༺ Punishment? ༻
It was morning.
– Ring Ring Ring!!!
Lulu’s eyes fluttered open as she woke up. She was currently in the commoners’ dormitory which was much smaller and more confined as compared to the nobles’ dormitory.
Rubbing her eyes, she turned off the alarm. Shortly after, her face was dyed in astonishment.
“…I didn’t have a nightmare today either.”
It was a nightmare that had been haunting her every night ever since she was young.
The sight of her parents, who had once gazed upon her lovingly, driving her away with eyes as though they were staring at a bug.
Long-time neighborhood friends who used to play with her in the playground, gradually started excluding her from their groups as they began suffering small accidents.
The grave injuries of her newfound friends who approached her lonely self with a smile, and the comatose state of the nun who cared for her until the end.
Lulu had always been forced to view these scenes in her dreams and felt various emotions as she relived those moments.
The feeling of being persecuted by the world as if it was trying to kill her through isolation. The sense of despair stemming from the thought that she would never be able to be loved by anyone.
Also, the impulse to end everything.
But, it was different now.
For some reason, she stopped having nightmares several days ago.
She had thought that the nightmare would chase her around her entire life. Yet, when it disappeared, what she felt was neither freedom nor happiness but bewilderment, instead.
She had been willing to do whatever it took to stop the nightmares that drove her into the pit of hell every night.
However, Lulu had never imagined that the very nightmare that had been haunting her for the majority of her life would suddenly disappear overnight.
– Knock Knock Knock
“Ms. Lulu, are you awake?”
She, who had been blankly staring into space, regained her senses from the knocking sounds.
After getting off the bed, she hurriedly straightened her messy hair and opened the door to a maid.
The maid was a girl Frey had brought from a market alley and gifted to her one day. It was the girl with a sickly younger brother.
“Are you feeling okay, Ms. Lulu?”
“Huh? Am I okay?”
Lulu had been blankly looking at the girl, but soon tilted her head at the question.
“You look very tired and worn-out.”
The girl nodded as Lulu asked with a frown.
She had never seen her as drained and out of it as she was today.
“Perhaps, did that person wrong you in any way…?”
The girl asked cautiously with fear evident on her face.
Although she was merely a girl selling vegetables in a market alley, she was still aware of the rumors revolving around the Empire’s most notorious scoundrel.
In addition, her recent interactions with the girls Frey had ordered to serve as her “pets” had alerted her of their irrepressible, ever-intensifying fear of Frey. After all, he was the leader of the people that had horribly tormented them.
“N-Not at all! I didn’t even see Lord Frey yesterday!”
Lulu hurriedly shook her hands towards the girl who was suspicious of Frey.
“Yes. I wanted to wish him a good night before going to sleep… but he wasn’t in his room.”
Hearing that, the girl quietly let out a sigh of relief.
“Ms. Lulu, please let me know whenever you’re having a hard time. I’ll help you in any way I can.”
Lulu raised her voice with a frightened expression.
“You, you shouldn’t help me. Keep that in mind.”
It was a subconscious behavior after having witnessed the people who had tried to help her become miserable after getting swept up in both small and big accidents.
Faced with her frantic behavior, the girl solemnly lowered her head and spoke.
“I’m always grateful to you, Ms. Lulu.”
“For protecting us from that person.”
She tilted her head, confused.
Lulu’s maids had been treated worse than toys for the past few years, having to endure assault and torture.
She didn’t know that her maids thought she was helping them behind the scenes, preventing Frey, who loved playing around to the extent of keeping sex slaves in the basement, from showing interest in them.
Though, of course, that was just a rumor Kania had intentionally spread to minimize the possibility of Frey incurring the penalty again.
At the very least, it had succeeded in being regarded as the truth by the maids.
“There seems to be a misunderstanding… Lord Frey doesn’t treat me how you guys imagine.”
“H-huh… but it’s true…”
Despite her denial, the maid simply nodded her head with a worried face.
“A-anyways, how are you guys doing lately?”
The girl started smiling at Lulu, who had attempted to change the mood while awkwardly looking at her.
“I’m doing well, and everyone else is too… It’s almost like we’re in a dream!”
“Yes! Thanks to Ms. Lulu’s grace, my younger brother is recovering in the hospital right now! The other maids also consider it a miracle that they can go a day without being hit even once!”
Like she said, the maids’ current living situation was like a dream.
For they were girls who had been beaten to the brink of death for making the smallest of mistakes, even when they perfectly completed their jobs, if their owners were in a bad mood.
For they were girls who couldn’t even live with basic human dignity – having eaten trash labeled as food in a dark and cramped room, let alone being able to study.
But now, no one would tell them off as long as they performed their jobs perfectly, and they were even paid for their work while being given enough time to learn how to write.
Above all, their work as maids in the commoners’ dormitory that offered warm, delicious food was like an irreplaceable treasure to them.
“Oh, right. Here, it’s a gift!”
Lulu was listening with a strange expression when the girl suddenly took something out.
“Thank you for saving my younger brother!”
The girl thanked her and placed a small rabbit doll in her hands.
The doll also had a hand-written note placed on top of it. The handwriting was clumsy as if the writer had just begun learning to write, but it was filled with sincerity.
“N-no… I can’t receiv…”
“Then, please be well~!”
After she read the note, her face turned desperate and she tried to return the doll, but she could only stand in a daze as the girl rushed out the door.
“Right… It wasn’t just the nightmare that disappeared…”
At some point.
“…Even the misfortune is slowly fading.”
The effect of the ‘Stigma of Misfortune’ was gradually weakening.
Through Frey’s love.
“Hey~ Lulu, do you have any plans after class today?”
After the complicated magic theory lesson, Lulu was quietly reviewing the material by herself when a few girls approached her.
“Do you have time? We’re about to go eat lunch, want to join us?”
“N-no thank you!”
Her classmates invited her out for lunch. Startled, she declined them.
“I-I prefer eating alone…”
“What? But… didn’t we eat together yesterday?”
However, when the girls questioned her with confused faces, she choked on her words.
“Uh, so… that…”
In the end, the girls abruptly sat down next to her, and Lulu was forced to be in their company.
Be that as it may, she didn’t even notice them sitting next to her, as she was too focused on using her magic eyes to see if the maids Frey had given her were eating well from a distance.
“So, let’s eat together today as well!”
“Yeah, and it’s always bothered me how you’re the only one in our class who eats alone.”
“By the way, Lulu, did something good happen recently? Your complexion’s gotten much better and even your dark circles seem to be fading…”
The kind-hearted commoners of Class A had been looking for an opportunity to approach her after seeing how she struggled to fit in.
As a result, Lulu, who wasn’t used to receiving others’ favor and kindness, was slowly dragged towards the cafeteria.
‘Just how… did it end up like this?’
Then, they stood in line as a group, chatted amongst themselves, received food on their trays, and returned to their table.
To Lulu, it was a very surreal experience, and soon, she became lost in thought.
‘Could it be… did the curse disappear?’
The fact that she hadn’t had a nightmare for the past few days might be a sign that her misfortune had completely disappeared.
Her stigma could only be removed by receiving ‘love’ from someone.
However, Frey had begun showing her affection a month ago.
Although his affection was one between a person and their pet and not between two people… the fact remains that she received his love.
Lulu timidly asked the classmates around her to confirm her speculation.
“By any chance… have you guys had any unfortunate experiences lately?”
“Yeah. For example, something that made you unhappy… or any accidents… or maybe even your health deteriorating…”
The students were momentarily taken aback by the topic, as it wasn’t exactly appropriate when they were enjoying their food in a good mood. But Lulu’s expression was too serious for them to simply brush it off.
In the first place, they had set up their current environment to prevent her from feeling lonely. Thus, the students started to think back on their memories.
“Nothing in particular I can think of.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
“There were a lot of good things that happened… but bad… I wonder?”
The students responded after some time.
Thanks to the large contract compensation from several weeks ago and the sponsorship from the unidentified person a few days ago, the commoner students of Class A were enjoying an unprecedented, blessed time.
‘…No way, really?’
Lulu’s heart began to race.
‘Is the curse really disappearing?’
Small mishaps like stubbing a toe against a door, breaking a plate, or losing a textbook still occurred several times a day.
However, ever since she started receiving Frey’s love… the “big misfortunes” that had always occurred had stopped altogether.
Of course, it was entirely possible that those misfortunes weren’t happening to her, but to others.
But after listening to the students around her, that didn’t seem to be the case either.
Originally, if anyone showed even a little bit of interest or affection towards her, they would immediately suffer an accident the following day.
Tears threatened to spill from the corners of her eyes as she lowered her head to pretend that she was eating.
Lulu realized that the stigma which had been like a steadily tightening noose around her neck was finally disappearing, and she became overwhelmed by her emotions.
‘I can finally become free…’
“Right, have you guys heard about Frey?”
Lulu began eating after holding back her tears with much effort. However, as soon as the conversation shifted to ‘Frey,’ she froze on the spot.
‘That’s right… Frey.’
Based on what she had seen before, there was a high chance that Frey was severely afflicted by her misfortune.
He often coughed up blood and stumbled around while clutching at his heart after he had brought her in as his ‘pet.’
‘No, Frey is still a villain…’
However, she shook her head to drive away her thoughts, as she couldn’t afford to stop the stigma from disappearing.
‘Plus, at this rate… it should be totally gone in just a few days. So… just until then…’
“Apparently, that bastard collapsed.”
Yet, upon hearing the words coming from the student, Lulu let out a flustered sound.
“Rumor has it that he’s in a critical condition!”
“He deserves it. It’s his retribution.”
“That’s right… He tried to buy us last time. I shiver just thinking about that time…”
Lulu quietly asked a question as she felt increasingly anxious the more she listened to her classmates’ conversation.
“Do you know where Frey is right now?”
“Wouldn’t he probably be in his room? I heard he returned at midnight…”
“I’ll take my leave then.”
“Hm? Wait! Where are you going, Lulu?”
With that, Lulu stood up and started heading towards Frey’s room-
“…The rumors must have been exaggerated.”
While mumbling to herself in a trembling voice.
“Young master, please endure it. You need to cleanse the rotten blood out of your body to become even a little bit healthier.”
Frey was still unconscious, but with Kania’s assistance, he was coughing up the rotten blood that had been accumulating in his body.
His blood – as a consequence of his soul merging with Kania’s – was dyed in black.
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