The woman was supposedly a part of a merchant group who served as an agent for other important peoples. She talked nonstop. She never went too far in talking about herself, nor did she ask about me at all. All I heard from her was gossip she picked up from her acquaintances and colleagues.
I tensed when she broached the subject of the newly divorced and remarried empress. Still, it was interesting to hear the people’s reaction to the incident for myself.
“I support Her Majesty’s actions.”
“Well, some people say she was acting selfishly. But it’s not their business, so they shouldn’t criticize.”
“She didn’t request the divorce, it wasn’t discussed with her, and it was one-sided. But after the divorce? Just screw it all, don’t you think?”
I nodded hard, almost as if to say “thank you.”
“Yes. Screw it.”
“But your tone sounds unusual formal.”
The woman continued to talk, until the carriage stopped so we could eat.
During the meal, a new carriage driver appeared, and he changed the horses and climbed on to the driver’s seat. Afterwards, the woman and I got back into the carriage. I assumed we would be traveling all the way to the Western Kingdom capital, and I stared out the window to enjoy the scenery outside. I don’t know whether Sovieshu’s knights were on the hunt for me, but everything seemed to have worked out well enough so far.
Contrary to my expectations, the woman dropped me off before we crossed the Western border. She left me at a small village in a neighboring country, informing me that I was supposed to be taken here. She parted with a brief “Take care”, and then vanished.
I stood in this strange place alone. Not long after, Heinley appeared on a large horse. I blinked my eyes in surprise.
“When did you get here?”
He came from inside the village, not from the outside. In other words, he arrived before I did, even though my carriage did not stop for lodging.
“I arrived a little earlier.”
“I didn’t see you at all—”
“Our paths didn’t overlap.”
So did I travel by highway, and Heinley took a shortcut? Well, he didn’t seem to have arrived by carriage. I nodded my head, and he smiled and reached out his hand.
“Do you know how to ride?”
It had been a long time since I rode without abandon. Heinley had even prepared riding clothes for us, and I was so excited that as soon as I got on the horse, I urged it to a full gallop.
“Queen, aren’t you going too fast?”
Heinley sounded slightly panicked as he clutched my waist from behind. The wind whipped away his words. I turned my head back at him and smiled.
“I like this.”
Most nobles participated in recreational sports, including horseback riding. I was too busy for it after I became empress, but I used to love riding. Before I became the crown princess, I used to ride a pony alone in the garden, and after I became crown princess, the incumbent empress presented me with a beautiful black horse.
Sovieshu liked horse-riding too, so together we would…
‘I should stop thinking about that.’
Whenever I thought about the past, it was always about Sovieshu. I had taken for granted that he had always been with me then. I forcibly pushed away thoughts of him, then realized that Heinley was too quiet.
‘Does he not like going fast?’
I called him urgently.
He answered right away, but his voice sounded weak.
“Are you scared? Should I slow down?”
I looked at him concernedly, but he shook his head. As he did so, I felt his chest shift against my back. I suddenly felt self-conscious about our closeness, so I squeezed the reins tighter. I hadn’t ridden in a long time, and I wanted to sit up front. That meant that Heinley’s hands gripped my waist so tight that there was no room between our bodies.
“You…you can loosen your grip a little…”
“Then I’ll fall.”
Heinley wasn’t self-conscious because of me. Was I the only one? My body was stiff for nothing.
‘Because we’re so close, Heinley probably feels that.’
I felt like I was the only one acting weird, and I sped up so I could feel the wind and ignored Heinley’s hands. It didn’t work, so I eventually slowed down a bit.
Wait, what was that? I could feel a faint trembling on my back. I remembered how Heinley laughed silently with Duke Elgy when I squatted in the box.
Maybe if Heinley and I switched positions now…but that would still leave us in an awkward arrangement. Sitting in the back would mean that I would have to hug Heinley from behind, like he was doing to me now. Then he would definitely feel my heart pounding wildly on his back. I had no good options before me.
Heinley looked at me with a smile.
“I’ll hold the reins together with you. Is that alright?”
That meant he wouldn’t have to hug me so tightly. I nodded my head.
“That would be better. It was a little cramped…”
Heinley laughed and reached for the reins. He didn’t cover his hands on mine, but our fingers brushed against each other. Not only did our hands touch, but the length of our arms as well.
I bit my lip and forced myself to look straight ahead. He only hugged my waist earlier, but this time I was surrounded by the cradle of his arms.
“I think…riding a carriage is a good idea.”
“I hear you like riding horses.”
“I also like riding carriages.”
“But the horse is faster, Queen.”
“Why don’t we get another horse?”
“It would be hard to get another one now…and even if we do, stopping for one will delay us for too long. The Western Kingdom is only a little further away, and McKenna is waiting. Why? Do you feel sick?”
I couldn’t tell him that I was embarrassed by the feel of his chest, arms, and hands, so I replied with a “No.” As he said, we didn’t have the time to stop.
‘He doesn’t mind, and it’s weird that I’m the only one who’s self-conscious. This is…natural. We’re only riding a horse together.’
I swallowed back my foolishness, and tightened my grip on the reins.