Fire erupted when the bomb I threw crashed against the wood of the small stable. Smoke rose high above the billowing flames. The destructive power of the bomb was incredible.
Small, yes, but it sure packed a punch.
I smiled in relief, thinking about the horses already safely escaped into the shelter of the forest. Everything had gone according to plan. I knew there would be a bomb-throwing lesson, and I knew the stable was the target. I wanted to prevent senseless killing, so I shooed the horses off before sunrise. All of the horses in the stable were old and sick, and it would be nice for them to spend the rest of their lives roaming free in nature after years of hard work.
“Estella, did that frighten you?”
Like a reflex, I began to tremble. Seeing my reaction, Kalen leaned in, gently wrapping his arm around my shoulders. Above me, his luscious silver hair fluttered in the breeze. He had a beautiful face that you could never forget.
But don’t be fooled. He was capable of shattering bones into a thousand tiny pieces with a smile adorning that beautiful face.
I nodded quickly and didn’t forget to quake in my pretend fear.
“Estella would never say she was frightened. Don’t you get it? Unsophisticated weapons like bombs don’t suit Estella. We need to teach her swordsmanship. Just imagine how graceful Estella would be with a sword encrusted with colorful jewels! Come with me, Estella.” My older twin sister, Ada, took my hand and dragged me along.
Ada was wrong. I didn’t want to learn more about bombs or swords. What do jewels on a sword matter if shedding blood with it? Such a sword will still cause pain. It will still kill. Bomb or sword or whatever else; they are all just means to kill people.
For seventeen years, I have been demonstrating my incompetency at any and all torture and killing techniques, but my siblings refused to give up on me. They were concerned about me carrying the Kartina name without any skills. It was important to our reputation, but also to our survival since we had many enemies, both in and outside the family.
It was worse when another Kartina was the enemy.
Unlike a typical noble family where the eldest son was expected to inherit everything, our family operated under a system of succession that forced its members to turn against each other. Among our family members, anyone could become the successor. Hence the fierce, often deadly, competition.
Did they use political machinations?
All you needed to do was to obtain a signed statement from the other, conceding their right to succession, using any means possible. The issue being “any” means. My father, Stefan, the current Count de Kartina, was the previous Count’s third son. He had mutilated his oldest brother Schubert’s arm and kidnapped his older brother Schuron’s fiancée.
Stefan had managed to become the next family head, but that didn’t guarantee one of his children would be the next successor. The children of Schubert and Schuron had it out for us. Fortunately, Ada, Ayla, Kalen, and I were too close to even consider fighting each other.
“Swordsmanship? You want our little Estella to carry a heavy weapon like that? I will kill you if her cute little hands get blisters! It’s better for her to learn more elegant ways like torture.”
“Torture isn’t elegant, Ayla. I smiled awkwardly as I looked at Ayla and Ada, who each held one of my hands. Can we please stop?”
“Ha… I guess you can’t be talked to. Hold your sword, Ayla.”
“My sword? Who fights with swords these days?” Ada let go of my hand and procured several vials from her pocket. Her eyes shone malevolently as she placed the vials between her fingers.
This is bad.
As Ada shook her hands, black liquid sloshed inside the vials. I recognized it: a horrifying liquid that melted human flesh upon contact.
“If you’re fighting over Estella, don’t leave me out.” Kalen took a fist-sized bomb out of his pocket.
I tried not to squeeze my sisters’ hands too tightly. Things were escalating. It wasn’t just a silly little fight between siblings. It wouldn’t stop with some hair getting pulled and faces getting bruised. Our fights were…
I recalled a fight from a few days ago. It was laughable no matter how many times I thought about it, but they had fought over who would get to eat lunch with me. They had fought over nothing. And the outcome?
The east servants’ wing was destroyed. Some of the servants were injured. Quite a few of them had such serious injuries—some of them wouldn’t be able to work for a while.
With bombs, poisons, and swords, this fight wasn’t going to be any different, if not worse. Please, please stop. I didn’t want innocent people to get hurt.
I took a deep breath and announced, “I want to learn it all. I’ll learn everything so I don’t bring shame to the Kartina name!”
All three gazes snapped to the top of my head. It wasn’t that I was that short; they were just unnecessarily tall. Their eyes, which had just been burning with fury, quickly softened into expressions of adoration.
My three siblings embraced me at the same time.
“Oh my! Look at our Estella, so eager to learn.”
I couldn’t be less interested in learning how to kill people, but it was the only thing that could stop this fight.
“What will you study first, Estella? Making bombs, right?”
I had no idea my declaration would spark yet another fight.
In the end, a fight broke out, and the outcome was disastrous. The prized field of poisonous plants belonging to our mother and the lady of the house, Hela de Kartina, burned.
“How dare you fight in front of Estella! Are you insane?” Hela de Kartina, with her snowy white skin and cherry red lips, was the most villainous of them all. An expert in all poisons in the empire, she had a gift for enticing someone to consume any poison no matter what it took.
“We apologize, Mother.” Kalen and the twins had kneeled in front of our mother.
“Which bone should I break?” Hela glowered down at her children and stretched out her elegant fingers. I flinched with each crack of her knuckles.
The punishments aren’t ordinary, either. This was a familiar sight, but I still couldn’t get used to it. It was too harsh punishment for a fight between siblings. Not just harsh. If this were my previous life in Korea, this moment would make the news.
I do believe that evil deeds deserve retribution, but if you look at it that way, not a single person in this family would go without severe punishment. As guilty as they were, I had no desire to watch the siblings I’d grown up with these past seventeen years undergo such cruelty.
I blinked rapidly, turning my head to the side and opening my mouth wide. My eyes filled up with tears because of the forced yawn.
Excellent. Before my tears could dry up, I grabbed the hem of Hela’s skirt. “Mom, my siblings, they aren’t to blame. It’s all my fault. I’m just so incompetent…”
Drip. A single tear trailed down my cheek with perfect timing. I should be an actor.
“Estella, don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault.” Hela wrapped her arms around me.
I raised my head in Hela’s embrace, sniffing dramatically. “Mom, I think I’d be really upset if they got punished.” My green eyes met her red ones.
“I see. You’re so considerate of your siblings, my little Estella. How are you so different from them?” Hela ran her hand over my curly blonde hair.
“Does that mean you forgive them, Mom?”
Hela’s gaze wavered. I prayed that she would make a wise decision.
“All right,” she conceded. “Since Estella appealed to me so sincerely, I’ll forgive you. In exchange, you’ll come shopping with me, won’t you, Estella?”
“Yes, Mom.” I beamed, noticing Kalen, Ada, and Ayla sigh in relief out of the corner of my eye. They were blessed with the monstrous physical resilience of the Kartina family, but even they must’ve wanted to avoid broken bones.
There’s something I should mention here. What they were worried about wasn’t physical pain—but having it hinder their evildoing.
“But you should take responsibility for what you’ve done, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, Mother.” All three of them replied at once.
This seemed to please Hela, who smirked and assigned them a mission instead of punishing them. “Bring Rodrigo Duveli Erhart here.”
“What? Who did you say, Mom?” I was so surprised that I had to ask her again.
“Rodrigo Duveli Erhart, the empire’s archduke. What is it, my darling? Are you interested in him?” Hela’s expression quickly turned cold.
“N-n-no. Of course not. I don’t even know who he is.” A lie. I knew very well who he was, and I was very interested in him. Because in the story, it was Rodrigo who would ruin this family! He was the man Estella was in love with and who abhorred her. He was also the hero of the story.
“That’s right. You don’t need to know him, my darling Estella.” Hela, who seemed satisfied with my answer, smiled and hugged me tightly.
My heart began to pound against my chest. Am I going to meet the protagonist after all? Is there no way to avoid him? I’ve been good for seventeen years. Oh, heartless god. How cold of you. Are you dooming me after all?
“Estella?” Hela asked, catching sight of my gloomy expression. I forced my lips into a smile. “Estella,” she said, “if anything worries you, just say so. We are the Kartinas. We have nothing to fear or worry about.”
Of course! I’m a Kartina! A Kartina, who can make the impossible possible! I will find a way to survive. The Kartina family had a few sayings handed down from previous generations. One of the most relied upon being: “If you don’t want to get killed, kill first.”
I’ve been using a slightly modified version of this saying, which goes, “If you don’t want to get killed, save lives.”
To be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t be strange for any one of my relatives to get struck by lightning, considering all the evil things they’ve done. That’s why I wanted to do good. I didn’t want to get stabbed in the street or get poison all over me and wither away like dry rice.
I made up my mind. Let’s save Rodrigo. If my family members do nothing but evil, I will in turn do something good for the hero.
A zero-sum game! That was my plan.
“The day of the kidnapping will be in one week, on the day of the ball. Isn’t it a perfect occasion? Rodrigo has so many enemies, it won’t be easy to figure out who did it.” There was only one reason why Hela had decided on the day of the ball. “It’s a perfect day to make a scene.”
I could almost sense Hela’s heart beginning to pound faster with excitement.
He’s in danger. The protagonist is in danger. This is no time to stand by and watch. I have to act.
“Mom, I want to go to the ball too.” I begged with twinkling eyes.
“That’s…” Hela began to answer.
She just needs to say “fine” now.
Much to my surprise, she refused my request.
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