Chapter 304: A Storm is Coming
Translator:?EndlessFantasy Translation??Editor:?EndlessFantasy Translation
Saroma recovered from her initial shock and bewilderment.
“You want to take me away? Bring me to Constellation?”
The lights all over the dining room swayed gently due to the breeze, seemingly echoing the young lady’s words.
She raised her head, and her voice trembled faintly, “Is this the truth?”
In the face of the young lady’s jade green eyes, Thales felt speechless for a moment.
A faint hint of embarrassment and relief crept into his heart at once.
‘I-I just said…’
Thales felt as if he just had a huge problem dumped into his hands, but the words had been said. He could only continuously ponder over the sudden emergence of this notion and carry out its possibilities.
The prince rubbed his hands non-stop as he observed the archduchess’ expression. “I mean, I think… you, now…”
But Thales shut his mouth immediately after. The archduchess was now silently staring at him through the pince-nez the prince had gifted her. Thales could not understand the expression on her face.
At that moment, Thales felt like he somehow did not know the young lady before him anymore.
“But, why should I go with you?” Saroma asked softly. Her voice seemed like it traveled from dozens of meters away. It was muffled and barely discernible.
“With what identity and what reason should I go with you?”
Saroma turned her head slightly. Her voice was steady, and her sentence was choppy. She seemed to be burdened by an incredible weight. “Don’t tell me that it’s going to be like that agreement King Nuven mentioned back in the day… To become your fiancée?”
At that moment, the young lady’s eyes appeared to possess a sort of terrifying strength. It forced Thales to avert his gaze, as though the other’s expression was the world’s most dreadful poison.
The second prince had never felt so embarrassed before.
Perhaps only his first meeting with King Kessel could compare to how he felt right then.
Especially after he just realized that he could have said some easily misunderstood words.
Thales immediately gasped for a couple breaths of air and shook his head. “Ah! No, Saroma. What I meant just now was not for you to elope with me… At least not ‘that sort’ of elopement…”
At that moment, it seemed like someone had frozen the air in the room.
The archduchess lowered her head.
“What is it for then?” Saroma opened her mouth slowly. Her voice turned cold.
Feeling increasingly embarrassed, Thales let out a breath in anguish. He only managed to recompose himself after a few seconds passed.
“The Alliance of Freedom, your wedding, the vassals, Black Sand Region, the City of Faraway Prayers,” he squeezed out these few words stiffly. His sentence was not quite connected and coherent. “All of these things are just the start.
“Someday, you’ll face more and more awful things. For instance, having no choice but to make cruel decisions, and dealing with conspiracies that the enemy has brewed for years…”
‘For instance, you could eventually lose your position as an archduchess and come face to face with a miserable fate after being stripped of your title.’
“You’re going to see more and more terrible things, but stand in the most powerless position. The bargaining chips in your hands are pitifully scarce. Even the people around you…”
As he recalled Nicholas’ secretive look as well as Lisban’s stern and solemn actions, Thales subconsciously stopped speaking.
“I can’t protect you forever, Saroma, and other people can’t do the same too.” Thales let out a gasp. The more he spoke, the gloomier he became. “For your safety, and so that you can be far from these dangers—”
The archduchess raised her head slightly and interrupted the prince.
“So that’s why.” Saroma’s expression changed. “Taking me away is for my own safety.” Saroma looked away and snorted with the ghost of a smile. “I understand that this is the reason. I understand. It’s impossible for there to be any other reason, right? You just can’t say that word.”
Thales looked at Saroma’s current state. An inexpressible emotion seeped into his heart.
‘No. No, Saroma. You…’
“Just like before.” The young lady sighed. Her eyes were laced with a slight dejection. “You worry about me, cherish me, pity me—all because I’m very weak. I need protection, just like some puppy. Hence, you want to take me away. Just like before, it’s for this reason—it’s the only reason.”
Thales took a deep breath. “Saroma…”
However, Saroma seemed to have sunk into her own world. She ignored him.
“It’s true anyway. That’s me; that weak, helpless me who waits for death with my eyes closed, that me who can only forever wait for others to reach out to me.”
Thales was stunned momentarily.
The young lady’s eyes stared at the air, her voice trembling slightly. “Do you remember? Six years ago, when I was caught by that monster—the Blood Mystic… It was all people in there. It was either that or tentacles made entirely of people. Their eyeballs, lips, ears, internal organs, hands and feet, all soaked in blood, all trembling before my eyes… Dark, slippery, bloody.”
Thales’ memories were brought back to the body of the hydra, Kilika—Giza’s pet. As he recalled those broken limbs, he felt a spell of discomfort.
He lowered his head. He did not say anything and also did not have anything to say.
“I remember my uncontrollable trembling and helpless weeping.” Saroma clutched the tablecloth in her hand tightly. With a pale face, she stared at the food on the table. “Because I could only cry. It was the only thing I could do. I only knew how to cry; all I could do was cry and wait for death. At that time, could you have imagined how I felt?”
The lights in the dining room swayed gently. The shadows of the two people shuddered along with it.
Thales felt as if there was a heavy weight on his tongue.
“I’m sorry, that was…” he said with difficulty.
‘That was my fault,’ the prince said softly in his heart.
‘I was the one who caused you…’
Saroma suddenly raised her head and stared intently at Thales. Her gaze became much gentler.
“Until you, Thales, you grabbed that strange shortsword. With blood all over your body, you appeared before me with a face of exhaustion,” the archduchess’ voice was calm, but it was hard for her to conceal the fluctuations in her voice. “Just like how you pulled me away under the intense pressure King Nuven cast on you without the slightest hesitation that same night.”
Thales paused for a moment.
“In the most desperate times, it was you who came to my rescue,” she said faintly. “You’re that sole light in my nightmare, Thales. Can you imagine that sort of feeling?”
Thales stared blankly at Saroma’s unusual behavior. He felt rather upset in his heart.
“You’re doing it again, right now.” The archduchess sighed faintly as she looked at the knife in her hand with a complicated expression. “Are you coming to my rescue again? To rescue that girl who has always received your care and protection; to rescue that cowering, timid, trembling Little Rascal? Because that’s the only image of me you have in your heart, right? So, you’ll never look at me squarely in the eyes, and I’ll never be an equal in your eyes.”
Thales frowned deeply. He could only feel the increasingly heavy sense of unfamiliarity from the young lady before him.
“Saroma.” A hint of hesitation and uneasiness seeped into Thales’ voice without his knowledge. “What happened? Why would you… Why would you ask this?”
Saroma sneered. “You know, it’s been more than a month since Ciel has been attempting to convince me that it’s not a good thing to be too close to you.”
The archduchess shook her head vigorously as if she wanted to shake off something dirty in her mind. “But I told him that since that nightmarish night six years ago, I knew that even if Ciel, Lord Nicholas, Justin, the whole Dragon Clouds City betrayed me, you, Thales Jadestar would stand before me and protect me without the slightest hesitation—exactly like that time we faced the calamity six years ago.”
Thales shuddered immediately.
Saroma looked down, and her mouth turned in the same direction to show her anguish. “If I can’t even trust you because of the way you’re acting, then who else can I trust?”
The young lady moved her gaze away and with the reflection of her pince-nez, attempted to block out the crystalline drops at the rims of her eyes. However, Thales still caught the shine in her eyes the instant it appeared.
“I know that you have many secrets, Thales,” Saroma’s tone was laced with exhaustion and disappointment. Her voice was hoarse. “Whether it’s secrets that led to your dedication in seeking records regarding the Battle of Eradication and Great Dragon, the monthly request to go out to play chess, or secrets regarding the reason the Blood Calamity and calamity in the blue shirt looked for you in the past…”
Thales did not say a word at that moment.
But when he looked into the young lady’s eyes, he could not help but tremble slightly.
“But I’ve never told Ciel and the others a single one of your secrets.” The archduchess took a deep breath and said, “I know that you definitely cherish these secrets. I also know that since they are your secrets, they wouldn’t cause me harm. Yes, Thales, I trust you.” With her head hung low, Saroma said hoarsely, “I trust you with my life.”
An ineffable and complex feeling rose in Thales’ core, causing anguish to appear in his heart.
‘Yes, Saroma isn’t a little girl completely without special characteristics. It’s the contrary. She’s very sensitive and sharp. It’s just that she hides herself behind those glasses most of the time.
‘Nobody knows, and probably nobody cares. Including me.’
“However, Thales Jadestar, what exactly am I to you?”
Saroma raised her head with difficulty.
Once again, the young lady hissed through gritted teeth, “Am I a burden to you? A responsibility you can’t shed? A bargaining chip in your hands? Is that why I’m worth rescuing time after time again? Or a fiancée you’re forced to accept?”
Thales swore that he had never seen such an expression on Saroma’s face before.
It was a complex emotion melded with melancholy, hesitation, pain, hatred, resentment, grief and more. It all assembled in her eyes, which were brimming with crystalline tears behind the lenses. It seemed as if the Little Rascal he knew six years ago was just a facade, as though the Saroma before him now was her true self that Thales had never unearthed before.
“No, they’re all not it.”
With great difficulty, she resisted the tears that nearly fell out of her eyes. Choking with sobs, she said, “Now, I know.”
The second prince was unable to say anything anymore. He just stared blankly ahead, at the Little Rascal he did not know, or perhaps never bothered to learn about.
Saroma twisted her stiff neck, desperately forcing herself to fix her stare on Thales. Amid the sobbing she could not conceal, her voice rose into the air, and there was a trace of mockery fused into it without her knowledge. “You, Prince Thales, are different from a majority of nobility. You have a special and warm heart, your own principles. You cannot bear standing aloof as the people around you suffer hardships and encounter disasters…
“So you’ve always extended a helping hand to the weaklings, right? Such as myself.”
Thales looked at her sadly. He could only feel a heavy weight on his chest.
Deep within Saroma’s sparkling pupils, disappointment and pain flickered. They released indescribable rays of light from behind the lenses.
“You can’t stand that I’m being forced to decide on a marriage. You can’t stand me being trapped under dangerous circumstances—just like how you went back to Heroic Spirit Palace to face the archdukes without the slightest hesitation.
“Of course, you still feel guilty. You feel like you should be responsible for sending me into the position of an archduchess, right? So you pity me, sympathize with me, help me and protect me.” Strenuously, Saroma tried to make her whimpers sound like a sneer. She was evidently unsuccessful. “But for you, I’m at best just one of the countless weaklings you’ve pitied and helped—whether I desire it or not, there’s nothing more to me.”
The next second, the young lady clenched both her fists tightly as both her arms trembled. It looked like she was enduring great pain.
The dining room returned to that same state of quietness, which invoked uneasiness.
Only two breathing sounds were left. One was quivering and unsteady, while the other was drawn-out and depressed.
Saroma gritted her teeth tightly. The eyes behind the pince-nez were soaked in tears as her chin trembled faintly.
Finally, a crystalline tear slid from the corner of her left eye.
Thales closed his eyes and sighed as he lowered his head.
Saroma gritted her teeth and lifted one of her hands. Although trembling, she firmly wiped the tear from the left side of her face. Yet, she could not stop the tears flowing from her right. “So, you will never put me in the same world as yours, never treat me as-treat me as your-your…”
Saroma turned her head to the other side, not allowing Thales to see her tears.
“This is what your ‘taking me away’ meant—to take away a weakling who needs urgent rescuing. It’s the same as you helping any other puppy by the roadside, because this is where I stand in your eyes.”
“Saroma…” Thales sighed. He tried his utmost best to force himself to speak and at the same time, intentionally avoid that topic he did not want to discuss. “Perhaps you shouldn’t think so much. We’re partners who have always fought alongside—”
“You’ve mentioned before how Lyanna Tabark was like a resplendent diamond, brilliant under the sun. You couldn’t forget about her.” In tears, Saroma let out a cold laugh. Her expression was distressed yet determined. “In comparison, Saroma of Dragon Clouds City—no, Little Rascal of Dragon Clouds City is perhaps an annoying and incompetent weakling, waiting for your charity and protection.”
Thales clenched his fist.
“Of course not.” He clenched his jaw and squeezed these words from between his teeth, “You… You’re different to me.”
The young lady took a deep breath. She removed her glasses and rubbed off the tears on her face roughly.
Saroma shook her head and snorted coldly in her sobbing voice. “No, Thales. It’s been six years. I know you too well.
“Maybe you haven’t noticed it yourself. Women who can get your true admiration and praise are only those who are strong, independent, and radiate brightly with confidence. Your eyes will only ever light up for them.”
“For instance, that duchess. Even though she’s thousands of miles away, she can still get your heartfelt sigh of admiration. That female officer, Jines; as a teacher, even if you haven’t met her in six years, her colors have never faded in your heart. That Fortress Flower, a warrior who’s like an iron wall warding off a storm.”
The second prince took a deep breath. He could only feel his tongue stiffen, rendering him mute.
“Even that female vampire you’ve spoken of before, that ugly b*tch Sarena or Darena who betrayed you and pushed you into a dead end. At least she’s formidable, dreadful and can make you fearful as well as take caution, successively putting herself in the most crucial position in your eyes.”
Saroma put on her pince-nez again. The areas around the rims of her eyes were slightly red and swollen.
“Only people like them can attract your attention, make it hard for you to forget them, stand before you, look you in the eyes and speak to you solely on equal terms,” her voice became calm again, yet her sentences were filled with a chilling tone. “And that girl who only knows how to retreat into the library, that girl who’s docile and obedient to her vassals, holds extreme terror towards politics and shivers in the face of difficulties, she cannot…
“She can only hide in the corner of your eyes, be protected forever, be led, be pitied, be helped by you forever, receive your favors and accept your assistance, forever unable to stand in the same world as you.
“Even as refined as you are, as kind as you are, as honest as you are, you’re actually no different from my vassals. Only the strong can make them submit. Similarly, only the independent and proactive women can make you notice them—such as that female warrior from Black Sand Region not long ago.
“And if I’m just an unbearably weak and puny girl, then I’ll receive contempt and scorn from the vassals. Whereas from you, the pity and sympathy of someone who stands at a position above me.”
Thales had nothing to say. He really wanted to tell her no, tell her that all the things she said were unnecessary assumptions.
Thales recalled what Ginghes the female officer told him before,
‘”Most of the time, because of your care, consideration and company, Her Grace can feel that she is safe and let go of her worries as well as wariness.
‘”The problem is, she is not safe.
‘”She must not feel that way either.”‘
‘Yes, Little Rascal, Saroma. What does she actually mean to me? A responsibility because of guilt? A commitment retained because of pity?
‘Or because she…’
Thales raised his head and looked at the young lady’s exquisite face. There was a faint dash of red on her cheeks under the contrast of her platinum blonde hair. He felt like something was pressing on his chest.
The girl who lifted her head in confusion in the library seemed to have appeared before his eyes again.
‘It’s been six years. When I took her out from that hall, I probably never thought that something like today would happen. But, it’s been six years. I thought I knew her very well. I thought I was helping her, protecting her, planning for her future with my wishful thinking…’
Thales sighed. ‘But in actual fact, I’ve never understood her and I’ve never attempted to. I only treated her as…’
“Have you forgotten, Thales?” Saroma looked at the broth, which had turned cold in her dish. She appeared to snort subconsciously and said, “You told me before that you didn’t want me to be forced into becoming someone somebody else wanted me to be. You wanted me to become who I wanted to be.”
This time, the Archduchess of Dragon Clouds City looked up without the slightest hesitation or doubt.
“So… I refuse your offer, Thales.”
The young lady did not look at Thales with a sideways glance, or look in another direction. She met Thales’ eyes directly, and her tone was certain.
“I will not follow you. If I listen to you and leave in obedience, leave cowering or leave happily, then I’ll always be that little girl that you helped in the past.
“I’ve had enough of being a little girl, Thales.” Saroma let out a breath and applied pressure to her abdomen with a pale face. She was seen gritting her teeth, her expression was firm. “I’ve had enough of being ‘your’ little girl, enough of being taken away from danger by you, enough of living in a greenhouse of safety.”
Deep in Saroma’s eyes was a flickering of cold rays. They shone with an indescribable coolness from behind her lenses. “Furthermore, as the Archduchess of Dragon Clouds City, I will not and cannot leave with the Prince of Constellation—regardless of what dangers I’m facing, be it powerful enemies or fierce battles, this is still my home. I was born in Eckstedt, and I will die in Eckstedt.”
‘Until one day, when I can be beside you, Thales,’ she silently said.
The dining room returned to silence.
The archduchess and prince sat on either side of the dining table. They were in silent confrontation, as though the food on the table was just decoration.
A century seemed to have passed when Thales finally opened his mouth with difficulty.
He felt disappointment, but he did not know if it was towards himself or Saroma. He said in a low voice, “Alright.”
The second prince heaved a long sigh. His expression was one of dejectedness. “I understand.”
Saroma let out a soft laugh and released her hand, which was pressing on her abdomen. Her complexion softened.
The archduchess was rather dispirited as she shook her head.
“I know,” she said indifferently. “I know your occasional impulsiveness.”
Thales frowned slightly.
“You’re not one single person, Thales.” Saroma gazed outside the window. Her expression was complex like she was looking at a veiled, indistinct and indistinguishable painting.
“There’s your country behind you, and your people. Have you considered the consequences that would arise from kidnapping the Archduchess of Dragon Clouds City?” The archduchess laughed as she shook her head, seemingly trying to justify her outburst. It was just that her smile appeared rather forced to Thales. “If you take me away, you’re just taking me away from my worries, and it will bring more terrifying disasters to the people.
“When you regain your senses, and when you reconsider your decision, you will not say the same thing anymore. Because the reason you want to rescue me is the same as the reason you cannot bear watching them endure a disaster. In this world, there’s probably not a single girl who is worth you paying such a big price.” Saroma sighed.
Thales clenched his fist tightly.
‘No. You’re not the same. You’re… You’re…’
At this moment, there was a sound from the dining room door.
“Archduchess, prince, forgive me for the disturbance,” Count Lisban’s resounding voice rang faintly. “Can I come in?”
The strange atmosphere was instantly broken.
Thales and Saroma promptly sorted out their moods, adjusted their state of mind and invited the regent into the dining hall.
Count Lisban was still dressed in his solemn attire, and his expression was indifferent. It was as if he did not notice the archduchess’ red eyes, or the prince’s desolate expression.
Yet, the moment Lisban opened his mouth, Thales heard an unusual tone, and it made him feel as though something bad was about to happen.
And it was just as he expected.
“Your Grace, Prince Thales, a messenger crow from the City of Faraway Prayers just arrived.”
Lisban’s words caused the both of them to turn somber all of a sudden.
“The Alliance of Freedom’s Conference of Elders has ended. The first letter to test our reaction has been sent to the City of Faraway Prayers in order to propose a lowering of tariffs.
Saroma sucked in a cold breath of air instead. “So…”
Lisban nodded. His gaze was solemn. “The Archduke of the City of Faraway Prayers, Kulgon Roknee has already issued a warrant. He has mobilized all the troops and supplies of the territories and vassals that are directly under him. At the same time, he has recalled the mobile sentries in Great Desert to fully seal off the national border leading to the south.”
Thales’ pupils constricted slightly.
In the Hall of Heroes, the image of that long-haired archduke with a strong temperament resurfaced in his mind.
At that moment, Lisban’s expression was incomparably solemn. “He simultaneously sent out an official diplomat group of an enormous scale. They will arrive in Dragon Clouds City within the next few days.”
Thales and Saroma exchanged glances, their emotions were in a mess.
The prince raised his head. “Roknee sending out an official diplomat group… It shouldn’t be just to say hello—I’m guessing that he already knows about Black Sand Region sending people over?”
Lisban raised his brows slightly and snorted softly. It appeared as if he was blaming Thales for his actions a few days ago.
“It has begun. A storm is coming.”