"...Ah... umm... hey,"
—In the middle of a beautifully paved road, illuminated by the noonday sun, I opened my mouth falteringly.
But try as I might the words would not come out beyond that point. No, I no longer even knew what I had been going to say. In my heart was the perhaps unreasonable but compulsive feeling that if I did not say something here, I would regret it, and nothing else.
—As I stood paralyzed like that, El turned a troubled expression towards me.
I certainly hadn't wanted to make El troubled like that. It was true that I had spoken selfishly to him more than once, but that was because I knew El would accept it to the bitter end. I hadn't wanted to make him look like that... as if he didn't know what to do.
—And yet... I didn't know what I should do either, and...
Even though it must have been the same for El... No. Rather, even though it must have been far harder on him than it was on me, I only made him troubled, and could do nothing. The moment that tears seemed about to come to my eyes at my own wretchedness, his hand gently brushed my head.
—Even I could tell that he was putting on a brave face.
After all, his family, which had always served mine, had been suddenly dismissed. It seemed an unbelievably poor way to treat servants who, far from committing any conspicuous errors, had steadily accumulated merit. Not to mention... normally, it was customary to mediate a servant's next place of employment after dismissing them. But my father, who had dismissed his parents, had merely given them notice that they were dismissed, without mediating their next place of work.
—That poor treatment, which might even be called abnormal, had given rise to nasty rumors, and...
Rumors that his parents had been embezzling our family funds and the like were the least of them. It was even whispered within the estate that El's father had committed adultery with mother. Of course, I gave no credence to such gossip. Still, the problem was that such rumors in and of themselves linked his to ill repute, so...—
"Father told me. He said we'll definitely pull through somehow. So, I'm sure everything will be fine."
It was true that El's father was a fine person. I too respected him; he not only performed his work perfectly, but even taught me to play in his unoccupied time. Still, could he, who had continued as a servant for decades, go on living now that the path of a servant had been closed to him by infamy? That would probably be... very difficult.
"You've got nothing to apologize for, Mary. And besides, I'm sure the master has his reasons too."
—El smiled at me reassuringly.
He had been driven out of his home without even being told the reason why, and must also have been uneasy about his livelihood in a new world, but he was still concerned for me. I felt grateful to him, but on the other hand, I felt a strong pain in my chest. A feeling of powerlessness was slowly but steadily coiling itself around my heart, so that I wanted to bawl. I'm sure it must have been because faint tears were coming to El's eyes.
—Even he... can't be unaware of the rumors.
El respected his parents even more than I did. There was no way that their being spoken badly of could fail to hurt him. And that wasn't counting the fact that that El himself had come in for ridicule as a result of his parents' ill repute. He was the same age as me, and it must have been impossible for his heart to go uninjured by the gossip of rumor-mongering servants.
—If I had power, I would make sure he never had to make a face like this, but...
El had always protected me. No matter when, El had been standing in front of me and leading me onward. It was the first time he had shown me such a pained expression. He looked worn-out, somehow. I wanted to show him my appreciation, but I had nothing to give. The influence to make father reverse his decision; the power to make the servants' rumors stop; the magic to heal his heart... I possessed none of these.
"Besides... a happy face suits you better than looking like you're about to cry, Mary."
—Those words finally broke down my self-control.
So far I had desperately avoided crying, but now my eyes grew moist, and tears fell from them in large drops. I wiped more than once at the corners of my eyes in an attempt to restrain them, but the tears flowing down my cheeks absolutely refused to stop. El saw the tears which would not stop although I scolded myself that he was the one who should be crying, and quietly withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket.
"Honestly... You're such a crybaby, Mary."
—And like that, he used the handkerchief to gently wipe my tears away.
The gentle way he used his hands filled me with an incomparable feeling of relief. But at the same time... I also realized that it would leave me. The loneliness of knowing that the warmth I wanted always to be touched by would vanish caused me to resume my weeping.
"And anyway, it's not as though we'll never be able to see each other again."
"You're... probably right,... but..."
—But it would be difficult.
My family—the Norscrim family—was among the most distinguished in all of Lescatié. I didn't think I was anyone special, but those around me certainly disagreed. There must be those who opposed members of distinguished noble families spending their lives like commoners, who weren't even servants. Not to mention that, recently—ever since I'd come home from that flower garden—my free time had almost gone. It was not until today that I had been able to find time in my schedule, which had become even more overcrowded than usual, to meet with him. Under those circumstances, I had no confidence that I would be able to make an opportunity to see El again.
"It's alright. I'm sure we'll manage somehow. We'll be able to see each other again."
—And yet, El's words were melting my chest.
Like magic words, they dissolved the unease within me, and brought forth a baseless self-confidence. If he said so... I was sure we'd be able to meet again. No. I would make sure of it, at any cost. The moment I decided that in my heart, I heard a voice calling El in my hears.
"...Sorry. I have to go now."
I wanted to cling to El's retreating figure. I wanted to cry and scream "don't go!" But even if I cried and screamed, father's decision wouldn't change. On the contrary, my doing so would likely make more trouble for El and his parents. So... all that I... powerless child that I was... could do was to believe in his words when he told me that we could meet again.
"Oh... your handkerchief... I need to clean it for you..."
"It's fine; it's just tears."
—Even so, it had certainly gotten dirty.
I felt happy that he was willing to take the handkerchief soaked with my tears, but on the other hand a little embarrassed. And... to tell the truth, I wanted the pretext of "returning the thing I was looking after for him." So that I would never forget him... No, so that I would always be thinking of him.
—But there was no way he would let me keep it for him when we didn't know when we would be able to see each other again.
My thoughts wavered in the gap between my feelings and my rational judgment. Should I keep it or not? As I was vacillating between the two, the events of the flower garden came to my mind. Those events, in which I had exchanged something of my own, gave me an idea, and I put a hand into my right pocket.
"Then... here. Exchange it for this."
—I withdrew a frilly handkerchief from my pocket.
That elegant, embroidered handkerchief was one father had bought for me. It must have been quite valuable in and of itself, and yet I wanted his simple handkerchief more. Even just a promise would be fine. I wanted to feel that I was still tied to El.
"I'll lend you that, El... until I return your handkerchief. So... an exchange."
—El looked dumbfounded by my words.
He stayed like that for a few seconds, and then he showed an indescribable expression. Still with that glad, embarrassed expression on his face, El's shoulders slumped. Judging by that movement, which I recognized... he must have thought my willfulness had shown itself. And yet... I was incomparably more serious than usual.
"...I guess so. Let's... make an exchange, then."
Had my intention gotten across, or was it just because it wasn't a bad proposal for him, either? El accepted my handkerchief, and handed me his own in exchange. Holding that in both hands, as if to embrace it, I turned back to face him. He was facing towards me again, too. But... there were no longer any words to be exchanged between us, who no longer had anything to do. Only silence ruled that place.
"Well... until next time... okay?"
As we exchanged these brief words, El was already walking off to where his parents were. While he allowed his steps to falter and looked as if he were about to turn back several times, he did not stop. I continued to watch his back, wanting him to turn back... wanting him to stop.
—El, who had been waiting before the gate just like that, merged...
His parents, noticing me, quietly bowed their heads. But I was the one who needed to do that. I was the one who needed to make a heartfelt apology to that family, who had been driven out by my father's whim. As if charmed by those feelings, I bowed my head very deeply.
—By the time I raised my head, El and his parents had already gone out the gate.
The family's backs slowly receded as they walked down the road paved so that carriages could pass easily along it. Even if I had tried to pursue them, the iron grill of the gate would have prevented me. I felt as though my heart would be crushed by that gate, which seemed to insist that we would live in different worlds from now on. But the person who would have protected me from that feeling was no longer at my side. El, who had guided and protected me was... no longer at my side.
—The moment I thought that, something warm spilled from my eyes.
"... Huh...? How strange..."
I muttered at the tears brimming from my eyes in large drops. But... it should be fine. After all, he had told me we would be able to meet again. I could rely on that promise. The handkerchief in my hand was the proof of that. El had never broken a promise, so... he would definitely keep this one.
—Still... in spite of that... for some reason...
"They won't stop. Now that El's gone... the tears... the tears... won't stop..."
—Fade to black.