With a relaxed gait, I returned to the main area of House Valentine’s barracks.
I found Alicia sitting on a sofa, but she soon jumped up and welcomed me.
“Sorry you had to wait, Alicia.”
“Not at all.
How is Lady Evelyn”
My conversation with Evelyn took a while, but Alicia shook her head as though she didn’t mind at all.
Instead, she just asked about Evelyn, who was nowhere to be seen right now.
I reached forward to touch Alicia’s hair.
Perhaps she fiddled with it while waiting, but the ends of her hair was a twisted mess.
“She went home first because she wasn’t feeling well.
It took me a while to come back here because I saw her off.”
“Oh my, she’s not feeling well”
“She said she had a bit of a headache.
It’s nothing serious, you don’t have to worry.”
As I said this, Alicia nodded.
‘Right, absolutely nothing to worry about.’
Far from being sick, Evelyn must currently be the happiest person in the whole empire today.
I could imagine her humming in the carriage right now—the one that I had prepared in advance through Blanca.
As I glanced at the cloth, I realized that the time for the hunting festival’s opening speech was fast approaching.
“Goodness, we’re running out of time because of me.
The opening speech will begin soon, so we should go now.”
Answering with a refreshing tone, Alicia gently linked arms with me.
No matter how much I think about it, Alicia was better suited to be the female lead of a healing novel, not a torturous angst novel.
It’s absolutely ridiculous that a child like her was the main character of an angst novel.
Feeling this slight frustration, I averted my gaze and looked towards the wall to the side.
And there, I saw Cassion, who was standing still in one corner.
He turned this way after hearing me call him.
Soon, a low-pitched answer came back.
It felt like our eyes met, but I couldn’t be sure.
Right now, he was wearing a mask that was covering his face from the eyebrows to the tip of his nose.
It was a mask that was especially made for today’s occasion.
There was no event other than the hunting festival where so many nobles were gathered.
Because of that, I got him a mask just in case.
But honestly, he didn’t exactly look inconspicuous with it.
He’d stand out for no reason the moment he went outside, to a crowded place, so I told him to stay and wait here at the barracks instead.
In any case, there was only a brief time for conversation before the start of the hunting festival, and I needed to use that time only to solve that matter with Evelyn.
‘Well, he’ll have to go out in front of other people with that mask on later anyway.’
Still, wouldn’t it be nice to have a grand entrance and first appearance at the right time
A clear answer came after the brief order.
He soon followed behind me, slightly to the side.
Only a slight turn of the head was enough for me to make eye contact with him.
This time, our gazes met for sure.
We exchanged glances without a word, and at the same time, we looked forward.
* * *
The designated place for the opening ceremony was already crowded.
Most of the participants of the hunt had already changed clothes or had already donned their hunting apparel.
Donning similar leather attire, this man and that man almost mirrored each other.
Nevertheless, there was one such figure who stood out among the rest.
A man who was taller than many others.
Alicia was looking around to find Damian.
If she just looked up a little higher, it would be easy for her to find him.
“Alicia, over there.”
As she was busy looking around the wrong spot, Alicia looked towards the direction I pointed out.
Her expression was serious just now because she was doing her best to search for him, but a smile gradually dawned upon her lips.
She raised one hand with great delight and was about to greet him, but when she became aware of her surroundings, she dropped her hand.
It seemed like she had become self-conscious about the gazes turned this way.
It wasn’t until we got near Damien that Alicia called him.
As he was focused on inspecting his gear, Damian slowly turned around.
Alicia’s voice seemed to have put him in a good mood, and there was already a faint smile on his lips as he turned.
A gentle tone replied to her.
Then, as I stood behind her, Damian’s gaze met with mine.
He hesitated for a moment.
A moment of silence passed before he called my name.
‘Don’t force yourself, please.’
‘I’ve told you time and again.
You don’t have to pay attention to me.
Just take care of Alicia.’
After what we talked about in our last conversation, I felt a bit awkward.
I smiled casually and nodded back.
Perhaps feeling the same way, Damian just blinked in response.
You’re also going to participate in the hunt today, right”
Alicia’s lively voice cut through the awkward atmosphere.
At her question, Damian nodded.
“I’ve never seen you dressed like this, Brother.”
It’s just as she said.
Alicia and Rosetta were attending the hunting festival for the first time this year.
Naturally, it was our first time seeing Damian dressed up like this.
With a renewed gaze, I looked over Damian’s appearance.
The leather cape over his light and thin subjugation attire made him look like a skilled hunter.
“You have to take care of yourself, okay Promise me you won’t get hurt.
Holding onto Damian’s sleeve, Alicia murmured.
With that sulking tone of hers, the faint wrinkles between her knitted eyebrows made her worries apparent.
I know I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help but think that Alicia was so adorable right now.
Perhaps his thoughts weren’t so dissimilar to mine, but Damian smiled and nodded back.
“Yes, I promise.
I won’t get hurt.”
A little relieved after hearing Damian’s answer, Alicia said so, but she soon reached into her pocket.
And her small, pale hand soon presented a neatly folded handkerchief.
At one corner of the white handkerchief was an embroidered golden rose, which was the symbol of House Valentine.
“Please take this, Brother.
It’s my gift to you, wishing for your safety.”
“I’m thankful every year.”
After receiving the handkerchief, Damian naturally patted Alicia’s head.
It was an old tradition of the hunting festival for handkerchiefs to be gifted between family members or lovers.
The gift was like a charm with the wish for the receiver to return safely.
This was the first time that Alicia had come to the hunting festival herself, but she had consistently given Damian handkerchiefs every year before at the mansion.
This time however, she handed her gift to him right before the hunting festival.
They might be feeling that this year was special.
Damian stared at the handkerchief Alicia gave him.
A slight smile tugged up at the corners of his lips.
“You’re getting better at it.
Until last year, I had to look closely to see whether it’s a rose or a lily.”
“Brother! If you insist on teasing me, then why don’t I just take it back”
At Damian’s playful joke, Alicia pouted.
Seeing the picturesque scene of this brother and sister, I unknowingly smiled as well.
As I chuckled a little, Damian’s eyes turned this way.
Once more, our gazes met awkwardly.
Damian started awkwardly fiddling Alicia’s handkerchief.
I could see his lips hesitating.
He must be thinking of saying something, but he couldn’t bring himself to.
I had a rough idea of what he wanted to say though.
‘By any chance, have you also come to give me a handkerchief’
Handkerchiefs were customarily given voluntarily at the hunting festival, but that’s not a rigid rule.
Sometimes, a person who wanted to receive a handkerchief could ask for it outright.
And most people tended to hand over a handkerchief without refusing.
After all, refusing would be the same as saying you’re not wishing for their safety.
However, I pretended not to notice and opened my lips first.
“Good luck, Brother.
Take care out there.”
Because I spoke up first, Damian missed the chance to bring it up.
There was somewhat of a bitter smile on his lips.
He’s not a completely tactless person, so he must have noticed that I deliberately redirected the conversation.
There’s nothing that could be done anyway.
If I gave him a handkerchief here…
‘I just know that he’d bother me with needless concern.’
Damian would become an existence akin to a thorn in my throat.
As I already couldn’t call him family, I didn’t need one anyway.
While staring at him, Mog-i Oraboni from my second transmigration came to mind.
Perhaps because they were both kind.
I had used Damian’s guilt as a means before this, but right now, it was weighing me down.
It was a troublesome change.
So, I had to be careful and not cross any more lines from now on.
I’m watching over two people as it is—Alicia and Cassion.
And the people I had on my side were more than enough.
‘However, it might be too late already.’
Even as I made this cold-hearted pledge to myself, in my mind, I kept recalling the ‘Hunting Festival Arc’ of the original novel over and over.
This was evidence enough.
The only reason I kept skimming through the arc was to confirm whether Damian would get injured or not.
I smiled again because I found myself laughable.
Fortunately, there was no sound this time.
Just a standstill.
“Brother, do you know where Father is”
As I felt an unknown sentiment creeping up on me, just in time, Alicia changed the topic.
Damian’s gaze, which had been on me, slowly returned to Alicia.
“I believe Father is at the Imperial Family’s barracks.”
“The Imperial Family’s”
Father won’t be participating in the hunt.”
Alicia let out a brief sigh of relief.
She seemed to be worried because it was, after all, a hunting festival.
Well, it’s true that the ‘hunting’ part doesn’t sound very safe.
“But why is Father with the Imperial Family”
As she felt more relieved now, Alicia nevertheless asked, looking up at Damian with round eyes.
With a gentle smile, he replied.
“The dukes are originally barred from participating in the hunt, so instead, they’ll be standing behind His Majesty the Emperor while he delivers the opening speech.”