His Noble and Righteous Route to the Harem

Chapter 5. The Maiden with the Flaxen Hair Seeks Love and Adventure
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Chapter 5. The Maiden with the Flaxen Hair Seeks Love and Adventure

By the time Ludwik returned to the castle, the sun had completely risen.

His Majesty is missing! Could it be he finally ran away after being scratched by Her Majesty’s pet monkey!? No, perhaps he was assassinated by Her Majesty!? As such theories rattled throughout the castle, Ludwik, wearing a townsfolk’s clothes that had become sullied with dirt here and there and also frayed and torn, returned to the castle with a sunny expression, leaving those who saw him in mute awe.

Ludwik, who felt refreshed after crying himself all out of tears, wore a clear and cheerful face.

“Good morning.”

He greets a guard, upon which

“Ah, g-good morning. Umm, where did Your Highness go yesterday?”

“I went to the town for a bit.”

“I-Is that so. Did something good happen?”

“Yeah, I had a wonderful encounter.”

Ludwik answered with a smile, which startled everyone. All present stiffened their throats in surprise and were unable to ask anything beyond that.

From Adelheid who came running over,

“Is Your Highness aware? Everyone’s saying that Sire snuck out of the castle and enjoyed a night of passion. That the other party has blond hair and blue eyes and is the innocent daughter of a florist, and that Sire plans to welcome her to the castle as a beloved concubine. And even that Sire’s child is already in her belly.”

Even when he was told with the biggest scowl on her face he’s seen so far, Ludwik remained unflustered; just the opposite, he burst out laughing.

“Ahaha. To already have a child with someone after meeting her for the first time yesterday, how amazing. Besides, she isn’t a flower girl with blond hair and blue eyes but another man’s wife with black hair and passionate black eyes.”

Ludwik says impishly.

Adelheid’s expression became increasingly bitter.

“I’m aware that Sire’s scope of interests is broad, but I’ll be troubled if I can’t have Sire wait until Sire has at least two or three boys born between Sire and Her Majesty to enjoy such encounters.”

Ludwik was lectured repeatedly like so, but Adelheid’s words simply went in one of his ears and out the other.

Just by recalling the things that happened in the small cabin in the woods, Ludwik’s heart is cleared of all clouds and filled with sunshine. Adelheid probably won’t be pleased, but I’m still going to sneak out and visit the town again. I’ll become Ludy, who’s just another townsfolk, drink merrily at the pub, and visit Yan’s cabin with lots of gifts. I definitely want to see his family again.

And also, if I could dance with Suzanka again…

Twisting her voluminous black hair, beaming passionately with her black eyes, and stepping powerfully with her feet— Ludwik was entranced by how Suzanka danced.

(Her dance truly was spectacular.)

That was the first time Ludwik had ever met a woman who danced so passionately. It was like she was the one leading her male partner the whole time; yet the experience wasn’t unpleasant in the slightest, but fresh and fun to Ludwik.

Ludwik wanted to continue dancing more and more with her. He wanted to continue holding onto her hot hands while seeing her sunny smile and cheerful laughter.

Suzanka’s vibrant black hair and gentle black eyes fill his mind and inadvertently make his heart flutter.

(Wait! Suzanka is Yan’s wife. She loves Yan.)

Ludwik restrains his heart, which seems like it is going to draw closer and closer towards Suzanka if he doesn’t.

(No matter how attractive Suzanka is, she’s a married woman.)

He was told that he had a wide scope of interests by Adelheid. Well, it’s true that he has a soft spot for women like his mother.

When he was the young master of a dressmaker, he had also been paralyzed by an older woman resembling his mother coming to him to ask for advice on what to do about her fiance, whom she was going to marry in just a few days and whom she just found out was cheating on her.

Ludwik became completely infatuated with her.

—If it were me, I wouldn’t do anything to make you cry. Please break up with him and marry me instead.

That he proposed dead seriously like so was part of his black history.

Furthermore, despite saying all those things, like how she can’t restore her relationship with him anymore and how the two of them had already lost their love for each other long ago,

—I’m sorry, Ludy. Because of you, I realized— I do love him after all. He said that he won’t cheat anymore too.

She told Ludwik before readily reconciling with and marrying her fiance.

—Ludy, you’re really a kind and gentle, nice guy aren’t you. I loved you. Thank you for everything until now.

Leaving behind the words “nice guy” that Ludwik heard time and time again from many different girls.

Suzanka is living happily with her husband and children right now.

(That’s right. Married women are off-limits.)

Moreover, Ludwik was also completely taken by the simple yet honest Yan, so he can’t imagine having an affair with his wife.

To begin with, Suzanka deeply loves Yan, so she’d never turn towards Ludwik in the first place.

But, even if Suzanka off-limits, if Ludwik could meet and marry a girl like her, would he be able to build a household like Yan’s?

—There’s a big festival to celebrate the fall harvest tomorrow night. Maybe you’ll be able to find a cute girl who’s perfect for you there.

(No no, I have a wife already. No matter how you look at it, if I look for a mistress a month into our marriage, she won’t have any face as the queen.)

He smiled bitterly.

(A festival huh….)

Ludwik’s mind began to race again.

(Back when I lived in the town, I participated every year didn’t I?)

Recalling how he would dance with girls wearing their best clothes reserved for special occasions while matching the merry melody of the orchestra, Ludwik’s mouth naturally slackened.

Next to him, Adelheid continued to scold Ludwik, warning that lately a group of bandits have been running rampant in the town so it’s dangerous to stroll about at night, and that if Duke Walter’s faction, who feels no love for him, found out what happened last night, it would become problematic.

However, Ludwik’s heart had already left the castle and was flying towards the town where the fall harvest festival will be held.

(Mother said a night festival is where she met King Calvin too…)

At the time, he had listened thinking that it was a silly fabrication of his mother.

—That person’s ignorance of the world was staggering. When he tried to buy sweet dumplings from a food stand with a gold coin, the owner told him she doesn’t have enough change so she can’t accept it. He became all flustered, asking “Eh? Eh? I can’t pay with this?” in confusion.

—Even though he was a prince, he wasn’t stuck up at all. When I treated him to the sweet dumplings he failed to buy, he said, “Thanks.” while looking terribly embarrassed. He burned his tongue when he put the dumplings in his mouth and caused a scene, too, and he apologized every time he bumped into someone in the crowd, saying “Sorry, sorry.”

—He was a really adorable person!

(Ahh, how nice—)

Imagining his parents’ first encounter naturally filled his heart with warm and sweet feelings.

“You look distracted, Sire. Do you hear what I’m saying? It’s still too early for Sire to dabble in nightly encounters.”

Adelheid’s words could no longer reach Ludwik’s ears.

◇ ◇ ◇

(I should go and check out the festival after all. Even if I don’t meet my fated partner like Mother and Father, it should be fun just to participate.)

After Ludwik was finally released by Adelheid, he walked down the hallway while thinking of tomorrow’s festival with a bright mood, upon which he saw a dainty foot wearing a silver shoe peek out from a corner of the hallway.

It stepped forward, then immediately retreated back behind the corner. As Ludwik stopped in his path, the tip of the silver shoe peeked out again.

It retreats again,

It peeks out again,

Again—.

“……”

(Uhhh, could this foot be by any chance…?)

As Ludwik hesitated, Queen Katerina appeared with her lips tied and her whole body stiffened.

The outer ends of her golden eyebrows are hung even higher than usual as she walks towards Ludwik.

Queen Katerina glared at Ludwik with an excessively grim face, so Ludwik instinctively became nervous.

“H-hey there, morning.”

He greeted her awkwardly.

(Is she mad that I stayed out all night? She didn’t seem to care about me at all though.)

Queen Katerina grips the skirt of her dress tightly and says in a chilling voice,

“It’s past the time to say morning.”

“Ahh, you’re right.”

Ludwik brushes her sharp words off with a smile, upon which one of her furrowed eyebrows twitched.

“……You have an awfully smug smirk on your face. It seems like you spent last night in the town. Did something very good happen?

“Errr……”

As Ludwik was considering how he should respond, he gazed back at Queen Katerina’s face, upon which he noticed something out of place.

(Huh? Her eyes are red.)

And it seems like there are bags under her eyes too……

“Could it be that you waited for me last night unable to sleep? Also, there are leaves on your shoulders.”

The instant Ludwik inadvertently reached towards her to try to remove the leaf stuck between the frills on the tip of her shoulder, she retreated backwards with a start and used her hand to brush the leaf off with two sweeps, after which she glared at Ludwik with fearsome eyes.

“D-d-d-delsreta subelarda toris este deranoi! Lerondo! (A-a-a-as if! It’s just your imagination! Don’t be so full of yourself!) Dela faras yusteemina toriano! (Also, this leaf just happened to fall between the frills okay?!)

Ludwik couldn’t follow her rapid Endrish, but he understood from her tone and expression that they were words of repudiation.

“Right, of course. Sorry for saying something stupid.”

Ludwik apologizes, upon which Queen Katerina huffs and puffs a single breath with her eyebrows still sharply pointing downward.

“That’s quite enough.”

She said coldly in Dahl before passing Ludwik’s side and leaving.

While furtively seeing off her tensely straightened back,

(A festival… I wonder if she’ll go with me if I invite her.)

Such a thought popped into his head, but he immediately smiled bitterly and shook his head to the side.

I should give up. The queen doesn’t seem like she’d enjoy a festival of commoners. It’s certain that she’ll reject me just like when I invited her to dance before.

◇ ◇ ◇

“What!? His Majesty spent a night of passion with the likes of a flower girl!?”

Just past noon, when Therese, the daughter of Duke Folma, visited the salon in the castle dressed up like a peacock, she received the news that King Ludwik had stayed out all night yesterday from her groupies and was left shocked.

(That can’t be! His Majesty did, with a commoner girl!? If he’s sick of his foreigner wife, he has me, the most beautiful girl in all of Rhodesia, right by his side, yet—)

As she gripped her folding fan tightly with her hand that began to tremble all over, she pretended to be calm to the bitter end.

“Ho, hohoho… It’s just a one-night indiscretion in the end. It’s something common amongst noblemen, so it doesn’t bother me really.”

(That’s right. After all, I’m going to become the proper queen of this country, not the girl His Majesty fools around with for one night.)

“As expected from Miss Therese.”

“Miss doesn’t look bothered at all.”

Her groupies lavish words of admiration onto her.

“Hohoho… but of course.”

She opens her fan and turns her nose sharply to the side, but her hand is still shaking a little.

“So, Miss Therese, I hear that His Majesty is going to sneak out again tomorrow night to participate in the fall festival being held in the town.”

“Eh!?”

She bends her body forward without thinking, then hurriedly retracts herself backward and shakes her fan flippity-flap.

“I-I have no interest in something like a festival for commoners. Besides, mixing with commoners to see a festival is unbecoming of a noble daughter. If a lady who does such a thing is found out, she’ll be mocked by everyone.”

Even as she says this on the surface,

(His Majesty is going to secretly join the festival? If I also secretly join the festival and just happen to encounter His Majesty there, His Majesty might feel a sense of fate towards me.)

Therese’s heart begins to beat pit-a-pat.

A groupie chimes in,

“But, I hear there’s an old custom for unmarried men and women to wear masks at the festival, which most people still follow even now. If you do that, then no one will know who you are, and besides, I hear that sons of distinguished families often secretly participate like so as well.”

“That’s right. Moreover, I hear that when he was a prince, King Calvin also secretly joined a festival, which was where he met His Majesty’s mother. How about we also join the festival wearing masks?”

(I see. If I hide my face such that others can’t recognize that I’m Therese of the Folma Family…)

Her heart wavered, but on the surface she remained cold.

“No. It’s not a question of whether you’re found out or not, but a question about the self-dignity of a noble lady. Those who consider themselves a lady should not casually mingle with commoners.”

While she chides her fellow daughters of nobles,

(If everyone goes, even if I wear a mask, someone might find out who I am. After all, I can’t hide this aura of refinement that naturally exudes out of me. That would be a problem.)

She considers, upon which,

“Oh my.”

A groupie looked towards the door and suddenly raised her voice.

“Is something the matter?”

“No, well, I felt like someone was right outside just now. I caught a glimpse of the hem of a dress and the tip of a shoe for a moment.”

“My, the door is open.”

“Perhaps she was eavesdropping? How unpleasant.”

“Really, how vulgar.”

The noble daughters grumbled one after another and had the maid-in-waiting close the door.

The maid looked down the hallway just to make sure, but there was no one on either side.

Was it just my imagination? I thought I saw a silver shoe… It has to be, or if not, then it had to have been a shoe with a different color that simply looked silver due to the bright sunlight reflecting from it. After all, the only who wears that silver shoe is…)

◇ ◇ ◇

The festival night, which Ludwik could barely bear waiting for, came.

Though he was banned from leaving the castle by Adelheid, the gatekeepers sympathized with Ludwik who was abused by Queen Katerina.

“If Your Highness wishes to leave the castle, there’s a small hole by the rear garden that’s normally hidden from view behind a wagon. Many in the castle secretly go out to play by using that hole.”

They secretly informed him.

Following their tip-off, Ludwik easily escapes the castle walls and descends the hill, heading towards the town under the refreshing moonlight.

The festival had already begun, and the streets were bustling, filled with people everywhere.

The square was illuminated by lights, where food stalls were lined up. Transparent red and blue candy, grilled river fish that were browned, pork skewers dripping with juice, minced bird meat pie, charcoal-roasted sweet and salty dumplings.

The young men at the festival adorned the clothes they usually wear with things like flowers, ribbons, and feathers, while the young women wore coats with puffy sleeves and skirts laced with many frills that they had saved for this day, along with necklaces made of pretty gemstones chained together, glittering brooches full of luster, and their hair that they had curled.

In accordance to tradition, there are many young men and women wearing masks. Ludwik was also wearing a mask along with a wildflower piercing his chest pocket that he plucked on his way here.

It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to show his face as that he didn’t want the scratches on his face to be conspicuous. Though it’s gotten much better, it still hasn’t completely healed. He didn’t want to frighten the girls.

(Well, I’m a married man so I’m not going to seduce a girl, but asking one to dance with me should be fine, right? It’s the fall festival which only comes once a year after all.)

The giant crowd was clamoring with the voices of people talking and laughing, all jumbled together in a mess. As Ludwik walked through the square that is filled with liveliness and enthusiasm, a single girl stayed his eye.

She was walking in the same direction a little ways in front of Ludwik.

As to why the girl caught his eye, it’s because she was dangerously unreliable: often coming to a halt, looking around restlessly left and right, bumping her shoulders into people nearby, stumbling several times, ending up being shoved along when a wave of people push from her side.

She seems terribly unused to navigating through a crowd and has a troubled look on her face. Being overwhelmed by the number of people, she seems unable to figure out how to advance forward.

She’s facing forward so Ludwik couldn’t see her face, but with a slender waist, supple arms, and healthy thighs that wind down to dainty ankles, she was a girl with a remarkably elegant figure from behind. Her glossy, flaxen hair dangles down to her back.

As for age, she looks to be around sixteen or seventeen.

As she teetered one way then tottered another, Ludwik became worried that she’ll fall over. As Ludwik was watching on nervously as if he were on tenterhooks,

The girl suddenly turned around.

As she suddenly turned her small heels, which were covered in leather shoes, trying to reverse her direction, her small head collided forcefully against Ludwik’s shoulder, for Ludwik, who had begun to advance towards her, couldn’t dodge in time.

“Kyah”

“Wah”

Each raises his, her respective voice.

Repelled by Ludwik’s body, the girl’s slender body was about to fall over backwards. Ludwik hurriedly winds his arm around her delicate waist to support her.

“I-I’m sorr—”

The girl begins to apologize with a bright, adorable voice.

While doing so, she looks up towards Ludwik’s face with her own hidden by a mask.

“!”

Upon which, her shoulders immediately jolt with a start.

“Eh?! Kya—h!”

She chirped.

(What was the “Eh?!” and “Kya—h!” about just now?)

Ludwik was startled as well, causing him to reflexively hold onto her tighter as he flinched.

“P-please, let go.”

The girl appeals while twisting her body.

She then stained her cheeks bright red, and with a voice as faint as a ghost,

“I-I’m fine now, so.”

She added.

“R-right.”

Her bashful demeanor, seeming to signal that she’s not used to interacting with the opposite sex, was simply adorable, causing Ludwik to become flustered as well. He obediently removes his arm, upon which the girl with the flaxen hair cast her face downward and muttered something in a small voice again,

“It’s okay… Calm down, he shouldn’t have realized.”

“Eh?”

“It’s nothing. Now then, excuse me.” I’ll be going now

She turned her back towards Ludwik in a huff, but immediately after, she bumps right into someone in front of her and begins falling backwards once again.

As her body fell towards him,

“What th— watch out!”

Ludwik hurriedly catches her shoulders, upon which this time even her nape begins to flush red as she turns towards him.

“D-don’t mind me.”

She says in a shrill, nervous voice as if she’s feeling vexed and embarrassed before turning her face forward again and walking off while continuing to bump into people.

As Ludwik followed her with his eyes, wondering, “Is she really okay?” worriedly, for some reason the girl stopped and slooowly turned backwards towards him as discretely as possible, as if to observe him.

The moment her eyes met with his,

“!”

Her shoulders jump, after which she turns back around and begins briskly walking forward in a panic. After bumping into and being pushed to the side by several people, she turns towards Ludwik again.

Their eyes meet again.

“!”

She begins walking again, then—

After repeating the same suspicious actions three times, the girl bit her lips with a beet red face and returned to where Ludwik was. She expresses her discontentment,

“You’re troubling me! Why do you keep looking at me?”

“You seem unused to large crowds, so I’m worried whether you’ll be fine. By the way, how am I troubling you?”

“W-, Well— I’m saying that being stared at by a man feels unsettling. That’s why, do kindly stop minding me and go meet your sweetheart already— I mean, please don’t mind me.”

“Sweetheart? I’m not scheduled to meet anyone.”

Ludwik answers perplexedly, upon which the girl accuses him with a doubtful voice.

“You say that, but you’re really scheduled to meet with a coquettish flower girl aren’t you?”

She looked left and right at the people behind Ludwik restlessly.

Why a flower girl? As Ludwik became increasingly baffled,

“It seems she hasn’t arrived yet, huh.”

The girl mutters. Next, she suddenly points her index finger sharply towards Ludwik, almost touching his face.

“You seem like a real softie so I’ll let you know: Just because she sells flowers doesn’t mean that inside, she’s sweet and pure like a flower as well. Flower girls who are master swindlers or assassins are not uncommon even in literature— I mean, even in stories. The moment handsome and sociable men like you, whom one can tell are extremely popular with girls from a mere glance, let their guards down, they’ll be tricked and end up with their heads rolling on the floor.”

“Eh? Ehh?”

Swindlers? Assassins? What is this girl saying all of a sudden?

“For example, concealing a poisonous snake within a flower basket, smearing poison onto flower petals, stabbing your throat once through with the sharp end of a flower stem…”

What kind of girl sees a flower and imagines variations on assassination?

However, her expression is dead serious. Her pointed eyebrows and pouting lips tied slightly to one side look unduly adorable.

“By stuffing your nose and mouth full of flower petals, she could also suffocate you. Even if she’s not an assassin, she could be a swindler. If she says she’s selling flowers to pay for her the medicine of a sick family member, be wary! A confessional backstory of being put into a treasure chest as a baby and set down a river, where she was eventually picked up downstream by an elderly couple requires attention as well.”

“R-right. Thanks.”

(This girl’s a real oddball, but she’s cute, isn’t she.)

Moreover, she’s really pretty.

The upper half of her face is hidden by her mask, but her nose traces a straight line and her lips are small and elegant. Her skin, illuminated by the moon in the sky and the torches lining the streets, is white and translucent like snow.

She’s bound to be even more beautiful if she removes her mask.

Her outfit is something a towns girl would wear: a simple blouse topped with a vest and finished with a skirt. However, the textiles used are of good quality, and the sewing was done attentively as well. The design is a bit old-fashioned, like something that would have been popular a decade ago, but that only served to give it a feeling of freshness.

More than anything, her gestures carry an aura of refinement. She’s probably the tomboy daughter of some noble family who snuck away to come see the festival.

Listening to her outlandish warnings became more and more amusing, such that Ludwik almost accidentally let some laughter leak out. Struggling to contain himself, his face naturally turned into a smile as he said to her,

“I’ll keep my eyes out. But, I really am alone for tonight. If you happen to be alone as well, wanna walk around the festival together?”

“Eh?”

The girl opens her eyes wide behind her mask.

“You can have some peace of mind if you keep watch over me so that I’m not tricked by a malicious girl, right?”

Ludwik says, upon which, while fidgeting her body,

“Y-y-y-you have have a point. If we walk together, I can guard you against swindlers and assassins better when they approach you… as well”

She mutters, turning her chin abruptly to the side.

“Very well. Please stick close to me.”

“Thanks, you’re a big help.”

Ludwik smiles sweetly, upon which her face is stained red again, which she tries to hide by turning to the side once again.

(This girl seems unused to the festival and dangerously unreliable, so it’s best that I look after her.)

Ludwik felt like a guardian. If she knew what he was thinking, she would probably become very upset though.

“Let’s go over there first.”

She began to step forward, but was immediately repelled by the crowd and unable to advance. Doing his best to contain himself once again,

“It’s best not to go against the flow of people. In times like these, you shouldn’t rush, but patiently walk in the same direction as everyone else.

As Ludwik offers advice by her ears, her earlobes were stained red and she whimpered as if to express that she felt humiliated.

“T… thanks. I’ll contemplate that for now. I mean, I’ll keep that in mind.”

She persisted in acting tough but still thanked him.

She has an unyielding spirit, but it seems she does have the humility to consider others’ words. The reason she expressly corrects her formal speech, which she leaks out at times, into casual speech must be because she usually speaks in formal language.

(For a noble daughter, the plain speech of a townsgirl must feel fresh.)

Ludwik slackens his mouth, upon which the girl testily curved her mouth downwards.

“You may be thinking that I’m a slow and clumsy girl, but that is not the case— I mean, that isn’t true. After all, my legs are really quick. I never lost to boys in a race when I was a child. It’s just that I’ve never had a chance to walk around where there are lots of people gathered in one place. Though I may look like this, I actually have an abundance of life experiences and have escaped hell several times.”

“The hell that such a delicate-looking girl could escape must be awfully easygoing,” Ludwik thought as tried his best to hold his laughter in.

(This girl really is an oddball and a cute one at that.)

“So, I can buy food from the food stands by myself as well. As thanks for helping me when I was about to fall over just now, I’ll offer you something— I mean, I’ll treat you. We’ll be even then.”

The girl checks out the different foods being offered by several stands nearby.

“That looks good.”

She said, twitching her perky nose with glittering eyes at the fragrant aroma coming from the pork skewers of a stall in front of them to their right.

(She said she’d treat me, but she just wants to eat that herself, doesn’t she…)

The girl was about to bump into someone again when Ludwik gently pulled her back, causing her to whimper again in shame. The two slowly but steadily made their way to the pork skewer stand like so, upon which,

“I’ll have two skewers, please.”

She takes out a gold coin from a small silk bag triumphantly and hands it to the owner.

“Missy, I can’t accept this.”

Having her coin returned to her, she opens her eyes wide in a fluster.

“Eh? W-what do you mean? This is a gold coin that’s commonly used throughout the continent. It should be the case in Rhodesia too.”

“Indeed, it’s a Dahl gold coin of the highest purity. However, I don’t have enough change for it—.”

“C-change?”

“Please pay with a cheaper coin.”

“Cheaper coins…? I only have these… Umm, I don’t need the change, so.”

“I can’t accept that! Even if you buy everything I’m selling, I still wouldn’t be able to give you enough change. I’ve done honest business for over thirty years, and I intend to continue doing so.”

“B-but… Then, what should I…”

The girl was at a loss.

—That person’s ignorance of the world was staggering. When he tried to buy sweet dumplings from a food stand with a gold coin, the owner told him she doesn’t have enough change so she can’t accept it. He became all flustered, asking “Eh? Eh? I can’t pay with this?” in confusion.

Ludwik, recalling his mother’s story of the first encounter between King Calvin and herself, slipped out a chuckle.

“I’ll pay. Is this fine, Mister?”

Ludwik says as he takes out two copper coins, upon which,

“Yes, thanks for your patronage! These are freshly grilled and piping hot. I picked out ones with a thick piece of meat for you two.”

Ludwik and the girl are each handed a skewer of grilled pork, potatoes, and onions.

The girl stared at her skewer with a complicated face.

“Are you not gonna eat?”

Ludwik inquires, upon which

“If I eat it, you’ll be the one treating me. Even though I’m the one who’s supposed to treat you.”

She mutters as if to say she’s unsatisfied.

“Who cares? Either way is fine isn’t it?”

“It is not fine! I mean, it isn’t fine.”

As the girl was objecting, a “Kuu—” sound was heard.

It was not a growl of frustration but a growl from her stomach.

Ludwik’s mouth slacken yet again. The girl’s face turns into a tomato.

“Your stomach seems to be saying, ‘Either way is fine, so let me eat already.'”

“….h”

“It’s tastier when eaten while still hot, so let’s dig in.”

He suggests, upon which the girl wriggles her body.

“W-well, it’s a rare occasion after all. I’ll thank you later. I don’t like owing people without repaying them.”

She says, insistent on repaying him.

“Where are the chairs? Also, where can we borrow a knife and a fork?”

She surveys their surroundings.

“You eat it standing up.”

“Eh?”

“Like this.”

Ludwik demonstrates by picking a piece of meat up with his teeth and pulling it off the top of the skewer into his mouth, upon which behind her mask, the girl’s eyes widen in surprise.

But right after,

“I see! So you eat it standing up!”

Seeming delighted, she grins.

“Thank you for the treat.”

She says, and mimicking Ludwik, opens her mouth wide and pulls a piece of meat off the skewer with her teeth.

However, because the girl’s mouth is very small, she couldn’t fit the whole piece into her mouth. Thus, she had to bite a piece off, which she did with all her might, upon which

“I, it’s hot…!”

She became teary eyed as she furrowed her eyebrows. She frantically chewed the meat then quickly lifted her chin up, gulping it down. She brought her chin back down as she let out a sigh of relief, after which,

“But, it’s delicious!”

She says, smiling with her whole face.

“I’ve always aspired to eat while standing once. It makes me feel like I’m on a serious adventure!”

She said excitedly. Afterwards, she ate more gracefully, blowing on the meat to cool it before biting off a piece to chew.

It seems her adventure has left her gums with burns that are bothering her. Even so,

“Delicious—. These potatoes and onions too, how are they so tasty when they look like they were just grilled normally?”

She’s moved to wonder.

“There’s sauce around your mouth.”

“Eh!”

The girl wipes her mouth with one hand flusteredly, upon which Ludwik stretches his hand out,

“Not there, here.”

He wipes the side of her mouth then smiles sweetly, upon which she peeled her eyes back in shock behind her mask and her entire body petrified.

“Yup, it’s gone.”

To Ludwik, this was something he was used to doing all the time for his little sister Lottie. It didn’t have any deep meaning to him. But to the girl, things appear to be another story. Her lips tremble like a wave of bubbles as she says,

“T… thank… you. B, but, it isn’t proper to touch a girl so c, casually. I mean, it’s not good.”

Ludwik could only hear bits and pieces of her words due to the noisy surroundings. However, seeing that she’s mumbling and grumbling while turning her face, stained bright-red, downward,

“Umm, I’m sorry.”

He apologized.

“By the way, the candied walnuts taste superb as well. I recommend them.”

The girl looks up at Ludwik with upturned eyes as if still embarrassed.

“Really…?”

“Wanna try some?”

“Well… I, is that something I can buy with a gold coin?”

She asks anxiously.

“I’ll pay for it in advance. When I’ve spent a gold coin’s worth on you, you can pay me back.”

“I, is that so? Then you won’t be treating me, so it’s fine.”

She says, finally raising her chin.

In reality, even if she tries out different food stands until her stomach bursts, to eat a gold coin’s worth of food would require a few months.

“By the way, could you tell me your name by now? I’m Ludy.”

Ludwik says, upon which the girl casts a glance at Ludwik then bends her mouth downward, answering hesitantly.

“It’s Florin.”

“Florin, huh—. It’s a light, nice name.”

Ludwik praises her, upon which she fidgets and says,

“Y, your name isn’t bad either, Ludy. More importantly, where are the candied walnuts?”

“They’re this way.”

Ludwik guided her to the right stand. Florin appeared taken with the candied walnuts as well, extolling

“It’s crunchy and delicious. Ah—, but, the caramel made my hand all sticky. But it’s delicious.”

She looks seriously troubled. Ludwik tells her, “Just lick your fingers.”, and demonstrates by doing so himself. “That’s poor manners. B, but, I’m all sticky, s, so it can’t be helped.” She licks herself hesitantly with her pink tongue as she looks around restlessly to make sure no one’s watching her.

Afterwards, they did things like watch a race of piglets, play ring toss, and scoop loaches. Florin was overflowing with curiosity; no matter what she looked at, she would glitter her eyes in amazement here and delight there.

Seeing such a vivaciously charming girl, Ludwik couldn’t help but slacken his cheeks. Noticing this, Florin reddened her face and wriggled her body, asking with an upset, embarrassed voice,

“Why do you keep smiling at every little thing I do, Ludy?”

“Because it’s cute how you’re so unused to everything, Florin.”

He replies, upon which she twitches her shoulders and

“Y, you’re used to all this, huh.”

“Yeah, I’m used to it for the most part.”

He was raised as a commoner after all. Walking through crowds and finding delicious food stands come easily to him.

“How indecent.”

“Ehhh?”

“Even though I thought you were a gullible softie so I was worried a trickster taking advantage of you, to think that you’re this used to talking to girls… You’re the real trickster.”

It appears that Florin, who is tying her lips to the side, misunderstood what he meant when he said he was “used to it.” Even as he falters a bit from being glared at, Ludwik thought that that innocent part of her is unbearably cute too.

“But, thanks to my experience, I know what you want next.”

“Oh really, now. What is it then?”

Ludwik bought two cups of strawberry-flavored water and handed one to Florin.

Florin untied her lips and opened her eyes wide, and her face, which had flushed from the heat of the festival, reddened further for another reason as she mumbled, “You’re right.” looking vexed.

“My throat felt really dry.”

She accepted the strawberry water and drank half of it in one go.

Doing so, she widens her eyes again and spilled out a smile.

“Eluuka! (Delicious!)”

She exclaimed.

That was Endrish.

This time, it was Ludwik’s eyes that widened.

Realizing what just happened, Florin covered her mouth with her free hand.

“Do you come from the Endrish Empire?”

He inquires, upon which her eyes behind the mask begin to swim as she fidgets restlessly.

“T, that’s right… Gosh, without thinking, I… No, what should I do? No no, darn it, even though I was being careful, I, I let my guard down. This strawberry water was too tasty, so gosh, geez, no.”

She says, after which she vibrates her head rapidly back and forth, causing her lustrous flaxen hair to tremble along as well. Florin looks so flustered that Ludwik starts to feel a bit sorry for asking.

“Umm, was it something I shouldn’t have asked?”

“Yeah, that’s right, you shouldn’t have asked! N, no, it’s not that… it’s just, i, it sounds cold, right?”

“Eh?”

“…The language of my country.”

She says in a small voice as she cast her face down, bringing her arms close to her body.

“Not at all. Endrish has a lovely ring to it; moreover, when you grinned and yelled, “Eluuka!” just now, it was so cute that my heart skipped a beat.”

Florin opens her eyes wide and lifts her face up.

“Y, you’re lying. When I speak the language of my homeland, everyone says it sounds like I’m putting on airs and belittling them. Of course it does, and really, it’s fine like that… but—”

Florin’s voice shrinks again.

It’s true that the Endrish that comes out of Queen Katerina’s mouth is chilly and sounds like she’s looking down on others, making them feel nervous.

However, the word that flew out from Florin’s mouth was adorable. It might not be scientific, but that’s how Ludwik heard it so it can’t be helped.

“It’s not fine. The people who said that to you are just rude. Both your country’s language and you yourself are very wonderful.”

To Florin, who looked like she was about to cry when she had her breath suddenly taken away, Ludwik spoke slowly and tenderly in Endrish.

“El stella revarnya toris bela (It is my honor to meet you. How beautiful you are.)”

These are the words that Ludwik practiced over and over again before Queen Katerina came to marry him.

The words that failed to reach the queen came out naturally from Ludwik’s lips along with a sweet breath.

Florin’s eyebrows drooped downward, after which she exclaimed with a beet red face.

“Nei, nei (Stop, stop), stop. Why are you saying that? Sberro dela fordia (You’ll make my heart flutter, gosh), even though that’s no good… Ana deesta angrela (I’m fine with being an anathema)…”

She complained to Ludwik with alternating Endrish and Dahl. As she did so, her eyebrows drooped downwards more and more.

Her slender shoulders seem so terribly lonely, causing a sense of duty to rise within Ludwik as one who had served as a confidant to many a woman back when he was the young master of a dressmaker. He inquires,

“Florin, is this country not a happy place for you?”

Even though until just now, she was smiling so gaily, glittering her eyes at everything she saw.

Florin casts her eyes downward.

“Well, that’s… The truth is, I didn’t want to come. But, I had no choice considering the circumstances back home, as I had caused too much trouble…”

After muttering a reply that’s difficult to interpret, she faces Ludwik with moistened eyes and says firmly,

“However, I’ve always admired Rhodesia, and I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ve always dreamed that wonderful things must occur in this country all the time. After all, it’s the country of freedom and stories.”

“The country of stories?”

Slowly— a faint smile surfaces from Florin’s lips.

Her face looks lonely, but at the same time, is showing a gentle smile imbued with admiration. Seeing her complicated expression, Ludwik felt his heart skip a beat as if he were struck by a surprise attack.

Florin weaves words with a serene voice,

“…There are faeries and wizards living in Rhodesia’s forests, no?

“Yeah, that’s how the stories go… That there’s a fairy queen in the forests who rules the spirit world, and that, one must not wander too deep into the forest because of that.”

Ludwik recalls how he encountered a young girl with blue hair at night two days ago when he was wandering through the forest dead drunk.

People keep fairy tales close to their hearts in Rhodesia. They accept the existence of supernatural beings as a given fact.

Hearing Ludwik’s response, Florin’s eyes become increasingly filled with admiration.

“My homeland Endra is a country built upon an endless plain of ice, so I’ve always admired Rhodesia with its expansive forests.”

To think that a girl raised in the advanced Great Empire of the North would envy a rural and small country like Rhodesia… It might be similar to how Ludwik who’s the king envies Yan’s family, who lives together rustically in the forest.

Like how because it’s something faraway that one can’t have, it appears beautiful and precious all the more.

“Endrish winters are exceedingly long. Day after day, snow continues to fall. Everyone becomes bored being unable to go outside, so we all gather in front of the hearth and recite stories to one another. Everyone has his, her favorite stories… My number one favorite story is ‘Paulette the Quick-Eared.'”

It’s a story told among Rhodesians as well, so Ludwik knows it as well. Florin begins reciting it energetically,

“Paulette was the youngest daughter of three sisters of a noble family that had gone bankrupt. Her two older sisters were gentle and kind beauties but had no survival skills. Paulette wasn’t as much of a beauty, but she excelled at gathering information and had both the wits to figure out how to make use of her information and the courage to execute her plans. Thus, she set a condition for the brother princes courting her sisters: recover for them her family’s treasures that the ogres, who live in the forests, had stolen from them. Like so, she was able to recover her family treasures one after another, and in the end the ogres were all eliminated and she became the wife of the youngest prince as well. I always get excited when Paulette heads toward the castle in the forest. That’s why, when I first crossed the border into Rhodesia, as the carriage raced through the vivid green forestry that had begun to cover both sides of the road, I was moved to wonder… However, I quickly began to feel sick, and didn’t have the luxury of reveling in the experience anymore.”

“Eh, how come?”

Ludwik asks, upon which, she answers despondently,

“I was used to traveling on stone-paved roads, so I had no idea that the carriage would rock so much when traveling on a dirt road… Despite that, I stuck my torso out the window in excitement, so partway through I became hopelessly nauseous. Even after my feet touched ground, it felt like if I moved just a little, I would vomit everything onto the chest of the person who came to welcome me. I felt irritated like I was on tenterhooks and wanted to be by myself as soon as possible.”

“T, that sounds like a hard time.”

“Yes. But, I’m glad I was able to give a bad first impression thanks to that. It let me build myself up to be a woman who’s nasty to the core.”

“I see… You wanted… to give a bad impression?”

“N, no, that’s not it. I just jumbled my words up a bit… But truly, that forest was breathtaking. It would have been even better if I didn’t come alone, but as a pair though”

“A pair? Who’s the other person?”

Ludwik’s chest suddenly felt clouded.

He’s experienced this sensation before.

“That” development when he’s asked for love advice from a girl with whom he’s achieved a good atmosphere…

“Could it be— your lover by any chance?”

Ludwik asks, feigning calmness, upon which Florin’s eyebrows droop downward before his very eyes. Ahh, this is the usual “that” after all. Crestfallen, Ludwik slumps his shoulders.

(No, I’m a married man myself; I just thought she’s cute… It wouldn’t hurt to let me dream a little would it…)

Oblivious to Ludwik’s complicated sentiments, Florin turns her face down further and further, continuing with the expression of a girl troubled by love problems.

“He’s not… my lover. He’s my unrequited love who doesn’t take me seriously at all. I kept hopes up until the very last minute that he would try to stop me when I was leaving, then that he would come to kidnap me partway through my journey, but it was no good. He wasn’t such a showy person to begin with, and whether it be stamina, arm strength, or leg speed, I’m superior to him. Moreover, he’s a laggard who finds everything bothersome. If you leave him alone, he won’t eat for three or four days at a time nor take a shower… on top of that, he frequently goes missing… That’s the kind of person he is, so I knew I couldn’t expect anything from him, but, but, I just couldn’t give up in the end after all… That’s why, when I crossed the border, I made a bet.”

“A bet?”

Rather, a man with less stamina than a girl, who treats eating as a bother and often goes missing? Just what kind of person is he?

Ludwik asks while feeling baffled, upon which, Florin formed a gallant expression with her small face.

“That if I continue to love him with an unchanging heart, this love of mine will come true. It’s just a bet I arbitrarily made in my own heart though.”

Ludwik’s heart was squeezed tight by the sadness mixed in her eyes despite her gallant expression.

Ahh, I’m done. If you show me such an earnest, devoted face, I’ll end up falling for you.

There should be no way for Florin to know about Ludwik’s fluctuating feelings, yet she turned her face down as if to avoid his gaze.

“But because of that, I’ve ended up causing a lot of trouble for someone… I feel really guilty that that person has had many awful feelings because of me… even so, I was unable to let go of the childish bet I made with myself…”

Florin’s voice becomes hoarse, and her lowered eyes behind the mask quiver.

Meanwhile, the pain that strangled Ludwik’s heart only keeps increasing.

Again? This pattern again?

A girl who has someone else in mind won’t return one’s love no matter how much one falls in love with her. After all is said and done, every girl returns to her original lover in the end,

Whispering, “Ludy, you’re such a nice guy,” with a smile on her face.

Each time that happens, Ludwik endures pain that bursts his heart open, slumping into the darkness.

When Ulrika reconciled with and married her shoemaker lover, Ludwik solemnly swore that he would never do something so stupid as become a “nice guy” again. He wouldn’t serve as the confidant for a girl’s love troubles, nor would he let himself fall in love with a girl who has someone else in mind or a girl who’s engaged.

Yet, why is his heart being drawn towards a girl who is head over heels for another man again?

(I mustn’t. I have a wife, and plus, I haven’t revealed my true identity to Florin. I mustn’t think something like that, despite these things, I can make Florin smile more than the man who’s causing her grief.)

It’s different from when he was the single young master of a dressmaker.

As the king, Ludwik’s love affair would be a major national issue. To make Florin his lover would be to welcome her into the castle as the king’s concubine.

When that happens, will I still be able to protect her smile?

Just the contrary, I’d take her smile away from her.

(That’s right, I can’t let myself be washed away by the atmosphere. I’ve gotta switch gears.)

Just then, lively music coming from the square was heard.

The dance had begun.

Couples both with and without masks take each other’s hand and begin to dance. It looks like great fun.

So as to cheer Florin, who was slumping in low spirits, up, Ludwik says in a sunny voice,

“Look, the dance has started. Let’s go to the square and dance with everyone too! You wouldn’t know, but I love dancing!”

Florin’s body jumps with a start.

She seems to be shaken by Ludwik’s words.

“About that… I…”

She muttered in a low voice while grimacing as if in pain.

What’s wrong?

Why is she making fists with her hands so tightly, biting her lips, and facing downward?

Because I invited her to dance?

Is it that she’s not in the mood to dance right now because she’s troubled about the guy she likes? Or is it that Florin, just like Queen Katerina, dislikes dancing?

Ludwik gazes intently at Florin concernedly, upon which,

“Ah!”

As Florin had slowly raised her head timidly, she suddenly opened her eyes wide and shouted.

“What happened?!”

Ludwik asks in alarm, upon which Florin now begins standing on her tiptoes. She looks past Ludwik’s shoulders, fixating her eyes on one spot.

“That man just kissed a girl.”

“Eh?”

Ludwik turns around and follows Florin’s gaze, upon which he discovers a couple exchanging a thick, deep kiss within the flock of couples whirling round and round.

A golden-haired young man dressed in splendid clothes, with laces along the cuffs and collar of his shirt, has his hands all over his partner, a girl who is similarly wearing a dazzling dress.

(Uwaah)

Ludwik peels his eyes as well.

“F, Florin! I, I didn’t have such lewd things in mind when I said, Let’s dance.”; I genuinely love dancing! I asked because I want to dance with you, not because—”

Ludwik desperately tries to explain himself, upon which Florin reddens slightly,

“No, not that. I’m not suspecting you nor surprised by the kiss. Ah, again!”

The young man’s hand removes the girl’s earring, slipping it into his breast pocket speedily and smoothly, after which again, he unfastens her necklace this time and slips it into his breast pocket.

“That person’s a thief!”

Florin whispers shrilly into Ludwik’s ear.

As turns the entranced girl to

“We’ve gotta chase him.”

Florin says on the spot. Until just now, she was showing a sorrowful and unreliable expression thinking about her love for a cold, slothful man, yet now, her eyes are full of vigor as if she’s a different person.

Seeing Florin suggest that they chase after the thief without any sign of hesitation whatsoever causes Ludwik to panic.

“Ehhhhhhhhhhh?! Let’s notify the guards on duty instead!”

That’s the normal response, right?

Yet,

“It’ll be too late.”

She answers flatly, upon which she immediately sets her heels and runs off.

“W, wait! It’s dangerous!”

Ludwik calls out as he chases after her, but she doesn’t stop.

“Out of the way! Let me through!”

She yells, charging through the flock of couples audaciously like a wild boar. Her skirt waves and her flaxen hair flutters in the wind as she transforms into a reckless girl running dangerously fast through a crowd. Witnessing her power,

“Wah!”

“Kyah, what’s going on?!”

The couples vocalize their fright bewilderedly as they get out of the way.

(Uwaah, why is she so motivated!?)

Aren’t girls supposed to get scared if they witness a scene of crime? To do the complete opposite and leap into the case herself—

“Pursuing thieves isn’t the role of us regular citizens!”

As Ludwik chases after her, continuing to try to persuade her otherwise, the flames burning from the pine torches lining the square and the moonlight pouring from the heavens illuminate Florin as she turns around, fluttering her flaxen hair. She glitters her violet eyes underneath the mask and announces loudly,

“If that’s the case, then as of this moment, I’m a special knight who’s been ordered by the king to resolve this incident!”

Her words make Ludwik dizzy.

“That doesn’t count as an order from the king at all!”

He retorts, upon which Florin declares heroically,

“Don’t worry, I won’t let His Majesty complain.”

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