Gulp

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The cold wine was swallowed reflexively, and it went down my throat.
Soon, I could feel my insides heating up.
The wine that couldn’t be swallowed trickled from one corner of my lips down to my chin.

Cough. In an instant, I started coughing weakly.
As I tried to lower my head, a large hand grabbed my chin and lifted my face up again, and what I saw were cold blue eyes, chaotic with a desire to devour.

His gaze went down to look at the wine flowing down my chin.
When I flinched without realizing it, he scoffed at this.
Then, he licked my lips.
Everything was too sudden.
I could only tremble as I faced a situation I had never experienced before.

Gulp. I swallowed wine once more, and my throat seemed to burn.
This feeling continued on down to my stomach.
This time again, the wine that I couldn’t take in trickled down to my chin.
His lips met my chin, softly over my skin, and then once again, our lips met.

I felt a shallow pain on my lower lip, and without realizing it, I opened my lips.
Warm, humid breath came in.

My heart was pounding like crazy.
It felt like all the friction I felt over my lips was melting me away—my entire body was getting hotter and hotter.
It didn’t seem like it was because of only the wine.

“Haa…!”

The moment he pulled back, I exhaled loudly.
My breathing was rough, as though I had forgotten how to breathe.
But he didn’t let up.

I clenched my hands into fists tightly and held back my tears.

“Stop…”

“Stop?”

He asked back mockingly at the murmur I let out unconsciously.
It was as if he was asking if I really wanted to quit.

I immediately came back to my senses and shook my head.
It was the duty of a newly wed man and woman to have their first night together, and if my father were to catch wind that nothing happened between us both, he would never let it go for a long time.

Although if I didn’t want to, she had to fulfill this duty tonight.
Even if the man who had become my husband was glaring at me as if he wanted to kill me…

“…Please do however you please.”

I never expected anything like a loving, gentle first night.
I knew that he didn’t need to be considerate, that he could be rough as much as he wanted.

But after hearing what I said, he laughed as if thinking that it was funny.

“However I please?”

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“……”

“It’s not me doing that.
It’s you.”

I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and so I could only blink dazedly.
Without explaining anything more, he lowered his head and buried his face on the base of my neck.

Soon after, I felt a sting in that place, and everywhere his lips touched, electricity seemed to follow.
As I shuddered, he gathered my hands together to stop me from moving.
Then, he left a trail of kisses all over my body.

It wasn’t long before he released his hold on me, and I breathed heavily.
The heat seemed to remain in the blue eyes looking sharply at me in the dark, but that fire soon disappeared.
Maybe it was an illusion.

“If it’s to this extent, even your father won’t doubt it.
And.”

He opened one drawer of a bedside table and pulled out a dagger.
Soon, there was a long, thin gash on his palm.
Shocked, I flinched at this, but the blood flowing from his palm eventually dropped down towards the white sheets.

“With this, he won’t suspect anything.”

“……”

The old-fashioned prejudice that a bride would bleed on the first night was something that my father would think.

Only then did I realize what Theodore was trying to do.
He had been planning to put up a smoke screen like this, as if we truly had our first night.
But in reality…

“There’s no need to ‘do as I please’.
Don’t you think so?”

He tore a blanket and wrapped it around his palm haphazardly, then he placed the dagger back in the narrow drawer.

Wearing his rumpled robe again, he looked back at me.
His blue eyes were as cold as a midwinter wind in the north.

“I’ll let myself be used as much as you all please.
But I’m not going to stay still either.
If this marriage does not mean anything anymore, then…”

“……”

“Let’s go through the divorce proceedings smoothly.
You and I are married only on paper.
We can separate anytime.”

And at that, he turned his back to me and left the bedroom.
He left me all alone, and I could do nothing but sit there in my ruined nightgown, not even thinking of pulling myself together.

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The places where his lips touched still burned as though his touch had lingered.
And on the back of my mind, I vividly felt how firm and scorching his body was on me.

However, as if those traces were nothing but a daydream, nothing but illusions that would never become reality, they soon disappeared.

Feeling an inexplicable emptiness, I folded into myself.
It could be that my misfortune started not with this unwanted marriage.
Perhaps it began the moment I first met his eyes.

At that time, an invisible arrow struck me and left a scar.

I don’t know how to heal these wounds.

 

* * *

 

I had no idea just how much the Valentino household suffered.

Even when I went to return Theodore’s coat before, I had no time to look around the Valentino estate because the Everett family’s mage was accompanying me.
We moved fast.

I just heard that the territory’s situation was grave.
But this was the first time I was seeing it with my own eyes.

As the carriage passed through Veronis, the Valentino household’s territory, behind the thick curtains and the glass window, I saw a glimpse of hell.

Yes.
Hell.

Right now, there was no better way to describe Veronis other than that it was hell.
All the houses were burnt to ashes and everywhere, there were piles of bodies, both humans and demonic beasts.

Those who survived visibly had injuries, some of their body parts damaged, and they were relieving their hunger by eating black, hard bread dipped in water.

I couldn’t help but think this—if Everett hadn’t isolated Valentino, if Everett had sent reinforcements on time…

My fingertips grew cold and my shoulders shook.
As I saw my father’s sins with my own eyes, it felt like I was about to vomit.

“Ugh…!”

“M-Milady? No, Madam!”

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Charlotte, a maid who followed me, was startled and came to my side with a handkerchief.
I tried to calm down, covering my lips with the handkerchief.

At that time, the carriage suddenly stopped.

“……?”

As I raised my head in question, the door opened suddenly.
And the one who opened that door was Theodore.
Seeing me bent down with a handkerchief covering my mouth, he scoffed in disbelief.

“I guess you can’t stomach this horrendous spectacle.
It seemed to be noisy inside the carriage so we took a look.
It wouldn’t be long until we’re out of the city, so I implore you to wait longer.
Don’t try to look out of the window.”

I wanted to say that it wasn’t for that reason, it wasn’t that I couldn’t stomach that in itself, but he slammed the door before I could even speak.

Charlotte looked blankly at the closed door, but I soon spoke to her with a bitter smile.

“It’s alright.
Go back to your seat and sit properly.”

“…Yes, Madam.”

Charlotte returned to her seat, but she kept looking over to my side, worried.

Soon, the carriage started again.
I realized again how fortunate it was that Charlotte followed me.

There was no other maid in the Everett Duchy who wanted to follow me.
Being an adopted child who wasn’t from a respectable family, the only one who followed me was the orphaned maid Charlotte.

Charlotte turned eighteen years old this year, and she was the same maid who picked up the scissors that Hessen threw in the study at that time.

I thought that her sympathy would disappear soon, but unexpectedly, Charlotte continued to be kind to me.

She seemed to empathize with me, worrying about me deeply.

I was grateful for Charlotte’s kindness, but on the other hand, I felt sorry for her as well.
Even if she stood by my side, I could only lead her down a thorny path.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have brought…”

But Charlotte was looking outside for some reason, then she whispered to me in a small voice.

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“His Grace must have been worried about you all this time, Madam.
When he heard that there was noise inside the carriage… he even checked himself.”

Charlotte’s delusion made me laugh in vain.
But I didn’t tell her otherwise.

 

·

 

The carriage passed through the city and soon reached the Valentino Duchy’s estate.
The scenery inside the castle was less grave than outside.
Even so, it couldn’t be helped that I’d compare it to the peaceful land in the Everett territory…

Somewhere in my heart, it throbbed painfully as though someone had stabbed me with a dagger.

“We’ve arrived.
Please exit the carriage.”

Theodore, who suddenly opened the door, reached out a hand to me with a grim look.
I got up from my seat and held his hand carefully.

I was about to go down on the carriage step, but at that moment, I got a cramp in my leg and I stumbled.

“……!”

Before I could fall flat on my face, Theodore caught me.
Looking up at him, my eyes were wide as I found myself in his arms.
His blue eyes were also wide, perhaps equally surprised.

In those eyes that resembled the deep sea, a calm ripple could be seen on the surface.
With our faces so close, our breaths intermingled.
A strange silence, perhaps tension, flowed between us.

It was someone else, neither him nor me, who broke the silence as we were frozen in time.

“You’ve gone through a lot, Theodore.
Come over here.”

Only then did I back away from him, startled.
Theodore, who blinked once as he stared at me dazedly, looked back towards the direction where the polite voice came.
My gaze naturally headed there as well.

There, with dark brown hair in a neat twisted updo, a noblewoman was standing upright with perfect posture.

Without any words between us, with just the way she was looking at me now, it was clear that she didn’t see me in a favorable light.

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