On the opening night of the grand banquet, the restless tension that had lingered since the king’s sudden departure dissolved into a serene calm within the banquet hall. Princess Anika, now Queen, often sought solace in solitary moments within the Holy City. Hence, it raised no eyebrows that Eugene also lingered in the city during this eventful period.
Yet, just as no one had foreseen Eugene parting ways with the king – an action that had befallen the previous Anika who married into the royal lineage – similarly, nobody could fathom Eugene’s impending decision. The king’s abrupt return to the kingdom and Eugene’s obligation to partake in the Celestial Festival left no room for alternatives but acceptance. All the while, unbeknownst to the assembly, subtle shifts were taking shape within their perspectives.
“A pleasure to see you, Miss Selina.”
“It’s an honor to meet you, Lady Anika. This exquisite banquet is my first.” The young lady greeted with a blush-painted countenance, her excitement vividly displayed.
Ordinarily, starting at sixteen, youths attended social affairs under parental escort. Yet, attending evening galas was off-limits until they came of age. Today, the young lady would have to leave the banquet hall before twilight blanketed the skies.
Eugene found the girl’s sparkling gaze endearing, kindling a more extended exchange between them.
Turning aside, Eugene brought her hand to her mouth, gently manipulating her lips with her fingertips, relieving the strain that constant smiling had inflicted on her muscles. After days of upholding a facade of constant cheer, she feared her face might lock into an involuntary grimace.
Her surveying gaze, which had been skimming across the attendees, came to a halt. In the distance, Riner stood solitary, a glass of wine in hand. Every time her glance returned to him, he remained unaccompanied. The crowd seemed to steer clear of him, and he exhibited no inclination to blend in.
Myung King’s presence had been limited to the inaugural day. After Kaiser’s departure, Myung King had promptly taken his leave as well. He bid Eugene adieu, explaining his brief stay due to his mother’s ailing health.
“I had stories I wished to share with both of you, but they must wait for another time. Despite the distance, that’s what the future holds.”
Myung King’s words hinted at an imminent visit to the Hashi Kingdom. Such a venture seemed improbable as this activity-laden interval drew to a close, with preparations for hosting guests dominating the next.
What could the Flame King be thinking? Eugene thought.
His demeanor lacked the air of a man relishing the festivities. Eugene had overheard many voiced astonishment regarding the Flame King’s unanticipated appearance at such an assembly. Nonetheless, he remained resolute in attendance, an unwavering presence across three successive days.
In a fleeting moment, Eugene’s eyes met Riner’s, and his subtle nod conveyed an unspoken acknowledgment. An unobtrusive exchange of greetings transpired through their gazes before Eugene swiftly redirected her attention. Given the watchful presence of knights dispersed throughout the banquet hall, they couldn’t afford to exhibit familiarity with other monarchs.
Since the afternoon’s onset, Eugene had navigated the bustling banquet hall tirelessly. Engaging in numerous conversations and extending greetings, she had been ceaselessly occupied. Thus, when the sun had completely disappeared beyond the horizon and she deemed it appropriate to steal a brief respite, her decision to retreat upstairs to the second floor aroused no suspicion.
While lounges on the first floor catered to attendees, Eugene opted for a secluded chamber on the second floor, citing a desire for tranquility. Positioned at the door were two knights, a quiet testament to her status.
Finally alone within the tranquil enclosure, Eugene released a sigh. Her gaze rested upon the closed door as she murmured to herself, “Had I not prepared ahead of time, the situation could have turned disastrous.”
This level of scrutiny from her assigned knights hadn’t been anticipated. Even when she had orchestrated a covert exit from the mansion, a lingering doubt had questioned the necessity of such elaborate measures. Yet, the prudence of her precautions had manifested itself, leaving her with no remorse.
Eugene let a shawl cascade from her shoulders and uncovered a small pouch secreted within her attire. A diminutive squirrel, not more than the length of a finger, peeked its head out. Gentle strokes from Eugene’s hand accompanied its endearing appearance.
“Little one, you’ve worked hard again today.”
Throughout the entirety of the banquet, the pint-sized squirrel had merely shifted its hiding spots while steadfastly remaining at Eugene’s side. Today, however, this unassuming creature held a pivotal role in facilitating Eugene’s escape.
From beneath a sofa table, Eugene retrieved a basket laden with travel clothes, snug shoes, a cloak, and more. Swiftly, she underwent an outfit change.
Dangling from her shoulder, a diminutive bag contained essential supplies: emergency rations, currency, and a wooden box. This box held treasured elixirs, its safekeeping entrusted solely to Eugene. Thankfully, its modest dimensions rendered it easily portable.
“Shall we proceed, little one?”
With her hand resting upon the table, the diminutive creature nimbly ascended her palm before settling onto her shoulder. Eugene shifted her gaze towards the fireplace. Her selection of this parlor as a haven of repose had been guided by the presence of a concealed passage.
Abruptly, Eugene halted in her tracks, her attention arrested by a tableau before her.
A desert landscape sprawled before her, and a lone figure was ascending a sand-swept hillock.
Is this a false memory?
This unbidden memory, emerging from the depths of her mind without apparent cause, left her momentarily perplexed. As her focus adhered to the unfolding scene, the contours of two individuals ascending the sandy crest took form. Their faces shrouded by hoods, only their eyes emerged from the cover, rendering them unidentifiable. Yet, against the backdrop of swirling grains, the sapphire irises of one individual’s eyes shone distinctively.
“Ah… Kasser?” Eugene mumbled.
The scene morphed, transmuting into a boundless expanse of desert where the wind held its breath. Upon the crest of a sandy knoll, the two figures reclined, their gazes directed towards an oasis.
“Your Highness, are you really planning to go over there? The territory is extremely expansive. You might get into big trouble if you mess with it.”
The voice that voiced its grumblings bore a rugged quality akin to the throes of adolescence.
“You came all the way here to say that again?”
Eugene’s brow wrinkled subtly. Was it the result of vocal distortion? Or had an overlay of fabric altered the quality? The Kasser she remembered bore a slightly divergent timbre to his voice.
“Your Highness, let us capture a suitable prey for the first Hwansu and deal with the other later. Surely, you mentioned this to the Queen before departing the palace. Therefore, it’s within my rights to accompany you without the other warriors and simply trail behind, Your Highness.”
“His Majesty managed to hunt an impressive one as his initial catch.”
“Well, His Majesty is indeed quite skilled…”
The individual with piercing blue eyes shot a glare that silenced the speaker.
“If I were to triumph with an easy catch, it would be awkward to parade around as the Crown Prince. Even Mother would feel let down.”
“There’s no cause for her to be disappointed.”
“Quiet now. Hold your tongue and follow.”
A muffled thud interrupted the conversation, jolting Eugene back to reality. Holding her breath, she listened as the knocking sound repeated after a brief pause. The source of the sound seemed to be the balcony window, concealed behind the drawn curtains.
Her heart raced, and a clammy sweat formed. Who could it be? Has something gone awry? Should she ignore it? Amid the rapidly escalating thoughts of revealing the hidden passage and making a swift exit, she found herself hesitating.
Once more, an unseen figure rapped against the window frame from outside.
This time, a voice reached her ears as well.