There was actually a massive fortress meant to protect the palace right next to the Shinsu forest.
Anyways, Prince Lart was busy riding his horse. He practiced until sunset. But when he got off, he accidentally stepped on a loose stone and sprained his ankle.
There were no guards or attendants nearby, but luckily for him, Belinda and Lucy were out eating and drinking. Lucy ran over to him right away, and by the time Belinda got there, she’d already wrapped a handkerchief around his ankle and made a makeshift splint with a bit of wood.
Belinda still vividly remembered his burning cheeks. It was the first time she’d seen him embarrassed, and it was an unfamiliar – but funny – sight. Even the arrogant prince could turn gentle when he fell in love.
Belinda snapped herself back to the present. Lart, pressing down on the grass with the nose of his shoe, suddenly took the basket from Lucy’s hand.
“I’m going with you.”
With the short reply, Lart was already walking ahead. He was rather confident for someone who did not even receive a response.
“You don’t mind, do you?”
Lucy nodded with an awkward smile. How could she refuse the prince?
Thus Belinda, the successor to the empire, and the maid set off towards the hunting grounds – not exactly a typical everyday group.
The sound of the pebbles under their feet was pleasant. Belinda glanced at Lart, wondering what was going on with him.
“The floor’s dirty. You’re a royal! Why did you sit there?”
“Why are you complaining about everything? Go back if you don’t want to be here.”
Belinda snapped back at his grumbling.
“Who said I don’t?”
Lart shook his head, brushing dirt off his shoes.
Soon they reached the boundary of the Shinsu forest and gathered around a large tree to look for mushrooms. The prince didn’t seem to be happy with the fallen leaves and mud.
Belinda held a brown mushroom to Lucy’s nose.
“Smells good, right?”
“Yes. What kind of mushroom is it?”
“It’s a Larium. They taste sweet dried out.”
“It smells really nice. How do you know all these things?”
How would I? We always went to the mountain behind the village when we were hungry.
Prince Lart laughed, listening in on their conversation.
“How she knows? I’m sure that vulgar girl walked around in the mountains picking up and eating whatever she found.”
Bingo. Belinda nodded and picked up a red mushroom next to her, planning to give it to Lart. He would probably suffer from diarrhea for a week. Just the thought of him pale-faced and constantly going to the bathroom was hilarious.
Lucy looked up at Belinda, on the verge of tears. Vulgar… Eating whatever she found… She couldn’t believe the prince’s cruel words towards her precious princess.
“You’re not vulgar…. That’s not true…”
She stuttered, whispering softly, so Lart wouldn’t hear her.
A noble countess-turned-maid couldn’t just directly tell him off, but she wanted to comfort the person she was meant to serve.
Lart’s expression hardened, and excuses started pouring out.
“I, I didn’t mean to be rude…. It’s just the truth… So…”
He never thought of his contempt as strange or bad. Belinda’s ancestry was still undeniable, but seeing Lucy’s reaction made him rethink his actions.
Belinda tilted her head and looked at the pale-faced boy.
Well, that’s not the reaction I was expecting.
Lart’s visible embarrassment made the situation even more awkward. At this rate, if he actually said the word “sorry”, it would become unbearable.
Belinda couldn’t believe that he was hesitating. Perhaps his feelings for Lucy were more serious than she’d given him credit for.
She stood up and shook the dirt off her skirt.
“Let’s go pick some strawberries, Lucy.”
She grabbed her hands and pulled her away, planning to leave the idiotic boy behind.
“Come along if you want. Otherwise, goodbye.”
She offered, glancing back at Lart. He quickly broke out of his frozen stance and caught up.
“You can start with an apology, then.”
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Belinda to get an apology out of him, which she wanted even more now that he didn’t react to her first request. It looked like he was too proud to do it.
Belinda turned around. She wasn’t too offended – her expectations were already low.
As she walked away with Lucy, she heard Lart’s stuttering voice.
She turned back, suppressing her triumphant smile. Lart’s face was completely red.
“I said I’m sorry.”
“So you’re apologizing for slighting me?”
Instead of replying, he slowly nodded.
Wow, he must really want to be with Lucy. The prince of arrogance himself. Amazing.
“That’s good. Quick, come and take the basket.”
Belinda’s smile stuck around as they walked on. Lart’s pout even seemed cute now.
He really was honest.
By now, the bushes along the path were up to their waist, along with some small trees.
“Can we really go this deep in? It’s dangerous to cross the forest line…”
“Hmmm… Usually, we shouldn’t, but Aymon said it was okay to go as far as the strawberries grew.”
Aymon had marked off the line between the areas with raspberries and the rest of the forest with claw marks. No sane person would ignore a Shinsu’s warning, but he assured that this road was just as safe as the palace garden.
“How is it? Yummy?”
“Mmmm, not bad.”
Lart replied, stuffing his face with strawberries.
“Just admit you like it. Don’t be so grumpy.”
Belinda told him as if speaking to a sickly child.
Lart picked off another large strawberry. It was his first time picking them himself instead of eating one as a decoration on a dessert, so the taste was especially refreshing.
Belinda smiled as she spotted him eating behind a bush. Cute.
Lart reached for the biggest berry through the leaves, scratching his hand on a thorn.
“Blood! I’m bleeding!”
Although the wound was very small, he leaped up yelling. A scar on the body of a royal!
Belinda and Lucy quickly walked over, trying to see the urgency of the situation.
“Don’t be so fussy, Lart.”
Belinda shook her head with a sigh.
Surprised, Lucy approached him in a hurry and wrapped a handkerchief around his hand.
“Press on the wound, Your Highness, and the bleeding will stop.”
Belinda wanted to laugh at the ridiculous situation but decided to shut up after seeing Lart’s face. He looked down at Lucy, ashamed and sniffling.
That’s really a sight…
When Belinda stopped talking, the forest became completely silent. She observed the other two quietly.
Suddenly, a strange feeling set in.
“Doesn’t it feel a bit…”
It was somehow too quiet. The usual sound of birds and crickets was gone.
Aymon had just become an adult. His energy paralyzed the forest. Even the birds in the trees stopped moving. Only Belinda and her companions, not as sensitive as animals, didn’t feel the energy.
But no matter how dull their senses were, they could tell that the forest felt very different. The three raised their heads and looked around. There was nothing to be seen, but they were getting chills.
“Yeah. I don’t know what it is, but something’s wrong.”
“It’s too quiet.”
Lart and Lucy murmured.
Belinda pulled her shawl over her shoulder and picked up the basket.
They quickly got moving, uncharacteristically nervous. They had to get out before sunset.
After some time of silent walking, they felt something strange again.
“….What’s up with this road?”
Belinda whispered in an uneasy voice.
Although no other humans had access, Belinda and Lucy were accustomed to walking in the area. If anyone, they knew it well, but as they went on, the scenery unfolding in front of them became less and less familiar.