When he was a baby leopard, Belinda had always approached Aymon first, but as a human, her attitude towards him changed.
Aymon turned around to speak to Lucy.
“Lucy. You can write in the ancient language, right?”
Lucy, still starstruck by the boy in front of her, quickly came to her senses. He really looked like someone out of a dream.
“Oh! Yes! Of course!”
“Teach Breedee the alphabet while I’m away.”
Lucy nodded, and Aymon looked back at Belinda.
“While I’m not around, start with learning the alphabet from Lucy. It’s complicated, so step by step.”
“Yes. I see.”
“Hey, what’s up with you? Since earlier…”
Aymon leaned towards her and smiled slyly. He took her hands, and she instantly looked away.
The boy’s face was filled with mischief. Eamon smiled, sneaking my fingers between Blondina’s fingers.
“What. Am I that handsome?”
The lamentable reality was that she couldn’t deny it.
The warmth of Aymon’s hands on hers made her heart pound out of control.
How many times had his cute front paws touched her hands and clung on to her ankles? The only difference was that they were human hands this time. Even though it was the same touch as usual, she felt butterflies.
Aymon, still staring at her, pulled away his hands. Soon the boy disappeared and a cute little leopard was sitting in the chair. He jumped up onto the table and tapped Belinda’s hand with his front paw. She quickly unfolded it without giving it a second thought.
Aymon rubbed his cheek against it as usual. Just a warm little ball of fur. He rolled around wagging his tail, satisfied with the pets.
「I can read just fine not being a human.」
「Then pet me now.」
Belinda obliged happily. She smiled, gently rubbing the leopard’s chin with her finger.
Only then did the tension between them subside. He was just her cute leopard. She could finally be with him comfortably.
Of course, human Aymon was very nice, but strangely, he made her feel lost and confused.
I guess I’m not fully used to having a pretty boy around. It’s probably because I don’t see it often.
She left it at that, focusing on Aymon’s teaching instead of her feelings.
A strong smell of lilies lingered in the air.
Belinda was alone – Lucy was sick and Aymon hadn’t shown up either. She was walking through the palace gardens alone. It’s not like anyone cared whether or not the leftover princess took walks properly.
She walked along the beautifully decorated paths to arrive at the little place behind the library. Plopped down on the lush grass in front of the fountain, she laid out the papers she’d been carrying. They were all explanations of the alphabet, written by Lucy.
“This is ‘ah’. The next one is ‘oh’. ‘Oh.’”
She tried to memorize the unfamiliar characters sounding them out over and over.
I might have a headache now, but if I work hard, I’ll be able to read books soon.
Come to think of it, it was rather ironic. Aymon, who was a “beast”, spoke the ancient language perfectly, and here she was, a human, still struggling to learn to read.
Her studying wasn’t interrupted until she heard footsteps on the grass. She glanced back to see who it was and her face went blank. She hurriedly stood up and curtsied, remembering the etiquette rules she had learned so far.
“Your Majesty the Emperor, shining sun of the Empire.”
The emperor was steadily approaching her. He sat down on the edge of the fountain and beckoned her over.
Belinda forced herself to put on a poker face and sat down softly, making sure to think of etiquette.
“Well, we finally meet. It has made me very sad how you’ve been hiding from me all the time.”
He said it barely even pretending to be upset. It seemed like he didn’t care at all. His blunt tone reminded her of the distance between them.
Belinda smiled faintly.
I’m not exactly in a position to hide from you, am I?
Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that you’ve never once visited me?
“Have you adapted well to the palace?”
“Yes, thank you for your question. I am doing fine.”
“Is there anything making you uncomfortable?”
“No, everything is perfect.”
She replied just as dully and emotionlessly as the emperor. The conversation didn’t have the slightest bit of love or affection mixed in.
An uncomfortable silence settled on them. Considering the absolute lack of common conversation topics, this was only to be expected.
The emperor ran his fingers across Belinda’s shiny hair.
“You look like Lily.”
“Yes, many people have told me that I look similar to my mother.”
Lily – her mother and once the emperor’s lover. There they had their common topic.
“Did you live at that lord’s castle? Was Lily his mistress? She was beautiful enough for it. She managed to possess me, even.”
Ah, right. The emperor first met Belinda at the lord’s castle. He didn’t seem to know that she had lived in the old attic of an inn and only stayed at the castle to meet him.
Belinda stared at him with a puzzled expression.
My mother? A lord’s mistress? He doesn’t even have any idea of how she lived after he left…
It wasn’t exactly a light topic. All the complicated emotions got tangled – sadness, sorrow, compassion.
“Your Majesty, my mother was never a lord’s mistress.”
“Really? Whom did she remarry to, then?”
“She never did. You were always the only one for her, Your Majesty.”
The emperor’s eyes narrowed slightly. Belinda stared at him coldly.
You don’t know anything. You don’t know anything about my mother.
My mother rejected everyone and raised me by herself. I waited for you my whole life, trying to fill the hole you left. As you sat in your shiny trone and raised your perfect family, she died alone.
She could recall her mother’s voice, whispering to her in a pained, harsh string of a voice.
“Breedee, your father was a beautiful man. He may have lied about his identity. I knew it, but I closed my eyes and accepted it, because I really loved him. Belinda, you’re the precious result of our love.”
She knew. She knew that he was cheating and would probably leave her some day. But she accepted it and gave birth to his child. She knew everything, but chose to close her eyes to it.
How dare you talk about being a lord’s mistress when it’s my mother? My mother who did all this for you?
“My mother was a beautiful woman. Even with a burden as big as I was, she flooded me with love. She never once faltered.”
The emperor listened to her silently, with an uncharacteristically stiff expression.
“As hard as her life was, she never stopped missing you. She had to raise me by herself, yet she never forgot you until she died of lung disease.”
The emperor’s face went blank. He clearly wasn’t expecting that remark.
“She never even thought of selling the ring you left behind. She held it dear until the very end, always saying that it was her last lifeline connecting her to you.”
“That’s the kind of woman my mother was, Your Majesty.”
She spoke calmly, looking the emperor directly in the eyes. She was appealing with her heart, all these things that were so painful to dig up.
A deep silence filled the space between them. A cool wind whirled by. The emperor stayed silent. Belinda was right there in front of him – Lily’s daughter. His daughter. His blood.
He asked in a roaring voice.
“How did Lily die?”
Belinda kept a straight face, as if she didn’t know the intent of the question. He only asked after months and months, so he probably didn’t really care at all. She replied calmly, still blaming him on the inside.
“Lung disease. Alone, while I was working at the inn.”
“She was holding the ring you gave her.”
Her voice trembled. Despite her best efforts to stay calm, the memory of the day brought a sharp pain with it. The one last time she grabbed her hand before leaving in the morning. Now all that was left for her was a faded memory of a loving face.
The emperor stared down at her blankly. Behind the girl’s face, he remembered how Lily had smiled at him that day. Looking at her daughter’s golden hair, he remembered running his fingers through hers.
The Pandora’s box of their shared past was unleashed.
The garden was still desolate.
「You’re going over to the Duke’s house?」
“Yes. Duke Phillip invited me to his birthday party.”
Belinda replied to her maid, busy fixing her hair. She seemed to be looking forward to leaving the palace after so long.
Aymon sat on the windowsill, ignoring the bird flapping around him.
「Are you going to be alright?」
“Huh? What do you mean?”
He seemed to be worried that everyone would ignore her again. Belinda smiled. She was not a child, and couldn’t use Aymon to protect her forever.
「Do you want me to come with you?」
“You’d get bored quickly hiding in the grass.”
Aymon rubbed his spirit stone with a paw.
「I can always turn into a human.」
Mazetto twittered excitedly, barely even letting him finish his sentence.
“Yes! Good! Great! How can you say no to that handsome face! I’m in favor! I’m all for it!”