I winced reflexively. I tried to move my feet, but there was broken glass all over the floor.
It was painful.
I sharply sensed that blood was leaking through the cut, and then the throbbing began to take control of my feet.
I heard the man’s neat voice.
“What are you doing now…?”
Before I could finish my sentence, he came up to me and picked me up gently.
At the same time, his body scent drifted into my nose. The scent that resembled him, was both splendid and luxurious.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. So let go of me.”
“Stay where you are. Don’t turn down help.”
Unlike his fake flawless smile, his arms were spacious and comfortable.
I didn’t know where to look, so I looked at the other parts of the room and hoped he’d drop me off soon.
He sat carefully in a chair, and looked down at me, while I was cradled against his chest. Blood was dripping down the floor.
His low voice rubbed against my ears.
“I saw one presence, but she moved away. I’m sure she will bring something to help you…”
Jason’s gaze turned to the doorway when he heard the voice interrupting him.
What he said was correct. Aunt Mary was approaching, carrying a small wooden box.
“My God, look at the blood! Ethel, why did you get hurt like this? Are you okay?”
“…… I’m fine.”
Finally, I looked to the ground and saw the few drops of blood that had splattered there.
Mary’s face turned pale. I tried to get up, but a strong force grabbed me tightly.
I turned and looked at Jason.
He laughed softly and said, “I’ll take care of you, so just sit tight. It’s my fault. Oh, and madam…?”
Mary’s eyes wavered as his gaze went to her.
“Can I have a moment alone with Ethel? I need to talk to her.”
“Yes, of course.”
Mary placed the first aid kit on the table and stepped away.
Jason got up from his seat and sat me down on the chair.
He opened the first aid kit, grabbed some tweezers, medicine, cotton and bandages, then knelt down on one knee in front of me and examined the wound.
“Well, it’s a deep cut.”
He lifted his head and stared at me.
“It’s going to take some time to heal. You’d better not do any walking.”
Our breaths oozed out into the quiet air.
His deep lashes tilted, and with a sharp tweezer he pulled out the glass. “Ugh,” a small groan escaped my lips.
There was blood and wounds, but he did not look panicked.
What does he do? For a moment, I was curious. He skillfully disinfected the wound and then bandaged it up. It seemed he knew this kind of work.
When I looked at his neat shirt collar, I didn’t think he was someone who was out there touching blood and wounds. I guess it was my bias.
I was glad it wasn’t too bad that I needed stitches.
He raised his head and looked at me.
When our eyes met, he turned his head and smiled gently, as if to reassure me.
But no words of consolation were spoken.
“Next time, make sure you wear some shoes to work. If your feet hurt, it will bother you all day.”
It was a very gentle voice.
Jason pulled one one of the chairs out and sat in front of me.
“Why did you take your shoes off? I’m curious.”
I don’t normally wear shoes except at lunchtime or dinner time when it’s crowded with customers.
‘We can’t look alike. Shoes.’ I shook my head, thinking in my mind.
I didn’t want to waste time talking rubbish to a stranger.
“Would you like me to give you one? I’ll give you a pretty dress as well.”
“No, I didn’t mean to be hostile. I don’t like presents either.”
“Come to think of it, was the woman from earlier your mother?”
Let’s not give him any doubts. I’ve been working very hard. I’ve been protecting this place very well.
“Yes. The owners of this inn are my parents.”
The man replied as if we were friends for a long time. It hadn’t been but only a few minutes since we met.
However, with that appearance, everyone would surely want to be his friends. He had an impression that would please everyone. It was a category that seemed to be a million miles away from me.
“Is there anything that Ethel wants to know about me?”
I responded with a generous smile.
“Does Ethel not like me? I’m a little disappointed.”
“I wasn’t trying to be rude, sir. Just…”
“Do you want to do something fun with me, Ethel?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t…”
“The rewards will be more than you can imagine.”
“I am just a stupid commoner girl. I don’t want to engage in the work with someone as noble as Lord Evanders.”
“I believe Ethel will do well enough.”
He pushed my rejection aside with a sly smile. His face was smiling, his tone was still kind but coercive.
“I have an interesting story to tell you… can you keep a secret?”
The look in his eyes, which was only kind, sank deeper.
He interlocked his long and manly fingers.
“You seem to know when to use your mouth, so it must be a lie when you said you were stupid.”
The man chuckled.
“A commoner who knows her duties well is a smart commoner.”
* * *
“I need a substitute.”
The sunset approached and then moved away. A small force pushed my back and I could see the sky and my toes as my hair fluttered in the wind.
I gripped the two ropes tightly and became absorbed in swinging.
Daisy, who had pushed the swing, sat beside me and looked up at the sky.
“What are you thinking, sister?”
“Nothing. It’s just…”
I watched the sunset again, and the voice penetrated clearly into my ears.
“…His Majesty the Emperor and Empress lost their youngest daughter, and they are so heartbroken that they can’t sleep comfortably or eat well. If Ethel can help me, they will be happy to have their daughter back, and Ethel will be able to help with your family budget…….”
“I am not as beautiful as the youngest princess of the rumors, nor do I have strong abilities.”
“I think you’re beautiful enough.”
The hands holding the dangling rope grew stronger.
I gripped the rope tightly and let out a deep breath.
“They don’t say that often, do they? Pretty.”
Daisy’s voice interrupted my thoughts. I turned and looked at Daisy.
Daisy said with a lively look in her eyes.
“You know that story you told me before we went to bed? The ugly duckling princess.”
“How does it end? You didn’t tell me the ending.”
I let out a short sigh and said as if it was insignificant.
“The ugly duckling, who had never looked in the mirror before, decided to look in the mirror when she forgot all the painful memories at the palace.
That’s when she became an adult.
The ugly duckling closed her eyes tightly. She slowly floated up and looked at herself. She was very surprised.”
“Why is that?”
“It had a beautiful beak, white feathers, and a noble appearance. The duckling, more beautiful than any duck, was reflected in the pond.
Yes, the ugly duckling was, in fact, not the ugly duckling.”
“It wasn’t a duck, but a swan…” Daisy said.
I gave a small laugh.
“The ugly duckling princess no longer hated herself, but loved herself. She had learned to accept her reflection in the mirror and to protect it with all her heart.”
“It would have been a lot more interesting if there was a mystery of her birth.”
Laughing at Daisy’s cute whining, I turned my head and concentrated on the swing.
“Anyway, the happy Ugly Duckling was no longer alone. Because she and the strong duck met again, had babies and formed a family, and lived happily ever after.”
I laughed bitterly at the sound of Daisy’s voice.
Unlike real life, fairy tales for children must have a happy ending.
I couldn’t help but ponder as I watched the faint smile on Daisy’s lips.
“Despite my appearance, I am just an empty shell. I can’t make the stars shine, and I can’t even hear them. And all of those abilities that the princess is reputed to have….”
“Ethel, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s because Princess Stella had very little ability to begin with.”
“That can’t be…”
“That was the testimony of someone who knew Princess Stella better than Ethel. You don’t need to worry about that.”
I scoffed when the man said that it was the testimony of someone who knew Princess Stella better than I did. I closed my eyes and felt the wind tickling my ears.
“Ethel just needs to be Princess Stella. You won’t have to stay in the palace for long because your marriage is already decided.”
“Clyde – the Duke of Delanhill. He’s very wealthy, young and handsome, so don’t worry, Ethel.”
Clyde – The Duke of Delanhill.
I was reminded once again of the title “Duke” that followed the familiar name.
Clyde Delanhill, I wondered, is that the man I know?
Then how did the Baron’s bastard son who was Joseph’s swordsmanship partner become a Duke?
Did I hear it wrong?
Or maybe there were two people named Delanhill.
I pictured him in my memory as the recent visitor at the restaurant.
He was a handsome man who had a striking resemblance to the boy in my memory.
I remembered my conversation with Jason again. I had a firm look of rejection on my face.
“It’s a tempting proposition, but I…”
“Ethel, there are things that we all value and want to protect.”
“I’m not sure if I understand what you meant by that.”
“Princess Karen values her family very much.”
His eyes sank coldly.
“Doesn’t Ethel cherish anything?”
It was an obvious threat. I closed my eyes tightly.
It was on a Tuesday that I was reunited with a face I believed I would never see again.
A woman who looked like she was made out of moonlight walked into the inn with two knights behind her.
“I’m here to see a person named Ethel.”
As I was wiping the table, I raised my head and looked at her.
What is to come has come. Our eyes met.