The longstanding war had come to an end.
The war that was so long and arduous that its battles had been inherited by the next generation and the next had finally come to an end.
The day the messenger brought the news of their victory past their gates was the day the trumpets boasting their victory sang.
Finally, the day family, friends and neighbours were reunited arrived.
People took to the streets and cheered.
“The war is finally over!”
“It is our victory!”
“My family is returning! My family is coming back!”
Colourful flags woven by women with extraordinary skill coloured the sky as the cheers of the crowd filled the spaces between.
Those who returned from war cried as they held their family, whom they had only seen in their dreams, while those who had been waiting for their return cried even harder.
It was a day when everyone shared their tears, laughter and overwhelming emotions with one another.
With the exception of a few.
A small figure being kicked stood out like a sore thumb.
Clearly not wanting to be struck anymore, the body shrank as much as it could but it was no use.
Another relentless strike landed on her back.
“Tsk, you’d only get your shit together once I kill you.
So, let me do just that.”
The scrawny man clicked his tongue as a cheap pipe hung from his mouth.
It did not take long before the perpetrators themselves were panting for air as they continued beating her.
That was when the scrawny man waved his hands.
The beatings paused and the sweat-soaked men stepped back.
It was only then could the retreating woman be seen.
She had a small and slender build, and donned worn-out clothes that were close to ripping and shoes that only had half their soles.
Her mangled hair was covered with so much ash and dust that her hair colour could not be seen.
Seeing the state the woman was in, the man inhaled from his pipe so deeply he hollowed out his cheeks.
While he approached her with a distinct stride, the woman only trembled and shrank away from him even more.
The man grabbed a hold of the woman’s face by wrapping his hands around her head.
Just as he expected, her face, no different from her hair, was also covered in ash and dust.
Even after her face was forcibly lifted, her eyes remained tightly shut.
In any case, she was a filthy disgusting little girl.
‘No, that’s not it.’
But if he took a closer look, he could see how captivating she was.
Her petite features, supple lips and eyelashes long enough for dust to comfortably settle upon.
If she could just wash off that thick layer of ash and dust, pale white skin would be revealed.
But what caught his eye the most was not her skin..
It was those blue eyes that shone brighter than anyone else’s.
The man who stared into the blue eyes revealing themselves under her long lashes, sucked on his pipe before smiling.
Our little Rhett.”
The man flashed his yellow teeth as he smiled before grabbing the face of the woman he called Rhett and shaking her face around rigorously.
Rhett’s face contorted in pain.
“You, why did you say you weren’t going?”
Her small, supple lips seemed to be saying something but the man’s hands waved before he could hear anything.
“Ah, it’s obvious, too obvious.
That must be the reason, hm? It’s because that old fart, Barrodon, changes the woman by his side every year, no? Hm?”
Because he was biting onto his pipe, his words sounded a little muffled.
“But, you know, I’ve spent a lot of money on you for raising you thus far.
Do you want to hear how much? Hm? Hm?”
Rhett’s lips parted before she spoke with much difficulty.
“I’m almost done paying you back.
All the money I earned while working in the inn…”
“What are you talking about!”
Ahahaha! The men surrounding them partook in the laughter as well.
The man who was laughing the hardest was the man grabbing his stomach not noticing that his pipe had fallen out of his mouth.
The man picked up the pipe he dropped before biting into it again.
“Those are mere pennies, pennies.
It can’t even pay off all the food you’ve eaten, can it?”
“Honestly, who comes to visit these slums? That’s why you get meagre sums for your pay and that’s why all you’d paid back are mere pennies.”
The man smiled slyly.
“But mere pennies is not the sum of money you need to pay back.”
“All you managed to pay back so far is, what’s it called? Interest.
Do you know what interest means, Rhett?”
Thud, thud. This time, now that he was in a bad mood, the man grabbed her hair and struck her head.
“So, it’s now time for you to pay off this debt.
Don’t you think so? It’s all because you don’t know a thing, a thing.
Those women that got kicked out? I heard they’re all living well in distant countries.”
“And you know.
If you manage to seduce that old fart in a year, you might be able to become that crony’s wife, you know? You can become Baroness Barrodon!”
She had been born and raised in the slums.
She was never taught how to write.
She did not know how to count.
But she knew that was a lie.
Wasn’t she the first to see servants from the baron’s estate dumping bodies into the slum a year ago?
“That old crony was responsible.
He picked you this time.
Madness swirled in the eyes of the man shouting at her.
“Actually, he requested me to bring you to him when you were much younger, hm? But still, I, Ben, have a conscience.
That’s why I raised you till you reached of age.”
That was a lie too.
It was because he had been haggling with him for her price until he was only recently satisfied.
“Do you know what Barrodon offered me in exchange? Do you! Out of all of this trash, me! He said he will get me, Ben, out of here!”
Ben’s intoxicated eyes shone.
“I’m finally escaping these slums.
My splendid life is only beginning…!”
She only felt disgust by Ben who chased after his dream whilst stepping on everyone else to obtain it.
Rhett contorted her expression.
“That’s why, you’re going!”
There was no time to scream.
Pulling her hair, Ben strode forward.
“You’re heading straight to Barrodon! You, hm? And I! We can finally leave these revolting slums!”
“L-let me go!”
Rhett struggled against him but it was no use.
Her shoes fell off her feet and rolled away.
“Guys, get ready!”
As though they had been waiting, the men who had been beating Rhett earlier brought something forward.
It was a crate that one person could barely squeeze in.
This was something Ben often used to deal with people in the slums.
Once someone was dragged inside, it was over.
When she opened her eyes, she would find herself in Barrodon’s estate if she got inside the crate.
Rhett’s face turned as pale as a sheet.
She gritted her teeth.
Even with her hair being pulled, Rhett stood up and bit Ben’s arm.
As soon as Ben let go of her because of the pain, she ran the other direction.
There was no hope for escape.
But she had to run away.
Because she wanted to live even if it was hopeless.
Because she really wanted to live.
“I got you!”
Not wanting to be dragged away, Rhett raised her hand and scraped her fingers against the dirt.
Her nails broke and dirt got into her wounds.
It was no use.
In an instant, her body was folded into the crate and thud! thud! thud! she could hear them nailing the lid shut overhead.
Just so that she would not escape.
To make sure she ended up with Barrodon.
‘I don’t want this!’
Rhett thrashed around from inside the crate.
She swung her hands around at random and kicked the crate.
“What the, why is this little shit making so much noise?”
Puck! The man who had been nailing the lid kicked the crate hard.
With a loud sound to her side, the crate toppled.
As a result, Rhett’s body fell out of the half-open crate as it hadn’t been nailed well.
But there was a problem…
It’s the fact that her head hit the floor hard.
She felt dizzy and nauseous.
She managed to make it outside the crate but she still needed to crawl out.
There was nothing else she could do but scratch her fingertips against the dirt to stand up.
“Did she faint?”
“She’s still conscious.”
The voices sounded like they were close but also far away.
“She should be a little more obedient now.”
The man who had been kicking the crate just earlier shook his head.
Rhett’s body that had spilled out of the crate was crumpled back into it before the nailing began again.
Thud! Thud! Thud!
The sound of nailing and the cheers of joy at the fact that the war was over overlapped in the cramped crate.
Her ears were starting to feel numb.
Tears welled in her eyes.
She was scared.
She did not want to die.
And she was sad.
In the end, she never managed to escape the slums.
She was going to die like this, without ever finding who her own parents were.
‘I don’t want this.’
Tears continued to stream from her eyes endlessly.
‘I want to live…’
It was at that moment, the nailing stopped.
Perhaps it was just a coincidence but the cheers had also cut off with a bang.
Cutting through the silence, she vividly heard an unfamiliar voice.
“What’s going on here? You lot seem to be doing something suspicious, don’t they?”
This was the first time she had ever heard a voice like this in the slums.
Then answered Ben’s anxious voice.
“… What brings you knights here?”
“We are looking for someone.”
“You mean, someone from these slums?”
Another voice answered.
After coming to her senses, Rhett blinked.
Wasn’t this an opportunity? A chance to escape…
‘Don’t, make a sound.’
She made eye contact with Ben through the cracks in the crate.
He was holding his pipe in his hand.
Red embers blazed in the pipe as though it had just been lit.
He pointed the tip of the pipe precisely towards Rhett’s blue eyes.
As though to warn her to stay still if she did not want to go blind.
With her lips pressed together, Rhett nodded.
As if relieved, Ben turned his head back around
Thump, thump, thump! Immediately, Rhett punched the lid of the crate like a madman.
“What’s going on?”
“Help! I-I’m stuck inside here!”
Everything happened in a flurry of movement.
Something hot struck her face, the crate tumbled, vulgarities continued to be strewn at her, the cheers continued, more, more and more sounds before a piercing scream.
That was the last thing she heard.
She could hear something being ripped.
Rhett struggled to find out what was going on through her dimming vision.
She could see someone.
Someone with black hair…
If he wasn’t Ben, could he help her?
She had to talk but she could not find her breath and her words would not leave her at one go.
In the blink of an eye, Rhett’s body was hoisted into the air.
It was only then could she see what went on around her.
People dressed in clean clothes she had never seen before in the slums seemed to be surprised to see her.
“Argh! S-someone appeared! S-sir kni–ght!”
“You’re a knight too! Calm down!”
But that was all Rhett could handle.
After just coming out of the crate, Rhett clung pitifully onto the man who took her out.
Tears flowed down her cheeks again.
She felt so dizzy.
Rhett mustered the strength to lift her neck to check if the man carrying her would hand her off to Ben.
“Please save me…”
The man holding her remained silent.
That only made things scarier.
What if he left me like this? What if they abandon me?
So, when the grip around her loosened, Rhett panicked.
But as the warm voice soon trickled down, a coat covered her.
Rhett stared at the coat covering her body blankly.
The coat was white which was a colour not often seen in the slums either.
She wanted to touch the fabric.
But she didn’t even have the energy to do so which is why she just stared at the coat.
A large hand patted her on her back.
The touches were so warm that it lulled Rhett’s blinking eyes to slow.
“You’re safe now.”
“I will be protecting you from now on.”
So, she was.
‘So, I’m safe now.’
And that was the last thing she recalled.
As she closed her eyes peacefully.
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