Emilia held back the tears that threatened to burst. She bit her lip and chewed on her cheek, doing her best to restrain herself.
If she cried like a child right now, she’d be pouring fuel on the fire, feeding the flames of all that the man was carrying.
But suppressing the urge to cry, the sobs, was difficult. The little whimpers escaping from her lips were like a dam holding back a torrent, and they pierced deeply into the man’s chest.
“…It’s okay, Emilia.”
The strong man spoke, his voice warm and soothing. Emilia’s body, trembling and small, willingly leaned into his embrace.
His broad and sturdy chest was warm and comforting.
“Everything will be alright, Emilia.”
The comforting reassurance from the strong man shattered Emilia, and she broke down, sobbing uncontrollably.
Out of anger, fear, relief, guilt, and sorrow… a torrent of emotions flowed out.
Hadius held her, bearing the weight of everything crumbling.
He would never allow it, not ever again.
As Emilia let out her pent-up emotions, Hadius clenched his fists so tightly that his knuckles turned white.
He couldn’t wait for the man who had caused this, to dare to do such a thing.
Emilia’s heart ached at the thought of all that the man beside her had gone through, swallowing and enduring so much on his own.
“…Promise me one thing,” Emilia pleaded desperately.
“Promise me you won’t blame yourself.”
Despite her desperate plea, his dry eyes, void of emotion, looked down at Emilia.
It was a hollow response.
Her chest tightened.
How she wished she could comfort him, hold him close like the sea, and make everything alright.
“Hadius… How can I…”
Emilia didn’t know what to say or do to ease his pain. It was overwhelming, seeing how much he had borne alone.
With a determined and forceful tone, Hadius brushed aside her attempts to comfort him.
Emilia had no choice but to keep her mouth shut. There was no use in saying anything more. The flames that had consumed the cabin had spread uncontrollably through his heart.
Emilia closed her eyes and leaned her head against his chest. That was all she could do.
In her heart, she longed to hold him tight, to soothe his pain, but she didn’t know how.
Shaking off persistent thoughts, she called to him.
“Our child will be okay. I’m sure of it.”
Emilia held his hand, which was draped across her waist. After a brief pause, Hadius allowed her to take his hand completely.
It was the first time he truly felt the child growing inside Emilia.
He thought of the child, his and Emilia’s, for the first time.
His fingers gently touched the growing life within her.
If he could turn back time…
If he had given her a gun, urged her to run away, back when she was looking at the squirrel, just smiling.
If he had found a way to make her escape, to run to the New Continent and hide, back when he was attacking her relentlessly.
No, at least on that day, the day everything happened, if he had been honest with her about how dangerous it could be.
At least, if he had tried to prevent her from being trapped in the burning cabin.
Hadius wrapped his arms around Emilia’s trembling body. He wanted to protect her from the world that threatened to crush her.
Amidst the smoke and flames, the suffocating heat, he realized how deeply he felt for her.
In that moment, he fully comprehended the life growing inside Emilia.
He embraced her, his fingers entwined with hers, as they held onto each other surrounded by turmoil.
The wind outside howled, sending sleet against the windows. The room, now dark and gloomy, was filled with the ticking of the clock.
How much time had passed?
The sobs gradually subsided, and Emilia’s whimpering ceased. Her cheeks, which had been stained with tears, dried.
Hadius gently held her in his arms, comforting her.
Silently, she drifted back to sleep.
The tranquility of her sleeping form brought a sense of peace to Hadius, but the raging storm inside him showed no signs of abating.
The vivid images of Emilia trapped in the burning cabin and her life hanging in the balance haunted him.
If only he could turn back time…
He closed his eyes and tightened his grip around her.
Emilia, sleeping peacefully, was the only solace in the midst of his turmoil.
He couldn’t even blame himself. He had no room for such weak and pitiful emotions.
Hadius slowly withdrew his arm from Emilia’s head and placed the pillow back. He brushed aside the scattered strands of golden hair that had spread disorderly on the pure white cloth and looked down at her calmly.
He got up, gazing out of the window. The dark sky was becoming even darker, with swirling snow storms intensifying.
It was time.
* * *
William faced two men. One of them was familiar, but the other was a stranger.
With the help of the familiar man, they had managed to carry out their plan quite smoothly. The farm workers had scattered in panic as soon as the fire had spread, and they had no qualms about setting fire to the women’s quarters.
“We’ve locked up the women where you asked.”
“Did they put up a fight?”
“They seemed too terrified to resist. Nevertheless, we’ve given them some medicine.”
William Richards was satisfied. He ran his fingers over his mustache, and his eyes, which had been gleaming with satisfaction, momentarily turned to the unfamiliar man.
Though he hadn’t directly participated in the arson, he had been brought along because of his skill in confinement and torture. In front of the sturdy build and intense gaze that resembled a soldier’s, William felt an inexplicable discomfort. He squinted at him for a moment before turning his attention back to the familiar face.
“But… Why did you guys come here? Where’s your leader?”
The stranger’s throat twitched slightly, but it was so brief that no one noticed.
“He’s recovering from burns.”
William muttered, his words not meant for anyone to truly take to heart, as he glanced at the unfamiliar man once again.
“The women will wake up soon. In case there’s any trouble, it’s best to leave quickly.”
William alternated his gaze between the two men. Then, he stopped in front of the familiar one.
“Very well, let’s go.”
He covered the box he had just received from the men and stood up. Inside it, there were a few strands of golden hair.
* * *
The sleet continued mercilessly through the night.
In the remote open space, far from the bustling center of Nowak, a carriage came to a stop. The man holding the lantern stepped out first, followed by William Richards.
“It’s over there,” the man said.
William squinted and stared in the direction the man was pointing for a moment, the darkness making it seem like a barn-like structure. Gradually, it became clearer.
“Let’s go,” William said, following the man into the pitch-black darkness.
Hadius waited patiently. His heart was strangely calm, considering what was about to unfold.
On the other side, the dim lamplight that had been as distant as a star grew nearer. He remained hidden in the shadows, waiting quietly.
As the dim outlines of a gaunt cheek, a mouth with a cigarette, and the contours of a wrinkled face became more distinct within the hazy ellipse of the lamp’s glow, when the shiny leather boot was just about to make contact—
William froze on the spot. Even the shadows seemed to hold their breath. The tense silence descended. The figure blocking his way was none other than Hadius Meyer. Realization washed over William, and he stiffened.
“Why are you… here…?”
He realized it a moment.
Damn it… Why had he been so foolish?
Deathly fear cast its shadow over his paling face. His heart was already plummeting. Thud, the sound of shock amplifying his horror echoed through the silent alley. William’s forehead felt the chilling touch of metal.
His heart recognized the danger and came to a sudden halt, and his body stiffened.
The body’s response to wanting to live was much quicker. Fear surged along with an urge to urinate.
“P-Please, spare me!”
William raised both hands in a gesture of surrender. All that remained of him was the will to survive.
It was a mystery why, at that moment, the faces of those insignificant lives he had taken long ago popped into his mind.
Click, a sharp sound sent shivers down his spine. He realized the safety had been released, and William’s eyes widened in shock. His heart stopped, and his rational control slipped away. His mouth moved of its own accord.
He searched for a comrade who wasn’t even there. Then, in desperation, he shouted, “Save people! Save them!” But his cries, more like screams, were drowned in the reeds’ mournful song and vanished into the empty air.
There was no response from the one aiming the gun.
He had been completely defeated.
The moment William realized that, his entire body collapsed.
“You… You… Do you think you can get away with this?!”
His furious outburst mixed with the reeds’ wailing. Unfortunately, the muzzle aimed at his forehead didn’t waver.
“Please, spare me! Please!”
Sticky blood splattered. The unfinished cry dissipated hopelessly into the humid air.
William fell like a spineless ragdoll.
From the hole in his forehead, a little flesh, brain matter, and blood oozed out in a trickle. Soon, it mingled with the damp pavement.
The heart of the one who fired the gun maintained its calm rhythm before and after the shot.
Stepping away from the spreading pool of blood, Hadius extended the gun. He removed his gloves.
The gaze he directed at the corpse was as composed as the surrounding silence.
The one who received the gun placed it next to William’s lifeless body, a reasonable distance away, within the reeds.
In a few hours, the authorities, alerted by someone’s report, would rush to the scene.
The fact that the corpse was William Richards, the leader of the Rönenhalt’s infirmary, would be discovered far too easily. The gun would also be swiftly found. Its owner, Caitlyn Meyer, would be identified just as promptly, thanks to the special Meyer family seal engraved on the grip.
This discovery would set off a chain reaction, bringing investigators from Krambitz to this place.
Ten years ago, the carriage robbery case, the attempted poisoning of Duke Meyer, and now the murder of William Richards—all of these would be added to the list of crimes.
Duchess Meyer would never escape.
From actual witnesses to fabricated evidence and the covert backing of the royal family, that woman was already trapped within an immaculately woven spider web.
The truth didn’t matter.
Hadius had no conscience or guilt.
There was only one thing left for him. Only that mattered.
To have you by my side, I can commit such deeds without hesitation, anytime, anywhere.