༺ The Empire (3) ༻
Marie’s voice was filled with excitement.
At Marie’s words, Renee stood up from where she was sitting and asked a question.
“Uhm, what do you think?”
“Oho, I’ll tell you what! The Saint is a million times prettier than the girls in the capital!”
“Is that so…!”
The corners of Renee’s mouth started to rise, boosted with confidence from Marie’s compliment.
Renee ran her hands over her body once more, checking her attire.
A wide-brimmed hat and a blouse, and a long skirt that reached her calves. She was getting ready for her plans with Vera that were scheduled for a little while later.
It would be the first date she would have with Vera.
Because it was a very special occasion, she wanted to look different from usual, so she asked Marie to dress her up. This was the result.
Renee thanked Marie as she tightened her grasp around her cane.
“Thank you, Marie. I will definitely…!”
I’ll make some progress!
Marie giggled as she watched Renee make a face full of determination.
“That’s right! Hmm? Make sure to interlock your fingers as you walk! And when you eat, ask him to feed you!”
Holding hands! Feeding her!
Marie’s words sent Renee’s imagination into overdrive. Her face grew redder and redder as she pictured the scene in her mind.
“Then, I’ll get going!”
Unable to get over her growing embarrassment, Renee left the room.
As she looked at Renee’s departing figure, a bigger smile appeared on Marie’s face.
She was thinking inwardly about what she would say to Vera, who was waiting outside.
‘You’ll have a hard time, boy. ’
Marie was sure. Even someone as stubborn as Vera wouldn’t be able to be his usual self today.
At the entrance of their lodging.
Vera, who was looking ahead with a stern face, turned his head towards the front door at the sound of approaching footsteps.
It was Renee’s footsteps.
As Vera was about to open the door, he stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of Renee.
“You’ve been waiting for a while, haven’t you?”
He looked so dumbfounded that anyone could tell that he was too stunned.
Vera inspected Rene’s attire with a quick glance.
It was different from the usual.
Normally, she only wore dark-colored robes to conceal her identity, but today she looked like a noble lady… No, even that seemed like an insult to her beauty.
A navy blue, wide-brimmed hat covered half of her face. It could have looked very suspicious, but instead, she gave off a mysterious aura. What about the rest of her outfit? A white blouse and a navy blue skirt together gave her a neat and elegant look.
Figuratively speaking, she looked like a morning glory in full bloom.
A strangely shy and unassuming, yet captivating morning flower.
That statement was not enough. He was looking for a better analogy, but he couldn’t. Vera groaned deeply at his inability to express himself.
In the midst of that, Renee’s words floated once again.
Vera was surprised by her and quickly responded, his voice breaking.
“Oh, yes. I’m sorry.”
Renee’s heart was throbbing, and she shook her head.
For some reason, she was feeling embarrassed, so she looked downwards again.
She wondered if she was blushing, and after a moment of thought, she realized that he probably was.
Her cheeks, ears, and her nape were hot. She was also wearing a hat, so it couldn’t be because of the sun.
Renee took a deep breath to regain her composure, and immediately held out her hand, slightly moving her lips.
“Uhm… shall we go?”
Vera took Renee’s hand that she held out.
Renee felt Vera’s fingertips tremble.
The tremor brought her back to her thoughts.
‘D-do I look weird?’
Marie complimented her a lot, but she couldn’t be sure. It might not be Vera’s preference.
It was a question that had been on her mind for more than 3 years of being in love.
She was conscious about every little thing. The pitch of his voice, the warmth of his hand. And the tremor. She walked in sync with him with every step.
She found herself giving meaning to everything, and this contradiction was causing her to hurt her pride, but she couldn’t ignore it.
Renee spoke, feeling her insides clench with all those worries.
“Uh… this outfit was picked out by Marie.”
It was her roundabout way of saying, ‘How do I look today?’
She said it in hopes that he would say it looked good on her.
At that, Vera’s answer was very satisfactory.
“…Yes, you look very beautiful.”
Her heart skipped a beat, and she felt like someone had hit her heart with a hammer.
Renee pressed her lips together and dropped her head.
She was secretly grateful that she was wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
If she wasn’t wearing that hat, he would have seen the expression that she was making.
“That’s good to hear. I’ll be sure to thank Marie later.”
Vera gave a short response to Renee’s words and continued walking, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
Renee’s concern whether ‘did he see my face’ was irrelevant, at least for the moment. Vera was not looking at Renee.
Vera couldn’t think of a reason why he couldn’t look at Renee, whom he had just seen yesterday.
Whenever he tried to look at her, he felt like it wasn’t right, for some reason. If he tried to steal a glance at her, he felt like he was committing a grave sin.
The voices in his head were disorienting him. He just blurted out short answers, since he was worried that he would sound weird if he said the answer that was on his mind.
The truth was, the reason was very simple. Renee’s change in outfit changed the way he saw her, but Vera didn’t realize it.
In a way, it was very obvious.
Three years is a long time to change someone’s view with just a single outfit.
Up until now, Renee had always been a ‘girl’ to Vera.
It wasn’t about the age difference, but rather because Vera felt that Renee hadn’t grown up from being a 14-year-old girl.
There were many reasons why he felt that way. But if he were to choose the biggest reason, it would have been because of the robe that Renee wore every day.
The robe was loose fitting and covered her entire body, so her feminine lines were never visible. That wasn’t all, her development was also hidden.
No matter how much she grew or changed, wearing the robe always covered everything.
Vera, who had always been taller than Renee, hadn’t realized how much Renee had grown, even after leaving the Holy Kingdom.
Because Renee had always worn dark robes since they left, Vera hadn’t been able to tell the rational charm she had underneath all that.
That’s right. Until today, Vera had never been able to look at Renee and make any kind of rational judgment.
But thankfully, that stunted situation ended today.
The power of the outfit was shaking Vera’s awareness.
Seeing Renee in everyday clothes for the first time since they met in Remeo, Vera finally realized that Renee was a woman.
It had been a very long three years and a couple of months.
Renee was finally becoming a woman and not a girl in Vera’s mind.
The area around Third Street, where the Imperial Library was located, was quite far from First Street, where Marie’s mansion was located.
…In other words, it meant that they had to hold hands and walk for a long time.
Renee’s cane hit the floor. Then, she took a step forward.
This has been going on for a few minutes now.
The two of them were walking hand in hand without saying a single word.
Of course, just because they weren’t speaking didn’t mean that it was awkward. It would have been more accurate to say that a subtle atmosphere was starting to emerge.
They were very aware of each other. The temperature transmitted through the flesh where they touched, the sound of their breaths that were so close, and the slight tremble that was gradually transmitted. All of these things combined to create a strange beat.
Vera walked straight ahead, while Renee walked with her head down.
As they walked, a single phrase played over and over in Renee’s head.
-Make sure to interlock your fingers as you walk! And when you eat, ask him to feed you!
These were the words that Marie told her just before they left the mansion.
Among them was the part about holding hands.
Because of those words, Renee’s attention was focused on their clasped hands.
Of course, she wanted to interlock fingers with him. Why wouldn’t she? It was just another way of holding hands, but that alone changed everything.
Wouldn’t the act of holding her hand be an act of affection, not just a way to help her blind self?
But it was a hard thing to do for Renee, who was shy.
She was a shy person who could not do anything for the last three years to move their relationship forward.
It would be better if Vera would interlock their fingers first… but Renee knew that it was something that would never happen even if she died and came back to life.
Renee thought about it for a while, and her heart pounded faster the longer she pondered. Her mind was filled with anxiety that she’d blown her chances by the time they got to the library.
‘I— I’m doing it…!’
She squeezed her eyes shut and moved her hand.
It was a movement that expressed both the feeling that nothing would change even if she felt embarrassed for her whole life, and the reckless mindset of ‘whatever, I don’t care.’
She moved her hand stealthily, then grabbed his.
Their palms and fingers touched, and Renee’s fingers dug into the gaps between Vera’s long, outstretched fingers before it clenched into a fist.
Vera’s reaction was quick. He didn’t even flinch. It was a very blatant move that sent Vera reeling.
“Don’t say anything.”
Renee silenced Vera as he tried to speak, then lowered her head deeper and continued to talk.
“…Let’s just go like this.”
She couldn’t give him an explanation.
If she tried to explain why she did it, her heart might just explode.
She just wanted to leave it at that.
Vera nodded, unable to refute Renee.
Her palms were hot and the feeling of Renee’s fingers touching hers made her heart feel tight, along with the feel of his fingertips against the back of her hand.
Vera tried not to think.
Renee told him not to say anything, so he did not bother to question her. It was the right thing to do, so he composed himself and put on a calm face.
His mind, which had been a mess the entire time, was now completely turned off. Vera walked on for a long time, not knowing what his pulse was doing.
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