She bowed her head, allowing the visor of her helmet to slide over her eyes with a clunk. It didn’t matter. No one was around to see, save for Koroku. She indulged in the small, private shadow across her face from beneath the iron before pushing it back up with a slow breath.
How did things come to this? What could she have done to make it better? Could she have done anything to make it better?
Cecile sat at the front steps of the manor, Koroku in her lap once more. She idly ran her hand along the dog’s back and stared out at Yaza Plains in the late afternoon sun. The gentle swaying motions of the grass in the wind normally came as a welcome respite—after all, a home at peace was the most any guard could ask for.
“Koroku… Have you ever lied to someone just to make them feel better?”
“I said we’ll be okay. But...” Tears stung her eyes. How many times had she cried in secret since Thomas’s departure? It was a marvel Koroku had the patience to listen. She leaned forward, pressing her nose against his fur. “I lied,” she whispered. “I’m not okay.”
Koroku yawned. He seemed okay, but perhaps he was lying too in attempts to encourage her.
“You’re right, I should focus on helping Miss Yun with the picnic plans, not Master Thomas’s absence... Maybe… if we throw a wonderful picnic, he’ll come back soon.”
And maybe...if he’s no longer the castle master, I can tell him…
Her heart hurt.
Cecile shook her head. How vulgar and inappropriate. Setting aside her position as garrison commander, it still felt wholly selfish as a friend to push feelings onto someone who was clearly grieving. She could never make any kind of confession now. She would simply take her dark secret to the grave.
She leaned against the wall, her armor making a small clunking sound as her helmet tapped the stone. Another sigh escaped her lips. At least Yun seemed to be in good spirits. Was it the spring festival’s success? Or maybe the newest resident, the cheeky young pirate named Hervey? The two of them seemed to hit it off well, and it cheered Cecile to see her friend getting along with all the new arrivals. Watching Yun ease back into daily life after all the chaos surrounding Luca’s prison-break escapades felt comforting. At least something was going right.
“Speaking of Luca, I wonder where he's gone to, now that I think about it,” Cecile mused.
Koroku wagged his tail. Of course, he probably already knew the answer! That wasn’t fair, Koroku knew all the happenings around the castle. She grabbed his paws as if the gesture would elicit some sort of confession. “What is he eating, I wonder? Do you think he’s eating? Do you think he’s okay? Maybe he’s out there right now, and all he has to eat are squirrels,” she gasped. “You see, Koroku? This is exactly why he needs a friend to keep him in line!”
Koroku yawned again. Clearly squirrels for supper was a deep injustice to him as well.
Whatever the man was up to, nothing changed the fact that she would have to be even more diligent than before now that he was released from jail. The real change was Thomas’s absence and the hollow space left behind in her heart, a space she didn’t even know existed until it was empty.
She scrunched the fur between Koroku’s ears and listened to gentle breeze skirting across the plains. It was a warm, early spring day just like this when Thomas first arrived as their new master. Reflecting on it resurrected a twinge of dormant embarrassment. It wasn’t one of her proudest memories. Jumping to conclusions and accusing him of being a suspicious character when he’d barely crossed the stone steps… How was she to know their newest castle master was barely older than her? Yet now she would give anything to repeat that same humiliating mistake if it meant seeing him again.
Cecile jumped with a start and looked behind her. Clive stood by the gates, his cloak pushed back and his gun resting against his shoulder. “Sir Clive! I’m sorry, am I in your way?”
There was a moment of silence, then he sat next to her on the steps uninvited, setting Storm against the wall. Koroku rolled off her lap and onto his, wagging his tail as Clive rubbed his belly.
“I… I promise I was not slacking at my post.”
She swallowed and looked back across Yaza Plains. Clive’s presence comforted her. Even his side profile reminded her of her father. She knew without a doubt he’d have sat and listened to her in the exact same fashion. She drew in a slow breath and closed her eyes, enveloping herself in nostalgia. If her father were still alive, if he still carried the responsibility of garrison commander instead…
Cecile’s status as captain of the guard was her pride and joy. A title she eagerly inherited after his passing, she coveted it more than anything else. Even the thought of sharing some of her prized patrol routes still managed to sometimes alight a childish spark of jealousy in her. But for the first time in her life, a tiny part of her wished she were simply another resident.
It wasn’t the first time she permitted herself to entertain the scandalous fantasy since Thomas’s resignation. Never would she give up her title for anything. Yet in the darkest moments of night patrol with no one around to see her tears, Cecile allowed herself to imagine abandoning her post, casting off her duties, and sprinting across the plains, tracking Thomas down and bringing him back home. And perhaps then she might finally find the right words to explain how she felt in a way that would convince him to never leave again.
But it could never happen. Budehuc was her home. It was her responsibility. Everyone was counting on her to keep them safe. And if her father ever knew she was thinking such things—
“Don’t hold back on my account.”
“W-what?” She flinched, glancing at Clive still sitting at her side.
“This is the least I’ve ever seen you talk. If you’re holding it in because you don’t want to inconvenience me…” he looked away, “don’t bother. I’m not inconvenienced.”
Another swell of tears stung at her eyes. With all the new arrivals, shedding tears would make for a terribly inappropriate first impression. Without a castle master, getting everyone settled in their new accommodations fell to her and the rest of the established residents. It felt easier to simply bury her own feelings and focus on what needed to get done.
“That’s… that’s not...”
Clive reached out and gently drew her head against his shoulder. He smelled of leather and gunpowder. The feather in her helmet brushed across his face, but he made no effort to move it aside. “I’m not going to tell you it’s okay, because I’m sure it doesn’t feel okay,” he said quietly. “I’m… sorry for shouting at you before.”
She sobbed. “N… No, I’m sorry, Sir Clive—”
“No apologies needed.”
“I… I keep thinking… what if it’s my fault?” she asked as a weak hiccup slipped out. “What if I just needed to patrol more? What if I could’ve done something or said something? W-what if I had been able to better protect him from Luca? What if I was… what if I was someone else?”
“Thomas…” Clive grunted. He looked as though he wanted to say something unflattering and changed his mind. “Thomas made a mistake. He’s probably asking himself the same questions.”
“Do you think so?”
He moved his hand to her shoulder with a nod. “You can’t go changing who you are just to make someone happy. You have to want to change on your own for yourself. So don’t ask those questions.”
“Even if it was my fault?”
“It wasn’t. But I need you to promise me you won’t be so reckless.”
Cecile wiped the tears from her eyes, a stubborn note creeping into her voice. “I have a duty as captain of the guard.”
“You can’t protect others if you don’t protect yourself first.”
“I won’t need to worry once I’ve made friends,” she insisted.
Cecile hesitated. Agreeing to his promise felt significant, and she sensed the weight behind his words. “I promise to be careful. But I won’t promise to stop doing what feels right,” she said.
The answer seemed to satisfy him. Clive made a faint noise of approval and continued to indulge Koroku in a belly rub as the dog snuggled into his lap. A comfortable silence settled between them, save for the sounds of the early spring birds in the surrounding trees. “Do you feel better now?” he finally asked.
“Almost. I just…” Her hands trembled, grasping at the fabric of her skirt in hopes of staying grounded. “I just wish I told him… how I feel… but I don’t think I ever will now.”
Clive’s shoulder tensed at her words. His free hand rubbing Koroku’s belly slowed to a stop. “Tell me something,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion, “Do you feel like he betrayed you?”
The question gave her a start. Immediately she felt the urge to deny it, to jolt upright and clatter her armor in an indignant display at such a thought. But Cecile closed her eyes and focused on the sensation of his shoulder against her cheek, slowly rising and falling with each breath as he waited for her response. And another truth softly formed in her throat, one she hadn’t yet admitted aloud to anyone, not even Koroku. “A little,” she confessed into the folds of his cloak. “I do. Just a tiny bit.”
“Then… what would you do about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“He betrayed you. Now what?”
She studied his face. He gazed straight ahead, but his eyes were unfocused, as if looking past the grasses of Yaza Plains to somewhere Cecile couldn’t reach. “What… what do I do now?”
The answer came easily. There was no hesitation in her heart. “I forgive him,” she said.
“What about your feelings?”
She tried to see into that distant place Clive was desperately surveying, but there were no further answers to be had in the space between them and the horizon. “Even still… I… I can’t tell him,” she whispered. “Not now. Not ever. And I almost wish I did.”
He drew her shoulder closer, and his voice softened. “We all have things we regret not saying.”