Erica did not appear to be shaken by that question which had come out of seemingly nowhere .
【”Why are you asking such a thing?”】
【”I’m curious, that’s all . You denied that you’re Harold’s fiancee, so I was wondering if maybe that was because there was someone else you liked . ”】
【”That’s not the case . It’s just that there is too big a difference between the values and ways of thinking of Harold and I . ”】
【”So you’re saying that you two just can’t be together?”】
【”That’s right . ”】
This was the exact same answer that Erica had always given so far on this journey .
At this point, it would likely have been meaningless for Lifa to ask whether that answer was a lie, because she had no actual basis upon which she could overturn Erica’s words .
Saying that Erica was amazing as a person was no exaggeration .
It was only by traveling alongside her that Lifa had come to know that even a girl like Erica had a weak point of her own . However, Lifa herself was hesitant about calling that part a weak point in the sense that taking advantage of it would likely be no easy task .
But perhaps Erica herself was quite aware of her own weakness, hence why she had to be careful not to expose that particular side of her . Her strong rejection of Harold was probably a consequence of this .
Erica was particularly quick to share her opinions openly when it came to speaking about Harold, that was why Lifa figured that Erica was actually putting on a front in order to camouflage her feelings .
Moreover, that camouflage was hardly flawless . Or at least, it was bad enough that it made Lifa doubt whether Erica’s words of rejections towards Harold were actually real . And yet, Liner and Colette did not seem to have noticed anything at all… But Lifa made do by telling herself that “Well, it’s probably because they’re too pure” .
【”…I don’t want to try to persuade you or anything, but there is something I’d like to tell you, will you hear me out?”】
【”I am listening, you have all my attention . ”】
“Thanks” After saying that, Lifa took several seconds before she started speaking again .
【”You see, I’m quite the eccentric person . Back when I was living in my village, even my own family had shunned me, and I didn’t fit anywhere . Well, that’s only natural since I used to only study without ever actually working . ”】
Lifa was openly speaking of her past, which she had not even told Harold about .
【”At first, I started studying because I wanted to change this world where people who have no talent in magic have no other choice than living in poverty . If, through science, even someone who cannot use magic properly becomes able to use spells which aren’t inferior to the spells of those who were born with talent, then the world… No, actually, I hadn’t thought things through that far . But I still felt it would be great if my family and village could become wealthy . ”】
As she said she would, Erica was quietly and attentively listening .
The fact that she was not showing any pity nor extending her sympathy was actually a good thing from Lifa’s point of view, it made it easy for her to talk . Lifa was not particularly trying to fish for attention or pity; Erica had probably guessed as much and was therefore behaving accordingly .
In any case, from Lifa’s perspective, her life story was not a tale about misfortune but a tale about how she had paid for her own mistakes .
【”But, although I don’t know when exactly it happened, my feelings on the matter changed at some point . Looking at my family and village who had abandoned me because of my devotion to science, I started thinking that… Well, in short, I became stubborn . So, when I hit a wall and found myself in a bind, I did a lot of unreasonable things . ”】
Lifa felt like perhaps this story would be quite absurd for others to hear .
Even if she was told that she had just been a young girl who knew nothing about reality and had been stubbornly pursuing a dream that was too far beyond her, Lifa would not be able to deny it .
【”It was at that time that I happened to came across that guy . I left the worst impression on him in our first meeting, and I kept telling him offensive things . I guess that was mostly because of the gossips about him, but still . ”】
Perhaps Lifa would have left a slightly better impression if Elu, who had just happened to be there, hadn’t informed her about the rumors surrounding Harold .
Nonetheless, if Elu hadn’t told her that much, she likely would not have asked Harold to escort her .
【”…That guy, he didn’t laugh at my efforts . Now that I think about it, he probably had some ulterior motives, and I did end borrowing the help of Justus, too, which is pretty annoying, but ultimately, it’s because Harold reached his hand to me that I was able to move forward . ”】
Lifa figured that Harold’s actions had undoubtedly been guided by his own selfish interests on some level . Perhaps she had only been used by him . Moreover, it could be said that she had caused quite some trouble to Harold by accepting Justus’ invitation .
However, no matter what, it was not because she owed Harold a favor nor because she wanted to atone herself from her mistake that Lifa wished to do something for him . It was because of a much more simple reason .
It was because Harold was just as lonely as her… Or rather, he was struggling against an even harsher loneliness than hers, yet he had acknowledged her efforts in a certain way . And Lifa was delighted about that .
That fact alone made her want to stick with him, and although that feeling of solidarity might have been one-sided, it was enough of a reason for her to want to support and help Harold, regardless of how dangerous that was . “I’m probably the only who’d understand this feeling” She thought with a wry smile .
She used to always be working hard, all by her lone self . And yet, there were many times when she wavered, thinking that maybe her lonesome, self-satisfied ways were a mistake .
Back then, she believed that she would always be solitary, and she had spent countless nights crying in fear, thinking that perhaps all of her efforts would never be recognized by anyone .
Harold had put a light in the darkness she had been locked in and had showed her the path forward . Other people likely would not understand how much of a salvation that had been for her .
【”…I was saved by Harold . Even if he had ulterior motives, that fact won’t change . ”】
That fact alone was plenty enough .
Lifa had been saved by Harold . So, this time, she wanted to be the one reaching her hand out to her savior . Even if that was impossible for her, even if her help would just be an annoyance to him, Lifa could not help herself from doing so .
【”… I see you have got a lot of trust from Harold-sama, Lifa-san . ”】
From the outside, it would certainly seem like one could trust and rely on Harold’s aberrant fighting strength and such . No matter who his opponent was, he would never be defeated easily in battle, but putting her trust in him on that aspect was too much since his lifespan was being lowered by that sword of his, as for…
(Wait, no . Just now, Erica said that I got trust “From” him, not “for” him… . why would she put it like that―― ?)
Lifa momentarily blanked out . “That’s only a small change, isn’t it?” She thought .
However, driven by a kind of intuition instead of her thoughts, Lifa raised her head . There, she saw Erica’s eyes wavering, as the impregnable barrier that she usually kept on her face for appearances’ sake had been destroyed .
The two girls’ lines of sight were perfectly aligned . Erica showed a slight agitation in her eyes before her expression turned into one of resignation, as if she was realizing that she had been caught in the act .
At that pont, Lifa’s thoughts caught up to her intuition . ‘Oh, so that’s what’s going on’ She affirmed in her mind .
At last, she managed to connect the countless fragments of information which had been scattered all around so far .
Why was it that the first thing Erica had recognized upon hearing the earlier story was the fact that Harold had placed his trust in Lifa? Perhaps it was because she was convinced that Harold was the one who had purposely allowed Lifa’s actions . Erica’s evaluation of Harold was too absolute .
And although her words had not shown it, there was a hint of envy oozing out of her tone of voice . It was already clear why Erica had been shaken immediately after speaking .
Lifa let out a big sigh to break the silence . But Erica, who was facing her, stayed quiet and did not say anything .
After a short pause, Lifa returned to the conversation with a question .
【”I have no idea why, but Harold’s trying to keep his distance from you . You’re aware of that, right?”】
【”Yes, of course I am . ”】
【”And that’s the reason why you seem to dislike Harold . Because Harold wants you to dislike him . ”】
Erica closed her eyes as if to resist something .
Then, she looked up at the night sky, and spoke out words that seemed to be painful for her to say .
【”I suppose I would have to think twice before saying that that’s not the case, this is the only answer I can give . ”】
Erica’s line implied that Lifa was right indeed .
As expected, it was to go along with Harold’s own intentions that Erica was so obstinately behaving like she disliked him . Paradoxically, she was doing all of that for him .
【”You can keep making up excuses, but you should just be frank and admit the truth straightforwardly . ”】
【”Even if I do that, I’m afraid you won’t understand it, Lifa-san . ”】
It seemed like that somehow was Erica’s evaluation of Lifa .
Although Lifa was somewhat irritated by that, now was not the time for her to focus on her own self .
【”There is one thing I’d like to make clear, it’s that Harold doesn’t particularly trust me . I only got to accompany him by being unreasonably pushy, he actually didn’t want me to come, so much so that he threatened me to stop me from following him . ”】
But, although she might have been an annoyance to Harold, Lifa still knew that her intervention hadn’t been useless since she had played a part in solving the miasma problem .
【”Also, Erica, do you know why Harold’s trying so hard to keep his distance from you?”】
After pulling herself back from her irritation, Lifa kept her line of questioning going .
【”That’s because he believes that no good would come from the two of us being linked to each other . But, as for what he’s specifically concerned about, I…”】
Erica spoke evasively .
But Lifa knew what was really happening . The conversation had just taken a direction that even she did not like .
Her stomach was throbbing, and her own emotions became heavy, as if she had drunk lead . This turn of event was close to the worst development among Lifa’s predictions .
“In that case”, she wondered “What can I do? What should I say?”
Various ideas were whirling all about inside her head .
【”…I want to ask you one more question . ”】
【”What is it?”】
【”What do you think of Harold? I’d like you to tell me what you truly feel . ”】
It was surely not going be easy for Erica to reply, this was likely a question that she did not want to answer at all .
However, if this point was not made clear, things would not be able to go forward from here for Lifa, for Erica, and maybe even for Harold .
【”… . I love Harold-sama . And I’ve been in love with him since I was a child . ”】
Said Erica, with her voice sounding like she was confessing for a serious crime .
It was painfully clear how much of a taboo this subject was from Erica’s perspective . And at the same time, Lifa could feel how deep Erica’s feelings for Harold were .
When Lifa and Erica faced each other in the Sumeragi family’s mansion, Erica had said “I think you and I are going to have a hard time on this journey” . At the time, Lifa thought Erica was implying that that the both of them were destined to go through some hardships since they were both getting involved in the troubles that were brought by Harold .
But thinking back upon it, there had been other implications coming from Erica’s gaze at the time . She had probably said those words thinking that both of them were similar in the fact that they were both people who cared for Harold and were taking action for his sake .
Lifa had not noticed this on the spot because she barely knew Erica at the time . But well, even if she had noticed back then, it likely would not have changed anything .
Because, at the end of the day, even if they did want to take action for Harold’s sake, there was no way for Lifa and Erica to do it since they did not know how they should go about it, and they still were not even aware of what Harold’s goals were .
Nevertheless, Lifa believed that this relation was wrong, she believed it was wrong that Erica was lying about her own feelings out of consideration for the intentions of Harold, who did not want to be approached and who was reducing his lifespan yet was still going forward despite the fact that he was at risk of death .
Lifa was fully aware that human relations were the problem of the concerned parties and no one else’s, however, she was also certain that Erica would be very deeply wounded upon Harold’s eventual and inevitable death if things still stood as they were by then . Overlooking the situation would be absolutely wrong for Lifa, not as only as Erica’s friend, but also as a human being .
【”That means you know that he’ll do anything for his goals, right?”】
【”Yes, I’m well aware . ”】
Erica had known Harold since childhood . It wasn’t clear when she had developed her feelings for him, but she had likely had to see him quite often in order reach that point .
Perhaps that what why it seemed like she could not see any of his flaws and her respect for him was beyond absolute . And, when thinking about it, Harold really was a great person . It was not strange to think that of him for someone who had witnessed his accomplishments from up close .
Moreover, Lifa believed that this applied all the more to people who were wise enough to understand how difficult it had been for Harold to do everything he had done .
However, Erica was overestimating him . No matter how great he was, there was a limit to how much one man could accomplish by himself .
Yet, despite this, Erica had faith in every single one of Harold’s decisions . Hence why she unconditionally acted the way he would want her to . But that was far past the point of trust, it was simply blind belief .
【”Sure, Harold is very capable and I believe he’s a man who can pull off what no normal person can do . But he’s only human, just like us . So it only makes sense that even he can be wrong and make mistakes at times, right?”】
【”…This is hard to hear . ”】
【”I think you’re a person who can calmly think things through, Erica, so you should understand my point . I might be saying something you’re already aware of, but it seems to me like you’ve been desperately trying to better yourself because you don’t want to be a burden on him . ”】
【”I am… I have no confidence in myself . ”】
Saying that, Erica showed a self-mocking smile .
“It doesn’t suit her . ” Thought Lifa to herself upon seeing Erica in that state .
【”Can I really help Harold-sama? …How could I ever be confident about such a thing?”】
The two girls switched their roles in the conversation; this time, Erica was the one who started talking .
She began speaking of her life, while offering Lifa a glimpse into Harold’s past at the same time .
【”I first met Harold-sama eight years ago, I was ten years old back then . ”】
It was because she had been engaged to him due to political reasons that Erica had gotten the chance to know about Harold Stokes’ existence . In those days, she had understood the position she was in, and although she way in no way completely enthusiastic about her engagement, she had accepted that there was no going around it .
She had been trying to believe that, as the feudal lord’s daughter, it was only natural for her to marry Harold if that could improve the people’s living conditions .
Thinking about it now, Erica felt like she would not have been able to keep herself from being displeased if she had become related to the Stokes family, given their discriminatory doctrines .
However, the boy who had suddenly become Erica’s fiance had come up with a drug that could suppress the effects of the miasma that was spreading diseases in the Sumeragi territory . In addition, the Sumeragi family only had to pay for the materials and the manufacturing process, the boy had practically offered the drug against no compensation .
Although he himself had insisted that he was just selling them a favor, he should not have needed to do such a thing since, back then, the Sumeragi family had already been in a position where they were being supported by the Stokes family .
At that point in time, Erica’s impression of Harold had risen considerably .
【”However, because of a certain matter, I started utterly detesting Harold-sama back then . ”】
【”A certain matter?”】
Erica hesitated a little before talking, but she still started speaking about the matter .
Starting from Lifa, everyone who was present here already knew what kind of man Harold truly was, so there was no problem . In Colette’s case, she had even played a major role in the case that Erica was about to speak of .
【”At the time, there was a story circulating in the Stokes family’s territory about how Harold-sama had murdered one of his mansion’s employees together with her daughter . And so, I asked him whether that rumor was true . “】
Even now, Erica could still remember asking Harold while wishing that those gossips were completely groundless .
But Harold had crushed her wish and confirmed the rumors .
【”All he said was ‘I killed them because they were getting on my nerves’, and ‘They’re my servants, I’m perfectly free to kill them or let them live on a whim’ . He also insulted them, saying that servants were an inferior species . ”】
Back then, Erica had felt both rage and despair . Being still young, she had found herself unable to manage those intense feelings, not knowing how to blow off her anger .
【”However, his objective was actually to make me believe that . In reality, thanks to Harold-sama’s doing, the servant and her daughter had both survived and escaped from the Stokes family’s territory . ”】
He had deceived his parents, he had prepared the path and means of escape of the mother and daughter, and he had given them a large amount of money, enough so that they would not be troubled in their new life .
On top of that, to this day, he had kept on bearing the stigma of a murderer just so that he could give full priority to the safety of the attendant and her daughter .
【”…That really sounds like something Harold would do . ”】
【”Indeed it does, and I eventually came to know about that . ”】
Harold’s strength, grandeur, and kindness .
When Erica noticed those traits, it had already been too late .
【”I see . And all these elements were more than enough for you to fall in love with him, huh . ”】
【”Yes, by the time I became aware of it, it was already too late . ”】
Well, at first, she had been restraining herself due to her guilty conscience and she had been unable allow herself to actually think that she had fallen in love with him, nevertheless, there was no doubt that that whole matter with the servant and her daughter was the main reason why Erica came to see Harold in a good light .
【”He is always working himself absurdly hard, so I have been doing what I can in order to reduce his burden, even if only a little . ”】
So as not to worry Harold needlessly, Erica had continued to take on the attitude he wanted her to take . She had also been training herself intensively in the use of healing magic, so as to be able to heal him in case he would ever suffer from a big injury .
In order to be able to keep up with him, she had not only studied how to conduct herself in the noble society and how to manage a territory properly, but she also studied various other fields to broaden her knowledge . Moreover, so that she would not need to be protected, she had improved her attack magic, her archery, and her martial art skills .
【”… . However, thinking about it now, I was just taking a passive attitude . ”】
If Erica did not want to worry Harold, she should have faced him directly so that the two of them would have been able to understand each other, then she could have put her efforts into building some trust with him, to eventually ask him what role he really wanted her to play . Had she done that, perhaps Harold would not have suffered from such serious wounds on that day .
Because, no matter how much she had polished herself, it was meaningless if Harold deemed that he did not need her . And given his personality, it was obviously very unlikely that he would come by himself to the conclusion that she was necessary to him .
Yet the moment he would start thinking “I need her”, he would lose the choice of walking away, and the only option left for him would be to find a compromise with her .
『Watch over him to see what he’s trying to achieve, support him, stay close to him, and you’ll become able to truly understand him . 』
Those were the words that Erica had been offered by her father . She had been putting a lot of effort into accomplishing that, but she was now fully realizing that she had completely failed .
Was she watching over Harold? No, she was only looking at him from a distance .
Was she supporting him? No .
Had she stayed close to him in difficult times? No, Harold did not want that .
Was she able to understand why he was putting himself in so much risk? No, she did not know what he was thinking .
Things had taken an awful turn . And the fact that Harold did no want Erica to help was no excuse .
It was by going against Harold’s own intentions that Lifa had earned his trust . If Erica really had been thinking of Harold’s well-being, wouldn’t she also have faced him with her true feelings and opinions, no matter how much he rejected her?
The only reason she could not do that was nothing more than the fact that she did not have the courage to do it . Due to her fear of being rejected and her desire to protect herself, she was unable to take a single step forward .
She had been running away from the very beginning, avoiding to actually face Harold, clinging on the uncertain hope that perhaps one day, he would be the one to reach out to her .
【”How shameful of me…”】
If she kept thinking back to her past mistakes, she would never be done . Perhaps things would have taken a different turn if Erica had clearly said what she had been thinking when she had taken Harold’s hand on that boat in the town of Kablan .
But even then, she had been too afraid .
She had only been able to jokingly say “No matter how much of a sinner you are, I’m willing to accept you――Well, that’s probably what my brother would tell you” .
Would she ever be able to get over her fear of getting hurt and to reach a compromise with Harold?
Lifa was able to do it, but Erica simply could not, that was the difference between them . And this made Erica realize that, in the end, her feelings did not amount to much .
So there was no way she could be confident in herself . She had yet to do a single thing for Harold .
She believed that all her hard work had no meaning since she had only done it to satisfy herself .
And, above all, she hated herself for speaking about the matter concerning Clara and Colette despite having vowed to keep that secret sealed in her heart until the day Harold would be willing to tell her about it upfront .
Due to Lifa’s words, Erica was being completely overwhelmed by her own cumulated foolishness .
It seemed like Lifa wanted to cheer Erica up but she did not know what to say .
However, that only served to make Erica feel more and more ashamed for imposing her own troubles on others . She felt like the least she could do now was to behave as usual .
【”Forgive me for complaining like this . Well then, you should go get some rest Lifa-san, it’s getting late . ”】
【”But… . ”】
【”Don’t worry about me, I am fine . ”】
Afterwards, the two of them continued to have similar back and forths, until Lifa finally gave in and entered the tent while still worrying about Erica .
Having been left on her own, Erica was staring at the campfire that was still burning . However, for some reason, she was not feeling any warmth from it . Even after she threw twigs inside the fire and strengthened it, there was no change .
‘Ah, maybe that’s what having a broken heart feels like’ She thought, as if this was someone else’s problem .
【”…I’m not worthy of being by your side . ”】
Then, she finally let these words out . Until now, she had been stopping those words rom coming out of her mouth over and over again, to the point where they were very deeply imprinted in her mind .
After that, tears gathered inside Erica eyes until they started falling . The only warmth she was able to feel at the moment was from the tears that were running down her cheeks .
However, that warmth was reminiscent of the deep affection and love that she felt for Harold, and she was afraid, afraid that those feelings were flowing out of her endlessly as she continued to weep quietly, until the sun started rising in the sky .