The bitingly cold atmosphere was inevitable.
The strained relationship between the Carters and the Valentines had been going on so long that there was no one who knew what started it.
From birth, they would recognize each other as a ‘fellow pillar’ of the empire, and at the same time, opponents that they need to keep in check.
It wasn’t an individual concern, but rather, a problem between households.
As the households’ descendants would grow into adults, they would naturally follow the previous generation.
“But how come you’ve come here late, when you’re always the first person to arrive.”
Following Duke Carter’s remarks, Duke Valentine looked away and checked the clock.
There were still a few minutes until the designated time to meet.
It’s not enough to say that he was late.
However, instead of correcting the other man, Duke Valentine answered the question.
“I went to see my children.”
“Your children The Young Duke and the two Young Ladies”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Duke Carter cocked his head to the side after hearing Duke Valentine’s answer.
“I thought that you held no interest for your children.
Is that not the case”
In response to the obviously sarcastic tone, Duke Valentine looked up.
And the look behind those golden eyes was much too frosty to just say it was ‘cold’.
Above all, even while he maintained a disinterested demeanor this whole time, this flash of coldness settled but soon dispersed upon his countenance.
And, obviously as well, this coldness was anger.
At this, Duke Carter narrowed his eyes.
“Yes, that’s not the case.”
However, only a succinct answer was uttered.
The terse, rigid answer implied the end of the conversation.
Duke Carter also did not intend to continue the conversation, so he simply nodded and turned away from the other man.
The only thing they did was sip their tea.
Duke Carter’s eyes turned towards the window.
With the sky being so blue, the vibrant autumn leaves stood out starkly.
Yellow and red leaves.
Seeing this, two faces suddenly came to mind.
The images that appeared in Duke Carter’s mind were the faces of his children.
Two different pairs of red eyes.
Soon, his expression became distorted.
He really had no luck with his children.
At least, he thought so himself.
One of which devoured the woman he loved after being born, and thereafter did not have the faintest of abilities to do anything at all.
That child who had neither ability nor worth.
Perhaps because Duke Carter started treating that child as if he didn’t exist early on, but so too did the child leave this world early and pass on.
When he recalled the name that he had forgotten for a while, the wrinkles on the duke’s forehead became thicker.
There was a bitter taste in his mouth.
‘And, the only child who’s left…’
The child that was born with magical talent.
However, the problem with him was that his ambitions were bigger than his talents.
Leo had aspirations that mirrored Eianne’s, his mother’s.
Sharp, cruel, threatening.
Facing the presumptuous gaze of that child made the duke feel rotten.
Whenever Leo would look at the duke… What Leo’s looking at was not him but his position.
Rather than his child, wouldn’t he be closer to a hyena
‘Anyway, how violently blessed I am with my children.’
Duke Carter clicked his tongue briefly.
The first born was a worthless child who had a short life that ended in vain.
The second born was a greedy child whose eyes flashed while staring straight at his father’s position.
He liked neither one of those children.
‘Well, one of them is dead.’
Wind blew outside the window.
The man’s red gaze followed the maple leaves that fluttered below the sky.
Only cold air remained on those empty branches.
* * *
“…And so, for the safety and peace of all those who will be participating in this year’s hunting festival…”
The emperor’s opening speech had already begun.
Unlike in other fantasy novels, the emperor in this world looked quite ordinary.
But the same couldn’t be said with the dignity that was palpable from his atmosphere.
With violet eyes that symbolized the imperial family.
And well-styled blond hair.
Each word that the emperor uttered had the power to attract the attention of all those who listened.
Even so, the emperor’s dignity was separate from how boring his speech was.
While listening to the tedious opening speech, I looked around.
Behind the emperor on the podium were three men.
One after another: Valentine, Carter and Freesia.
The heads of the three ducal households.
Each of them seemed to have good presences and unique energies.
Indeed, if people like them had your back, it would truly be reassuring.
As I slowly scanned the three people, my eyes stopped at the man at the end.
His eyes were blue.
‘…So that’s Duke Freesia.’
Daniel’s eldest brother.
It’s the first time I was seeing him in person, but he didn’t look all too unfamiliar.
Somehow, Daniel’s face overlapped his.
‘Those two look alike.’
Not only their blue eyes, but also their appearance as a whole.
Whether it was with the way that their eyes drooped slightly, or whether it was with the way the corners of their lips would turn up slightly.
What’s different between them was the atmosphere that each man exuded.
Still, once Daniel would get older, it seemed like he’d grow up just like that.
‘Now that I think about it, did Daniel come’
Since Daniel had crossed my mind, I suddenly wondered.
According to the original novel, Leo was set to participate in the hunting festival, so he’s bound to be here somewhere.
And he wouldn’t just come.
He’d be fully prepared, I’m sure.
However, Daniel never made an appearance in the hunting festival arc.
In the letter he sent me, he asked if he could meet me.
But I never once ran into him anywhere here today.
That said, it didn’t seem like he’s going to join in the hunt itself.
‘Well, that’s none of my business.’
It would be better if, just like right now, we wouldn’t see each other at all.
It was already exhausting just thinking of him yammering on while pretending to be close to me.
Besides that, I had work to do today.
Glancing sideways, I looked over to the person slightly behind me.
And the person that came into my view was a man who had his eyes covered with a black mask and was taller than most others here.
Beneath the shadow of the mask, the man’s gaze was steadily fixed upon the emperor.
No, perhaps behind the emperor.
Towards his father.
As I thought about Daniel and Leo, then took a furtive glance towards Cassion, the emperor’s opening speech ended.
Thunderous applause roared from all sides.
I went along with the crowd and clapped as well.
Soon, the emperor stepped down from the podium, and a brief preparation time was given.
No one else but the participants remained standing in the open space in front of the podium.
They were all wearing their hunting garb, examining their gear with serious looks on their faces.
Among those people, I caught sight of Damian as well.
While looking through his hunting gear, he slowly turned his head.
At the same time, the surrounding young ladies’ sighs of admiration could be heard clearly.
‘Popular, aren’t you.’
It would be stranger if he wasn’t popular when he had a face like that.
“Is Brother really going to be alright”
Between the young ladies’ sighs, Alicia whispered with a small voice.
Nodding back, I answered.
He’ll surely be fine.”
I comforted Alicia with words that, in their own way, held some credibility.
I’ve skimmed through the original novel’s hunting festival multiple times, but there was no scene where Damian would get hurt.
Well, I did have a plan today to twist the original ‘hunting festival arc’.
But of course, these plans had nothing to do with Damian.
So, the future wherein Damian would come back should remain untouched.
At least, that’s what I was expecting.
“There’s nothing to worry about.”
I whispered back to Alicia as I patted her head.
Hearing these reassuring words, Alicia smiled softly.
A little while later, Alicia turned to find Damian.
Her gaze, as she looked at her older brother, glistened with affection.
I stared down at her without a word, then slowly raised my own gaze to scan through the crowd.
Damian should have nothing to worry about.’
Still though, if there’s someone to be wary of…
It’d of course be ‘Leo’.
With my guard up, I strained my eyes while looking around.
Nevertheless, I stared at each and every face in the crowd.
Leo must be there somewhere, but I couldn’t find him anywhere.
It was suspicious and concerning.
It felt as if something was lodged in my throat.
In fact, we should have met Leo by now— back when we were talking to Damian earlier.
In the original plot, that’s when Alicia and Leo ran into each other.
However, in the original, Alicia and Rosetta weren’t together, that’s why Alicia supposedly would have wandered through the crowd without being able to find Damian right away.
It was inevitable that many curious gazes were on her.
And just as it was with us now, there was an ‘augmented interest’ in her since she was an esteemed duke’s daughter attending her first high society event.
But when comparing Alicia in reality and Alicia in the original novel, the latter was in a much worse condition.
She was still being abused by Katie, and while ‘I’ was there as a prop beside her, Alicia didn’t really have anyone to rely on in the original.
The gazes that were directed at her were like pointed arrows, and it was a matter of time that she became so overwhelmed with confusion.
But in the midst of this, Leo arrived.
Appearing through the crowd, he pulled Alicia out of there and led her to a deserted place.
No one knew what kind of black-hearted feelings lurked within one side of his chest.
‘There’s no need for you to thank me.
Instead, may I have a handkerchief’
As Alicia was continuously thanking him, this was what Leo told her.
Alicia would not dare to refuse someone’s request, and so she handed Leo the handkerchief that she was supposed to give to Damian.
This was one of the early scenes in the hunting festival arc.
Alicia and Leo’s strings of fate get tangled up even further due to this ‘handkerchief’.
‘Right, that’s certainly what happened, but…’
Far from having a chance meeting with Leo now, Alicia had already handed the handkerchief to Damian.
In the process, the duke also came in to unexpectedly give his children some encouragement and concern.
That’s how the situation became, but it wasn’t a bad thing.
Either way, the original plot had become twisted up already because Leo and Alicia did not meet.
However, I couldn’t get rid of this nagging feeling.
I couldn’t relax for some reason.
Didn’t I feel the same way at the funeral before
While it’s true that I changed the original plot, things subsequently went in a worse direction.
‘Of course, it’s not going to be the same all the time, but…’
Since the latest experience wasn’t very good, there’s nothing I could do about the apprehensions I had now.
And while I was looking around fervently, looking for Leo to no avail, an attendant of the imperial family blew the trumpet.
It was the signal to start the hunting festival.