Where There’s Smoke
The royal library, a vast treasure trove of every book ever written about the Kingdom or the Kingdom’s foreign relations, and a place that was mostly open to anyone who lived, visited or worked in the castle.
It was in such a place that Sophie and Tio sat at a large table with serval open books strewn across it, taking notes for their assignment.
They were determined to finish off the free research project. Although it might not be the kind of thing that would be super exciting to children, the royal library contained an in-depth look into the daily lives and innermost thoughts of history’s key players. It was so full of invaluable things to discover that the teaching material of their school or the frontier town’s library couldn’t hope to compare.
“Alright, that should just about do it.”
“…It’s finally over.”
Tio couldn’t hide her mental exhaustion as she collapsed head down on the desk after she and Sophie finished their homework assignment together in the same way.
Although it was for the sake of experience, ostensibly the reason they were in the royal castle was to work. Even if their ‘job’ mostly revolved around being Hilda’s playmate.
However, they weren’t by Hilda’s side the entire time. Especially since right now, Hilda was busy in meetings with important foreign dignitaries that unrelated children like them couldn’t possibly attend. At times like those, the professional maids of the royal castle were tasked with taking care of Hilda and the dignitaries instead.
Instead, they decided to use their newly found free time to finish off their free research project, the last hurdle to enjoying a stress-free summer vacation. Alicia had arranged to free up an entire section for them to use, so without any distractions they had managed to finish up their assignment quickly.
“I’m so tired… We still have loads of time, so do you want to come back after taking a break?”
“Mm, that’ll save me.”
After checking her watch, Sophie decided that they still had time enough to take a break, since it would be a while until Hilda’s meeting was over. Of course, for those girls, they would rather have a chat as they took a break rather than read even more books.
“The castle is quite different to what I thought it would be like. Everyone is so busy.”
“You’re right, is this really a place that people live? It’s like someone just made the guild uselessly big.”
The royal castle is where the Kingdom’s ruling family made their home and it also housed the institutions of His Majesty’s government. Naturally, a place like this would have a small army of people working there, such as ministers and civil servants, maids, butlers, stewards and so on. It was inevitable that it would leave a very hectic impression.
‘A place where well-dressed people lived elegantly’, that was the kind of thing Sophie and Tio expected, but once again the twins had gained a new outlook on life.
“Mum seems really busy too.”
“Yep… Though it can’t be helped. Because her job is real work, after all.”
It should go without saying, but the royal guards and members of the garrison who were in charge of the castle’s security were always busy as well. Shirley, who had been included amongst their number as one of Hilda’s personal escorts, always had to keep to Hilda’s own busy schedule.
So, it couldn’t be helped that their mother was always busy. They understood that well enough. They understood it, but… It was still a little lonely.
Since they had come all this way to work in the same place together, it would have been nice if they could have spent more time together.
“By the way, before we came to the library, mum had a weird face, didn’t she?”
“Yeah. How do I say it… She looked like she was eating something really bitter?”
They weren’t wrong to read their mother like that. Shirley wanted nothing more than to help Sophie and Tio with their free research project but was consumed by bitterness by the fact that since the target of her request was still at large, she was denied it.
If Kyle and the others weren’t there to snap her out of it, she might have simply abandoned her escorting duty to help the two of them in the library anyways. For once, Shirley hadn’t been able to hide her doting parent side from Sophie and Tio, so the twins had seen yet another rare sight.
“Oh? You girls are…”
As the two of them thought about their mother, the doors to the library opened. Through them came Philia and Lumiliana.
“Ah… You’re mum’s acquaintance…”
“…Yes, hello. This is the first time we’ve talked, isn’t it?”
The nieces and their aunt, on their father’s side, had run into each other unexpectedly. However, right now Philia was operating under the guise of a noblewoman from a former Imperial county, whilst also pretending her relationship with Shirley was on the level of a mere acquaintance.
She couldn’t let the truth slip out… Feeling the worried eyes of Lumiliana behind her, Philia’s expression was a mix of the diplomatic mask she often wore as a Princess and the true feelings she swore not to expose.
“These are… Study notes? No, rather if you’re children of the Kingdom, school work?”
As Sophie explained what they were doing in the library, Philia gently nodded along as she made each point.
“Oh, I see now. I knew that the level of education given to commoners in the Kingdom was quite high, but this is more advanced than I thought. In the Empire, it’s rare for a commoner to be able to read or write, let alone do maths.”
“…Is that true?”
“Yes. What’s more, even if a person knew things about history, there are very few people who really know about the details of what happened, you know? Because of how the Empire works, the opportunities for commoners are incredibly limited… Adventurers guilds only exist along the border as well.”
It was easy to hear the envy in Philia’s voice. In the Empire, education and knowledge were monopolized by the aristocracy, so it was very rare to see an educated or well-read commoner. Even amongst the aristocracy, a prejudice against learned women was still strongly rooted in the culture of the blue-blooded families, with many girls having the doors to academic opportunity closed to them.
If the commoners learned to think for themselves, that would sow the seeds of revolution. It was a man’s duty to work and a woman’s to care for the home. These old ways of thinking were the foundation of the Empire’s societal norms.
On the other hand, the Kingdom educated the children of nobles and commoners alike, with women able to set their own goals… As someone with aspirations of bringing about such a change in her homeland, it was only natural that she envied a country that had made it a reality already.
If her country had flourished and her people set free in such a way, then Philia felt she would never have to go so far as to weaken her nation to change it.
“But, don’t you feel lonely when your mother is out working, after all?”
However, she couldn’t help but worry about a certain part of that freedom in this country. She knew that she shouldn’t be anxious, it was Shirley they were talking about after all, but since she was raising two children alone, weren’t there going to be plenty of times that the twins felt lonely when she was away at work? Despite herself, a meddlesome feeling budded inside of Philia.
“Hmm… Well, sometimes it’s a little bit lonely when she’s out working all day, but I know mama is working hard and fighting for our sake.”
“I see… That’s good, isn’t it?”
They were good children as well. She desperately resisted the urge to stroke their heads.
“…Oh? Speaking of that…”
“Why does mum know a noble from a place that used to be in the Empire? Knowing mum, she would never want to go to the Empire at all.”
Philia’s heart almost jumped out of her mouth. She didn’t mean to underestimate her, but she thought she could be forgiven for not thinking that a ten-year-old would be able to unravel the contradiction in her cover story so easily, so that tongue of hers that never struggled to come up with a diplomatic lie in times like these was stuck in her throat.
She really is Shirley’s daughter, isn’t she…? Thinking that, she realized that just like their mother, there may be more to these children than meets the eye.
“When Lady Shirley was still living in the Empire, my lady had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.”
As Philia froze up after the sudden ambush, Lumiliana stepped in to support her. As she turned around to look at her, Philia’s ever-reliable knight and best friend winked.
“My lady’s mother and father, the Count and Countess of Aigner, were close friends with the late Emperor and Empress. Therefore, they knew each other from quite a young age… Well, she still looks young now, but Lady Shirley was still quite beautiful even back then, wasn’t she?”
“T-That’s right! Until the former Emperor and Empress passed away, I visited the castle a lot.”
In fact, it was true that Count Aigner and his wife had a good relationship with the previous Emperor and Empress before their deaths. Because of that relationship, the Aigner family became one of Philia’s key allies, instrumental in her contact with the Kingdom’s royal family.
“You knew mum when she was young?”
“Wow…! That sounds kinda interesting!”
Sophie and Tio, of course, were totally enthused by the idea of hearing about Shirley from way back then.
Philia and Lumiliana were set to depart from the Kingdom a few days before the Summer Solstice Festival. This might be the last time the aunt and her nieces could talk like this for some time.
Thinking about that, Philia smiled warmly as she sat opposite the twins at the table, telling them a story as if reading from a fairy tale. That expression of hers as well was reminiscent of the smile Shirley herself used to wear.
“Well then. If you’re interested in hearing it, shall I teach you some secrets about the kind of person Shirley-sama truly used to be?”
“Yes… Let’s see, what shall we discuss first?”
Telling stories about her behind her back, Shirley would doubtless be displeased about it, but if her daughters truly wished to know then Philia didn’t think twice about keeping them in the dark.
“Hm…? What’s wrong, Sophie?”
“Well, somehow… Even though we’re twins, I’m the big sister… So I didn’t know what it felt like to have a big sister myself, you know?”
‘Big sister’. When Sophie said those words, she shyly gave Philia a meaningful smile.
“If we had a sister who was a little older than us, I wonder if she would be a person like you?”
‘Big sister’. With those two words alone, Philia felt a pang of raw emotion pierce through her heart.
The true nature of those feelings was something close to what Shirley felt for her daughters on a daily basis, but although she couldn’t have known that, Philia asked a question as she raised a trembling finger.
“S-Sorry…! B-But the two of you, can you call me ‘big sister’ one more time…?”
“Your Highn… I mean, my lady!? Keep it together!”
Time flowed on and before they knew it, the eve of the summer solstice festival had arrived. It was an auspicious and suitable sky for such a festival, with the night sky unblemished by a single cloud and the uncovered stars and moonlight illuminating the royal capital below.
Just like his calling card promised, the Phantom Thief hadn’t made a move so far. Yet, with the festival starting with the changing of the clock that night, so too did the criminal’s declared timeframe.
Shirley stood alone in the abandoned courtyard of the royal castle, channelling her inner spirit as she gripped the ceremonial sword she had been given as part of her uniform in her hand. It was then that she heard a light pitter-patter of footsteps behind her.
“Mama? What are you doing here?”
It had been Sophie. Shirley turned around slowly to face her daughter, looking into her eyes.
“I thought I would stand guard. From here, I can see Her Highness’ room clearly so I can react to anything that happens.”
“Okay? But, aren’t you going to come back soon? One of the maids in the castle taught me how to make tea! I thought that you might want to drink it, mama… Or is that no good?”
“No, that’s not true at all. If Sophie brewed me a cup of tea, I would love to have it.”
Shirley showed a gentle expression that she reserved for her daughters… Then, in the next instant.
She murmured quietly whilst channelling all of her murderous rage into the ceremonial blade in her hand, then she swung its tip towards the face of her beloved daughter with divine speed.