Belinda narrowed her gaze then quietly laughed to herself.
“Aymon must be watching.”
Is he worried? That I’ll be ignored and left out like last time?
A pair of small ears peeked out for a moment before disappearing again.
Belinda’s momentary sadness washed away in an instant.
How can he possibly be like this?
He took care of everything he had without ever making himself known or expecting compensation. It was so commendable… Grateful… Lovely.
Thinking of a Shinsu this cute was rather irreverent and blasphemous, but that was the only way she could see him.
Belinda looked up again to see the Emperor and Adelai. She did not feel the pit in her stomach this time. Smiling leisurely to the envoy speaking to her, Belinda was more confident than anyone. She was like a real noble lady.
The Emperor turned around to stare at Belinda. Once again, he smiled, satisfied.
His impression of her had changed completely. Before he knew it, his smile was one of trust and affection. He absentmindedly patted Adelai on the shoulder.
A few hours later, back at the palace, Belinda shouted out the window as soon as the maid left.
“Where are you?”
It was not addressed to anyone. Her loud voice echoed, but there was no answer. She grinned and tried again.
“Aymon! I know you’re there! Come in here for a moment!”
Only then was there a rustle in the tall grass.
A leopard, blacker than coal, popped out. Although his body was not visible, the beast’s eyes twinkled like jewels.
「How did you know I was here?」
“How could I not? I know you.”
Stealthy hiding and tailing might have been what a leopard did best, but definitely not concealing their ears.
Belinda giggled and stretched her arms out to him. He jumped into them without any hesitation. She began to gently rub his back.
“Were you worried about me? Is that why you followed me again?”
He replied by shamelessly licking her arm.
The ticklish Belinda lowered her head and rested it on his.
“You’re like my personal escort knight. It was good to see you there… Otherwise, I would have been alone.”
“I was a little lonely at the party, but as soon as I saw you, all that disappeared. Because of you.”
Her words slowly died down. Aymon jumped out of her arms, and a beautiful boy appeared in the darkness. Smiling, he spread out his arms to her.
You said you wanted me to hug you.
Belinda froze. It felt like her feet were tied down.
Aymon smiled calmly. There was a distinctive warmth in his sparkling eyes.
“What are you waiting for? Come here.”
She unwittingly walked over, as if she had been placed under a spell.
The ball of fur she was used to cradling was now holding her in his arms. It was so unfamiliar – she could hardly breathe.
He’s a boy. He’s a boy, but still the same animal. Wait, how can he look younger than me….
Her head was spinning, full of all the nonsensical ideas that were hitting her.
Aymon swept back her hair and whispered calmly.
“Don’t forget, Belinda, you are infinitely loved by the most wonderful, powerful, and great race in the world.”
“….Aren’t you just saying that you’re wonderful, powerful, and great?”
She could hear his low laughter from just inches away.
You’re the same little leopard, so why are you so….!
He whispered again, pulling her in tighter.
“Don’t feel lonely, Breedee. You’re all I have.”
Belinda shut her eyes tightly. She could not bear to answer. That small warmth in her chest he always caused – why was it so big today?
That night, even the moonlight pouring through the window felt warm.
Belinda always wore a necklace – a ring pendant on a thin gold chain.
The ring given to her mother by her father, the Emperor, was stowed away deep in a drawer, but the one Aymon gave her was always with her.
After so many years wearing it, it felt strange to take it off. She was just as used to it as to the little leopard rolling around beside her.
Twenty years old. An adult. She was grown enough to wear the ring without it falling off.
The grown-up Belinda was beautiful. An elegant face said by some to be entrancing, a calm voice, a smile as beautiful as the morning sun. She looked eerily similar to her mother, Lily.
It was the same appearance the Emperor had fallen in love with once, and though not going into details, even he commented on her beauty.
She was rarely present at small parties and gatherings, unlike Adelai, who was the center of attention wherever she went.
But, even in her absence, people always whispered about “the secretive Princess.”
All grown up, she was still spending her afternoons playing with a little leopard. She was a messy-haired girl far from people’s image of the “beautiful mystery princess.”
“Aymon, when will you grow up?”
She asked, lounging on a colorful carpet.
He answered quietly, trying to sound dismissive.
「Well… Some time…」
It was not a proper answer.
She rubbed Aymon’s back with her feet and played with Lucy’s hair. Lucy was lying right next to her, asleep. Perhaps the warm sun had tired her. She tapped Lucy on the cheek and whispered affectionately.
“Lucy, get up. The sun’s already setting.”
She was trying to wake up Lucy, but instead, the sparrow sleeping in her hair did.
“What? Is the sun down? Already? Why didn’t you wake me up? I haven’t even eaten yet!”
Mazetto, who already had a plump belly, ran around on the floor untiringly until something pressed down on him.
“Ah! Save the sparrow! A bad Shinsu can kill a good bird! Oh my God!”
Mazetto flapped his small wings, powerless against Aymon’s strong grip. These many years together emboldened him to be more and more cheeky to Aymon – probably the only animal with that power.
Only then did Lucy wake up, rubbing her eyes.
Belinda kindly spoke to her, stroking her hair.
“Go home and get some rest before it gets too late, Lucy. You must be tired.”
Although she was perhaps too friendly to someone of such high status, Lucy’s relationship with Belinda was very tight-knit. She was more of a long-time friend to her than a maid.
Lucy laughed awkwardly.
“Oh, I have no reason to be tired, Princess. It’s just that the tea made me….”
“You must be tired these days. You can’t even rest on weekends.”
Recently, Lucy had started taking marriage preparation classes. In the palace, she spent all night working on embroidery, and back home on holidays, she spent it with the butlers and attendants constantly bothering her.
Although there was no groom yet, it was natural for her to do all this as the eldest child of a noble family. Belinda sent her back early because she knew this well.
Aymon perked up.
「Are you… Are you leaving already, Lucy?」
Hearing his voice so thin and uncertain was strange. It was always the case with him these days, though. He got nervous whenever Lucy left, and he was alone with Belinda, circling the room aimlessly.
It always made Belinda think.
Are you uncomfortable being with me? Do you like Lucy?
She had always considered him her best friend, but it felt like his priorities changed at some point.
Inferring from his comments, she found it hard to believe that it could be some sort of misunderstanding.
Hm. I can’t help but be a little disappointed.
“Are you that upset Lucy’s leaving? I’ll play with you.”
She hugged Aymon’s small body to hers.
Aymon pushed her away with his front paws.
Why did you push me that hard?
Belinda picked him up again.
In the end, a commotion ensued – Aymon, lurching and twisting around, tried to escape but still made sure he would not accidentally hurt her.
Aymon rushed to the window, only just poking out from behind the curtain. Belinda felt hurt inside as she watched his movements.
I can’t believe I can’t express my love anymore.
It was always like that lately. He would find a way to avoid it.
In the past, he had always let her, but why not now?
Now that she was older, her little leopard always found a way to escape her arms.
It felt like she was being deprived of her most precious thing, the thing she had raised so carefully.
He’s still a cute little leopard in my eyes.
He would not even show his human form recently. She wanted to see it, but he would not let her.
It was hard to face each other as a boy and a girl.
However, as she grew up and gained more experience, she gradually started to like Aymon as a boy. His pretty eyelashes and still face while drinking tea.
When faced with him, a feeling in the bottom of her heart begged to be released, but she turned it away.
What do you feel for that kid?