“I was frightened too…”
“Today was my first time climbing a precipice. But you, you…”
‘Why only watch and shoot lasers from below? If you’re so bothered by how I’m doing, why don’t you lead? And why don’t you ask if I’m tired? If I say I am, would you actually offer any help? As if you have any sensitivity yourself! No, if you don’t like climbing the precipice to begin with, let’s find another way. Why just wait for rescue from the bottom? Thank goodness we found water, but without food, are we supposed to endure here indefinitely?’
Charlotte’s emotions, initially trembling with sorrow, gradually escalated in a crescendo of frustration. The rage trembling in Charlotte’s voice was suddenly replaced by a different sight. The cool Grand Duke swiftly lifted her, placing her on his shoulder.
“Hold on tight. Don’t fall.”
With a monkey-like agility, he moved smoothly to the resting spot Charlotte had scouted, a contrast from his earlier demeanor. Following his agile climb up, he effortlessly landed on the platform Charlotte had previously identified. This was a different kind of climbing skill, almost monstrous in its finesse, compared to him climbing behind Charlotte.
“It’s bigger than it looks. It should be sufficient to catch a breath for a moment.”
Charlotte, who had feared she might be meeting her ancestors face to face this time, regained her composure just in time and surveyed her surroundings.
When seen from below, she hadn’t realized the extent of the space. Two people could actually stretch out their legs and sit. Above their heads, a slight overhang provided suitable shade.
The Grand Duke set aside the exhausted mushroom onto the rock and took a seat beside her.
His gaze fixed upon the sky.
“A bad omen, it seems.”
Following the Grand Duke’s line of sight, Charlotte lifted her head. What was once a clear sky until recently had gradually darkened. Unnoticed, heavy clouds had gathered.
“Well, surely it’s not about to rain?”
“It wouldn’t be shocking if it did.”
While she had heard of frequent early summer downpours in this region, how could it happen so suddenly?
As she contemplated the future, the scenery before Charlotte grew dark.
* * *
The sky swiftly darkened, releasing cold raindrops that danced upon the surroundings. Charlotte huddled herself, embracing the sound of rain enveloping her.
“Oh, it’s so cold.”
Finding a brief refuge amidst the precipice was truly providential. However, the narrow space couldn’t shield her entirely from the rain, and her shirt and pants were now thoroughly soaked. As her body temperature dropped, shivers crept up her spine.
Though she attempted to suppress it, intermittent coughs escaped her lips. Perhaps the sound was disruptive, for the Grand Duke shot her a severe glance with raised eyebrows, laden with discomfort. There was a clear message in his gaze: quiet down, or he might just strip off her wet shirt himself.
‘Agh, what a heartless person…’
Charlotte feigned ignorance and shrunk a bit further. Clutching her knees tightly, she continued to huddle against the cold.
‘I wish I had a warm cup of cocoa right now…’
It hadn’t been long since she left home, but she yearned for the comforts of the Bravant estate. Mornings spent playing with Johan by the fireplace, afternoon naps in front of the hearth, and nights lying hidden in Grace’s bed as stars twinkled in the sky. In those days, she had known nothing and had thus been content.
“Grace treasures you more than her own life. She would have wished for you never to learn of the struggles she faces, the dark underbelly of noble society.”
“The First Prince’s faction will go to any lengths to keep Grace within their grasp.”
She had been unaware of the price of her blissful ignorance…
She missed her sister.
Sniffing back a sudden surge of mucus, Charlotte steadied her resolve. If Grace, at her age, could withstand the trials she faced, then Charlotte couldn’t let something as petty as this cold weather to affect her dignity.
Dividing her sniffles into smaller, more manageable portions, Charlotte sneaked a glance at the man next to her. Unfortunately, due to the weather, she was unnaturally sensitive.
The Grand Duke’s irritation at even this noise was apparent as his eyebrows furrowed, showing his disdain. Though she could hardly hear, his pursed lips seemed ready to hurl a torrent of curses at any moment. Such was his readiness that he might as well have been preparing for a heated tirade!
“A mere insect’s sneeze would probably be louder than this…”
Unlike herself, who was small and delicate, the Grand Duke had taken off his shirt, revealing his upper body with no signs of discomfort. Even the hint of steam rising from his flexing, sinewy back and muscles was visible. He looked incredibly warm, despite the circumstances.
Charlotte bit her lip and, pretending to clear her throat, approached cautiously.
“Your Excellency, cough, aren’t you feeling cold?”
“Oh, come on. I know you’re feeling cold.”
The Grand Duke’s eyes wavered as if he was encountering an unprecedented imbecile, but Charlotte paid no heed and subtly leaned against his side.
“I, being a kind soul, shall share some warmth.”
“That won’t be nearly enough.”
“Sitting side by side won’t raise our body temperature in the slightest.”
With that, the Grand Duke effortlessly scooped Charlotte onto his lap, as if casually arranging cushions on a sofa.
“Now it’s somewhat better.”
“Stay like this until the rain subsides. Moving around will only lead to death.”
Satisfied, the Grand Duke leaned back against the rock, his expression more content and at ease than before. Apparently, his warmer body temperature had quelled her urge to cough.
‘His body is really warm…’
Indeed, having honed his skills to its zenith, his bodily senses had likely been elevated to the same level. Charlotte agreed with this notion, her understanding completely.
How much time had passed? The rain continued to pour fiercely from the sky, as if refusing to relent.
“How much longer must we wait?”
Enveloped in the embrace of the Grand Duke, Charlotte blinked her eyes, feeling drowsiness descend upon her. Gently, she gazed up to where he sat with closed eyes, lost in thought.
‘Perhaps he’s pretending to sleep while lost in contemplation…’
Uncertain of how the situation might evolve, she knew the wisdom in conserving her energy during this rest. Yet, as she waited for some sign from the Grand Duke, none came. Yielding to weariness, Charlotte let her body rest and closed her eyes. After a day of rolling and enduring the scorching sun, she slipped into a deep slumber.
Unaware, a large and sturdy palm tenderly touched her forehead.
* * *
The previous night, Raphael, sensing a rupture in the ground, hastened along the path with a mind consumed by inexplicable urgency. He couldn’t fathom the reasons for his actions. With an suspicious identity and purpose, why was the tearful face of the boy, someone he neither knew nor cared about, haunting him now?
What a strange thought…
A familiar voice pierced the night air. Rushing to the cliff’s edge, Raphael spotted a mop of pink hair being swept away by the collapsing precipice. Without a moment’s thought, he descended the slope, barely reaching the brink of the cliff in time.
When he managed to hold the unconscious figure, relief coursed through him, yet the challenge lay ahead.
There was no way to escape the collapse. In desperation, Raphael lodged his dagger into a crevice, trying to hold on. However, it was clear that the weight of both people were beyond the dagger’s capacity.
In that fleeting moment, he faced a decision.
“Should I let go?”
He had harbored suspicions from the beginning, and this particular person had been consistently bothersome. If he considered the future, disposing of this troublesome boy in an accident seemed the most efficient solution. Yes, he knew this intellectually.
He was not alone, and carrying a person with only one arm was impossible, much less ascending.
Even though the choice was so easy…
Raphael hesitated, and ultimately, he missed the opportunity.
* * *
Raphael rested the exhausted boy against his side, his furrowed brow illuminated by the faint moonlight. After the incident, they ended up being carried far away from their original position. There seemed to be no visible way back.
“Are you able to sleep in this situation?”
The silence was his only response.
Here he was, suffering for someone else’s sake, while that person nonchalantly slept.
“Should I just abandon him?”
As Raphael contemplated on releasing his grip, his head slowly shook.
To suffer all this trouble for someone else’s sake, only for them to sleep soundly upon his arm… When he regained his senses, he resolved to vent his stress once he was awake and aware.
“It would be in vain to have endured so much and perish here…”
Before long, he found a small cavern suitable for spending the night. Raphael laid the boy on the rocky ground as if he was throwing him down, then stretched out beside him. While sleep came easily to Raphael, it somehow eluded him this time.
Exhaling steadily, he observed the sleeping boy. Strangely, his mind felt muddled, even with his eyes closed.
Read ahead here.