Aldrit’s initial impulse was to dash towards Lima with haste, but he quickly reined in his emotions, settling back into his seat. He inclined his head toward Eugene and Kasser with an apologetic tone, “Forgive me. Seeing someone I cherish so deeply momentarily overwhelmed me.”
Eugene inquired, curiosity tinging her voice, “Are you two very close?”
Aldrit nodded, a faint smile playing on his lips, “Yes, Your Highness. Lima is my cousin.”
Eugene probed further, “Have you two been apart for long?”
Aldrit’s gaze grew somber as he replied, “Indeed. Our tribe roams without a fixed destination, but we maintain strongholds across the world. These serve as meeting points for exchanging news. I’ve grown increasingly anxious over the past few years, for I had received no word from Lima.”
Aldrit subtly conveyed his fear that Lima might have met an untimely demise. Among the wandering tribes, it was customary for members to visit a stronghold at least once a year. Consequently, any wanderer unaccounted for at a stronghold for over three years was sadly presumed deceased, and a simple funeral was held in their memory.
Eugene’s face lit up with genuine joy, akin to reuniting with a long-lost friend. She couldn’t deny that her original motivation for requesting Myung King’s aid regarding Lima was to further her own agenda. However, her concern for Lima’s well-being, particularly because of her connection to Aldrit’s tribe, had grown even stronger. She yearned to save her, not just for political gain but out of genuine empathy.
“You two must have so much catching up to do. While it may be challenging to find ample time for each other, don’t worry—I’ll be patient. Feel free to go and greet one another,” Eugene suggested with a warm smile.
“No, Your Highness. Now that I’ve seen her safe and sound, we can delay our reunion. I must attend to pressing matters,” Aldrit replied resolutely.
Lima gazed at Aldrit as if she were beholding a stranger. The last time they had crossed paths was six years ago, when Lima had departed from the wanderers’ sanctuary. In just half a dozen years, her cousin had transformed from a boy into a mature young man. It wasn’t merely the physical changes that left her astonished; Lima, unaware of the events transpiring at the tribe’s hideout, found herself simply awestruck.
“Very well then. We’ll arrange a meeting once today’s tasks are completed,” Eugene agreed.
In response to a signal from Kasser, Sven guided Lima outside. Aldrit remained fixed on Lima, who continuously glanced back at him. Though he feigned composure, his heart swelled with overwhelming joy, akin to the emotions he experienced when he had believed his family to be lost, only to have them miraculously return.
“Hey, step outside,” a voice echoed in Aldrit’s mind, causing him to glance down at his shoulder. The tiny mouse continued to speak without making eye contact with Aldrit.
“In any case, if you stay here, you’re just holding onto your seat. What do you have to do here”
“But if I’m not here…” Aldrit muttered hesitantly.
The mouse added, “Just don’t go too far.”
Aldrit’s heart momentarily swayed with uncertainty. As the one who had brought Mara before the queen, he felt a responsibility not to hastily abandon this situation. While he gathered his thoughts to explain to Eugene and Kasser that he would meet Lima at a later time, Eugene intervened.
“Aldrit, it’s alright. Go and see your cousin,” she reassured him.
Aldrit looked taken aback, his gaze shifting between Eugene and Kasser. He realized, a bit too late, that his message had been conveyed in a way that Mara could hear.
A peculiar feeling washed over him, and he couldn’t help but continue to observe the mouse, which still avoided making eye contact. Mara’s emotional expression appeared somewhat rough, as if they were witnessing someone who was assisting but making a fuss unnecessarily.
As Aldrit traversed the desert with the mouse nestled in his pocket, he marveled at how flawlessly Mara mimicked a human. Simultaneously, a shiver ran down his spine. With two such creatures already in existence, they held a significant sway over the world. The thought of even more of them emerging was horrifying. Why couldn’t there be three or four, if there were already two? It was a chilling prospect to consider.
Yet, a monster remained a monster. It could mimic convincingly but could never truly become human. Aldrit held fast to the belief that a monster would forever be confined to its monstrous nature. However, at this moment, he witnessed a side of Mara that defied categorization as a mere monster, leaving him in a state of inexplicable unease.
“Both of you, step outside. You’ll be in the next room,” Kasser directed, and Aldrit found himself unable to decline. Perhaps it was best for him to withdraw, allowing the two to engage in their significant conversation with Mara.
Once Aldrit departed, only one mouse remained on the table. Eugene’s gaze upon the mouse bore a warmer hue than before. Though it didn’t completely dissolve the walls of distrust, she harbored a genuine desire to engage in a meaningful conversation with Mara.
“Are you fine on your own without Aldrit?” Eugene inquired.
“What good does that guy do, anyway? His mind often drifts, and he might mess things up for no reason,” Mara retorted.
Eugene probed further, a hint of amusement in her tone, “You do like Aldrit, don’t you?”
“He’s just my means of transportation!” Mara replied defensively.
“In that case, it doesn’t really matter if it’s not Aldrit. Aldrit would be hurt if he heard you say that. I heard you stood up for him in front of the queen,” Eugene remarked.
Mara hesitated for a moment before admitting, “…I did what I had to do.”
Eugene concealed a smile that tugged at the corners of her lips as she lightly touched them. Mara’s stubborn facade, uttering words contrary to his true feelings, made him appear somewhat like a stubborn old man. This pretense of innocence irked Eugene in an inexplicable way.
“Aldrit has a depth of thought beyond his years, and he assesses situations swiftly. Do you appreciate that about him too?” she probed.
“In the end, humans are all the same. Wanderers are a bit different,” Mara replied cryptically.
“How so?” Eugene inquired.
Mara regarded Eugene with intensity before continuing, “They keep their promises…”
There was a weighty pause as Mara’s words hung in the air. Then, he added, “It’s strange. Did the Anika I met before truly exist?”