Mariwa was in the middle of a busy festival.
It was the annual Founder’s Festival.
It’s always a commotion on that day. One could see rows of stalls in the central plaza leading to the main street, and hear the ceaseless shouting of vendors. Everyone loosens up and enjoys themselves more than usual.
However, they would never expect royalty to be among the crowd.
Mariwa wasn’t alone in this popular festival. She dragged herself out there because one of her friends had something to talk about.
Without a conspicuous guard beside her, that friend of hers was dashing to a stall that sold meat skewers. Her golden hair was stuffed beneath her coarse robes, and her beautiful face was covered by her hood. Even then, she couldn’t hide her radiant blue eyes or her friendly demeanor, smiling at the stall owner who was making a delivery.
She enjoyed herself when socializing, but she was energetic during times like these as well. Mariwa sensed the similar but completely different mood in her as she walked at her side.
She loved dressing up and having fun in the old downtown district. Such was the woman named Evelia Edward.
But her footwork seemed heavier than usual. Perhaps it was because of what she had heard earlier.
“So, who is it?”
“A pregnant virgin.”
The pregnant woman said ridiculously.
Mariwa was furious at her plain attempt to dodge the question.
It’s only obvious that a child is the product of both man and woman. There are no exceptions. Babies aren’t born on cabbage fields, nor do they pop out between crotches of a tree. It’s common sense that even a ten year old commoner would know.
The “pregnant virgin” that the church preaches about in the scriptures is simply a means to heighten the mystery of the saint herself. Unless you were a true believer, you would know that without having to say it.
“This child is a blessing from God. Ahem!”
Despite that, the woman past her mid-twenties proudly said that without a hint of shame.
It was truly a blasphemy. How could a noble woman with social status and good education say something like that? Surely she couldn’t complain if a certain someone pulled her face or grabbed her collar and jolted her back and forth.
But what was truly terrifying was the fact that four out of five people backed down from hearing that.
“So, who is it?”
“I said I’m doing my best alone ououou! Fy ah you hooing ny cheeksh?!”
“I shall tear off your chin if you are such a fool to not know why. I would be doing the world a service by making it a more peaceful place.”
“Hill you shoh?!”
Mariwa was the only one who didn’t back down. Without further hesitation, she grabbed Evelia’s face and hoisted it up.
It was a little rowdy, but it was right in the middle of the festival. They were wearing inconspicuous clothes, and even if they were a little loud, it was probably not enough to attract anyone’s suspicion.
“Fy ah you sho wean, Mariwa?! Fy?!”
“I am a respectable person. Also, are you a fool? I wondered why you called me out, but you still talk so much, and so foolishly. Do you have no shame at all? Even I feel embarrassed walking beside you. I beg you, please say something decent for once.”
She wasn’t trying to be horrible. In fact, the true horror lay in the princess’s head. Convinced by the fact, Mariwa showed no mercy. She intensified the pressure on her fingers grabbing Evelia’s cheeks.
“So, who is it?”
“Fy hon’t you heliehe me, Mariwa? Eheryone elsh did.”
“It’s true that they backed down from your stupid excuse…… but not everyone believed you.”
Mariwa wasn’t really satisfied, but miscommunication would eventually occur if she kept talking like that. As a finishing touch, she made a strong tug, then let go of her face.
“Ow…… my cheeks hurt. They’ll definitely get red.”
Evelia stared at Mariwa with her eyes half open while complaining. For someone who seemed to be hurting so much, she was tightly grabbing the meat skewer she had bought earlier and showed no sign of dropping it. She most certainly could have taken more pain.
Evelia ate a piece of the meat skewer and smiled, thinking how close she was to dropping it.
Casting a sideways glance at her, Mariwa began to walk slowly with the crowd.
“I simply wanted your answer, without prying into details. Who would believe your stupid response, you fool?”
“Eh, what then? You just wanted to say that you lack delicacy? Are you really such a nosy person to step all over someone’s privacy, Mariwa? That’s such a great personality. I rather like it, you know?”
“That is not what I am saying. Please stop fooling around, it’s rather annoying.”
Evelia laughed teasingly, regaining her mood after eating the delicious meat skewer.
It had been more than three years since they met. Currently barring special privileges, nobles, commoners, and even royalty were taking part in something meaningful together. Even the princess herself was behaving informally. Of course, this manner of exchange between Mariwa and Evelia was only limited to the event where they concealed their social status. In high society, they had to take on different roles and personalities.
Evelia called this relationship “A secret friendship!” But this did not please Mariwa at all. Humans tend to see flaws the closer they get to each other, and this would be no particular exception. Mariwa frowned at the unchanging friendliness Evelia was displaying.
But that wasn’t enough to discourage Evelia.
“Ehehe. Then why bother asking, Mariwa?”
“It’s obviously something that I can only find out by asking. I don’t see why I should be blamed for it.”
What Mariwa said was true. In fact, no one would take Evelia seriously if she said something ridiculous like she was a pregnant virgin. The four people who backed down simply lacked the courage to press Evelia for the truth.
“Hmm? You’re right. That’s actually convincing. ……But Mariwa.”
There was a sparkle in Evelia’s blue eyes.
“Do you really, truly think that everyone else was a fool to believe what I said? Can you really, truly, definitely say that I wasn’t telling the truth?”
“Of course. ……Most likely.”
Even Mariwa couldn’t be certain.
She couldn’t say that she completely denied the possibility. It wasn’t that they were foolish for believing her, but rather she was terrifying to have said that. During the instant Evelia said she was a “pregnant virgin”, Mariwa almost believed her. It was the very weight of Evelia’s words that allowed her to distinguish herself in high society.
Also, Evelia was not married, nor had she ever been engaged.
She was the exception among royalty to have lived to her mid-twenties and remained single. When Mariwa asked why, she simply replied, “I don’t want to get married.” She didn’t understand what she meant. Normally that would sound like an excuse, but now that she knew her better, she also knew that Evelia’s responses were based on emotion rather than logic.
And now she was pregnant with a child.
Without getting married, or engaged, or even having a boyfriend. Mariwa couldn’t deal with that reason Evelia was pregnant.
That was precisely why Mariwa relented on her queries.
“It is all right if you do not wish to talk about it.”
Evelia herself was taken aback by Mariwa’s resignation. Within an instant, she turned that surprised reaction into a gentle smile.
“You’re actually considerate, Mariwa. I like that part about you.”
Mariwa sharply clicked her tongue in response.
Tutting became an unbecoming habit for her, and it began when she started associating with Evelia.
“And I dislike you.”
“Really? Well, I guess things can’t go on as always, especially now that I’m having a child. I’ll have to go to the royal villa. It’ll be an exile of sorts. I’m a little excited.”
“I see. I pray that you never come back.”
“I’m actually more of a city person. I think I would get bored of the countryside and come back soon-”
“Do not worry. You will become an outstanding barbarian. I am sure of it.”
“How could a lady like you say such a thing? And to a real lady as valuable as gold at that! What do you have to say for yourself, Mariwa?”
“It is the high society of this country that requires some work.”
Such was Mariwa’s evaluation of the proud Evelia. The impression Evelia had on Mariwa had sharply deteriorated over the course of the three years they spent. The horrifying fact was that she could fall even further, perhaps to the depths of hell.
“That’s not good, Mariwa. Blaming society instead of taking responsibility for yourself won’t get you far in life. Suffering setbacks like that is kind of foolish, don’t you think?”
“Oh really, is that so.”
Ignoring her haughty advice, Mariwa glanced at Evelia’s tummy.
Her stomach didn’t seem as proud as she did. She said she was going to the royal villa, most likely to get away from the public eye before it gets bigger.
The royal family hadn’t announced Evelia’s pregnancy yet. They were probably never going to make it public. Such a story about an unwed princess getting pregnant would surely be buried deep in the dark side of history.
“I understand your wish to return to primacy, but please come back soon. It will not be much of a life for the country without you.”
“Yessir! I will. It’ll take about a year, so do your best until then.”
Mariwa was relieved as Evelia nodded lightheartedly.
It would still take a lot of time for the operation centered around Evelia. Without invoking state power, they would slowly change the opinions of the masses, gain more allies, and pass the bill for reformation. Without Her Royal Highness as a symbol, and most of all, without the support of Evelia, this plan would not take fruit. Not a single person could replace her.
Taking a year off would surely hurt their plans, but it wasn’t enough to call it a fatal blow.
“You’re such a worrywart, Mariwa. Even if we fail, there’s always next time.”
“How could you say something like that so casually?”
From Mariwa’s point of view, Evelia was too optimistic. Mentioning failure at that stage was bad luck, too.
“We shall change this country together, and we shall spare no effort in doing so.”
“Hmm? It doesn’t matter who changes it.”
“It does matter.”
Evelia shrugged it off as if feeling no sense of responsibility.
It was something she said out of habit, sometimes.
It doesn’t matter.
“No, Mariwa. It really doesn’t matter. Because change will happen no matter who causes it. For better or for worse, things will always change. It’s only a matter of time, so it doesn’t matter.”
Strangely, she had a sense of conviction as she said that while eating the skewered meat.
It didn’t seem to matter to her whether they succeeded or failed.
Mariwa didn’t understand that. She couldn’t imagine a future where she wasn’t in it. That was why she decided to stand against the world with all her strength. If she was gone, and someone else took her stead…
That would be truly regrettable.
Perhaps a huge part of her couldn’t agree with Evelia. A shadow of a doubt came over Mariwa.
It was something Evelia had said some time ago.
There would always be a member of royalty, born full of love, who chose freedom. There would always be one of those every generation, and that was her. And she loved this country. …Surely she said that.
It was obvious that Evelia chose freedom. But upon hearing her say it didn’t matter, that thought came over Mariwa.
“Did you truly love this country?”
There was no response to that abrupt question.
Usually, Evelia would reply immediately with a smile. This time, she averted Mariwa’s gaze.
She looked upwards, as if searching for something.
Still staring at the sky, she stretched her hand towards the sun. There was no meaning behind that, yet for some reason it was very much like her.
“It would’ve been much simpler if I was born a commoner.”
Her hypothesis seemed random and crazy, and Mariwa had no idea what she was getting at. Evelia wasn’t trying to tease her, either. She continued her meaningless what-if scenario.
“I mean, if I was born a commoner, I would have started a revolution. I would have hated this stupid system so much that I would have gathered allies to resist, and with our strength combined, we would have turned this country upside down. I think it would have been fun and satisfying.”
“……And after you turned it upside down, who would have struck the final blow?”
“You, most likely.”
Evelia chuckled, and Mariwa shrugged off the joke.
“Would you have preferred that life instead?”
“Hmm…… how should I put it? I wouldn’t choose it, but I would definitely have done it if I was a commoner. I would have lived my life fighting my way up. But I was born among royalty. For me, there is no way up.”
“Up, you say?”
“Yeah. Who would be above me? My father, or brother? Other royalty and nobility? Or perhaps God Himself? I don’t think so. That wouldn’t be much of a fight.”
Turning the naked skewer rhythmically with her speech, she finished talking and threw the skewer into the trash area.
“That’s why my life has been about controlling those below me.”
She said that as if arrogantly resenting her royal birth itself.
“I don’t hate it though. Getting along with everyone and changing the bad things together isn’t bad either, you know? Ehehe. I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be much resistance this way.”
“That is the first I have heard of it. Please allow me to shatter that confidence of yours.”
“Why are you making a fist, Mariwa?! Don’t hurt me!”
Her voice was louder than expected, so Mariwa put her fists down from Evelia’s temples. If there ever were another fool like Evelia, she would surely use those fists without hesitation. She decided to do that, and to ignore the previous conversation.
“By the way, you said that you would come back a year later. What do you intend to do about the child?”
“Eh? That really wouldn’t matter.”
This time without hesitation, she hit the fool’s temples with her fists.
“You may live however you choose. I care not. However, a child is a child after all.”
Evelia was saying that so much that it really wouldn’t matter what happened to her from this point on. Mariwa didn’t intend to pry further into her affairs regarding her child, but Evelia’s manner of speech wasn’t something Mariwa could overlook.
Having suffered Mariwa’s Iron Fists, Evelia trembled while covering her head where she was hit.
“Gh. That really hurt…… but it’s fine. It’ll work out somehow.”
“You…… no. That is enough.”
What she said was so reckless that Mariwa finally gave up.
She could never understand how a fool thinks, after all.
These three years taught Mariwa something. Fools should be educated before it’s too late. For now, she resigned herself to her carelessness of getting acquainted with a fool who was too late to be educated.
“What is it?”
Evelia reverted to her usual smile, and asked a simple question.
“Can I become a good parent?”
That question caught Mariwa off guard.
As usual, there was no hint of excitement or uneasiness in Evelia’s expression.
Mariwa hesitated, but said what needed to be said.
“……will surely not make a great parent.”
Evelia was probably self-aware enough to know. She didn’t seem depressed by Mariwa’s answer. Thus, Mariwa continued sincerely.
“After you give birth, please ask everyone for assistance. Bring out the love in everyone, more than usual, if only for the child’s sake. That much is within your grasp.”
Evelia’s retainers, friends, acquaintances, or — Mariwa herself.
If she relied on them, she could certainly become a somewhat decent parent.
Perhaps she felt something from that sincerity. Evelia smiled happily.
“Really? Then, someday, I’ll rely on you.”
It was her usual smile.
That was the last conversation they had.
After that, Evelia moved to a summer resort, gave birth to Michelie in secret, and died at childbirth. There were few who knew the truth, as it was publicly announced that she had unfortunately passed away due to illness. The country grieved her premature death.
Evelia Edward. The princess who was simply loved by everyone. Loved, and loved, and loved.
She enjoyed her life, but surely there was something lacking. That was why she spent her life searching for something she loved. Her way of life was almost a challenge. A challenge to find someone or something she loved just as much as she was loved. That was what made her so charming.
Over ten years passed since then.
“……It is almost time.”
Mariwa noticed that it was almost time for the carriage to arrive and bring her to her workplace. She had been lost in thought at home, and now began to get dressed.
After Evelia’s death, their plans dissolved into thin air. It was important, but their pivot, their leader, was gone.
Mariwa thought about it once in a while.
If she met Evelia who was born as a commoner, would she have safely given birth to her child? What kind of a parent would she have been?
It was their final what-if scenario.
Surely she was allowed to play with that imagination. Surely she had the right to indulge herself in such sentiments, to wish for such a world to exist.
“Lady Toinette, we have arrived.”
“I shall be there at once.”
Responding to the summons from the Noir house, she remembered her beloved friend’s memento, and smiled so gently she could make her own sister tremble.
It was the generation after theirs. Keeping these offspring in mind, a smile wrote over her usual strictness.
Evelia was a genius who was loved by everyone. Truly and genuinely loved by everyone. But still…
“Perhaps her very own daughter disliked her.”
They resembled each other, but they were total opposites that would never have meshed.
The younger sister who shows her love all at once, and the older sister who shows the same amount of love for her by showing her off to everyone. Perhaps they are sisters living the way Mariwa and Evelia could have, in their stead. But Mariwa felt not an ounce of regret or frustration watching them.
“Now, it’s time for some education.”
Placing all her hopes for the future in them in her stead, Mariwa Toinette turned around and got into the carriage.
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