“What’s this, aren’t adventurers supposed to be hearty eaters?”
“This is quite hearty for me, though…”
“Compared to before, yeah.”
Sitting at a large dining table, the four of them—Insigh, Judge, Lizel, and Gil—were enjoying a meal dished out by servants. As the owner of a large company, Insigh earned enough money to hire servants. It was a mystery how Judge had become such a good cook despite growing up in this kind of household.
Insigh was nitpicking Lizel’s perfectly elegant eating habits, earning a panicked scolding from Judge. Judge had talked nonstop about Lizel during his stay, so this was Insigh taking revenge. But Lizel, with no way of knowing this, could only think it was a little strange.
“You recommended Gil his sword, did you not, Mr. Insigh?” Lizel asked. “What about me?”
“You ain’t got the body for swinging a sword. If you’re gonna fight, it’s better to keep using a gun like you have been.”
“As I thought, that’s how it is, is it?”
“You’re casually doing something way harder than sword fighting, y’know… You got a crazy head on your shoulders,” Insigh said, looking at Lizel with some fascination. Lizel simply smiled and ate more salad.
“His head?” Judge asked, tilting his own. Truthfully, unlike Insigh, who was very familiar with adventurers and how they worked, Judge did not know much about combat.
“Oh, are you curious? Judge, you said this guy’s gun is controlled via mana manipulation, yeah? Only a handful of mages can do that.”
“Th-then Mr. Lizel is really amazing…!”
“Guh! Hrm… Yeah, well. It’s not like building something where you look at the manual and then at the thing, alternating. It’s simultaneous magical operation.”
Eyes shining, Judge turned to Lizel, who just smiled wryly. Insigh had said it was more difficult than swinging a sword around, but on the contrary, Lizel felt that getting to Gil’s level of swordsmanship would be much more difficult. While Lizel was accustomed to his own weapon, Gil’s technique wasn’t just for show but something he had trained over many years to achieve. Lizel could never defeat an underground dragon by himself, but Gil could do that with ease. (It put up a good fight, but Gil came out almost unscathed.) The difference in their ability was beyond comparison.
Judge turned his shining eyes on Gil, too, who had silently continued eating. Feeling his gaze, Gil scowled, making Judge flinch.
“Don’t go glarin’ at my grandson!” Insigh roared.
“Your true colors are showing, old man.”
Although he had mellowed out, for just a moment Gil recognized Insigh’s old attitude returning.
Insigh quickly cleared his throat and continued his explanation. “Anyway, what he’s doing—positioning, stabilizing, reducing recoil, and firing—is all done by magic. It’s like reading four books at the same time.”
“And not just looking at four books at the same time, he’s processing all four books’ worth of information at once. If you ask me, that’s a pretty crazy head he’s got.”
Judge couldn’t really wrap his head around how amazing that was, but he understood that it was amazing. Lizel, on the other hand, wasn’t sure if he was being praised or insulted, or exactly what it meant to have a “crazy head”. And so the conversation went while they finished their generous lunch, after which they had tea, and a small cake was brought in.
“Oh, I need to prepare for departure. Please take your time with dessert.”
“You won’t stay for one more dessert with your grandpa?!”
“I already ate lunch with you like you asked!” Judge stood up with an unusually fierce expression. It seemed he had told the servants in advance to prepare dessert for only three people.
Insigh’s shoulders drooped as Judge left, and suddenly his big body looked small. “Hm… I used to be able to get him to stay for two more days with that. He’s all grown up.”
Insigh was a repeat offender. Lizel and Gil saw no point in feeling sorry for him. Lizel’s look was full of pity while Gil’s was just cold, but both simply bounced right off Insigh’s steel heart.
He turned to the man responsible for Judge’s growth: Lizel, who was busy thanking the servants for the tea and cake. The man that his beloved grandson had been talking about nonstop was much more aristocratic than Insigh had heard. Even thanking the servants didn’t look right when he did it. It would suit this man much better to simply receive the service as a matter of course. Insigh had been afraid that his grandson was being taken in too easily, but the changes in Judge were not negative changes. If he considered that Judge’s growth was thanks to Lizel spoiling and nurturing him, well, he could accept that.
“Here, take it.”
“Yes, yes, even though it was specially prepared for you.”
“I won’t eat what I won’t eat.”
Speaking of changes, there was Gil, pushing his cake towards Lizel. When Insigh had met him a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the notorious One Slash to team up with anyone. As far as the eyes of a well-trained merchant like Insigh could tell, he wasn’t being forced. He wanted to be with Lizel. Insigh never would have guessed there was anyone in the world who could affect Gil like this.
While Insigh was thinking about these things, Lizel was eating the second cake.
“Oh, that reminds me, I have a request…”
“Can I entrust this to you?”
Lizel held out a paper folded into quarters, and Insigh took it. When he opened it, he found a drawing of some kind of passage. His eyes widened when he examined it closely.
“It would not be good for something like this to go on the market, would it?”
“This… is Marcade’s underground, isn’t it?”
The most clearly drawn passages were familiar: the main streets of Marcade. The underground that Insigh was talking about were drawn in thin lines criss-crossing underneath that. Circles were drawn here and there showing entryways, some of them familiar to Insigh, confirming for him that they were underground passages. Only the count and the current major merchants who knew the lord’s identity and had been involved in the development of Marcade were supposed to know about the existence of these underground passages. If something like this were made public it would definitely be a major problem. There were passages leading directly to the count’s mansion, and more than one allowed you to enter Marcade without going through the city’s gate.
“And you’re giving this to me?” Insigh asked cautiously.
“To Count Shadow. You know him, don’t you, Mr. Insigh?”
Insigh glared at Lizel, who smiled through another bite of cake. He knew too much. No one was supposed to know that Insigh knew the count. Not even Judge knew. The other major merchants who knew the count also kept their mouths tightly sealed, yet Lizel had seen right through their denials. It seemed it would be best to stay wary of Lizel.
Even at this age, Insigh looked at Lizel with the sharp eyes of a merchant at the top of his game.
“Please don’t glare at me like that. It was only by chance that I got hold of that map.”
“It was caught between some books that were sold at auction. To others, it probably appeared to be merely another illustration in those old books that did not make sense.”
Lizel took a book out of his pouch and showed it to Insigh. The title was The Oldest Mystery in the World. Just as the title implied, the cover was worn with age, but overall it was not in bad condition. Lizel had figured that books were a good place to hide paper in any world. He understood that it was a map of underground passages because he recognized the style of that kind of map from his original world. Naturally, the castle where Lizel worked had that kind of all-important escape route for the royal family, too. And, of course, he had checked for the doorways while sightseeing in Marcade.
“I assumed that you knew the count because I was sure that you had made a generation-spanning vow to cooperate with the current count’s household.”
“Well, well, well, let’s hear your reasoning then.”
“Because it was written in this book that your company was one of those that helped to develop Marcade into what it is today.”
“Why are you carrying all those books around with you… Aren’t you an adventurer?”
Gil agreed with Insigh, and Lizel reluctantly put away The Rise of Marcade which he had just taken out, pouting and saying books were simply his hobby.
“So you think I work with him ‘cause my predecessor did?’
“Yes, most certainly.” Lizel smiled teasingly, squinting his eyes and going on to explain, “Judge possesses a strong sense of duty. As the one who raised him, you must be the same way.”
After a moment, Insigh burst into roaring laughter. Hearing this, Judge hurried back, but apparently he decided that they were getting along well, and when Gil waved his hand to shoo him away he went back to his preparations.
Insigh held up his hands in surrender, reaching for his tea as his laughter gradually subsided. “Since you know the name ‘Shadow’, you must have met him face to face.”
“Yes, he went to dinner together.”
“You mean he paid for our dinner.”
“Hahaha! That Shadow?!”
It seemed that Insigh was close enough to Count Shadow to address him without a title. At his age, Shadow was like a kid to Insigh. His laughter said that he didn’t see any problem with Lizel forcing Shadow into dinner.
“Gotcha. I’ll make sure to give him this map,” Insigh said.
“Should I mention your name when I do?”
“If you would like. Though I’m sure he’ll sulk if you do.”
“Sold! I definitely gotta tell him!”
It seemed that Insigh had a rather energetic personality. How had Judge grown up so pure and obedient under such a grandfather? Insigh was more of an example of what not to do. Judge had even apologized on behalf of Insigh for forcing the big sword on Gil.
Lizel watched Insigh fold up the map of the underground passage and glanced up at him modestly to say, “There’s one more thing I’d like to ask, if it’s alright.” The act of looking up through his eyelashes had the unintentional result of giving Lizel a sort of cute, puppy dog expression.
“Why are you acting coy now? It’s cute, though, so I’ll hear you out.”
“‘Cute’ at my age…? Well, thank you. Gil,” Lizel said, turning to Gil, who had been leaning on his elbows, listening to the conversation.
Gil turned to him, and Lizel whispered something in his ear that Insigh couldn’t hear. Gil nodded lazily.
Basically, Gil let Lizel do whatever he wanted so long as he wouldn’t get hurt. While Insigh was making a childish fuss about them whispering secrets, Gil pulled some things out of his pouch and lined them up on the table.
“Hrm, the scales of a dragon… These are quite big, from an underground dragon rather than a flying one. That’s a beautiful shade of jade green.”
“As expected from you.”
“So what about ‘em?”
“I want you to buy these. I would like you to advertise them widely and sell them.”
It was the loot from the dragon Gil had fought, albeit not all of it. The whispering that Insigh had complained about was Lizel asking for Gil’s permission to give them to Insigh.
“You don’t look like you’re hurting for money,” Insigh said, twisting his head as he looked over the scales.
“These are from the underground dragon in the Crystal Ruins, where we went yesterday.”
“Well, no surprise with Gil. Hey, the boss of the Crystal Ruins is pretty tough, but it wasn’t a dragon, was it?”
“It was something of a hidden boss in a hidden room. I provided the guild with map updates and details this morning.”
“I see… You really know how to influence people.”
Lizel nodded. Without even asking, Insigh had understood everything. News would soon spread that Lizel had brought information about a hidden room to the guild, and that Lizel was an E-rank adventurer. No adventurer was stupid enough to want to challenge an underground dragon, but people who doubted the story when others succeeded were a dime a dozen. People would say that an E-rank was trying to get famous, and because no one else had found the hidden room and faced the dragon, many would assume he had bought the scales somewhere. That was why Lizel wanted Insigh to buy a few of the scales and also to advertise them—to spread word that the underground dragon in the Crystal Ruins really existed.
It wasn’t their problem if people didn’t believe them and went and got killed, but the Crystal Ruins were an important tourist destination in Marcade. This was the only place where anyone could see the inside of a labyrinth, so people traveled from far and wide. In such a labyrinth, if adventurers stopped coming back, even if they went on their own, it would be a big problem.
It was easy to think that this proposal was for the sake of those adventurers, but if someone said that it was really for the sake of gaining favor with Shadow, Lizel would not deny it. He wouldn’t confirm it, either, though.
“Hmm, I’d be even happier if you’d give ‘em to me as a gift. A token of our friendship.”
“Oh? Have we become friends already?”
“Nothing gets past you, huh?”
In other words, how far will you go for me? A mere acquaintance or a truly fruitful relationship? That’s what Lizel was asking, and it made Insigh grin. He was the one who had asked first, but Lizel had quickly turned the situation back on him, reversing their positions. This was bringing back memories of Insigh’s days as a young merchant, getting his blood pumping with excitement. Lizel was young enough to be Insigh’s grandchild. He never would have expected this man to make him feel both pride—that his own grandson, Judge, should have caught such a man’s attention—and also jealousy that he himself wasn’t the one who had caught him first. With his merchant spirit awakened, Insigh looked rejuvenated, as if there was no way he was old enough to be a grandpa. With that ferocious smile, it seemed like he was truly having fun, but Lizel suddenly relaxed his shoulders and smiled.
“Well, this time, I’ll ask for a fair price. Otherwise, when you spread the story that these are ‘scales you bought directly from the adventurers who defeated the underground dragon in the Crystal Ruins’, it won’t be convincing.”
Considering the purpose of this sale, there would be no point if the scales were not put up for sale with that story attached.
Insigh dropped his bloodthirsty (for business) attitude and sighed in disappointment. “Well, that’s true… Judge! Come here a minute!”
“Grandfather, I’m almost finished getting ready…”
“I’m sorry, Judge. Please give us just a moment of your time.”
“What’s with that?!”
Lizel went ahead and asked Judge to appraise the scales while Insigh was lamenting and made a mental note to give some scales to Judge as well. Judge quickly came to the conclusion that the scales were from an underground dragon that Lizel and Gil had hunted themselves. He almost started crying, asking if they had been injured, but they managed to calm him down, and he did the appraisal. The size and condition, color and luster of the scales were all of the highest quality. The fact that there was more than one scale lowered the value some, but they were worth an average of ten gold coins each. Afterwards, Lizel stroked Judge’s hair to praise him for giving such a detailed appraisal for each scale, and he shyly went back to his departure preparations.
“It would be good to save up a little… If we can earn this much, it seems worth it to dive one more time, does it not?”
“I can anticipate its attacks now,” Gil said.
“But I don’t want to suffer through that heat, so to deal with that…”
“I don’t wanna interrupt, but I assume you want your money.”
Before they knew it, a tray of gold coins was on the table. They said thank you and accepted the money, putting it away in their wallets. It was easy to forget how many gold coins you had when they just disappeared when you put them in your wallet, but that was no problem for Lizel. He remembered every single coin. Gil probably didn’t remember how many gold coins he had, but he wouldn’t run out if he just kept on hunting high-ranking monsters. Setting aside Lizel, an aristocrat, Gil was also generally ignorant when it came to money.
“I’m s-sorry to have kept you waiting…”
“Are you finished with your preparations?”
Judge had returned, out of breath from running back and forth between the room and the stairs. He must have loaded up the magic tools Insigh had prepared for him. He may have also purchased new labyrinth items since it seemed there were items that could not go in the spatial magic trunk. Judge was also a merchant, after all, so even if he had come to visit his grandfather, he couldn’t just come to Marcade and not buy anything. Because it was Judge, there would still be space to sit down, but they wondered if there would be enough room to sleep.
“Oh, Judge, are you leaving already?”
“Grandfather, it’s already been three days. Thank you for having me.”
As soon as he saw Judge’s face, Insigh relaxed and all traces of him being a powerful merchant disappeared. Thinking that there was a pretty big difference between now and a few minutes ago when he was acting like a merchant, Lizel and Gil stood up to leave the room, not wanting to disturb the family goodbye. However, the moment Lizel touched the door, Insigh called him back.
“Look after him for me.”
“Even without me, Judge is already a wonderful shopkeeper. Rather, I am the one who is thankful to you for listening to my brazen request despite our recent acquaintance.”
“Nothin’ brazen about it when it’s to my benefit, and Marcade’s, too,” Insigh said with a smile. It made him look younger, but it was exactly the look of a grandfather worried about his grandson.
Lizel knew what Insigh truly meant, but he had decided to tease Insigh in thanking him. Insigh shook his head, wearing a sincere expression, then bowed his head just a fraction in a show of thanks to Lizel.
Smiling one more time, Lizel bowed his head and this time walked out the door. Through the closed door, he could clearly hear Insigh and Judge.
“Stay one more day! Have a sleepover with Grandpa for just one more night!”
“I’m going home!”
Gil heaved a sigh and muttered, “He’s the same as any other damn grandpa.”
Half a day after leaving Marcade, the group enjoyed another gorgeous dinner while they looked over the items now filling the wagon. There really wasn’t much since many of the items Judge had loaded could be stored inside spatial magic. Nevertheless, there were some items—such as labyrinth items—that were unaffected by spatial magic, so those still took up space. Judge would never make the inside of his wagon feel claustrophobic, not considering how hospitable he had been towards Lizel, so it could be assumed that Insigh had forced these extra items onto Judge as they were leaving.
“But, Judge and Gil, you two will be sleeping side-by-side tonight, right?”
“I-I’m sorry. Grandfather just…!”
“I can sleep seated.”
“No, please sleep close to each other since it’ll be hilarious to see.”
“Then you better use Judge’s arm as a pillow when you two sleep. If ya can do that, I’ll sleep by him.”
Lizel teased Gil, and Gil joked back. Lizel mused aloud that he wouldn’t mind offering his own arm as a pillow. “But the other way around is a little…” Judge’s face went from pale white to bright red. The luggage in the wagon did take up more space than when they first departed, but there was still enough room for two grown men to not have to sleep glued to each other. It took a minute for Judge to realize he was the butt of their jokes. It left him flustered, but he still finished his meal and briskly cleaned up with his usual fervor.
“Is it alright if I take the first watch this time too?”
Lizel and Gil chatted by the fire as they watched Judge diligently lay out the mat inside the wagon. Lizel once again offered to take the first watch, but they hadn’t encountered any monsters in the past few days. Perhaps the monster repellent was effective, or perhaps it was Gil’s good instincts on where to camp. Lizel sat down in the comfortable chair Judge had prepared for him and tilted his head to look at Gil. In one of his hands was a book he had bought in Marcade. In the beginning, he had occasionally become too engrossed in reading, but now he could properly do his job of keeping watch. While reading.
“Make sure you sleep lying down.”
“It ain’t much different from when I’m sittin’.”
It was true that Gil could sleep seated. To him, even if he were standing, he could get sufficient rest to recover his body. However, naturally, it wasn’t enough to relieve his fatigue. He was aware that it was important to properly rest when given time to, so he conceded and went inside the wagon. Judge had finished preparing the wagon for them to sleep, arranging two fluffy pillows and blankets on the mat. Influenced by the conversation earlier, he had purposely put the two pillows as far away from each other as possible. They were practically glued to the walls on either side.
“…Hey, if I’m sleepin’ right up next to him, you better be usin’ his arm as your pillow.”
“It seems a bit unfair to me, don’t you think? You’ll at least have to be hugging Judge while you sleep to make it even.”
“Huh? Wait! Both sound terrible to me! You’re joking, right?! Please say you’re joking!”
The two supposed adults teased each other back and forth like children, and Judge, to their delight, reacted just as expected—stuck in the middle. But they of course wouldn’t go through with it since it would hinder Judge’s sleep. Judge prepared a side table, apparently purchased in Marcade, and some warm tea. He said goodnight to Lizel and timidly went inside the wagon. Since no shrieks came from inside, Gil must have been finished teasing him. Lizel looked at the teapot placed next to him and smiled at how thorough Judge was.
While the other two slept in the wagon and with still plenty of time before changing shifts, Lizel looked at his book illuminated by the flickering light of the fire. He reached his hand out to grab the cup nearby. The fragrance of the tea had thinned as it cooled, but, nevertheless, Lizel appreciated it for quenching his thirst from sitting near the fire. Listening to the faint crackling of the flames, Lizel raised his head from his book, thinking it was about time to add more wood when it happened. He felt something slightly amiss, but he didn’t stop, reaching out naturally for the firewood.
Lizel didn’t understand the concept of presences and bloodlust as Gil had described them, but he was sensitive to the changes in the air from his life among nobles in high society. Was the other person an enemy or an ally? Had his own words lowered their guard or lit the fuse to a bomb? Nobles hid their feelings—it was a natural consequence of who they were—but Lizel could sense everything and react accordingly. And Lizel sensed a change in the air of the forest. They were currently a bit away from the main road, near a stream flowing into the forest, but it was not an artificial clearing made for carriages to stop at. The area slightly lacked visibility but was ideal as a camping spot since it was mostly open, making it easy to spot and defend against incoming monsters.
After throwing some wood into the fire, Lizel sat back down on his chair, but right before he made contact with it, he heard a faint creak coming from the forest to his left. “…Hm?”
The sharp sound of metal hitting metal echoed across the clearing. One half was from an arrow fired from deep inside the forest, and the other half was from the metal gun Lizel had brought out to intercept the arrow. No, that wasn’t right. The arrow had collided with a knife thrown from the wagon. Lizel closed his book, put it on the side table, turned back to the wagon, and asked, “Did you sleep properly?”
“Yeah, yeah, I slept.”
“Asleep. Though he won’t come out even if he wakes up.”
Gil had silently alighted from the wagon and was standing in front of the wagon’s back door. The door was usually left ajar at night, but now it was closed, and even this whispered conversation wouldn’t reach Judge’s ears. As Gil said, Judge was smart enough to not open the door even if he was awake since he was aware that there was nothing he could do if a fight broke out. When requesting an escort, the requestor had to know what to do when being protected, or the escort would be pointless.
“Thieves?” Lizel asked.
“Could be humans or goblins if they’re using bows,” Gil said.
“But goblins haven’t been spotted here, so they’re probably thieves or the like.”
The two exchanged words in whispers. Faint creaking could be heard from deep in the forest again. Gil joked that they must be cheap, and this time several sharp-tipped arrows came flying out. Lizel quickly hid behind Gil’s back when the arrows started to whiz by. They were so fast that it wasn’t clear which was faster: the sound of the arrows slicing through the air or the actual arrows. The arrowheads never reached Gil. He drew his sword and knocked them down in the blink of an eye.
Immediately after the barrage, Lizel pointed his gun into the forest and fired. The number of bullets he fired was the same as the arrows, and he aimed each shot in the directions the arrows had come from. Lizel had watched from over Gil’s shoulder and accurately calculated the origin point of the arrows by reversing the trajectory they had come from. He fired four shots, but they only heard three groans in response.
“Oh? Did I miss one?”
“No, you got the direction right. The guy either dodged, held in his scream, or died instantly.”
“I think he dodged it. His movements seem too dexterous for a simple thief.”
Then, Lizel twisted his wrist which turned his gun, which had been pointed at the forest in front, to the back. He fired several shots into the quiet area of the forest and the bullets gouged through the surface of a tree. From the seemingly empty forest, a voice shouted, “We’ve been discovered!”
“I was only trying to feel them out.”
“The experienced ones would’ve kept their mouths shut. It looks like the ones in the back aren’t that good.”
“Then, Gil, you can take the strong one in front— Oh, but he might not be there anymore.”
The thieves probably didn’t feel like hiding any longer judging by the rustling sounds and the shadows jumping out from in front and behind them. They numbered eighteen people. Three among them were bleeding from the shoulder, so they must have been the archers Lizel had shot. Lizel calmly surveyed the crowd encircling them and smiled.
“It looks like he ran away. You guys are his sacrificial pawns?”
“Hah! If we ran away with the boss, we’d be killed.”
“Well, if you’re going to die either way, wouldn’t you want to die together?”
“If I gotta go, I’d rather it be by the boss’ hands. Though I doubt a pansy like ya could kill us! As long as the Forky Gang got the boss, we ain’t ever going down!”
“…Your boss’ name isn’t Forky, right?”
Lizel’s little joke riled up all the men, and they charged all at once. Those with bows nocked their arrows and attempted to fire before those with swords charged forward for close-quarters combat. However, even before they could do that, Lizel fired his gun at the archers, shooting them through the head. Lizel didn’t have any means of carrying all these men back if he kept them alive, and if they weren’t lying, then only death awaited them if they escaped with injuries. This way was quicker. The surrounding men rushed at Lizel, but he didn’t need to turn around and deal with them. Gil, standing behind Lizel, stabbed them through the chest.
“Judge will hear it if they scream,” Lizel remarked.
“He’s probably already awake.”
“I’m saying that it’ll scare him.”
Lizel worriedly looked over at the wagon, stationed away from the shower of blood around them. Gil clicked his tongue and swung his sword, and in a silent flash the raised arms, swords in hand, and heads of several men rolled onto the ground. It was such a strange sight to see such an airy swing lopping off the heads of the enemy, but it made perfect sense for the man known as “One Slash”. With the blindspot at his back protected by Gil, Lizel continued to fire. He was impressed at how Gil’s true worth in battle came out in a fight against humans. Lizel shot the final thief in his line of sight through the head.. Right after that, Gil finished cutting down the last man in front of him and let out a deep sigh.
Lizel said, “We should probably change locations. Monsters will be drawn here.”
“I’ll move the wagon. You go inside and sleep already.”
“But it’s still too early for us to switch.”
Exasperated, Gil said, “Ain’t it your job to pamper that guy?”
Lizel understood and nodded. He left Gil to reharness the horse—which had been tied to a tree—back to the wagon and opened the wagon door. With the fire already gone, Judge wouldn’t be able to see what had happened outside. Lizel appreciated that there was no dirt let alone any smell of blood on him thanks to his made-of-the-finest-material equipment. He took off his shoes and stored them with spatial magic. Most likely, if anything else were to happen today, he’ll leave it to Gil.
“Judge, we’re going to be changing locations,” Lizel said gently to the tight ball of blankets Judge had wrapped himself in. Lizel looked into his eyes, and eyes welling with tears trembled as they looked back. The wagon swayed slightly. It appeared Gil began to move them. Lizel said, “You must have been scared. You did a good job staying quiet and waiting for us.”
He gently raised his hand to see about wiping away Judge’s tears before they could overflow, extending his arm slowly to see how Judge would react. If that was enough to scare him, Lizel would nonchalantly withdraw his hand in such a way that Judge wouldn’t sense his guilt. Judge watched as Lizel’s hand reached over and brushed the hair over his face. Unintentionally, Judge reached out himself and tightly gripped Lizel’s hand. Lizel smiled, a bit confused, and Judge broke.
“Th-thank goodness you’re okay!” he wailed.
“I’m fine. Both Gil and I aren’t hurt anywhere,” Lizel said.
Lizel used his other hand to properly wipe away Judge’s tears this time. With the same hand, he stroked Judge’s cheek and lightly patted his soft, fluffy head to calm him down. Judge sniffled as he buried his face into Lizel’s shoulder. He rubbed his head against Lizel, and each time he moved Judge’s hair tickled his neck. Lizel chuckled and continued to stroke Judge’s hair. Judge’s hand gripping Lizel’s slightly trembled, and Lizel didn’t know if it was from fear or concern.
“Come now,” he said. “Rest up for the morning. Do you think you can sleep?”
Judge didn’t feel even a bit tired with his heart still beating so loudly, so he lightly shook his head. Judge’s forehead still pressed against Lizel’s shoulder felt warm. Lizel guessed that Judge would really fall asleep quickly, so he squeezed Judge’s hand right back. Lizel tucked Judge’s falling hair behind his ear and brushed his soft hair while his other hand rubbed Judge’s back. His hand stopped right on the opposite side of where Judge’s heart was on his slouched back. From there, he could feel Judge’s heart gradually slowing down.
“Lie down. You can keep holding my hand.”
“I’m sorry that I’m so useless…”
“Judge, you did everything you should’ve done.” Lizel smiled at Judge’s teary face and pulled the blanket up to his shoulders. He put his hand over Judge’s eyes and felt the trembling lashes tickle his palm. “Close your eyes and sleep.”
They remained in that position for some time. After Lizel heard Judge’s breathing slow down, he removed his hand. Even asleep, Judge’s face remained a little tense. Nevertheless, it seemed that he would get some proper sleep. Judge should have experienced something like this before given his years in the business. For him to be this disturbed showed how concerned he was about Lizel. When the slight vibrations from the carriage stopped, Judge didn’t wake up.
“He asleep?” Gil asked, opening the door to check on them.
Lizel smiled back. “Sorry. Can I leave the rest to you?”
“Yeah. You should sleep, too.”
Lizel slowly laid down. He didn’t think he could slip his own hand out of Judge’s grip. He didn’t feel like moving his hand away anyway, so he nimbly used his free hand to cover himself with the blanket. Gil watched the scene play out exactly as he could have predicted, let out a sigh, and muttered, “You really pamper him too much.”
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