“―― and who might you be?”
With that question asked, I was brought back to reality.
Ow-ow-ow. My back hurts because I was squatting down the whole time. Wiping off the sweat clinging along my chin, I turned towards the person who spoke to me.
………… same goes for you. And who are you, exactly?
Staring blankly at the person who appeared openly like a ghost in broad daylight, the strange mood made me doubt my eyes.
I realized that the lustrous dress clinging onto her petite body, along with the embroidery decorating it, were both made out of first-class goods.
White lace gloves fit snugly on her hands, and she was lightly pinching the hem of her skirt. Both the shoes and dress were also made of the same lace material – honestly, it was appropriate for her to be walking not on soil, but on carpet.
Along with wrecking her fancy, upper-class nobility outfit by simply being here, this girl was also wearing an armored helmet on top of her head.
The helm’s thoroughly polished steel exterior reflected the incoming sunlight, radiating a lustrous shine. Its visor was lowered so that nothing but a silhouette could be seen inside the armor.
As opposed to a kerchief, that armor is flawless. There aren’t any visible gaps at all.
…… a dangerous person who’s both conspicuous and excessive.
“You couldn’t possibly be one of His Highness Ikuta’s bride candidates, are you?”
“Y-yes, I am.”
“As I thought… where did Bruno wander off to without me knowing?”
In response to hearing the old man’s name, I reported to her concerning what had happened earlier within the garden.
After nodding to show her understanding, the person strolled through the herb garden at her own convenience and sat down on an aged, faded bench left behind in the corner.
If she appeared to be a person who dislikes getting her dress sullied by dirt, then that is most certainly not the case. There exists no sign of her being concerned about her current state of affairs.
“Would you also like to take a short rest with me?”
It’s difficult to judge her age from the inviting voice muttered from inside the helmet, but I think she’s most likely younger than me.
Once the shock of the encounter went and faded, my first thought was that I would take a shot at what her true colors were.
“Such an awe-inspiring thing to ask of me. I humbly thank you for bestowing your concern onto the likes of myself, O Great, Venerable Hero.”
I took a bow, my knees scraping the earth’s surface.
If I think about it normally, you can’t expect a suspicious person wearing a helmet to freely strut around the Royal Palace like she owned the place. Especially under the palace’s strict security.
Three years ago, when Telmia had fallen into despair, a messiah descended unto the continent. After making a pilgrimage to each of the many nations plagued by the demon invasions, at last the hero defeated the ringleader – the Demon King. Even without being accompanied by the golden winged lion, nor without so much as having the legendary armor and helmet attached to her body, the personage standing before my eyes was for sure――
“Please, go ahead and stand up. My occupation as a hero is already over.”
Clang! The metal made a screeching sound. When I glanced upward, the venerable hero had tipped her face guard upward and revealed a pained smile.
Certainly, she stopped being the hero one year ago once she defeated the Demon King.
“Understood, ‘His Highness the Crown Prince’s Honored Fiancée’.”
“You stop that too. Please.”
Her face filled with a sullen anger was beckoning me. And without the ability to refuse, I lined up in front of the bench and sat down.
My height is a wee bit tall, but the sturdy helmet’s stature roughly matches it. When I secretly peeked at her, black hair and black eyes rare to Rionia appeared into view. It’s said that those features, oblivious to my stares, came from another world; the general rumors and discussion are able to assent to that.
She looks to be an ordinary girl, having the appearance of a small animal with her petite body and big, round eyes. But one of the popular anecdotes spread around was how she pinned the Demon King down with one pinky and forced it to surrender. Was that fake?
Until the venerable hero defeated the demon king, not once was the legendary armor removed from her body.
It was thought that the hero was a man, but the truth is that she was actually a girl; the whole world was surprised because her betrothal to the crown prince was announced.
The minds of the women of Rionia were split between the hero and the prince.
People are now jokingly on the verge of singing that the declaration of the engagement caused maidens all over the country to wring their handkerchiefs in anguish.
In addition to the spread of the epic tale about the noble hero and his companions so far, the episode of the start of a romance with the prince was widely sweeping throughout the imperial capital – whether or not it was truth or lies. Since then, a helmet and armor boom suddenly gushed forth and established itself among the young female population. It is, quite frankly, bizarre.
But then as one would expect, the types of armor concealing the whole body didn’t match well. Girls just wore armor parts like shoulder guards and chestplates, though.
Moreover, I witnessed men of all ages and walks of life shedding tears. The sights to be seen were excellent! Or rather, it’s because these scenes weren’t in visible sight that they were splendid! So it happened, and the whole town became in an uproar. Well, putting that debacle aside, the conclusion is this: it seems like only quite the minority could even imagine what was underneath the girls’ armor.
When I finally became aware of it, black pupils were keenly admiring me in interest.
“Hey, why are you weeding in this kind of place?”
“As I do not have a tea party to attend and greet His Highness today, I have time to spare.”
“You do weeding because you’re free? I’ve never seen a woman like you before.”
“Is that so?”
―― I’ve never seen the likes of a person wearing a steel helmet in a dress either.
From the way she’s speaking to me in a familiar manner, I’d say she holds an interest in me for some reason.
… I’m worried. Looks like I produced an obstacle to the “Create an Elegant Air Without Standing Out or Making a Racket Plan”. If I’m able to, then I should put some distance between me and the main cause of trouble.
”Your name is?”
“Theresa Ruff Dalton is what I’m called.”
“I’m Fujiya Heiko. Because I’m already an ordinary person at this point, it’d be great if you could do me a favor and talk to me normally. Could you call me by my name, too? Since I’m also calling you Theresa.”
“… since you’re a person of the ‘Silver Rank’, that kind of matter is rather –“
An absurd thing to say. Half-hidden beneath the base of the helmet, a golden shine lies on her neck.
“The Crown Regalia.”
Those who wear these on their bodies are referred to as the Gold, Silver, Violet, and Crimson Ranks, as the accessories are restricted to royalty and some of the upper-class nobility. The “Crown Regalia” are gold chokers carrying the motif of the sacred beast Leonoz. The front-facing clasp is a roaring lion’s head, and the bands branching out of the head and encircling around the neck symbolize his wings.
The gems inlaid into Leonoz’s eye sockets strictly determine who bears those titles.
With their ranks of Purest Gold, the King and his Queen are the “Gems of the Morning Star.” The current ruler’s direct descendants, possessing the ranks of Clearest Silver, are the ‘Gems of Sunlight.” Non-immediate family, such as aunts, uncles, nephews, and nieces, along with the spouses of royalty are of Royal Violet, wearing the “Gems of Dawn.” Excluding the royalty, the dukes and marquises joining the ranks of Deepest Crimson possess the “Gems of Dusk.” They are all the same sacred jewels, but the given names are assigned according to their luster and hue.
The stone inlayed within the winged lion’s eyes, which I caught a glimpse of, appeared to be the golden Gem of Sunlight.
“―― This is only because the king gave it to me as a simple reward! His Highness Atoren broke the clasp, so I can’t unfasten it! That’s it, so there’s absolutely no profound meaning to this at all! None!”
On the contrary though, I sense something way too deep.
Obviously I can’t involve myself with the Second Prince, but I can’t involve myself with the crown prince even more. For my own good, you see.
“Asking that from the likes of myself, I beseech you to somehow-“
“—please grant me pardon from –“
“I beg of you, I beg of you—“
Repeatedly calling my name had a sobering effect. Avowing myself to a sense of resignation, I restored my previously averted gaze.
”Stop it with the formal language. Talk casually.”
”… Got it, Fuja Peko.”
Faced with her quite delicate-looking expression, as I thought, perhaps calling the hero directly by her name was too far? Or so I had contemplated, but then–
“Why are the people’s pronunciations here so…” was muttered with a grumble.
“Because you say the surname first in my country, Fujiya is my last name, and Heiko is my first name… ugh, I give up already, just call me Peko,” she said.
Looks like my pronunciation was bad, I thought as I heard what she spoke of. There wasn’t any traffic in the quiet herb garden, so we had a long talk.
Peko was a funny girl when I spoke with her. Her way of thinking could be described as different; or perhaps I should say it’s something the people of Rionia had no conception of. I get it now… I hummed in admiration. It’s said that she’s 19 years old, two years younger than me. However, the depth of her knowledge seems to match that of an average civil official’s.
It looks like her personality isn’t one that’s particular about my blunt wording, nor how I’m like a friend that’s informal and easy to get along with. On the contrary, I’d say she’s rather happy because of it.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think someone would come to my location in the Royal Palace, and that I would be able to talk with them. When she smiled at me innocently as if she had made a true friend, I also became happy.
Peko had said she sometimes would go and take refuge at Bruno’s (the old man) place. From my talk with her, I was able to guess that the person she was running away from was exclusively her partner, the Crown Prince.
But, well… I wonder if she’s noticed that the majority of her idle complaints are about the ties with her fiancé? The way she’s telling me all this, it feels like she’s speaking fondly about a lovers’ quarrel though.
“――As I thought, you were over here, weren’t you.”
”Your Highness Ikuta!”
Peko raised her voice in astonishment.
Nimbly casting my eyes downward, I used the excuse of taking a bow and hid my face.
… Errm, I have a hunch I’ve gotten myself into an extremely bad situation. Yeah.
I mourned the fact that I had neglected my own warnings from being deeply engrossed in the conversation. Isolated in my own happy space with the beloved garden of my dreams, I think my sense of wariness had dulled.
“Esteemed Sister-in-Law, my older brother was searching for you. If you don’t try to moderate your game of hide-and-seek, the worried person who’s ‘it’ might sprout a horn out of his head like an ogre.”
“I’m not your sister-in-law yet! And that person isn’t an ogre, because he’s the man-edition of the Yukionna! The Yukionna is a ghost that lives in the snowy mountains, and icy laser beams shoot out from its eyes that cause humans to freeze over. I’ll be frozen, y’know? Together with His Highness!”
“That is certainly a dreadful being, isn’t it. What do the frozen people do? Wouldn’t they die in that state?”
“Umm, if I remember correctly, I think they’ll thaw out with a kiss of true love? Anyways! As far as I’m concerned, he’s pretty much the same terrible existence!”
“If my older brother overheard that by accident he would be sad, you know.”
“… tch, you gonna tattle?”
“Sister-in-Law, if you return right now, then I won’t disclose anything.”
Peko, who appeared conflicted, stood up in indignation.
“~~ I’ll go back! If I go back then that’s fine, right?!”
Clash! A violent sound rang out as she roughly tossed down her visor. As I expected, the helm was military-issue after all.
“If you brothers were alike, you’d all have good personalities. ―― Thanks for today, Theresa, it was super fun!”
“It has been too great of an honor.”
“Theresa, stop it with the formal language. … geez, what’s all this about farewells, because isn’t it fine for us to try and see each other every now and then?”
Nothing can be seen over the helmet, so how could I even know what expression she’s making? I raised my face.
However, Peko pushed up her visor only slightly and shyly asked me, “Won’t you chat with me again?” Between the gaps of the boorish helmet, the face of a small animal could be seen.
Ohh, so this is what you call “gap moe”? Isn’t that cute.
“I also had a lot of fun. As long as it’s good with you, Peko, I want to talk with you again.”
“Yeah, of course! I’ll see you later then!”
Once the brilliant and dazzling steel-helmeted girl tightly lowered her visor, she waved her hands goodbye and left.
I also returned the farewell, waving back in response. ―― with nonchalant movements, I bent over and untied the ribbon binding my dress hem together.
What am I going to do about the kerchief wrapped around my head? It’s disrespectful, but in order for him to not remember my face, let’s leave it on for a while longer.
Yes, I’m ‘returning already’.
Hey, if I ignore him, won’t he not recognize my appearance? …… No good, huh. It’s just the two of us, and yet –
“You couldn’t possibly be expending your precious voice and bestowing it onto this lowly presence at your royal feet!”
I don’t think I can fly by with that excuse.
When it looks like I’ve chosen to run in silence, I soft—ly lift up the heels of my pumps.
“If you run away, the knights will chase after you. Miss… Teresa, was it?”
Seeing that he now knows my name, there’s no meaning to letting myself slink by from this place. It was my belief that one shouldn’t abandon all hope, but at times, isn’t it necessary to just give up?
Adding another vomited sigh to the year’s worth I’ve built up since first becoming a scapegoat, I stared back at those dark-blue eyes.
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