The downtown streets of Ratz turned hectic as more than the usual amount of delivery boys for the local paper ran through to toss out the morning papers.
In a nearby cafe, seated by the window, Claudine gazed through the glass in quiet observation.
The air in the once bustling capital had turned sour and somber as soon as the war came, and their men left them behind.
There were mostly children and women around.
A common sight she’d finally gotten used to.
It didn’t help that the recent news from the war front brought them no comfort at all.
Berg’s army, which had largely dominated the war, had its fortune turned in the latest skirmish.
Now, they are struggling against Ettar since they have recaptured the city of Sienna.
And now they’re gradually being pushed further north, where not too long ago, the Union’s latest attacks had largely been successful.
Tensions continue to rise between the two nations, and soon no good news will reach them if it keeps up.
Even the fast-approaching New Year’s was not enough to lift the spirits of the families the men left behind, especially when it wasn’t certain they’d be returning home in glory and victory.
The Empire had failed to keep its promise to its people.
“Don’t worry too much, Lady Brandt.
Duke Herhardt will certainly return safe and sound.” Piped up one of the ladies she was with within the cafe.
No matter how fierce the battle takes place, the Duke will surely return safely.” Immediately added another one of Claudine’s friends after seeing her contemplative look, mistaking it for worry and longing for her fiance.
Claudine thought belatedly, to the rest of society, shernpl was still engaged with Duke Herhardt.
A minute, and mirthless smile curled up on the corner of her lips, unseen by those she was with.
Officially, they were still engaged, and therefore Claudine von Brandt had every right to worry about the safety of Matthias von Herhardt, as is expected of his woman.
Even though deep inside, she was more than hoping he would meet his demise instead in this war and never return again.
Perhaps a little earlier, when she had still been less bitter and more amenable to his presence, she would have wished otherwise.
But not anymore.
It only became increasingly clear how less likely he would return as her soon to be wedded husband.
Still, she had an image to uphold, and a pretense to act; loathed as she is to act as though she cared about the Duke.
She often wondered what news would arrive next.
A question she asked habitually to herself whenever a new one would arrive in the form of Riette’s letter updates to her.
He was still in the warfront, and she hadn’t heard anything of him aside from the ones he sent her, but he was always more than generous in relaying to her the events that he was witnessing.
Even when she didn’t ask it of him, he still gave her more than she knew she deserved.
Even Matthias was less generous than this, even when they were properly engaged.
And through Riette’s letters, she had learned about Leyla’s whereabouts and current condition.
That Matthias had indeed, and eagerly took part in the war because that was where she would be found.
And found her indeed! The big bad Duke had finally been reunited with his lowly orphan girl.
The anger she expected to come had long since dried up.
Not even news of Leyla’s pregnancy ignited a single spark of anger in her anymore.
Officially they might still be engaged.
But Claudine was no longer in the running to be the next Duchess.
She’d never been in it.
Belatedly she wondered why Matthias even agreed to wed her when he had no intention in following through in the end.
This engagement had long been over.
Claudine now accepted the fact that she desperately denied, even though she knew it would happen eventually.
Truthfully, she would have been fine with their engagement being broken off…
If only it didn’t lead to Matthias’ happiness.
Why was it, after everything he’d done, he got to have his own happy ending She didn’t want them to be happy.
She wanted them to remain miserable as they should be.
They were the disgraceful ones, the ones who cheated, and couldn’t stay away from each other even when they both promised themselves to another.
They shouldn’t have a happy ending, when they were the only ones in the wrong.
They should both just stay back in Sienna and die in the war.
It was the only thought that consumed her in the long nights.
A loathing wish for Matthias, and his lowly orphan girl, to die and perish.
Never to be with each other for all eternity.
Eventually, even if their engagement would be broken off officially, Claudine was still able to make a fresh start.
Keep her reputation intact, and get engaged anew to a more suitable candidate.
While not a widely acceptable tradition to do so, marrying her deceased fiance’s cousin, it wasn’t too bad of a reputation that she couldn’t just brush off.
She resolved to pen him her reply soon.
Even though in the present, Claudine was actively taking part in her friends and ladies’ conversations, her mind was stuck back in her room, with the latest letter Riette had sent her.
More specifically, his penned confession.
In it, she realized that despite his parting words to her that he’d let her go, he still held onto his feelings for her strongly.
She thought she’d lost him forever, and she allowed herself a momentary relief at the knowledge he still loved her.
But she couldn’t bring herself to write back to him so quickly.
They lost too much time, trying to do what they thought would be better for themselves before.
This time, she wanted to convey her returned feelings for him perfectly.
It’s the least she could do, for whose heart she broke so selfishly for.
Because she wanted this marriage to work.
For this engagement to go beyond just a mindless agreement.
An engagement where her mind and heart were both in agreement.
A union that was both formed out of love and honor for a change.
A far cry of the faux engagement she had with the Duke for years.
And should Matthias cry, perhaps she will shed some tears, but only out of joy, instead of sorrow.
Soon, the time came for them to leave, and one by one, the ladies around her began to go home.
The time for social gathering and afternoon dallying with one another had remained to only be mere formality.
Their day to day gatherings were only ever meant to be for show after all.
They found no need to keep up with the pretenses, not with the influx of news about their lost sons, husbands, and brothers to war.
A cold and gloomy winter soon rolled by, making the endless funerals day in and day out an even more somber occasion.
The only genuine gathering left in Ratz, was when they’d go out and send their condolences.
Which was really, why she’s even out here in the cafe in the first place.
Waiting for her by the main street, was her vehicle.
She got in, and the chauffeur immediately closed the door behind her before they began to drive back home.
Just when the car turned around the corner of the boulevard between the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Art, Claudine was immediately shaken out of her immersive thoughts at the woman she’d just seen around they corner of her eyes that passed outside her window.
It was a blonde woman, wearing thick-rimmed glasses and bundled up warmly, plainly walking down the street.
She was already quite a distance away from her now, with her back turned, but the figure eerily seemed familiar to her anyway.
“Miss, what’s the matter” The maid, who was looking around, asked her when she noticed the look of alarm in her mistress’ face.
Claudine, who looked like a cross between suspicion and contemplation, immediately shook her head before she leaned back against the car’s seat.
“Nothing.” she quietly replies, mind running a mile a minute.
‘Is it Leyla’
The last news she heard from Riette’s letter was that Matthias found Leyla, who ran away, pregnant with the Duke’s child, and he’d caught her.
‘But did he send her here That guy’
“It’s nothing.” She reiterated when the maid still looked unconvinced that nothing was wrong.
Either way, Claudine didn’t want to take any part in their affairs anymore.
She’d learned that only getting involved with them brought on more shame than satisfaction.
She’d settle only with thoughts and wishes that they’d both have their happy ending tarnished by the war.
Today was just a normal day.
Ad when nightfall came that night, a new, and hopeful wish overtook her normal thoughts.
Instead of wishing for Matthias to die, she wished desperately to receive more news from Riette…
And this time, she will give him the answer he deserved from her.
She’d keep it short, and succinct, so he can get it quickly.
And as if her prayers were finally heard, the maid who brought her mail, suddenly burst through her bedroom, with a wide, open smile, in her hands an envelope, scrawled with her name by a familiar penmanship.
“My Lady! Marquis Lindman’s letter has arrived!” she announced gleefully.
Claudine, who had been leaning against the bed and drinking morning tea, shot up to her feet like an excited girl.
Barefoot and running, the letter was snatched out of the maid’s hands with an excited squeal.
The maid’s eyes crinkled knowingly at her with a smile as she met her mistress’ eyes.
Claudine blushed a little and began to look for her slippers and wore them.
While the maid turned a blind eye to her mistress’ momentary lapse in proper decorum, the door swung open once more without warning.
It was the Countess Brandt.
“My dear, Claudine! What are you going to do!” immediately wailed her mother as she strode into her daughter’s room!
It surprised Claudine because her mother was the image of proper etiquette and manners.
She would have beaten Claudine’s hands with a stick for bursting unannounced into another’s bedroom.
Before she could even ask what was wrong, Claudine found her arms filled with her sobbing mother, and caught sight of this morning’s newspaper haphazardly tossed on the table.
Great trepidation began to fill her.
When it was time for a boy to read the newspaper to come, her heart jumped.
It happened on its own without checking the time.
Today, Leyla wandered in front of the house with an anxious face.
Soon after, the big eyes of the newspaper delivery boy looking over the street shook nervously.
On that clear autumn day, the ambulance that hid Leyla escaped the blockaded Sienna safely.
She parted ways with Marquis Lindman as soon as they arrived in the rear supply unit, and also bid goodbye to Kyle at a military hospital across the border between Lovita and Berg.
Once Leyla found herself bereft of companions, she ended up relying on a piece of paper with an unfamiliar address, before she got on the train headed back to Ratz.
It was reminiscent of when she came to Arvis on her own.
Travelling alone, just like she did as a child.
The sadness filled up to the end of her neck was overflowing, but Leyla did not cry.
She wasn’t alone because she had a child now in her belly.
And there was Matthias too.
A giddy feeling filled her up as she remembered their kisses.
Soon, they’d be reunited once more.
So Leyla had to recover her health, give birth to the child, and wait for him with the child.
It was as easy as that! And while she waited for his return, she could do whatever she wanted in the meantime.
Every day, she waited eagerly for him to return, and made sure to take care of herself without any worry at all! She had nothing more to worry about after all.
Matthias was returning to her.
And with that in mind, Leyla was able to endure day after day on her own, in her quaint new house.
The time for the season to change would soon come, and the child kept growing in her womb.
In no time, she’d be giving birth, and finally hold their child in her arms!
Oh how she wished he’d be back in time to be with her during that time too! She was as desperate as she was excited for his return.
But despite her newfound freedom and luxury, she was still a little scared.
If anything happened to her during childbirth, what would happen to her child if Matthias hadn’t returned yet Of course, Matthias made sure there were butlers and the Duke’s lawyers at her beck and call while she recovered and lived in this house, but they were not partners with whom she could rely on her heart.
Everything will be fine.” As Matthias had done to her, Leyla whispered to the child in the stomach.
It was then that light and fast footsteps began to be heard.
A boy delivering newspapers was running from across the cold street.