Members who surrounded Erna at Vanessa’s order acted swiftly and Erna’s surprise grew as she looked at them. Most of them were familiar, perhaps because they were the council members who often accompanied Vanessa. She knew they were the black hounds, but they appeared like common lawmakers—quiet and gentle folk who she never thought were capable of wielding a sword.
Erna’s skin prickled with astonishment as she watched how quickly they responded to Vanessa’s call. They plunged their swords into Aether’s knights without hesitation. Some of them even dealt with the wizards.
Regardless of how talented and skilled you are, attacking people is not an easy task. When Erna had first done it, she couldn’t sleep all night. It’d be normal to have some reluctance, but the council members—the same members who had done nothing but cry while they clutched documents in their hands—showed no ounce of hesitation in their movements. They were even crueler than knights.
“Black hounds…” Erna muttered as she watched Aether’s soldiers fall.
“You knew it, too.”
Vanessa was not surprised that Erna knew about the black hounds. Her face was calm, as though relief had at last arrived. Erna’s rage boiled over at the look of her. Her anger toward her, which she had momentarily forgotten, returned to the surface. Erna snorted at Vanessa, who was still standing in front of her.
“What are you doing right now?” she asked.
“I’m merely performing my duty,” replied Vanessa. Erna’s fists tightened at her response. My duty. Those words brought a sharp pang in her chest.
“No, the Duchy of Hessenguard was your duty,” said Erna. She had thought she had learned the truth and moved past her disappointment, but she realized she was still heartbroken. She understood that anger wasn’t the only emotion she felt. Despite everything, she was still desperate for Vanessa’s affection, and she was ashamed of that truth. She felt like a little child longing for the affection of her parents. Even after knowing everything, Erna was foolishly unable to let go of her hope.
Vanessa smiled bitterly at Erna’s distorted face. Chenille couldn’t have said it well, she thought.
She understood Chenille. She was present when the two kingdoms pillaged Hessenguard, leading to the death of her own family. Her anger was more than justified, but Vanessa worried Chenille might project her emotions toward Kalion and Erna, and that she might have had to do something about her. Fortunately, Chenille chose to leave and it was the correct decision. If she remained in the Grand Castle, Vanessa would have had to kill her at some point.
While her relatives remained at the castle, Chenille led a peaceful life in the countryside, leaving the past beyond her. But Vanessa couldn’t let her guard down easily. Chenille was like a volcano that could erupt at any moment.
As various events unfolded at the Grand Castle, however, Vanessa and the Council redirected their resources on the surveillance of neighboring kingdoms. Hence, Vanessa only belatedly heard what had happened to Chenille. As soon as she heard the report, she knew Chenille’s symptoms were a result of magic. At Erna’s absence, Vanessa pieced the puzzle together and realized Erna had forced a confession from Chenille, who suffered the repercussions of the magic.
If it were Chenille, she would have been thrilled to share her history with Erna before the latter even cast her spell. She would have wanted to incite anger within Erna. But, Vanessa thought, she will realize this one day.
Erna’s expression hardened at Vanessa’s bitter smile. “Have you been enjoying yourself this whole time?” she asked. Her voice was tinged with sadness, despite her best efforts to conceal it.
“I don’t know what you mean,” replied Vanessa.
“Was it fun toying with us all this time?”
Vanessa grew silent at Erna’s question. In the meantime, the black hounds repelled the onslaught of attacks, but even with all their training, they were no match for the sheer number of Aetheric soldiers. Nevertheless, the black hounds showed no sign of retreating and continued to stain the walls with the blood of their enemies.
“You know what, Grand Duchess? There’s always something I say when I give orders to the black hounds: For Hessenguard,” said Vanessa, “Our organization exists to serve Hessenguard, for which we were originally created. But I didn’t say those words a little while ago.”
Vanessa turned around; the black hounds were dying little by little.
“I only asked them for a favor, not an order, as the leader of the black hounds,” she said, “I told them to do what they wanted to do.” Vanessa bowed her head to Erna. “I’m so sorry for everything that’s happened, Grand Duchess.”
“As you know, we have lived for Hessenguard so far. So….” Vanessa turned around and slashed an attacking knight, “Just today, I want to spend the day as I see fit.” Three blades cut through the hole in the invader’s armor, targeting the knight’s delicate neck. While the knight briefly faltered and stepped back at the sharp momentum, other people came rushing on the steps from behind.
“There it is!”