Calmly scanning her face, he looked like a worried father.
“Weren’t those Shinsu bastards rude to you?”
The emperor turned Belinda’s head to the left to examine her cheeks before looking back into her eyes.
“No. They were truly welcoming.”
Her glowing cheeks didn’t have a scratch on them. Having confirmed that she was safe, the emperor pulled his hand back.
His blue eyes lingered on his daughter, who’d grown up before he knew it. Her charming blond hair and brilliant eyes, her slightly closed lips that resembled a rose…
And with her, his faraway past love.
“You’re becoming more and more alike.”
Not answering, the emperor stroked Belinda’s head with a smile and left. Belinda bowed, but he’d already mixed into the crowd.
Princess Adelai observed the scene immersed in gloom. Her shameful jealousy and anger were deeply embedded in her eyes.
At some point, the amount of affection that the emperor showed to Belinda became unusual. His affectionate touch and warm eyes had always been reserved for Adelai, so why would she lose them to that mixed-blood princess she had to call her sister?
I have no intentions to share my power or my father’s affection with you.
Despite her thoughts, she kept a bright smile on her face.
After the party, Belinda went straight home. After taking a bath that the maid prepared for her, she sat down staring out the window, laying her hair on the bed.
Was it because she poured all her energy into others? The forced smiles and small talk of social gatherings always exhausted her, both mentally and physically, though one would assume that she’d be used to them by now.
Among the stars dotting the sky outside the window, she spotted a bright glimmer behind a cloud.
Suddenly, her thoughts wandered to Aymon. She had no reason to think of him, but the idea of not seeing him for a month seemed impossible. The conversation she had with Lart just made her miss Aymon even more.
She recalled a conversation she’d overheard between some nobles.
“Now that the ritual is over, the Shinsu are going to pick a new chief, right?”
“Yes, I heard there were three candidates… Is that right, Princess Belinda?”
Belinda nodded quietly.
Since she participated in the ceremony, everyone knew that she had the most knowledge about the Shinsu.
“How are they going to choose? Will it be through a duel?”
“It seems so. I heard they fight to the death…”
“Until one of them dies? Ah, that’s scary.”
Belinda rolled over to the other side of the bed, repeating the Countess’s last words.
Until one of them dies….
That wasn’t true. It might have been that way in the past, but Aymon said that it would be over when the opponent surrendered.
He also said that he wouldn’t suppress his instincts, and there would be blood. But even then, he wouldn’t die.
“I’m the strongest, Breedee. Don’t worry.”
Belinda couldn’t help but smile at his confidence.
What if he got hurt? Where could my cute little Aymon have gone…
Concerns kept coming, gradually crushing her like an avalanche. She sighed and tightly hugged a pillow.
I hope this time passes quickly. I hope Aymon will leap in with high spirits soon, saying he’s okay and that he won.
“I can’t let my cat get hurt…”
She murmured, as if praying, while she looked out at the moon. Her anxious heartbeat would take a while to calm down.
The forest looked even more desolate than usual that night, with a thick blanket of clouds covering the moon and stars.
Halla, who had just become an adult, crouched down by the fountain of life and stared into the darkness. Not much time remained until Shanti grew up and their duel would begin.
The sound of branches rustling in the wind cut through the heavy atmosphere.
Halla looked on nervously as something emerged from the fountain. Shanti walked out slowly, water dripping from his brown fur. He’d become an adult too.
Even Shanti’s an adult now, so soon…
Halla’s heartbeat quickened.
Since Aymon became an adult, just his presence in the forest radiated a certain strength. The atmosphere of fear was palpable. Halla felt it weighing down his whole body.
After growing up, the Shinsu usually had a hard time controlling their instincts, but Halla did, and so would Aymon.
He was probably hiding in the woods, barely suppressing his bloodthirsty excitement.
This is a meaningless fight.
The result was already determined, but they had to stick to tradition.
Shanti sat down next to Halla. Not even greeting each other, they continued to stare into the forest in dead silence.
Something was coming. A cold chill swept through them, and even the wind seemed to be violent. The usual crickets’ chirping was nowhere to be heard.
The silence was broken by crunching leaves, a deliberate signal from someone that could have just as well approached without a single sound. A beast was coming from the forest.
Halla and Shanti’s pupils expanded with instinctive fear.
Something slowly appeared. A pair of purple eyes flashed through the darkness, which hid the rest of the large body.
The two leopards laid flat on the floor. Their instincts were screaming at them.
An animal’s instincts were meant to protect them from stronger enemies. Running away wasn’t shameful, but…
But now we have to fight.
It was Halla who came to his senses first. He rose, fear still weighing on his body, staring at the giant beast.
I’m a Shinsu.
He wasn’t an animal. He needed to stand up and face his opponent, even if they were worthy of being avoided.
He was a Shinsu. He couldn’t break this tradition.
Shanti slowly stood up after him. The two spotted leopards stared fearfully at the giant black panther, who looked back at them impassively in silence.
They put aside their fears and rushed towards Aymon.
A swarm of birds flew away, trusting their instincts, unlike them.
The duel to pick a new chief had begun.
A few hours earlier…
The music box’s melody on the nightstand filled the room. Belinda was sprawled out on a rug.
“Yes, my lady. Are you bored?”
She didn’t need much to be able to tell.
Lately, Belinda had spent all her time laying around, unable to concentrate on anything because of her worries about Aymon. She made mistakes in her embroidery and knocked over her chess pieces. Sometimes she wouldn’t even eat.
Suddenly, she sprang up.
“Lucy, let’s go to the Shinsu forest.”
“Yeah. We could pick mushrooms and strawberries.”
Physical labor was the best distraction. She wanted to wash dishes or plow a field, but princesses couldn’t do that.
She glanced out the window to see the sun. It would probably set in a few hours. Just enough time to go and pick strawberries before it got dark.
She put on a simple navy dress. Lucy was already waiting for her with a basket.
Before they could even pass the palace’s flower beds, they ran into someone.
“Huh? What are you doing here, Lart?”
The boy looked up from the roses in surprise.
“You scared me. Where are you going?”
“To the forest with Lucy.”
Belinda answered, nodding to their entwined hands.
“The two of you? Without an escort?”
“I don’t have one. His Majesty only sends someone when I’m going away.”
She laughed, dumbfounded. Why would she need an escort, stuck here?
The only people around her were Lucy, her maid, and some servants. She was used to the two of them walking alone.
“What are you going there for?”
“We wanted to pick mushrooms and strawberries.”
Lart glanced at their empty basket and looked up again.
Lucy finally took the opportunity to bow to him.
“Greetings to the noble star of the Empire.”
“…you too, Lucy.”
Lart blushed. It was a rarity for the prince, more confident and arrogant than anyone, to feel embarrassed.
Belinda raised an eyebrow.
Lart’s behavior had been suspicious lately. He kept hanging around the palace. He practiced horseback riding at the hunting ground, stopped by to drink tea for no reason, and came on visits without an escort only to give them cookies.
She suddenly realized his reason.
He must like Lucy.
Belinda was convinced that she’d discovered the source of his strange behavior.
Well, she’s really sweet and nice after all.
That wasn’t what confused her about Lart.
A few months ago, she saw him alone on his horse at the hunting grounds. He’d made an embarrassing mistake while riding in the forest with some nobles a few days earlier, so he was now training.
He was alone, too embarrassed to bring an escort. The hunting grounds were close to the Shinsu forest but far enough to be safe.
No sane person would dare to go anywhere near the Shinsu forest.