08 – The Opening Ceremony (Part One of Three)
“Lady Emilia. Your hand, if you would.”
I made sure to leave the carriage first, then reached out my hand to escort her. The garden that came prior to the hall was teeming with festivities, and no sooner had I made my move then did I feel stares from all around us. To Athrun’s credit, he never so much as fidgeted when he protectively moved behind me.
The stares rose in tune with the commotion when Emilia descended from the carriage. She flinched back in turn, freezing in her tracks, and I reassuringly whispered that she shouldn’t pay them any mind.
The opening ceremonies for the registered students took place Schtelt Hall, considered to be the most historical area in all the academy grounds. It was located opposite to the intersection between the building itself and where the newcomers held their own ceremonies.
Today was the one day of the year when every student, not excluding the older ones of course, could get together. The result was a sea of unfamiliar faces. There was a strict divide between the occupied learning facilities that made to separate first years from the older students, so this day made for the academy’s true debutantes.
As far as politics were concerned, it was obvious that most students who had little to no affiliation with the ways of diplomacy had never been made privy to Emilia features.
I sharpened my ears for the hushed conversations held between the distant but plentiful stares that came at us from all sides, and it became immediately clear that they mostly revolved around matters of who Emilia was, confusion as to my newly short hair, and murmurings that went something like, ‘Isn’t that you-know-who, the one with the really bad reputation from Kaldia?’.
Of course, I had no way of being sure that none of those present knew about Emilia, and therefore couldn’t deny the possibility of there being anyone who might wish her ill. I simply feigned ignorance, not once letting up in my vigilance.
Emilia, who timidly stood by my side, slowly looked around and let out the breath she’d been holding.
“Lady Emilia, why don’t we go to the gardens? The gardens of Schtelt Hall might be the most distinguished in all the kingdom, but only students and teachers may see it for themselves.”
As far as I knew, neither the Archduke family’s villa nor the roads that led to the castle boasted such a grand-scale garden. This probably marked the first time in Emilia’s life that she saw gardens that spread this wide.
I didn’t want her to make some huge mistake while she was so overcome by worry and fear, and I certainly didn’t want to deal with the hassle that would spark. I had called out to her to give her some chance at relaxation, and Emilia, in turn, recoiled a little.
“Come on, let’s go. We have more than enough time.”
She was likely far from gleeful at the idea of approaching the staring crowds. But there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that those stares would continue to follow her in the future. I came to the conclusion that I had to do what I could so that she could get used to the looks, and so I ignored whatever she was about to say, took her by the hand, and pulled her along.
We wandered through the gardens, and both the stares and whispers only grew. Emilia was supposed become aware of them, though only in moderation. To see that through, I brought her attention to some deeper subject matter as we slowly walked about, hoping that it would be enough to keep her from overthinking the situation.
The tension began to lift from her shoulders, and she stared with great intrigue at the many flowers that lined the gardens before she stopped moving.
“It’s so pretty…”
The thing that had so captivated her was a bed of beautiful purple flowers in full bloom which caught the light of the sun and reflected it in a glowing collage of reds and blues.
“Ah, yes. They’re called violet tears. They were brought over here from the western province of the kingdom, all the way from Ugalia. Its unusual mixture of colours is said to be the result of an uneven petal surface. The unevenness is supposedly so minute that it can’t be seen by the naked eye.”
That was the extent of what I knew about the iridescent flowers. I’d only been able to speak of the things that had clung to my memory, simply by virtue of their rarity, and once I was done, I saw that Emilia grew more and more spellbound as she continued to stare.
“…Do you like them, perchance?”
“I do. Very much so.”
My question had been fairly nonchalant, but Emilia’s unexpected answer was delivered in a voice so honest and innocent it was as if it had just flown out of her. She barely even seemed to notice the fact that she’d responded.
Well… if she was that enamoured by them, there was no reason why I shouldn’t bring some of them over to our living quarters. Not being able to find relaxation in your own dorm was, after all, far too detrimental for her psychological well-being. I had to move quickly if I was to make her feel more at home. I began cooking up the best way to inform the stewards under the dorm’s employ and left Emilia to her own devices, and soon enough…
“Ah, there you are.”
The voice behind me came just as I thought it was high time to go to the hall. I turned around and saw Eric waving our way, his smile wide and cheerful. He had, according to the multiple letters we’d sent to each other during winter, continued his rather energetic lifestyle in recognition of the royal troops’ services, despite the holiday.
His bearing appeared much more majestic than it had been the last time we’d met, though I wasn’t entirely certain that it was all due to the aforementioned way he’d spent his time.
“Baron Dovadain. It’s a pleasure to see that you haven’t changed.”
“Why, thank you. Though I have to say, you’ve certainly changed a little since we last met… Well, might I have the honour of greeting Princess Emilia?”
“Yes, of course.”
He’d asked me first, just as common etiquette demanded, and went to greet Emilia with a strong air of formality. It was considered in good manners to never speak to an escorted woman until one had done so with said escort.
I took half a step back from the scene, then checked our surroundings. Now that it had become clear that the unknown girl at my side was acquainted with the archduke household, the commotion had increased even further.
At that point, I thought that I’d gathered sufficient attention that would put Emilia in the spotlight. Her social status, just as her position, should be common knowledge amongst those around us. If I wanted to garnered even more of their focus on Emilia before her name became known, then what followed would be just perfect.
“Lady Emilia, Baron Dovadain. This is a good time, I believe, to head for the hall.”
I’d waited until the two had covered the preliminary stages of their interaction before speaking, and Eric, giving me a light nod, was the first to step forward. In the face of the imposing and growing authority of the Archduke House, the students made yet more distance between themselves and us.
They were so far away now that their mutterings became muddled and unclear, even to my hellishly sharp ears. I was thankful that the unwanted whispers could no longer reach Emilia, especially now that her nervousness had been alleviated with the help of the purple tears.
…Had Eric actually gone out of his way to lend me his support in this escorting role I was so unused to? Now that I thought about it I recalled that, in the game, this was the same year he would take the mantle of council president for the students’ neighbourhood council.
Last year, Eric’s general appearance had made me doubt this information’s validity. But looking at him now, I was more than ready to believe that could be the case.