hear. He slowly stroked Ashley’s back, hoping that his trembling hands could calm down too. Right, it had been painful for him to witness how Ashley had almost been eaten up by a hound.
“It’s because you were here. That’s why it took a long time to find you.”
Ray flicked the blood off his sword before giving her a lecture.
After walking towards the nearest tree, Ashley leaned her back against it and panted heavily. Then, she lifted her head and scanned her surroundings as if only now paying attention to what had occurred.
At that moment, Dane heard her murmur.
“… I thought I was going to die again.”
and we’ve come full circle!!