It was strange. Three weeks was plenty of time for Lucia to send a letter.
With the number of letters she usually sent, he’d have thought she’d have at least three piled up….…
Herwin finally shook himself out of it and called the butler.
“Did you come with all the letters addressed to me?”
“Yes, sir, that’s right, and is there anything you’ve been waiting for?”
About to say Lucia’s name, Herwin paused and stroked his chin.
“So, the things sent from the Islands Mansion have all come, too?”
“Yes. Letters are sent from the Islands periodically. I’m sure it’s in your letter.”
At the butler’s words, he looked at the letters again and saw several envelopes with double stamps.
So, Lucia hadn’t sent any letters after all.
His heart sank. There had never been a time when she hadn’t sent a letter.
“Master, if there is anything you are looking for, may I help you?”
It was only when he heard the voice of the butler, who had not yet left, that Herwin came to his senses. He shook his head hastily.
“No, I am mistaken. You must go.”
“Yes. If there’s anything else you need, just ask.”
The butler left, and Herwin flipped through the letters in confusion.
Why hadn’t Lucia written to him?
Since childhood, they had always written to each other when they were far apart.
Precisely, Lucia used to send letters from time to time before he could reply.
“Oh, I wonder if…….”
A thought flashed through his mind. The last time she saw Lucia before he moved up north, she had shown tears for the first time.
She’d told him he’d see her with a smile on her face again, but if she hadn’t gotten over it, it made sense not to send a letter.
He could see Lucia in his mind, wiping away her tears.
He felt uncomfortable as if a stone had been placed on his chest.
Why in the world would she like him, when it was so obvious that he liked someone else?
Lucia was a great friend, but it was embarrassing to realize that she harbored feelings that were different from his own.
But she was too important to him to draw a line in the sand like he would with another girl.
He doesn’t want to be apart from Lucia. H couldn’t accept her heart, but he couldn’t treat her coldly.
Recalling the image of Lucia’s broken face, Herwin frowned and wiped his face.
He shook his head to clear the image.
“Get a grip, get a grip.”
Shaking his still-damp hair out of his face, Herwin turned his attention to the letter.
Half the letters were invitations to social events sent to get to know him, and the other half were from friends other than Lucia.
Ethan, Brian, Christine, and Arista.
Herwin read their letters carefully. They were just ordinary letters, asking for regards.
He smiled at the friendliness in them, at the questions about when he would be back, at the warnings to take care of himself.
Finally, he read Arista’s letter. Arista’s neat handwriting made him smile.
He read it with a gentle smile and realized she had important news.
The engagement of the century would soon spread across the empire. It was the engagement of an Empress to Ares Lydia.
The other day, Arista told him that there was talk of an imperial engagement, but he never thought it would lead to this.
Of course, Ares’ engagement was much more realistic than Arista’s because there is no unmarried prince.
Still, he was nervous when he realized that Arista might have an imperial connection.
Arista would be too good for anyone else.
If she was forced into an arranged marriage by her family, that would be one thing, but he hoped that her spouse would be someone who was both literate and handsome.
He never envisioned himself and Arista together. He can’t be with Arista because of his family ties.
For Herwin, who had just entered the marriageable age, marriage was a distant thought for now.
* * *
That evening back at the mansion. Herwin sat down to dinner with his family for the first time.
“The Empress is getting engaged.”
“Yes, so it looks like we’ll have to head back down to the islands soon.”
“Thanks to you, we’ve slain more monsters than our goal, so it’s okay to go back.”
With those words of approval, Hail took a bite of his food. Scarlett frowned as she listened to the dull conversation between the two men.
“It’s a pity that our son is so busy that he has to go back. I’ve been telling him to stop by the castle often to show his face.”
“I’m sorry, Mother, I’ll stay longer next time.”
“You too! How could you throw your long-returned son into a monster-infested place? Don’t you think he deserves at least a day of rest in the castle?”
“I did ask him to help me defeat the monsters, but it was Herwin’s will that he went straight there.”
To avoid Scarlett’s nagging, Hail turned toward Herwin.
When Herwin looked at him as being too mean, Hail responded with a look to please Scarlett.
“If you go to the Isles, when will you be back?”
“I don’t know, I’ll have to go there to find out.”
Scarlett’s eyebrows wriggled at the dull answer.
“Why don’t you return to the North, you’re supposed to be the heir to the dukedom.”
“You’ve been on the Island since you went to the Academy, so it’s about time you come back.”
Hail agreed with Scarlett.
He had expected it, but he hadn’t expected her to tell him to return to the North immediately. Herwin chose silence instead.
“I think it would be a good idea to get engaged before you inherit the dukedom, but what do you think?”
“You have to get married someday, so it can’t hurt to start looking now. Have you seen any inns in the islands that you like?”
Seeing the two pairs of darting eyes, Herwin made a deliberate show of discomfort.
“Are you sure you want to talk about that today?”
“Oh, there’s no other time but today, and once we get down to the Islands, we won’t be coming up for a while, so when will we have time to ask?”
Scarlett nagged, wondering what he was talking about. Then she leaned forward and whispered in a coy tone.
“How about getting engaged to Lucia?”
“Why are you yelling at me? If there’s no one you like, isn’t Lucia the one?”
At Scarlett’s blunt retort, Herwin pouted, then wiped a hand across his dry face.
“Hmm, Lucia. Not bad.”
“You think so too, don’t you? How nice it would be to have someone as cute and nice as Lucia as a daughter-in-law.”
“Shall we send a formal letter to the Agnes family?”
Hail and Scarlett were both talking about taking Lucia as his fiancée, over Herwin’s objections.
“What are you doing with the person in front of you, both of you.”
“Then why do you hate her so much? Don’t you like Lucia?”
“Yes, Scarlett is right. What’s wrong with getting engaged to Lucia?”
Herwin paused for a moment. If they were right, Lucia would make an excellent bride.
But he couldn’t imagine himself getting engaged to her.
“While we’re on the subject, let me ask you this: I understand that Lucia has had a crush on you for over a decade, but have you never seen her as the opposite sex?”
Scarlett’s question was so serious, so he couldn’t fake it.
As he searched his mouth for something to say, he suddenly remembered Lucia.
She was short enough to reach his chest, cute enough to be cute, and even had a kind heart that makes him feel stuffy.
Her appearance and mood were effortlessly clear.
Her smile, with a twinkle in the corner of her eye, was a familiar one that he had seen countless times since he was a child.
Had he ever seen her as the opposite sex?
Well, he doesn’t know.
She’s a close friend he’d never want to be away from, but as far as the opposite sex goes….…
Hail and Scarlet looked at each other, seeing the brilliant red eyes and complicated expression on Herwin’s face.
“It’s not that I don’t like Lucia, ..… Lucia is just my most precious friend.”
Herwin finally answered. But his voice was flat.
Scarlett wondered if he had thought this long and hard about the question of whether or not he had ever seen her the opposite sex.
It didn’t seem, at least to her, that Herwin saw Lucia as anything more than a friend.
Still, she had a feeling that pressing him here would shut him up for good, so she decided not to ask any more questions.
“If that’s what you say, then I have nothing more to say, but you should really think about it.”
She does offer some advice, though.
“Lucia will one day be engaged to someone, and then married, and if you can take it in stride when she walks away with someone else’s hand, then you’re a true friend, but if not, you’ll have to think about it.”
Herwin’s red eyes trembled slightly. But then they stopped fluttering and looked calm.
Scarlett could see in his eyes, though, that he was flustered.
* * *
“That was interesting, I was looking forward to it because it’s the most famous play these days, How did you like it, young lady?”
“Yes, I liked it too, the actors acted and sang so well.”
Lucia smiled softly and walked out of the theater side by side with Bern.
Two weeks ago, she had met Bern for the first time, and shortly afterward, they had made another appointment.
Today was her third meeting with him.
She thought he’d booked a funny play… but he’d booked The Other Side of Love.
It was the same play she had seen before she made her final confession to Herwin.
“What was your favorite part, young lady?”
“Well, I liked it all, but I liked the part at the end where the heroine goes off to find her love.”
Actually, it was the bitter exit of the male protagonist who was not chosen by the heroine that stuck with her the most.
It’s not that she liked it, but the scene stuck in her head and wouldn’t go away.
‘It’s a lot better than being honest.’
Her answer was a scene that everyone would like.
“Is that so? I think I preferred the monologue of another leading man who wasn’t chosen by the heroine.”
Lucia’s eyes narrowed as she realized Bern had thought the same thing as her.
“Somehow, I find it sad that the happier two people get, the more lonely the one left behind becomes.”
Bern, who had been speaking wistfully, turned his head suddenly when he heard nothing.
Lucia was staring at him in fascination.
A wry smile softened his good-natured expression.
“Was it too dark? I usually like the highlights at the end, so I can’t help it…….”
“No. I was a little surprised by your answer, but not in a weird way, it was nice to hear your thoughts.”
He saw the faint smile on her face and knew she wasn’t lying.
“I’m glad to hear that.”
Bern held out his arm cautiously. He meant to offer her an escort.
Lucia looked down at his arm for a moment, then laid her hand on his firm forearm.
Like approaching a deer in the woods, Bern closed the distance between them in small increments so she wouldn’t feel overwhelmed.
She could feel that he cared enough about her to keep his pace, so she lowered her walls to match his.
She didn’t feel so uncomfortable around him.