I gasped, startled out of my wits, which surprised Shuell, who took a few steps back and stared at me with his jaw to the floor. Before I could react, he stepped even farther away. His big eyes darted from here to there, and he blinked slowly.
I took a deep breath and carefully sat up. Shuell was now standing about a meter away from me, cheeks flushed and eyes wide. The trace of hostility in those pink eyes rendered me speechless. He kept glancing at me, his fingers fidgeting bashfully, as if trying to read my mood. That was what made me remember. He had said something when our eyes met.
Did he say good morning? To me?
“Yeah,” I said hesitantly. “Good morning . . .”
“Oh, oh! Yes!” At my awkward greeting, Shuell blushed and smiled brightly. Just as I was getting distracted by his glowing looks, he licked his lips. “Thank you for helping me yesterday!” he said loudly. “I knew you were a good person! I just looked at you, and I knew! Did you, like, hear me? That’s so cool!”
I almost couldn’t make sense of his words. He was speaking so fast. And his voice was so high. I looked at him, flabbergasted, but Shuell’s smiling face brought me back to reality. Why was he so happy?
I had expected him to break down and cry, so this made no sense to me. Even if he had only been abused briefly, it had been enough to traumatize him. How could he be so happy here when he had practically been sold to us? Sure, he had grown up in a loving home without any big incidents, but still. How could he let down his guard so easily? Was this really the same boy I saw back at the orphanage?
My dumb question was met with a confident answer. I froze on the spot, and Shuell grinned. That was when I saw that he was missing two front teeth. That explained the lisp in his words.
“There’s nothing to be so happy about,” I blurted out and immediately regretted it. I bit my lip.
He was only seven years old. He knew nothing of the world’s dangers and had been loved and cared for all his life. He must’ve thought of this place as some sort of haven where the nice people who saved him lived.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
My parents would throw him out as soon as they grew tired of him. The servants cared more about their jobs and safety than a child like him. I was better off than Shuell in this house, but I had no intention of putting his needs above my own. Yes, he was only seven, but he needed to grow up now. It was cruel, but it was also necessary, at least until he could leave this atrocious house and return to his parents.
“The adults here didn’t bring you here to save you. I’m helping you now, but that doesn’t mean I can protect you all the time. You being here is a secret of its own.”
Harsh truths were better than sloppy lies. This was the best I could do, no matter how rough it was. He needed to know that he couldn’t afford to be the kid he was here.
“Oh.” Shuell’s smile disappeared as I spoke, and his dejected voice stopped me from continuing.
The serious discussion had caused my voice to drop and sound annoyed. Simply put, I was speaking in a tone that scared children. His mouth dropped open, and he looked alarmed.
I frowned. Was he going to cry? God, I hated crying children. I didn’t know how to comfort them.
I tentatively put out my hand toward him, intending to pat his shoulder if he started crying. I was his temporary guardian, after all. Still, then, Shuell looked up.
“I see.” For some reason, he appeared determined. I mean, I was glad he took me seriously, but I couldn’t have been any less confident in him.
“I’m telling you, you’re not safe here.”
“Yeah. You said it was a secret from the adults, right? I’ll be careful.”
“No, it’s not like playing hide and seek.”
“Oh, right. What’s your name?”
I completely lost my energy at this sudden, cheerful change of topic. I told him my name yesterday. Had he already forgotten?
“Arwen. That’s so pretty! How old are you? I’m seven! Are we the same age?”
Age. Yeah, about that. I’m about twenty years older than you.
I almost blurted out the truth but managed to keep my cool. “I’m nine. But that doesn’t matter right now. Shuell—”
I was about to keep explaining, but his reaction caught me off guard. Why was it so surprising that I was nine years old?
“You’re older than me? I thought . . . we were the same age . . . Miss.”
His cheerful smile fell into a glum frown. His blush was nowhere to be seen, and he was fidgeting again. That wasn’t good. We needed to work together to leave this place, meaning we needed to be friends. However, Shuell had shut his mouth and stopped talking.
I doubted he would speak to me again unless I said something first. If I did, I had no doubt he would blabber on like earlier, but I wasn’t that socially adept.
All right . . .
“I’m actually seven,” I said, sighing.
“Really?” Shuell’s pink eyes sparkled, and I peered at him beneath half-closed lids.
Wow, he really is a child. He believed me so qui—
“Then why did you say you were nine?”
I could feel sweat beading on my forehead. What was I supposed to say? As I pondered how to best answer, Shuell’s eyes glittered, curiosity radiating from them like beams.
“Just because,” I answered at last.
“Yeah. Just because.”
Please leave it at that. I avoided eye contact as I circumvented his question, and Shuell grinned.
“It’s cause you’re embarrassed, right?”
I mean, yes, but not in the way you think, kid.
“That’s okay. You can be an adult in a thousand nights!”
Who had told him such a ridiculous lie? As expected of a child, Shuell’s mood changed quickly. He started to talk on and on—it would be his birthday next month, and his favorite food was pudding—and I smiled an empty smile as I listened.
Wasn’t I trying to say something earlier?
This was why I didn’t like children. They were loud, distracting, and couldn’t focus on one thing at a time. Children were as cute and lovely as they were a pain to deal with. I had gotten myself into this mess, so I would try my best to resolve it. Still, could I really bring a kid like him to the capital?
I couldn’t help but have doubts.
Shuell’s parents would pass away in a carriage accident on their way to meet him. And I, as his temporary guardian, had the responsibility of taking him safely back to them.
To do this, I would have to prevent their deaths, but . . .
How was I supposed to stop a carriage from rolling down a hill? If they had been assassinated or gotten into a regular accident, I could have tried to change the novel’s flow somehow. I had no way of preventing a carriage accident that might as well be a natural disaster, and it wasn’t as if I could go around Broschte filling in every cliff I saw.
I could try sending a letter informing them of Shuell’s location, but even that was risky. There was no certain way for me to send a letter without my parents knowing. I’d be putting Shuell in more danger if the letter were to be intercepted by people hostile to the duke. That left me with only one option.
I had to get to the capital.
The Duke and Duchess of Severilous would leave their dukedom and head to the capital at the news of their son’s abduction. All information traveled through there, so it would be their best shot of hearing anything about their son. Shuell had been kidnapped from the streets while pretending to be a commoner, and those kidnappers were regular human traffickers.
They had hoped Shuell’s pretty looks would earn them money. However, news of the Severilous kidnapping must have spooked them, so they had sent him off to the orphanage. They should have just handed him back to his family. How nice would that have been? I wouldn’t have needed to go through all this trouble. Anger flared up at this thought, but I took a deep, steadying breath. That didn’t matter now.
When do the Severilous parents die?
I closed my eyes and thought as hard as I could. The novel said it rained a lot that day. All the rain had caused the ground to soften to mud, which made it harder for the carriage to travel.
This country, the kingdom of Maynard, resembled Korea in its summer monsoons. Aside from those, we had only light showers that came and went, with no other seasons of heavy rain. It wasn’t monsoon season yet, meaning that Shuell’s parents were likely still alive, but . . .
I nervously glanced at the calendar. We were nearing the end of June. The summer monsoon would be here in about two weeks.
The Broschte territory was far from the capital. It would take two weeks by carriage, and I couldn’t ignore the possibility that Shuell’s parents had already left there. They would push their horses to their limits to find their son as quickly as possible, traveling faster than usual.
If they had already left, that was out of my hands. All I could do was figure out exactly when they’d arrive. I combed through my brain for more information. I had read the novel many times. Still, I didn’t have it memorized, so I couldn’t remember every detail. There was something they had said right before dying . . .
“I hope this is the best birthday gift for you, Shuell.”
That was right. His birthday!
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