With a hand over her chest, Lara Laurel heaved one breath after another. Sweat dripping down her fair-skinned arms, she dampened her handkerchief as it tapped against her skin. After several repeated attempts, her breathing calmed and her beading skin subsided.
“I’m glad. I’m glad she’s fine.” Lara then folded the paper she was holding and tuck it inside her purse.
Lara looked out of the window and admired the passing scenery of grain fields. Although flat and dry, the morning scenery imposed a sense of seasonal change. “But now is a difficult situation. I can’t believe such a situation would occur. It’s far from what I expected.”
“Whatever did you expect?” Erina asked, seating on the opposite side of Lara.
“I believed Auguste will let Amelia return. That is after Amelia pleads for Diane’s and Argent’s help in convincing Auguste.”
“That’s an underwhelming response coming from you, Lady Lara.”
“You place me high up in a pedestal, Erina. I’m not as clever as Diane.”
Erina lightly furrowed her brows. “Surely, you jest. You have been silent throughout the trade of interests between the Nobles, but you escaped their eyes and interests without much effort.”
Lara smiled. “Again, you put me up too high. It’s just that the Nobles see me and Elaine in a commoners clothing that we manage to avert their interest. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“Even if you are a mistress, you are still the King’s wife. That alone gives you recognition and respect. And in all honesty, your birth as a commoner gives the citizens more familiarity with you. That I cannot deny.”
“Maybe so. However, it’s best if you do not consider me as Auguste’s wife, or perhaps a Queen Consort. I’m but a mistress, after all. A mistress of Royalty. Besides, I do not wish to insert myself into the quibbles between Nobles and Royalty. Diane alone is enough to handle the situation.”
Lara giggled. “There is nothing to pry off me, Erina. I have said this once, but you do not have to worry about my actions.”
“That I cannot promise. Although I have respect for you, Lady Lara, I cannot help but try to know your intentions.”
“It is nothing of harm to Amelia. That I assure you.”
“I cannot be assured with mere words. Actions do speak louder, I believe. If not actions, then evidence.”
“Again, Erina, you are too guarded when it comes to Amelia.” Lara sighed. “And if I remember, you are willing to let me help Amelia with her matters, was it not?”
“Yes, however, she is my… responsibility, after all.” Erina squeezed her interlocked hands. “And right now, I’m not entirely sure. It’s quite a dilemma.”
Lara chuckled. “In a sense, we get along, Erina.”
“Say, Lady Lara, you have never seemed inclined to aid Amelia before. Not even once have I seen you directly help her. So, why now? Why do you come to Amelia’s aid without her knowing? For what purpose are you doing this?”
Lara smiled and shifted her sight back to the passing scenery. “It’s difficult to explain, Erina. It is not something you would understand. Neither would Amelia, Diane, or any member of Laurel’s Royalty would understand. In fact, I do not hope to be understood. My only goal is to achieve my personal happiness. And that happiness required Amelia’s own.”
Lara then turned to Erina with a smile. “It’s that simple. In order to achieve my goal, I need Amelia to be satisfied. And now, when things are turning for the worse, is the time to lend her some help—even if the help she receives never comes to light.”
Erina’s lips twisted into a frown. “I do not understand. I do not, really. However, I believe Amelia needs any help she can get. Be it from the shadows of the night or the sunlight of the day, I believed Amelia needs help. That is why… I am willing to bargain my trust. That is… the only ability I can provide to aid Amelia.”
“Erina, we are all powerless in some way or another. Nonetheless, there will come a day that you and Amelia will understand my actions.” Lara reached for Erina’s hand and clasped it. “So please, calm down. There will never come a day that I will harm Amelia. I mean, for what reason am I to make Elaine sad?”
“Anyway, let’s calm down. We will soon arrive at Aves any—huh?”
A sudden knock from the coachman interrupted Lara. In response, after shaking her head twice, Erina turned around and pulled a small wooden plate to the side spoke as if nothing happened. “Is there anything wrong?”
“We will slow down a bit. There is a number of incoming carriages and wagons coming from the direction of Aves.”
“A number enough to impede a Royalty’s convoy? How many are there?”
“I cannot say, but my eyes roughly counted seven.”
“I see. Thank you for the information.” As soon as Erina finished, she locked the wooden plate back into place. “Could it be a large merchant group?”
“I suppose so,” Lara replied. For a while, Lara thought about the situation in Aves. “Amelia’s capture was not publicly announced, was it not? So there wasn’t supposed to be a strict sanction of those who are entering and leaving Aves during Amelia’s missing period. So frankly, it’s a surprise that there’s a number of merchants leaving Aves. Not unless it’s—!”
Lara paused. Erina squinted her eyes.
“What comes to mind, Lady Lara?”
“It’s just an assumption, but please, do open the plate. I have questions for the coachman.”
“If that is so.” Again, Erina pulled the plate and informed the coachman.
Lara, leaning beside Erina’s seat, spoke with the coachman. “Is there anything out of place regarding the convoy of carriages and wagons?”
“I can see none other than the number, Your Royal Highness.”
“I see. I’ll get back to you in a bit.” Lara herself closed the plate and turned to Erina. “How many days has it been since Amelia returned to Tercel?”
“Roughly a day if we estimate the distance the falcon has traveled to deliver the message.”
“Then Amelia arrived somewhere around late afternoon, right? Thank you.” Lara pulled open the plate and said, “Halt the carriage. Tell the guards we are holding an emergency inspection. This is urgent, so, please.”
“Understood,” the coachman replied and immediately passed the order to the surrounding guards.
“What is it, Lady Lara?” Erina asked with a puzzled expression.
“Frankly, I have a rough idea of what is happening. Given her attitude, connections, and her usual course of action, I can say I have confidence in determining what she will do.”
Erina, not anywhere near finding an answer, said, “Please do tell in a simple manner.”
“It’s better to see it for yourself.” Lara chuckled. “It’s quite funny, to be honest. Maybe the star I was born in truly is lucky. Really, I must thank my Mother. Anyway, come, we have some headache-inducing work to do.”
“… It’s been a while but—it’s kind of awkward.” Amelia, wearing a wry smile, rubbed her forearm in embarrassment.
“We don’t get to do this much, after all.” Diane smiled as she savored Amelia’s state. “Anyway, come here, it felt as if years had passed since I last saw you.”
Diane pulled Amelia into her embrace and sniffed the scent of her hair.
“It has only been several days, Mother.”
“It is, but it felt very, very long. You do not know how much your Father and I thought that you’ll meet the same fate as your Grandfather. It is quite… disheartening.”
“… How about Clarissa? Isn’t she around?”
“Ah, right. She too took quite a toll from your disappearance. She took it to herself to ask and persuade our knights into looking for you in earnest. She even tried to join the cooks in providing meals for the knights. It’s quite admirable if I were asked.”
“She’ll be a good Step-sister.”
“True enough. I’m quite pleased with how concerned she was for you.”
This will be hard for my stomach…
“But it has been long. Truly long.”
“What do you mean?”
Diane released Amelia but kept her hands locked on Amelia’s shoulder. Her eyes peering into Amelia’s, Diane said, “It had been long since I embraced you. It has been long since we stripped ourselves of our title and spoke. To be honest, I’m quite jealous of Erina. Rather than me, your Mother, she who wasn’t related to you by blood was always at your side. To me, it seemed she had taken my place as your Mother.”
“I… can sort of understand.” Amelia smiled. “Still, you are my mother by birth. There is nothing that will change that. And besides, I don’t mind having multiple mothers. Well, mothers that I can say I approve. But I do hope I don’t have any other Step-mother that I do not know of. That will be… quite irritating.”
Diane chuckled. “I myself hope so. Though I believe there is no more. After all, I have tried my best to keep an eye on your Father.”
Amelia breathed a sigh. “I hope it is the case.”
Minutes to hours passed as Amelia and Diane exchanged stories not as Royals but as mother and daughter. They spoke to each other with their heads leaning on their own pillows, lying down on Diane’s bed.
“Ahh… I do hope I can complete my studies in Academia. But I guess things will be different now. After all, Max isn’t around anymore so I can’t act like I used to. There’s also Meiko’s case.”
“… Maxwell huh.” Diane shifted her sight to the ceiling and formed her thoughts. “If things had not taken a sudden turn, I believe you would have been wedded to him by now, not Argent and Clarissa. Still, Amelia, you decided to let Argent and Clarissa be married during the agreement. Did you, perchance, regret what you did? Since, if you asked me and your father, preferably Maxwell himself, we wouldn’t have turned down the offer. But since the decision came from you, we believed you were fine with not living with Maxwell as his Queen.”
“I… think it’s fine. Besides, weren’t both you and Father against me leaving Laurel?” Amelia, momentarily shocked, asked.
“That is true. But Maxwell showed how much he cared for you. He tried to remain by your side as much as he could. So we sort of… felt complacent with him around you. It’s just like… how to say this? Him declaring his resolve to protect you will undoubtedly give us a sense of peace and comfort.”
Amelia’s mouth gaped. “I can’t…” believe this…
“So, Amelia, did you regret your decision?”
After a moment of thinking it through, Amelia shook her head. “I’m not entirely sure. But I have already decided. Besides… I don’t think I can live peacefully in Brent right now. But maybe, just maybe, if the war ended soon enough, I might consider living with him… But still, I’m not quite sure…”
After all, I’m starting to leave the realm of humanity. Even if I give birth before I fully leave my humanity, I’m not sure if my own child can accept what I’ve become afterward… But maybe I should let Kanna act as its Mother? I’m sure Kanna will be happy to take care of my child. Wait, no. Would she really? I think she’ll throw a tantrum spanning days before she accepts and dotes on my child. That… is quite a hopeful scene. Though it is a scene I can’t fully visualize.
“But Mother, just in case, will you approve of me if I chose to be a consort instead?” A wry smile climbed on Amelia’s face.
“That…” For a few seconds, Diane kept her lips sealed. “I can’t say I don’t have any qualms. But if you are happy in that sort of arrangement, then, I can’t say no. Still, I don’t think your father would approve of it even though he himself is the perpetrator of our current arrangement.”
“I can sort of visualize that.” Amelia chuckled. “But really, it’s only a hypothetical situation. I think it is a long shot. And with the duties I have and the goals I swore to meet, I can’t allow myself to waver too much. It’s just that, there’s too much to do that I can’t see a glimpse of it in the future.”
Diane frowned. “Amelia, though I may sound pretentious as the one who taught you, do find time for yourself. Not everything you do needs to involve your goal. Unwind. Satisfy your desires. It is human to retreat from a battle and to replenish oneself before resuming.”
Amelia shut her eyes and reminisced what little time she had to manage her own emotions. “Yes. I really do need to unwind. I’m quite thankful Kanna is around so I can take my mind off the problems I have.”
Diane exhaled a sigh of relief. “I am truly thankful that Kanna is around. Just seeing her dedication to you… is quite reassuring. Though I hardly know her in person, I believe I can rest easy if she were with you.”
“Yeah. Kanna is quite something. She often says how much she loves me to the point that I can’t take it seriously.” The simple repetitive exchanges Amelia had with Kanna made Amelia giggle. “I don’t think I can find another person like Kanna. Though I fear that Kanna will truly lose herself if we were separated permanently…”
Diane nodded. Her gentle smile as her cheeks sank on her pillow left a warming impression. “I see. A difference in lifespan. That truly is a problem. However, if you can satisfy her before you pass off, everything will be fine.”
Momentarily, Amelia’s smile twitched. “I guess so.”
A moment of silence ensued between Amelia and Diane.
“Amelia, please, tell me, are you that willing to risk your life? Your Father and I… hope that you leave everything behind and start anew. It’s not too late to reconsider your goals. To reconsider your path in life. You still have a chance to change.”
“No.” Amelia immediately shook her head and sat up. “No, Mother. I won’t reconsider. Just like I said earlier, I swore to meet my goals. I swore to myself. Not to Grandfather, but to myself. This is my own resolve. This is what I sought to do. It is my own dream and not anyone else’s. So please, Mother, understand. No matter what form of challenge or test you give me. No matter how difficult the situation. I will, and will continue. Until I exhaled the last of my breath, I will yearn the completion of my goal.”
Though my goal has… long since changed.
Diane’s eyes held sadness. It held Amelia’s expression like it was recording a scene. Mechanical. Devoid of light. “What if your Father and I refuse to do so? What if we turned Laurel against you? And will all our power, stop you from achieving your goal. Will you still continue?”
“I… don’t mind if I have to throw my name away.” Amelia frowned. She held her fist tightly as she returned Diane’s stare. “I will leave Laurel if I have to. I will find a suitable land even if I was alone. From there I will start my own community. I will gather residents and upheld my goal. Even if my life expires before achieving my goal, I will make it a point to pass down its ideals.”
“…” Diane clutched her pillow and dug her face into it.
“Mother, please, unchain me.”
Gradually, Amelia noticed a stain on Diane’s pillow. Gradually, the damp stain encroached its surroundings.
“Mother, please believe in me. Someday, there will come a time that I, in turn, will protect you and Father.”
“You have grown, Amelia,” muffled, Diane said. “You have truly grown.”
Mother, you and Father just refused to notice… I have been growing.
The day after, Tercel was shaken awake by unexpected news. A small distance away from Aves, Lara Laurel ordered Liz Laurel’s arrest as they both blocked each other’s parade.