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"... I can't sleep..."

—That murmur echoed futilely in the moonlit corridor.

After that, I had stood before the gate and cried myself out for a long time, until my tutor brought me back inside. My tutor, who at first had been angry at me for slipping out on my own, had perhaps been beaten down by my persistent crying, and had given me the day to rest. Thanks to that, I had cried my heart out in my room until I tired myself out and fell asleep...—

—...And I guess wouldn't make a funny story that I had ended up unable to sleep at night because of it...

Even as self-derision rose in my heart, it remained a fact that I wasn't getting sleepy at all. And I hadn't even had dinner, so my stomach was empty. Continuing to endure the hunger until morning seemed impossible, so perhaps I should go down to the kitchens and pilfer some bread. So thinking, I walked along the nighttime corridors.

—Still... the corridors at night were eerier than I'd thought...

There was not a single light in the usually candlelit corridors. The moon's pale light shone from the furnished windows, so it wasn't really dark, but I could not deny that there was a peculiar atmosphere, almost as if a ghost would jump out the moment I turned the corner.

—... Oo... Thinking about that sort of thing frightened me more than it should...

As if to defend myself from the sudden chill running along my spine, I thrust a hand into the pocket of my nightgown. In it was the little handkerchief I was holding onto for him. Just grasping it tightly was enough to clear away my unease and fear at once.

—Hee hee... Just like a charm...

No, that handkerchief was more than that to me. At any rate, it calmed my heart far more than any charm of dubious efficacy. To me, that small cloth which encouraged me might as well have been a part of El.

—That's right... isn't it? ...I'm not crying much, so...

Or perhaps it was because I had cried until I grew tired and fell asleep. I had a feeling that my heart had grown more positive even before sleep took me. ...No, that wasn't it. It hadn't grown more positive... it had just returned to the way it was when El was at my side. It was probably just that I was projecting his form onto the handkerchief, and somehow supporting myself by relying on it. I flashed a derisive smile at my own confused heart.

—But... I couldn't see it as a bad thing.

"Be an exemplary follower of the gods..." That was father's favorite phrase. One who believes in the supremacy of the Chief God, and slays monsters to show the Chief God's power—that was what my father meant by an exemplary follower of the gods. My days of studying and swinging a sword so much that my free time was all but gone were for that. Of course, I understood that father wasn't doing such things out of a desire to torment me, but... but... still... even though the Chief God was the reason I had had my play time snatched away, it wasn't the Chief God I could rely on, but—

—... Huh?

The instant I thought that, I could see the light of a fire illuminating the pale corridor. When I turned my gaze in its direction, a very slightly open door entered my view. A light was still burning in father's study; that meant father was probably still working.

—... Father was trying his best too, but...

I was awful, thinking only of my own problems. I hated myself. I put all my strength into my hand, not caring that the handkerchief would get crumpled. Still, the blackness gushing forth from the depths of my heart simply refused to stop. Hoping to shake it off, I approached the door. The moment I stretched out my hand to extinguish that light, which seemed to illuminate my own awfulness, conversing voices reached my ears.

"You certainly seem to be in a good mood."

"Quite so. After all, I was able to drive those rats out at last."

—... Rats?

Father's voice sounded as if he were in a better mood than I had ever heard him in. When, intrigued by that, I quietly peered through the gap in the door, the figure of father seated on a couch met my eyes. Reclining and emptying the glass in his hand, his massive figure was more slovenly than I had ever seen it. The man who told me to "be an exemplary follower of the gods" wasn't there, was drowned in the momentary pleasure called wine—and what father called a traitor was there in his place.

"Rats... you say? An awful way to speak of a family that served you for many years."

"What's that you say? Surely it's only natural for the commoners to serve us. On the contrary, they should want to thank me for the favor of using them until today."

"As you say."

—...!

A nervousness ran along my spine at father's cold words. Judging from the contents of their conversation... the "rats" father spoke of must be El's parents. But... I couldn't possibly acknowledge those words. After all... El's parents were such kind, warm people. If the two of them and El hadn't been there, I probably wouldn't be who I was now.

—But... there was no way I could ever assert that...

As I was, I could do no more than peep in. To put it more plainly and comprehensibly, I was a "bad child." Even at the best of times, if I barged in there and told father what I thought, I still couldn't believe that I'd be able to make him agree.

—... Why must I... still be a "child"...?

The sense of powerlessness I had felt at doing nothing but watch El go revived within me, and made me renew my tight grip on the handkerchief. Still feeling a vague desire for "power," I averted my eyes from the figure of the father I had respected drowning in wine. When I turned my gaze to the man father was still talking to like that... there was a face that even a child like me knew well.

—The Order of Holy Knights'...

The magnificent, bearded face belonged to a man who had given me sword lessons on several occasions. There was no mistaking that he held one of the highest ranks, even within the Order of Holy Knights. A man such as that was chatting cordially with father, not even rebuking him for his horrible words. That fact caused my small mind to shake violently.

—How...? Why...? Knights were supposed to be more...

They were supposed to be noble and magnificent, weren't they? At least... didn't the Order of Holy Knights, the clearest symbol of the Chief God's authority, have to be people that everyone ought to respect? And yet... I could see no trace of that ideal in the man, who was as slovenly as father, his collar open and pouring wine into his mouth. At the very least, it was a state I could not possibly believe was in accordance with the teachings of the Chief God, which repudiated excessive drinking.

"But it seems they repaid my favor with the most grievous harm. And here I had intended to treat them well because they did good work, for commoners."

"A ring of flowers on your daughter's finger... was it? Quite a smart thing to do, for a commoner."

"...!"

—At the broadly grinning man's words, I almost raised my voice in spite of myself.

It wasn't as if I had made any particular secret of it. Most of the people on the estate knew that I played with El in my free time, and for the several days since my return from the flower garden, I had always been wearing the ring. But the man wasn't a resident of the estate; he shouldn't have known about that. Still... the man was speaking as if he already knew all about it...—

—What could it... mean...?

Judging from the circumstances, the reason he knew was that father had told him. But why would father have needed to tell him that? The answer was already lodged in the base of my throat, but it wouldn't come out, almost as if my heart was refusing to acknowledge it. A frustration as if I were on the verge of completing a puzzle, but a single piece short, was causing my breathing to become ragged.

—No... I can't stay here...!

If I stayed any longer, I would end up admitting something I didn't want to admit. If that happened... I didn't feel confident that I could remain who I had been until now. At least, there was an instinct screaming that inside me. And yet I showed no sign of moving, as if my feet had been sewn to the floor. My gaze was flitting back and forth between the two of them again, and it seemed I had no intention of turning back.

"It's not a laughing matter. I've heard that Wilmarina didn't even appear to be annoyed by it... I feel terrified just thinking about what could have happened if I had been any later in taking steps."

"Ha ha ha. Girls around that age want a little adventure. They soon realize that it was a youthful indiscretion."

"I should hope so... After all, if she doesn't, there would have been no use driving out those rats."

—... Huh?

My thoughts came to a sudden halt at those words. Feeling as if my whole body were frozen in time, I tried desperately to digest father's words. As I tried to explain the meaning of "rats" and "driving them out" to myself simply, the two men before my eyes raised their voices in cordial laughter. The moment I felt a somehow ugly and, moreover, physiological revulsion, I finally realized that it was because I had been close with El that that wonderful family was driven out.

—It was my... my... fault...?

If I hadn't pridefully continued to wear the ring, no, rather... if I hadn't exchanged rings with him that day... it might never have come to this. Such an "if" revived in my mind. I definitely didn't want to acknowledge that possibility. I didn't want to admit it, but... it didn't seem likely that father, drunk as he was, would deliberately tell a lie.

—If I hadn't... gotten close with El... then surely...

Surely father wouldn't have driven his parents out. There wouldn't have been any need for them to run around searching for work, either. If nothing had gone wrong, their next generation would have been ensured employment as well. That they had been chased out was all my... my fault...—

—No! ...Noo!!

My heart wailed, not wanting to admit the truth in front of my eyes. And yet, strength completely refused to enter my body. Even though I wanted to run away, even though I wanted to stop up my ears and eyes and shut out everything, I continued to watch the situation inside the room in a daze, strength still refusing to enter my limbs. Even the strength to continue standing left my legs, and I slumped to the floor of the cold corridor with a thud.

"Well, at least with this, the relationship between your daughter and that boy has cleanly fizzled out. And next..."

"I suppose so. I'll have to make certain that Wilmarina is surrounded on all sides by those befitting the Norscrim family."

—Befitting... the Norscrim...?

It was true that I was born into the Norscrim family, and that I was the daughter of a priest, but... I wondered how much that was really worth. At least... I couldn't believe it was worth driving out a whole family. Not to mention... not to mention, even father... even though he was a priest he was drowning in wine. To drive out El and his parents... in order to protect such a family...!

"Oh my."

—ngh!

The moment I thought that, the man turned his gaze in my direction. Perhaps, as one would expect, I had been noticed due to staring too much. In any case, now that the man had slowly risen from the sofa, there was no way I could stay here long. Scolding myself so, I roused myself and stood up. Like that, I took my leave of that place, as if fleeing.

—Why... why... why...?

That words boiled up over and over in my breast as I dashed along the corridors, stifling the sound of my footsteps so as not to be discovered. Even I didn't understand exactly what it was questioning. The difference between nobles and commoners? Or else, the right and wrong of father's actions? Or possibly it was my inability to do anything. The one certain thing was...—

—Why... am I the child of such an unsightly man...?

"Ngh...!"

I clenched my fists tightly at the abrupt emergence of that question. I kept swinging my head from side to side as if to deny that, but the fact that those words had come to my mind absolutely refused to vanish. A hideous... no, too hideous soliloquy I hadn't even been aware of myself. Feeling that tighten around my heart, I took refuge in my own room.

"Haa... haa..."

Even while my chest rose and fell hugely as I caught my breath, the events of a moment before circled around and around in my breast. Physiological revulsion and self-loathing filled my breast with each revolution. I leapt into bed as if to run from a revulsion that threatened to make my empty stomach convulse and vomit up its contents. Still in that state, I pulled the sheets over my head as if to hide, and held my nauseous body tight.

"No... No..."

Not even I knew quite what those words were repudiating. They might have been denying my self-reproach that I had been the one who drove El out, or else that I had seen father in that ugly state, or perhaps... that I was tied by blood to father, as before. And yet... my childish heart, unable to process all of that, could do nothing but jumble everything together and deal with it as "events I don't want to acknowledge."

—Shivering like that, my hand had clasped the simple handkerchief before I knew it...

"I'm... I'm different... different, right... El?"

I whispered over and over, clutching it tightly to my breast. But it, although a part of him to me, was merely an ordinary handkerchief, and could not possibly respond. However much I murmured, the handkerchief was just a handkerchief, and was not tied to him. But... I felt that my heart would be torn to pieces if I did not do so.

"I'm... different, right...? I'm definitely... different, so... I'll never... like that..."

Before I knew it, my murmurs had changed into something like excuses, as if I were trying to persuade myself. I didn't know what that transformation would bring me, but... if El were here, things would be different again. Somehow... I was sure of that.

—Fade to black.

"From this day onward, I will be in your family's care."

—... That place... doesn't belong to you...

"Just as one would expect, you're very strong, Lady Wilmarina."

—... I wasn't strong at all. If I'd really been strong... I should have been able... to see El...

"It was a dream come true to be able to fight at your side, Lady Wilmarina!"

—You're not... the one I want at my side...

"As long as you're here, Lady Wilmarina, our army's victory is practically assured."

—I just... get desperate and fight...

"You're our pride, Lady Wilmarina!"

—You're wrong...! I... I didn't want to become anyone's pride...! I wanted to become...!

—Fade to black.

"From today on, I will be in your family's care."

—... That place... doesn't belong to you...

"As one would expect, you're quite strong, Lady Wilmarina."

—... I wasn't strong at all. I had had really been strong... I would have been able... to see El...

"Being able to fight at your side was a dream come true, Lady Wilmarina!"

—You're not... the one I want at my side...

"As long as your here, Lady Wilmarina, our army's victory is practically assured."

—I just... get desperate and fight...

"You're our pride, Lady Wilmarina!"

—No...! I didn't want to become anyone's pride...! I wanted to become...!

—Fade to black.

"Number eight, Silk Lowens. Come forward."

"Yes sir!"

—Making a brief reply to the officiating priest, a girl of about my own age came up onto the platform where I was.

Today was the Order of Holy Knights' initiation ceremony. The ceremony in which the children who had overcome the harsh training and been permitted to enlist to officially become members of the Order. I had been given the prestigious role of conferring the Badge of the Order on them. I think Lady Sasha would have been much more pleased with the task than I was, but I had continued to be chosen for important roles like this over the past several years.

—But... if I could see such happy faces, then... I supposed it wasn't so bad.

Stiff with nervous tension or not, joy showed clearly on those faces. It was only natural; the grueling training they had endured had all been for today. The faces of all the children I'd seen these past few years had worn the same expression.

—Well... there would probably be some with different expressions among who mounted the platform from now on, but...

That worried me a little, but right now I had o give precedence to the girl in front of me. I would feel too sorry for her if the hero granted the task of conferring the badge on her on this day, which ought to be commemorated, were to look away. Surely I should face them steadily, one by one, and confer the Badge of the Order.

—Silently whispering that to myself, I presented the badge to her.

She accepted the badge, which bore a sword and shield over the flag of this country, in both hands, as if it were precious. Some of her awkwardness remained, even as she made me a flowing bow. She was to be assigned to my unit, so I had been given her data in advance. She was quite a fine girl, as far as I could see, but she was probably a little too worked up in the big moment. It was embarrassing, but... I'd had a similar feeling my first time, so I felt a slight affinity for her.

—Well... if it's just a little, I suppose it's fine...

"Do your best."

"I, it's an honor!"

I whispered to her in the moment she passed by me. I response, she saluted me in a voice that echoed throughout the meeting hall. ...The adjutant at my side gave me a look as if he wanted to say something about that... but he wouldn't do anything to disrupt the important ceremony. I'd probably be cautioned against giving special treatment later, but, after all, encouraging people was also part of a hero's job.

—Well... I did understand why I had to treat everyone equally, but...

Being a symbol of the country was part of a hero's job. That was why a hero, not her highness the princess or his majesty the king, was appointed to confer the Badge of the Order at the Order of Holy Knights' initiation ceremony. If I, a hero, were to show anyone favoritism, it would end up leading to discontent. It wasn't as if I didn't understand the reason.

—But... I...

At just the thought of that, I felt a sharp pain pierce my breast, but I didn't understand why that should be. In the first place, I wasn't even sure what it was I was questioning. I feel certain that the important role of "hero" is too much for me, but I also feel honored by it. So why was there a part of me crying out in protest? Surely there was nothing strange in thinking that mysterious.

—Perhaps I'm a little tired...

I spent every day and every night fighting and putting in appearances in all sorts of places as a "hero." And lately the duty of memorizing the data of fresh initiates and considering how to assign them had been added on top of that. Now that my time to sleep had been considerably reduced, my mind was probably getting somewhat tired. Even so... a "hero" couldn't simply take leave, and even if it were granted to me it would mean more difficult jobs for everyone else. I had to stand firm.

—While I tried to motivate myself like that, I could see the officiating priest's lips open...

"...Number nine, Elt..."

"...What?"

—...El... t...?

A voice I recognized drew my gaze to the stairs. And then I stood in blank amazement as a head of flaming red hair slowly entered my field of view. From beneath that characteristic hair appeared the frank face of a youth possessing both kindness and a strong determination. It certainly wasn't strikingly beautiful, but there was a strength of will in it that stuck in one's memory, and stirred something in mine. It worried me a little that, perhaps because we had met in a place like this, there was a somehow complicated tinge to his expression, but... he seemed to be in good health.

—Aah... Aaahh...!

I hadn't misheard. I couldn't have mistaken his face, either. The man in front of me was unmistakably my childhood friend... El. The moment I realized that, my tear glands slackened, and my tears seemed about to overflow. It seemed as if the disposition that had gotten me called a weakling in my childhood was somehow still not cured, even after I had become a "hero." While I smiled bitterly at my own nature, my legs seemed about to leap to him.

—Hu... h...?

And yet, my feet refused to move, as if they had been sewn to the spot. The childhood friend I had dreamt of so often had kept his promise and was standing before me, but I couldn't muster a single word of joy. My body refused to do what I told it to, just as if I had been bound hand and foot.

—Why...? Why...!?

Our reunion after so long should have been incomparably joyful. After all, the feelings it engendered in me were so great that my heart could not fully contain them, and even now they seemed about to spill over and fall as tears. And yet, as I faced him, I still could not manage to respond. I felt as if my heart would by torn to pieces by my own unresponsiveness, which must have looked as if I didn't remember him at all.

"Lady Wilmarina?"

"Ah... Excuse me."

I returned to myself, thanks to a word from the adjutant. He came from a noble family no less distinguished than the Norscrim, and his words reminded me that I was at a holy ceremony. The initiation ceremony wouldn't end, no matter how long I spent standing around in a daze. I had to go through with it for the people who were even now standing at attention, waiting for their own turns to come...—

—No...! That wasn't what I wanted to do... It wasn't...!

"Lady Wilmarina... quickly."

"Huh...? Oh... r, right..."

At the adjutant's urging, I took the Badge of the Order from his hands. Then I just had to hold it firmly in both hands, and offer it to El, and with that it would be over. With that... with just that... our "reunion" would be over. Without even a word of celebration, without even a gesture of acknowledgement...—

—...I couldn't... I couldn't bear such a thing, but...!

Even so, my hands, trembling with nervous diffidence, were holding the Badge of the Order out to El. He quietly accepted it from my hands, which shook as if the entire hall were pressing down on my back. For an instant, I knew that El wanted to say something, but nothing came from his mouth. El too must have been unsure what to say. No... I could not discount the possibility that he might have been more bewildered than I was by the difference in social standing between a "hero" and a "soldier."

—That's why...! That's why... I have to step up to meet him, but...!

I still couldn't move, just as if the fact of being a "hero" were binding me in place. I suppose he must have been disgusted with me for being like that. There was a sad look in El's eyes for a moment, and then he made to pass by me. As he drew near, and then passed me, I recalled the sense of powerlessness and the desolation of the day we parted.

—Ah... he's going...! He's... leaving me again...!

I wasn't like I'd been back then... I had "power" now. I had come to possess not just the actual strength of a "hero" acknowledged by many, but also the influence attendant on being both a "hero" and "the daughter of a priest." I no longer had to feel as I had then. I could honestly detain him. ...In spite of that... even though I should have been able to do it... I... I... was...

—...Losing him again?

"Ngh!!"

In the moment he passed by me, my mind, which had become sodden with the words rising in my breast, cleared just a little. I realized that my seemingly bound arms would now move just a little. There wasn't enough time to direct them towards him; he was already in the middle of passing by me... and it didn't seem my sluggish arm could possibly reach him in time.

—Then... then... the only thing I can do now is...

"...P, please... do your best... okay?"

"...Thank you... very much."

"Ngh!"

—His response to my words, which sounded as if they had been squeezed from me, was too distant, as if I were a stranger to him...

No... In the first place, I should be the one to speak. Surely I had no right to reproach him. But... even so, my heart trembled greatly at the distance I sensed in his words. My sense of balance vanished, just as if that shock to my heart had been an earthquake, and I felt as if my feet were going to collapse under me. In the moment that I experienced vertigo from a sensation that I was falling forever, I felt several worried looks shoot through me.

—No... I mustn't... fall here...

A "hero," a symbol of the nation, must never show weakness in front of such a large crowd. Desperately telling myself that, I braced my legs with all my strength, and prevented their collapse. But while I did so, he passed by me, and quietly descended from the platform. I shut my eyes in silence, stealing a sidelong glance at his retreating figure.

—If... if... if I were unable to bear it, and collapsed here...

El would... my childhood friend would have saved me, surely? No... I'm certain he would have saved me. He had always stretched out a hand to me whenever I was in trouble. Of course, I couldn't discount the possibility that he had changed in the years we'd been apart, but... I had a feeling El's eyes were still filled with the same kindness they had been on the day we parted. If I'd collapsed in front of him... I had no doubt that he would have tossed the badge aside and come running to me.

—...What am I thinking...?

I couldn't help but let slip a smile of self-derision at that thought, which seemed almost to say that it would have been better if I had not braced my legs, and collapsed. Still, I was in the middle of an important ceremony. I, who had been appointed a major role in it, must not show such a grin here. Bracing my heart with such ideas, I silently faced forward again and conferred the badge of the order on another child.

—And yet... I didn't have confidence that I could smile like a "hero," as I had before.

Unable to get him out of my mind, I mechanically went on conferring the badges, and...—

—Fade to black.

—There was a document to deliver to Mercè, another hero like me.

The moment I heard that from my adjutant, I took it without hesitation. He had given me an odd look as I listed off reasons and half-forcefully stole the job from him, but I hardly regretted doing it. Thanking the adjutant for his constant support was another of a "hero's" jobs, and even if I were able to see him on the way, it would be entirely due to "coincidence," so...—

—...No. That was an excuse...

I hadn't been able to see him—El—since the enrollment ceremony. Of course, we belonged to the same organization, so it would be difficult for me to meet him. If I wished it, I would be able to see his face at once. After all, I had actually made a thorough check of whose unit he had been assigned to, and he was living in now.

—And yet... the courage to meet him wasn't in me...

What would I do if... he addressed my like a stranger again? No... if that were all, it would still be alright. Because, if that were all, the problem would be at an end if I stepped up to meet him. The worst would really be if I froze up in front of El again, and in the end could manage nothing but "hero"-like words. If it came to that... it might turn out like out reunion at the enrollment ceremony.

—No... then we had the excuse of being still in the middle of the ceremony.

But if... if the same thing ended up happening again... if it happened without an excuse... it might be fixed that we "had been" childhood friends. That would degrade the past that to me was nearly a treasure into a mere "past"; it was something I could not permit.

—But... if I always run away... I won't be a "hero," will I?

As if to give myself courage, I squeezed the handkerchief in my pocket. Ever since that day, it had been my charm and even a drug to calm my spirit, and as long as I had it... I was sure that I'd be able to manage somehow. Perhaps... I might even be able to return it. The moment I turned a corner, encouraging myself thus, a woman's rousing voice and a man's troubled-sounding one reached me.

—...This voice is...?

That woman's voice, with its brisk, almost mannish tone, was very distinctive, and it was familiar even to me. It was possible I was mistaken, but I felt sure the owner of that voice was Lady Mercè Daskalos, who, like me, belonged to the Order of Holy Knights. I didn't recognize the voice of the man talking to her, but its tone was undoubtedly troubled.

—From what I could hear of the conversation, it seemed that Lady Mercè was inviting him for drinks, but...

I felt certain that the two of them must be quite close. Lady Mercè had been repeating her invitation to the man for some time. While his replies sounded troubled, the man did not seem to be quite so unhappy as he let on. I could tell he did not personally dislike the suggestion by the fact that the reasons he gave her mostly amounted to hiding behind "work."

—But... really, this wasn't the place to be saying such things...

Of course, I didn't think of anything so arrogant as trying to control love affairs within the Order. Still, this was the headquarters of the Order of Holy Knights, which ought to be the shield of the nations of the faith. Moreover, Lady Mercè and her companion were speaking in a hallway touched by the eyes of many people, and it was still during work hours. I had to tell them that conducting conversation there was simply too careless.

—I would be sorry to throw cold water on them, but...

Seeing that it would influence the morale of others, I had to give them a word of warning. Silently murmuring that to myself, I turned another corner. Through the window of the elegant, red-carpeted corridor, the figure of Lady Mercè, tall for a woman, entered my view. If I turned the next corner at once, I would come out in front of the pair.

—The instant I turned the corner with that thought in my head, my feet stopped.

Lady Mercè's arms were entwined like constricting serpents around a man with flaming red hair. Even as his eyes, which seemed to be shining with a strong purpose, showed a touch of bewilderment, his face was reddening at the breasts pressed against his back. From the fact that he was holding a bundle of documents, I guessed that he had been entangled by Lady Mercè in the middle of a job. He seemed serious, and the word "work" frequently passed his lips.

—Hu... h...? Wh... y...?

I felt my head shake violently at seeing the man... no... my childhood friend El like that. But... his expression was the same as I remembered it. The redness of his complexion might be due to the breasts being pressed into his back, but he was making exactly the same expression as when he had listened to my whims.

—Even though... he refused to look at me like that...!

At the same time a stabbing pain wounded my breast, such ugly emotions gushed forth. It was... it must have been what is called jealousy. The expression that should have been mine alone was mine no longer... it was being directed at Lady Mercè instead. I realized that I was gritting my teeth at that fact. And yet... the two did not notice my dumbfounded gaze, and in the end things were decided in Lady Mercè's favor.

—Ah...

Should I have felt relieved that the pledge had been forced from him? Lady Mercè flashed a complacent smile. ...That grin, somewhere in which I could see the conviction "I can get him to agree," probably knew that he wore that expression when he was willing to humor the whims of others.

—But that... that was supposed to be my secret...!

A real secret just for me; I hadn't even told father or mother... no, not even El himself, or his parents. Lady Mercè probably knew it too. That alone was enough to make a queasy feeling well up in the region of my stomach, and I renewed my grip on the handkerchief. Before me as I stood like that, Lady Mercè released El and departed in high spirits. Even now, her practically-skipping figure looked very glad, and... and... very... very...—

—...How could I be... jealous...?

By all rights, I should have been standing in the same position as Lady Mercè. And yet... when I beheld that scene, a jealousy so intense it couldn't be expressed in words passed through my breast. My breast cried out as if it were about to be crushed by that jealousy, which seemed to make me realize that what I desired was out of my reach, and even to resign myself to it.

—No... Not this... No...!!

Sickened by my own envy of others, I reflexively made to flee. But, as I suppose I should have expected, El noticed me. Before I could turn on my heels, his gaze shot through me.

"Oh..."

—But... it wasn't what I had hoped for...

It wasn't the gaze of a childhood friend rejoicing at a reunion. It was a gaze that merely emphasized the awkwardness of the moment. That too was... surely natural. He had, after all, been seen entwined in Lady Mercè's arms. That must have been embarrassing for a man.

—That's it... It has to be... Otherwise, I...!

El might not be rejoicing at our reunion. I didn't want to let that hypothesis surface in my mind. I mean... it might have completely negated who I had been until now. The me who had kept on wishing to be reunited with him... the me who had lived supported by memories of him... might break, and end up dying.

—It wasn't true... was it? El wasn't... that... that sort of person, was he...?

In order to make sure of that, I needed to speak. And... my words mustn't be those of a "hero," but those of his childhood friend "Wilmarina." It would be difficult to draw out those words, which I had not spoken in so long, but... unlike when we had met at the ceremony, I now had El's handkerchief. It might take some time, but... as long as I had that, then surely... our relationship would go back to...—

"Lady... Wilmarina."

—...Huh...?

But El spoke before me, as I tried so desperately to move my lips. The content of his words was... something I didn't want to acknowledge. I mean... I mean, he had never addressed me like that. Not once. It had always been "Mary"... El should have called me by the pet name only he and Fran used.

—Why...? Why... like that... like I was a stranger...?

"Are you looking for the commander? In that case, she just went over..."

"Ngh!!"

—Why...? Why won't he say anything to me...?

We'd finally... finally been able to see each other again, but... why was he speaking as if we were meeting for the first time... as if our past had never been? My heart wailed, uncomprehending. But that anguish didn't show on my face. My mental defenses sprung into action to keep me as I had been until now, and my cheeks silently formed the shape of a smile.

"Yes; this document is for Lady Mercè. There's no hurry, so would you pass it on to her later for me?"

—Those were the words of a "hero," not at all inferior to his in propriety.

A model "hero," who didn't give special treatment to anyone in particular. A being who loved everyone equally, and therefore did not form specific relationships. El's expression stiffened for a moment at my mask-like words, and yet he refused to say anything. He took the proffered documents without challenging me for such conduct.

"...Under... stood."

"...Thank you very much. Well then... I'll be on my way."

—I turned on my heels and walked off like that... and El wouldn't stop me.

No, surely I was the one who ought to stop. I mean... I mean, I was a "hero," after all. It would be much less awkward for me to go to him than for him, a common soldier, to call out to me. But... still, if... if he called me "Lady Wilmarina" again...

—No... Anything but that...!

I felt as if my heart would go to pieces if he addressed me like a stranger even one more time. If he did it again... I really might break. The pain and anguish raging inside me were that terrible. Before I knew it, I was dashing along the corridor, as if to escape from that pain. Several people stared at my discomposure, but in my current state I could not bring myself to care. After all... distracting myself even a little from the pain in my chest was much more important.

"Haa... haa..."

Having run all the way to my office like that, I leaned my back against the door and forced my chest to heave up and down. Of course I, who had received the divine protection of the Chief God, shouldn't have been breathing so heavily. My ragged breathing was no more than an attempt to distract myself even a little from the pain in my chest.

—But... the pain simply refused to vanish from my breast...

On the contrary, El's expression of a moment ago recurred to my mind as I was doing that, and a pain ran through my breast that made me want to claw it out. Why in the world would he do such a horrible thing to me...? Why, when he would get close to Lady Mercè like that, wouldn't he do the same for me? Such jealousy boiled up in me.

—...Aah... That's must be it...

The reason El had said such things to me must have been that I wasn't "hero"-like. Surely it was because he hadn't wanted to acknowledge a jealous woman like me as his "childhood friend." I was certain he would do so proudly if... if I were a finer "hero." So, in order that El might acknowledge me, too... I had to make more of an effort. If I didn't get closer to being a "hero" everyone would make their ideal... I...—

—And then I woke up.

"...Hu... h...?"

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