We stood in silence for a moment.
How much time had passed? Finally I moved and helped Aila to her feet while holding her hand.
“Now, let’s go back to the mansion. You can act as usual until I call for you, just like before. But…”
Aila looked at me with intense concentration.
“Keep your eyes and ears open. Be alert and remember to react quickly to anything that concerns our family or anything unusual that happens in Desmiere. And if I visit on the weekend or if there’s something urgent you need to tell me, then you can tell me.”
“Understood, my lady.”
“The Duke won’t bother to notice the movements of a lowly maid. Instead, be wary of Lord Obert. He casts his shadow over everything that happens in the mansion.”
“I will keep that in mind.”
Afterward, I escorted her to the place where the maid was waiting beyond the Academy’s main gate.
She held my hand tightly as we walked, and just before she got on the carriage, she gripped it tightly again. Then she released it with a gentle tug and walked away.
Once in the carriage, she leaned against a small window and gave me her final instructions.
“You must stay healthy, Miss. Be sure to visit the mansion this weekend.”
“Promise me, please!”
She shouted, and I waved back. She did the same, waving from beyond the window.
The Desmiere carriage carrying my maid gradually shrank until it disappeared from view.
I turned away from the horizon where they had disappeared and could see the vast Valentina estate and its buildings.
* * *
I walked past the disheveled Ms. Hayden, who seemed too paralyzed to even cast a disapproving look, and made my way to my room.
Returning to my once chaotic room in the dormitory, cluttered with my belongings, it now proudly displayed pristine cleanliness, as if nothing had ever happened.
It was dust-free, as if to say, “When was this place ever a mess?”
Opening the door to room 310, I was greeted by an elegant setting. Cream-colored wallpaper adorned the walls, and a slightly darker rug lay in the center of the room.
In front of a small, warming fireplace were two plush armchairs and a coffee table, while a luxurious mini chandelier sparkled from the ceiling.
To the left of the room was a bathroom, separate and equipped with magical features that provided comfortably warm water.
To the right was a bed so large that even a tall man could stretch out comfortably. It was covered with white sheets and a cozy looking blue blanket.
Next to the bed was a large, sturdy desk with a chair.
My clothes, which had previously been scattered and caused a commotion, were now properly placed in the closet, and all other items were neatly organized.
Finally, I opened the window and looked out. The window framed the view of the forest surrounding the prison, just as I had wanted.
However, it felt like a completely different experience than when I rode under the arched gate in the carriage this morning.
As I walked further into my room, I thought, ‘When night falls, I must go to the forest.’
I felt uneasy. Even if I clutched a pillow and tossed and turned, I couldn’t find any comfort.
The sun was slowly setting.
Deep into the night, until it became the witching hour when no one could see or disturb me, I would have to wait a little longer.
When night comes…
[“…Lia, Khalia. Khalia.”]
[“Come this way. Come to us.”]
Into the forest…
The voice calling me might have been part of a dream or real, but I couldn’t tell which. I just blinked my eyes, and eventually, without realizing it, I couldn’t open my eyes anymore.
A voice, as if shouted directly into my ear, jolted me awake.
‘Where am I?’
For a moment, I couldn’t comprehend the situation. Nothing around me seemed familiar.
Wasn’t I in prison? Accused of murder, waiting for the day of my execution…
For a brief moment I felt disoriented. Even looking around didn’t bring clarity.
I was in prison, wasn’t I? For a murder charge… And now this place…
I was surrounded by darkness, making it even more difficult to assess the situation.
There seemed to be a fireplace, but whether it was lit or not, the room was now freezing cold.
I shivered and pulled the blanket more tightly around my shoulders.
Gradually my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I began to make out the silhouettes of objects in the room.
Finally, my head began to clear a bit.
“I… I was dead… I went back five years… I entered Valentina’s dormitory.”
Then I woke up from the voices calling me.
It was the perfect time. It was the middle of the night.
I jumped up and quickly changed into comfortable jeans and a shirt. I also put on a thick cardigan to protect myself from the cold night air.
[“Are you finally coming? Coming? Coming? Coming?”]
[“Are you calling us? Calling us? Calling us? Calling us?”]
“Yes, I’m coming to you. So please be quiet!”
The voices were louder than usual and getting louder. At such times, I couldn’t help but shout at them as if they were in front of me, telling them to be quiet and leave me alone.
‘They must have thought I was possessed.’
I thought back to the second charge in my death sentence – that I worshiped demons and spirits. I couldn’t help but chuckle at how my efforts to avoid becoming a monster had turned me into a witch.
‘I can do this.’
I was dressed and ready to go. I glanced around the room, confident that I would return safely.
I braced myself and took a deep breath.
And now, as a person who was neither a monster nor a witch, I took action.
First and foremost, I had to get out of here.
There was a curfew in the dormitory, and at this time of night, if I tried to leave, I would undoubtedly be caught by the guards on the first floor.
I opened the closet, just as I remembered, and found an extra blanket. I also tore down the curtains hanging from the window.
Among the clothes I had brought, I took out everything I didn’t want to wear right away. The bed was piled high with cloth.
I gathered them all and tied the strongest, thickest ones into a long, sturdy rope.
‘These clothes can be replaced later.’
Since I had escaped from the Marquis’ clutches, I no longer had to worry about money. Through intermediaries, he had kept me regularly informed of the state of Estelle’s territory and its operations. He informed me of the financial status, the family’s funds, and the profits from the businesses they had invested in, just as I had requested.
As promised, he had made efforts to restore the land that my father had left in ruins, and he had also begun to pour astronomical amounts of money into helping the victims who had not received proper assistance before.
At that rate, the area would recover.
He poured resources into supporting the residents, and the Estelle family fortune continued to grow under the Duke’s management. It would accumulate until the time I reached adulthood.
I also received a generous allowance from the Desmiere family as my guardian.
What did this mean?
‘It’s time to stop worrying about every little penny,’ I thought.
I laughed self-deprecatingly, remembering the times I had scraped copper from the corners of drawers and my pockets.
Finally, I checked the rope once more and, satisfied with its strength, tied one end to the bedpost and the other to myself.
I stepped onto the windowsill, and the wind blew hard into my face.
‘This is crazy.’
Still, there was no turning back now. I had to finish it today, before morning.
With one last tug on the rope, I ventured outside. I carefully stepped over the railing of the terrace and pressed one foot against the wall of the building.
With a bit of hesitation, I wrapped my hand tightly around the rope, and with all my might, brought my other foot to the opposite wall.
Even though I had prepared myself, the shock sent a jolt through the hand holding the rope.
My fingers slipped a few inches before I gripped the rope again.
I took a moment to catch my breath. Still, I was holding on and not falling.
‘Good thing my fingers are so calloused.’
I thanked Ashley for the pain that had hardened them.
The rest was relatively easy. I concentrated on not looking down and took one slow step at a time.
After a while, I finally touched the ground without a hitch. I was grateful that I hadn’t died again.
I untied the knot at my waist and took a deep breath before entering the forest.
The Valentina Forest, which surrounded the entire dormitory, was quite large.
It was a habitat for various magical creatures and plants, and students were strictly forbidden to enter.
However, like any troublemaker, there were always one or two students who would venture in every year, get lost, and cause a ruckus.
As a model student who aspired to live a decent life, I never set foot in the forest.
So I had no idea where I was going, but I did not hesitate. I stomped through the branches and bushes, deeper into the forest.
[“Over here, Khalia. This way!”]
As I approached their location, the voices grew more agitated, calling my name loudly over and over again.
They are driving me crazy.
Their intensity was overwhelming, and I couldn’t help but frown in irritation.
The noise was all in my head, but for now I covered my ears and ran.
In the dark forest path, the sound of my shoes hitting the ground and the chaotic voices were the only things torturing my ears and mind.
Then it happened, as I stepped on an unknown branch for the umpteenth time.
The voices abruptly stopped. In the confusion that had filled my mind, there was a moment of silence.
In my clogged ears, I could only hear my own labored breathing. I slowly lowered the hands blocking my ears.
I cleared away the branches that were blocking my view.
The sound of the wind rustling through the leaves, the soft cries of the night creatures, and the faint rustling of the underbrush somewhere nearby filled my ears…
And there it was.
Hidden among the trees, a glade with a huge pond shimmering in the moonlight.