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Where am I?
The last thing I remember is walking through the hot summer forest, desperately hoping to soon make it to a river. Instead I now find myself enshrouded in darkness and musty air. For a little while longer I stay laying there, unmoving. I know I should be more concerned, but it’s been so long since I’ve been in a proper bed, it’s impossible not to enjoy it.
Eventually I sit up and notice a sliver of lamplight filtering through a door. As quietly as I can, I make my way through the dark room and open it, finding myself in a large hallway—and am immediately taken aback. The hallway is covered with wallpaper, and a handful of paintings adorn the walls—even the oil lamp near the end of the hall seems awfully ornate. It looks to be an aristocrat’s house…
Immediately I question how wise it would be to continue further, but, considering I’ve nowhere else to go, it seems I have little choice.
Lightly stepping through the hallway, I come to a parlor that’s even more lavish than the hall, full of richly brocaded furniture and a frankly excessive amount of lamps. Near the middle of the room sits a sofa, and on it, a short, rather heavy—but very beautiful woman. Long, night-black hair falls in waves around her. Both her face and lips are round and slightly rosy, while her dark brown skin glows faintly under the lamplight. Her leafy green eyes, meanwhile, remain fixated on a book she feverishly writes in. Her dress is draping and white, and appears to be a sort of nightgown, yet it’s still lined with lace—so now it’s very clear her position is high above my own. I stand half in the doorway and look at her, slightly mesmerized. Disregarding her status—her beauty, and especially her manner are…
She will write, then stop to think, before finally going back to furiously writing more than even before, a small smile perched upon her lips. From this distance I can’t read the page, but it is filled with words scattered about, some crossed out, and others circled. Whatever it is she’s putting together, it seems she’s surely enjoying it, at least.
And so for a minute I watch her, slightly spellbound—and completely confused, all at once. I’m generally not so easily distracted by pretty faces, and especially not a woman’s. But I quickly bring myself back to reality. I sigh, and go to say hello; but, she notices me before I even get the chance.
“Ah! You are awake!” her face gleams, and she gently but quickly closes her book, and looks up at me with sparkling eyes.
“Please forgive me for bringing you here like this,” she clasps her hands over her chest, her expression becoming concerned, “I saw you had passed out while I was on a walk, and I was not quite certain on what to do, and—”
She continues on while I merely look down to her, awed. Did she do it alone? Carrying a person generally isn’t simple regardless, and for someone like her, such a thing seems nearly impossible. I have no idea how far we are from the forest, but there is still no way it could be an easy feat, no matter how close we are. She must be much stronger than she appears…or maybe just very determined.
“…Mâzjêr,” I say to her. Thank you.
She abruptly stops talking, and just stares at me blankly.
“Oh…you are…welcome,” she replies strangely, eyes growing wide as she shifts her gaze away from me. “Would you like to take a seat?”
“I wouldn’t mind…” I say and go to sit on a chair opposite to her.
For a moment we merely sit there awkwardly in silence, while I focus on the sole sound of the clock ticking onwards. She looks down at her book, but both does and says nothing. Did I say something wrong? What are you supposed to say when someone quite possibly saves your life?
“Is something wrong?”
“No, no! I was just…a tad surprised, is all,” she answers. “I have never met a woman with a voice…at all like yours before.”
Oh…oh. I see now.
“That’s because I’m not one…”
“…You are a man?!”
I simply nod yes.
“Please forgive me, I did not mean—!”
“It’s no problem,” I say, trying to calm her down. It stings slightly; but admittedly, it’s not as though I don’t largely bring it on myself. Can’t fault her for that.
Instead of feeling better, however, she puts her face into her palms and sighs deeply.
“I cannot believe I brought a man into my house…” she mumbles under her breath. “Your body did seem quite masculine, yet with your dress, your hair, your…” she shakes her head, and doesn’t finish her sentence.
“What’s the problem?” I ask, before it finally comes to me. “Are you married?”
“Well…” she leans back into the couch, and looks away from me. “Not yet, but I shall be soon.”
“If your fiancé is here, he should know the situation. Surely he’ll understand.”
“I have not even met him yet,” she says with a dry smile, still not facing me. “Truthfully, I scarcely remember his name.”
“You…don’t even know the name of your own fiancé?” I attempt to hide how baffled I am, but I’m sure it’s obvious.
“My family chose him for me quite recently. I have merely been here learning how to run a home, waiting for them to at last arrange a spouse for me…”
“You must truly be close to your family,” I say, “To let them make such a choice.”
“Truly?” she chuckles darkly, a frown adorning her face as she looks to the floor. “I do not even remember the last time they visited. They scarcely even write letters, even if they are merely a town away…”
I contemplate her words, saying nothing as it doesn’t seem my place to speak here. Yet at the same time, I can’t help but ask.
“Then why?” I knew royalty has no say in who they marry, but is it the same for all nobility?
“What else am I to do? It is not as though I may simply choose my spouse as the lower classes do.”
“Yes, like we do…” I look away, and sigh.
“No, I do not mean—!” she panics, seemingly thinking I’m offended.
“It’s all right; I know what I am.” The words come out more snidely than I intended, but before I can apologize she goes on again.
“You are so blessed, to be able to choose your wife, your destiny…”
“Does anyone really choose their destiny?” I mumble under my breath, not meant to be heard; but she still hears me.
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s just…” my eye becomes a haze. For some reason, this home, this conversation—they’ve stirred so many old memories—but I can’t say why. Something just feels…familiar.
“Even if your family isn’t directly making a choice for you, the world often decides our fate for us regardless.” I glance back towards her, and she stares at me with what appears to be a look of great sadness.
“So you are just as unfortunate as I, it seems,” she closes her eyes and heaves a deep, heavy sigh. “I wonder if, even if I were not nobility, life would still be just as miserable…”
“No,” I abruptly speak, “You—you just have to make do with what’s given to you. Even if the world can be cruel.”
“What should one do, if they may never have what they desire?” she mutters before sighing, gazing away from me with a dour look on her face.
“Please forgive me,” she speaks louder this time, turning back to me. “It seems I have forgotten my manners, being so tired…”
“But you’ve not done anything rude,” I reply, lost.
“I just met you, and I have only discussed my own issues.”
I say nothing, as this is true. But to be honest, I don’t mind. I imagine someone of her social standing can’t speak their mind often, so having someone outside to talk to must be a relief.
“Regardless,” she continues, “Is there anything you need?”
While I’d ignored it before, now I notice the intense dryness in my mouth. Come to think of it, I’ve not had anything to drink in quite a while…
“Do you have any water?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says politely, “I shall return soon,” and with that, she slowly gets up and disappears deeper into the house.
I stay seated, wandering through my own thoughts. Even though I once lived quite near to them, the lives of the aristocracy still seem so strange to me. And yet, perhaps we aren’t so different after all; at least, her and I. I was never able to marry the one I loved, and the closest time we got to that was so short-lived…
The world chose our fate for us too.
Before I realize it, the woman already sways back with a glass in hand, and gently she gives it to me.
“Thank you,” I say before I begin gulping down a bit too fast, as I feel the water spread through my body.
Thinking of it, it’s been days since I’ve had anything more to drink than a few scattered droplets, always putting off finding more…no wonder I passed out in the woods. I quietly grumble at my own carelessness. Although it could have killed me, for some reason that’s about as much care as I can give to it.
“Are you feeling better?” she softly asks, and I nod in reply.
“Please forgive me for being so uncivilized tonight,” she continues, “Considering I have yet to introduce myself…”
Gracefully, she extends her hand to me, and smiles.
“I am called Suzette. And you?”
I hesitate, suddenly noticing just how unusual this entire situation is. In spite of my status, my appearance, she still insists on treating me as an equal.
“Hikaru,” I reach out my hand and whisper, wondering if this kindness of hers will continue. But to my surprise, she beams.
“Are you from Asàshí? Ah, so this is why your clothing is like this!”
It appears she’s trying to hide the enthusiasm in her voice, but it clearly fails. I can’t help but grin. It’s rather endearing—most aren’t too pleased to encounter foreigners, not even people from a different province half of the time, never mind the other continent.
“I was born there,” I reply, “But I came here when I was still quite young.”
“Have you returned since?”
“No, but I’d like to eventually.”
“I see…” she answers a bit dejectedly. “Do you happen to remember what it was like?”
“A little, but my memories are mostly faded by now.”
“Ah, is that so…” she exhales with a strange air of sadness.
“Why do you want to know so badly?”
“Is it wrong of me to wish to learn?”
“No,” I answer, “It’s just rare to see people so interested in other places.”
“Well…” she begins, “Traveling has always seemed fascinating, yet the farthest away I have ever been is the few villages near here. Ah, well there and Solzédniê.” The Capital.
“I’ve not traveled to Asàshí since I was a child,” I say, “But I’ve been all over Soléiâ.”
“Truly?!” she beams, “Must you travel for work?”
“Oh, that’s…” I look away, finding myself embarrassed for reasons I can’t even discern. Normally I don’t mind admitting the truth of the matter at all, but now I have to force myself to speak.
“I gather knowledge on plants and lore, and such; but…I don’t have any sort of occupation,” I say at last. “Wandering is all I do.”
“Is it because…your condition?” she stumbles upon her words, trying not to be insensitive. For a moment I’m confused about what she means, until I notice my hair. Her’s is as dark as the evening around us, whereas mine is the color of snow. I’m away from society so often, especially as of late, I’ve gotten to the point I can almost forget it’s something so damning. Almost.
“Yeah, a bit, but—I’m fine.”
She sits silently for a moment, seemingly lost in thought.
“Is it? There is…nothing you wish to do?”
“Not in particular. Not anymore,” I say. “I’ve come to accept my lot in life.”
“That sounds rather sad…” she sighs wistfully. “Although I suppose I understand as well.”
“Is there something you want to do?”
“It does not matter,” she mumbles, and begins to stand up. “I have already spoke too much of myself tonight, I—”
“No, Suzette. You haven’t.”
She looks at me with wide eyes, likely surprised I used her name—and admittedly, so am I.
“This is your home. You can talk about whatever you’d like here,” I say. “And I wouldn’t mind getting to know you better.”
She looks away from me, with a slight smirk on her face. “…Is that so?
“It shall surely sound ridiculous…” she begins, slowly sitting back down, “Yet, I have always wished to begin my own bakery.”
I’m a tad surprised at how mundane it is, but that’s not a bad thing. More realistic dreams are easier to make reality.
“What’s ‘ridiculous’ about that?”
“Someone such as myself is not meant to have such dreams; ‘if a woman must work, she’s unfortunate indeed,’ or so they say. But…” She shuffles in her seat slightly, seemingly thinking of what to say next. “Baking is such a wonderful thing; you can take so many disparate ingredients, many of which would be horrid on their own, and make something both lovely and life-sustaining—it is practically magic! Few appear to see it as such, but I find it quite lovely…”
As she goes on, her voice progressively rises in volume; her eyes, previously dim, are positively glowing now. Her passion for her craft rings nostalgically familiar—and I realize it’s been quite a long time since I’ve felt so at home with another person.
Suzette continues speaking once more. “How I would love to share what I create with all the world…oh, that reminds me!”
Suddenly she reaches over to the side of the sofa, picking up the book she was writing in when I first arrived. Swiftly she shuffles through the pages, and it appears she finds the one she was last on, and turns it over so that I may see it.
Written on the page are what I believe to be a variety of desserts, although most I have never heard the name of before. Now I can clearly see which ones are circled and crossed out, yet I can’t parse out why, or what this document is even supposed to mean at all. I stare at it blankly for a moment, trying to figure it out to no avail.
“Oh dear…” she whispers with slight concern in her voice, “You do not know how to read, do you?”
“…No, that’s not it,” I reply flatly. “I can read, it is just—what’s the purpose of this? It seems like a bunch of random desserts.”
“Not at all! You see, my neighbors are planning a large soirée in a few weeks. I suggested my chefs make the desserts for the event, that they are excellent—but, it was all a lie! It shall actually be me!” she chirps, clearly full of self-satisfaction. “You see, I have been planning the dishes, which tastes would complement each other best…that is what this list is. I cannot exactly just make everything without planning first, yes?”
“I see, but why did you say your chefs would make it? Why not just say it’s you?”
“Baking is fine as a pastime, but if I bake for others…they would surely look at me askance. That is why we have chefs, they do the ‘lowly’ work. Even so…” her voice drifts off for a moment. “This will be the first time I have ever shared my creations with others, aside from the servants. I am so nervous…”
“Well,” I say, “You seem passionate enough that I’m sure it won’t be that bad.”
Slowly her expression loses all emotion as her eyes drift their gaze towards nowhere in particular. “That is…what troubles me most.
“If it is horrid,” she says, “Then I may finally lay this dream to rest. It would be much simpler accepting these circumstances knowing I would not succeed otherwise. If I actually do have talent…will I be able to stave off the desire?”
Suddenly she lifts up her head, and looks me straight in the eye.
“If you were me, what do you think you would do?”
“I-I don’t know,” I stumble slightly while shooting my gaze away, not expecting her to ask for my advice. “Obviously I’m not a nobleman.”
“That is why I ask you,” she replies. “I know precisely what a nobleman might say…but what shall you say?”
“I ask…what holds you back? Are you worried someone might harm you?”
She seems taken aback that I would suggest that—although it’s something I’ve had to worry about often in my life, which is why I suggest it. But, I suppose someone like her does not have to worry about that so much.
“No, no, it is nothing of the sort. It is just…being judged so harshly by everyone…”
Does that really matter?
I don’t speak it aloud, as I’m sure it would come off as trivializing; but, I suppose that’s something else I’ve become far too used to, myself. Even with all I’ve been through, though, this is much easier said than done, especially for someone like her. Realizing this, I choose my words carefully.
“You must decide for yourself what’s most important to you,” I tell her.
“I feel as though I know, and yet…it would be safer to stay here, where I am not on my own. Who knows, perhaps my husband will be kind and wonderful, and shall not be bothered by my baking at all…”
Now it seems she’s talking to herself, but she soon catches it.
“Well, I appreciate your help,” she says suddenly, with a yawn.
“It’s no problem,” I reply, although it doesn’t seem as though I’ve done much. “I suppose I should be on my way now—”
“No! Erm, I mean—it is still quite late, is it not? At least rest, until the morning.”
“I don’t want to abuse your generosity, or cause any scandal—”
“You are not at all,” she insists, “And as we shall be in different rooms, it should surely be fine. After your ordeal it would be good for you to get more rest.”
“All right,” I say, slowly standing up. “Then I’ll be going back to sleep now.”
“Somêl amé,” she mutters with a warm smile. Sleep well.
“…Tsiâ mo,” I reply in return. You too.
Though I try not to show it, I can’t help but smile back. And with that I stiffly retreat into the hallway, looking for the room I found myself in before. It’s not long before I’m wrapped in the soft confines of the bed. As I lay there, my mind begins to wander…
I can’t believe I’m still here…no, I can’t believe I’m here at all.
And it’s definitely strange, having a true conversation with someone like this; but, I know it’s because I’m an outsider. Even if we just met, I’m safer to speak with than the others around here. Especially since after tonight, I doubt we’ll ever meet again—that’s how it always goes.
But, even if it’s foolish…I hope we can. She seems far too kind to be so miserable. Even with all the shit I’ve gone through, I’ve still found a semblance of happiness…
So please find your happiness too, Suzette.
Later that morning, I awake to the sound of scuffling feet, as the Sun shines through thin cracks in the curtains. For a moment confusion washes over me, until I remember the night before. But still, I steadily gather my things to leave—until I hear a meek, unfamiliar voice speak to me.
“Oh…you’re awake?” I look over and see what appears to be one of Suzette’s servants. She’s quite a bit taller than Suzette, yet appears younger—and also clearly put off by me.
“My Lady’s in the dining room; she requested you be taken to her when you awoke…so if you’re ready, would you mind following me?”
“Not at all,” I say lightly, trying to make her feel more at ease. But she shuffles out the doorway, and I swiftly follow suit.
Without any windows, the hall is just as dark as during the night; but unlike before, it feels infinitely more suffocating, as the tension swirls around myself and the maid. She walks rapidly and stiffly, not speaking a single word. Perhaps she is always this way. Yet, with her tone of voice earlier, unfortunately I can’t help but doubt it. Luckily, however, we soon arrive in the dining room.
“Ašon bon!” Suzette says cheerily, Good morning!
Immediately I’m taken aback by her friendliness in contrast to her servant’s demeanor.
“Is there anything you need?” the girl asks.
“No,” Suzette replies, “You are dismissed for now, unless you know of any work which needs to be done.”
The girl merely nods, and scuttles out of the room. And that just leaves the two of us.
“Did you sleep well?” she asks with a comforting smile.
“I did,” I say, “But, is there anything you need of me? Since you wanted me to come here…”
“It would be rude to just send you off without anything to eat.”
“If you say so,” I reply, and take a seat next to her.
“So…” she begins, “Where do you plan to travel after here?”
“Nowhere in particular, as usual I guess.”
“Well, Hikaru, you can stay here for as long as you like. It does not bother me.”
“I’d rather not keep disturbing your help…” I say, thinking to the girl who brought me here.
“Oh, Jeanne? She is, well—she is always nervous around new people,” Suzette attempts to reassure me, although her tone betrays all. Yet even so, I still grin at her attempts to be nice.
“I doubt I’ll be traveling too far for now,” I inform her. “Perhaps I can swing by a time or two once more.”
“Whatever you would prefer,” she speaks softly, with a distant look in her eyes.
And that’s when it began.
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