Anyways, now that she noticed the beautiful smile in the boy’s eyes, he was refusing to show himself to her.
She was in a bad mood these days and about to make a grumpy comment.
She was already twenty, and Aymon eighteen – well past the age of acting like a little kid.
However, she couldn’t help but feel childishly jealous and disappointed in herself.
Aymon finally emerged from the curtains and landed on the carpet, ordering Mazetto.
He asked, with his head slightly tilted, still securely tucked away in Belinda’s clothes.
「Eat first. I’ll catch a roe deer for you.」
“Hey! I’m a vegetarian now!”
「….I’ll get you an apple, then.」
Mazetto stared down at his black paws.
An apple? With those?
He shouted back at him.
“No! I’m leaving!”
“I have a girlfriend now!”
Everyone turned to stare at him.
Mazetto sprawled out his wings, satisfied with the attention, and announced proudly.
“We will meet under the poplar tree when the moon comes up!”
“We promised to kiss today!”
Belinda burst into laughter.
Kiss? Would they just poke each other’s beaks?
Mazetto flew over and started pulling her hair in protest.
“What’s so funny? What is it? What? Why are you laughing!!”
Belinda couldn’t control herself and kept laughing.
“I hate you, Princess!”
Mazetto said before flying out the window. He was very offended.
Belinda shouted after him.
“Mazetto, I’m sorry for teasing you! I’ll get you cherries tomorrow, so don’t stay angry with me!”
Instead of answering, he chirped three times and disappeared into the woods, towards the tree where his fiancée was waiting for him.
She turned around, still giggling. Lucy was laughing out loud while packing, seemingly about to go back home.
“I’m going to go now, Princess.”
“Mhm. See you tomorrow.”
When Lucy left, the only ones left in the room were Belinda, who couldn’t stop giggling, and Aymon, who seemed somewhat… nervous?
Belinda closed the window and turned to him.
“Don’t you think it’s funny? Mazetto going off to kiss his girlfriend. He’s so tiny.”
Aymon looked up suddenly.
「Why. Can’t they do it even if they’re small?」
Belinda’s eyebrows shot up in response to his agitated reaction. He started to hit the floor with his front paws.
「And I’m not small. You don’t know about it, but lately….」
He was nervous for no reason.
Belinda sat down on the bed to comb her hair.
He’s been acting so strange lately.
It’s what happens at his age. Belinda was now twenty, but he was still in his stormy teenage years. 18 year-olds’ emotions fluctuate a lot, right?
She picked up the blanket and patted the spot next to her.
“Aymon, come here.”
Aymon wagged his tail nervously, not answering.
“Aren’t you going to sleep?”
There was no answer. Belinda put down the blanket, disappointed.
“Is it that you don’t want to be alone with me?”
Her disappointment slowly faded away as he looked her in the eyes. His ears drooped.
「It’s not that….」
Belinda muttered to herself quietly so he wouldn’t hear.
“It’s not that, it’s that my feelings are so strange. When I’m with you, my heart just….”
Aymon buried his face in his front paws, not knowing what to say.
“He’s really been weird lately.”
She muttered to herself sadly.
A tree whose branches seemed to reach the clouds stood in the middle of the forest. The smell of fresh grass and soil intermingled, and the sunlight filtered through its twisted branches. This place was Aymon’s territory.
The Shinsu Forest.
The smell of roses surrounded Aymon, who was taking a nap in a flower bush.
He opened his eyes when he heard his name called. He’d already noticed someone approaching and knew very well who it was but pretended not to know because he was annoyed.
He saw a spotted leopard – an elder of the leopard Shinsu tribe. Who knew what could lie in the depth of those eyes?
「Hello, Elder Aisha.」
Aymon greeted them in an unwelcoming voice. They touched his forehead with a paw to reciprocate the greeting.
「Have you decided on an observer for your ceremony yet?」
They didn’t hesitate to get to the point.
Aymon pricked his ears and rolled around in the bush a few more times. It was not exactly polite in front of an elder, but neither he, the elders, nor anyone else cared about his attitude. They’d already given up on trying to change it.
How could you fix someone who’d been like that his whole life? Aisha had long stopped cracking down on his habits.
「If you don’t have anyone, I can do it.」
It was customary for one of the parents to observe the ceremony, but Aymon didn’t have any.
As the ceremony got closer, the elder just came to him directly.
「I’d like a royal to do it.」
「Someone from the royal family?」
They weren’t expecting the reply.
「Yes. I thought it would be fun to have a human do it.」
Aymon looked at them, trying to maintain a casual voice so he could gauge their reaction.
Fortunately, the elder didn’t detect anything strange. Aymon was satisfied – this meant Belinda could really be his observer.
「It’s not like this has never happened… Can I give the honor to someone from the royal family?」
「Sure. It’s not that important to me.」
「Also, it isn’t a bad idea to create a situation where one of them needs to come here. Just to remind them what we really are.」
The elder nodded.
Humans had been acting like they’d forgotten how to obey them lately. They didn’t want a conflict, but it wouldn’t hurt to point that out.
「How about asking the Emperor to do it, then?」
「No, I’ll ask the Emperor’s first child. I was the Shinsu chief’s first child too.」
The elder’s eyes were filled with bitterness, brought on by the thought of Aymon’s parents.
Aymon went back to rolling around in the bush, apparently finished talking.
「When your ceremony is over, we’ll have to decide on a chief. There’s also Halla and Shanti.」
The position had been vacant for more than a decade since the death of the last chief, Aymon’s mother. It would now be time for Aymon’s generation to fight for it once they grew up….
The elder continued to speak seriously.
「Don’t kill your opponents.」
「Why me? Are you worried I’ll go crazy like that beast just because I’m a black leopard?」
They couldn’t bear to lie to him.
「If you think I’m going to kill anyone, you might as well lie down and wag your tail.」
He answered roughly. He meant it – he was just like any other leopard, only black. Blood alone wouldn’t make an animal go mad. He wasn’t about to murder anyone.
The elder stayed silent for a while before asking.
「How long do you plan on staying like this? Why do you still…」
Aymon rolled back around and answered softly.
「I want to look cute. And it’s easier to get around being this small.」
They shook their head, unable to understand him.
When had that little leopard ever done something rational?
They touched Aymon’s forehead with a paw, signaling that they’d be leaving.
「Good night, little leopard.」
「The cute little leopard will rest well, don’t worry.」
The elder chuckled at his rude answer and left. He was alone again. The sun had now hidden behind the mountains completely. Aymon considered going inside but decided to stay and enjoy the warm breeze of the fresh evening. He laid down and thought of the approaching ceremony.
The ceremony through which leopard Shinsu became adults.
Only after that ceremony would the cute little leopard grow into a giant beast and adult human. But…
Aymon closed his eyes.
“But why me?”
He could hear the grasshoppers chirping. Bits of the dark blue sky – who knew what was up there – peeked through the leaves.
Aymon stopped thinking and curled up.
Most of the children of the clan were born at the same time. Halla and Shanti were the other two leopards who were his age. The ceremony would be held for the three of them. Those two would surely just have their parents as observers. Nothing special.
Aymon wasn’t lonely. At least he didn’t think he was. But still…
I really hope Belinda will come.
Aymon imagined bringing her to the forest.
Since leopard Shinsu were very individualistic beasts, they lived far apart in the vast forest and only met at the regular gatherings of the tribe. That’s how Aymon could spend time in Belinda’s palace unnoticed.
Behind the flower bushes stood a temple-like building; it was Aymon’s house.
A quiet, mysterious place in the middle of the beautiful forest. He couldn’t invite her till now, but if she participated as an observer, he could take her here with the pretext of them having a close relationship.
Aymon curled up even tighter. The huge forest around him seemed to grow even bigger. He laid alone for a long time before slowly opening his eyes. After a while, the small animal left the forest.
The cold wind brushed up against Lucy’s neck. It was still before sunrise and quiet everywhere. She tiptoed to Belinda’s room. She usually woke up at around noon, but today she had plans. They were going to the hunting ground at dawn.
They decided to go back early in the morning today after finding some glowing mushrooms there a few nights ago. It was a small break from the boring life of the palace for the two girls.
Lucy called out in front of the door. There was no answer, so she opted to just open the door. The room was still. The blue moon shone peacefully onto Belinda’s bed under the window. She walked up to her silently, but then…
She quickly covered her mouth.
Her heart was beating like crazy, full of surprise and fear.
A stranger was sitting on the chair next to Belinda’s bed, stroking her hair.
He had broad shoulders, a firm body, and a tall figure noticeable even as he was sitting. As large as he was, he still looked very agile.
Lucy wanted to scream and run to the maid sleeping in the other room, but her mouth wouldn’t open. Her head was filled with questions and fear.
Who is it? Who could it be? Who?
Her body trembled with fear. She was afraid that it would hurt her or the Princess.
Well, it wasn’t really that.
She was just nervous looking at the man’s still face. It was like an instinct.
He turned his head. Their eyes met in the darkness.
The man’s beautiful face was calm. He looked relaxed as if he already knew she was there. But there was something about his beastly eyes that sparkled like fireworks…
Lucy pursed her lips. Her anxiety only rose, but the man strangely reminded her of someone.
They were so strange but so familiar.
He put his finger on his lips, shushing Belinda.
Lucy gulped and managed to nod.
The man smiled. It was an ecstatic smile illuminated by the moonlight.