Caught off guard by his sudden change of expression, I answered awkwardly, “N-no.
I didn’t wait for too long.” Waiting for him for almost an hour was only polite.
Ravis chuckled at my response.
“You seem to have transformed into a whole new person since the last time I saw you, my lord.
You’re making Miss Iona flustered.” Ravis teased.
The emperor ignored his remark, “You may go and tend to your duties.
Are you planning to just stand here all day”
“Well don’t let me get in your way.
I shall go now.” Ravis gave him a sly smirk before turning to my direction, “I wish you a pleasant stroll, Miss Iona.”
I gave him a smile and said, “Thank you for keeping me company, Ravis.”
As we exchanged courtesies, the emperor’s eyes darted between me and his half-brother.
He tugged my hand to get my attention, “My lord”
“Why does Ravis call you by your name” He asked, curiosity evident in his voice.
“He asked me for my name.” Was my simple reply.
He looked at me with eyebrows raised, “And why do you call him by his”
I told him that Ravis had insisted on it.
He didn’t say anything else and remained silent.
There was a slight crease on his forehead and having stayed by his side for over three months, I know it’s an expression he does whenever he’s annoyed or displeased.
He didn’t think I was too friendly with his half brother, did he I don’t think that’s the case since reacting in such a way was uncharacteristic of him at all.
I guess being his doll had somehow sharpened my perception but even with that said, I’m still having a hard time reading what’s on his mind and it could be a bit frustrating.
Seeing me studying him, the emperor’s expression softened and he held his arm out.
It doesn’t matter.
Shall we go for a stroll” Oddly enough, there was a slight emphasis when he said the word ‘we’.
I decided to just shrug it off and step towards him when a sudden wave of chill rushed through my body.
I sharply turned around to look at our surroundings.
“Iona” The emperor asked in concern.
Overwhelmed with the goosebumps lining up my arms from the strange feeling I just had prevented me from answering the emperor’s call.
I didn’t see anything strange through the windows of the palace, nor were there any people lingering nearby.
What’s happening Was it just all in my head
It was an unpleasant feeling; it’s like someone was watching you without you knowing.
“What is it”
“Oh, it’s nothing.
I think my imagination’s playing with me.” I looked over at the emperor and he didn’t show any indication that he felt anything strange, so most likely I had only imagined it.
Having worked as a cannon fodder had equipped me in detecting enemies that were kilometers away, so there’s no way I’ve missed seeing someone within my vicinity.
Fortunately, I am having a great time strolling with the emperor.
The colors of the leaves were already darkening and falling off its branches, a wordless indication that spring was already approaching its end.
The courtyard we walked on exuded a serene atmosphere, shadowed by tall needleleaf trees surrounding the perimeters.
I wonder if we would stay here for the rest of the day and forego visiting a garden.
“Iona, there are places I’d like to show you.” Standing at the end of the towering needleleaf trees, he led me forwards with a gentle hand.
The way he was holding me now was much more gentle compared to the beginning of the stroll.
He allowed me to set the pace and he also made sure to shield me from the harsh glare of the blinding sun.
These little things were greatly appreciated, but I really don’t know what to feel.
“It’s this way.” We walked past another towering needleleaf tree, and I came face to face with a massive cage made of steel.
My ears were instantly filled with cacophonous sounds of chirping birds.
My eyes widened at the sight; it was something I have never seen before as I looked around in sheer wonder.
He led me to the entrance, smiling all the while as he said,
“This is—“ He was cut off by a flock of birds zooming above our heads.
Rays of sunshine filtered through the large palm trees and needleleafs, making it look so breathtaking I’m lost for words.
The birds chirped and cried joyously.
What I’m looking at right now is a huge greenhouse birdcage.
“—is my collection of birds from the south.” He continued.
He was looking at me anticipatingly, like he was hoping I would like what I’m seeing.
The birdcage was just beautiful beyond words.
It’s like a piece of art itself; its golden, intricate details were meticulously welded and bent and its spotless, barely visible glass windows glistened whenever the sunrays came filtering through.
The interior of the cage was also filled with needleleafs abundant to this palace, and one of a kind species of birds were present here.
Nothing could ever top this.
Despite all of these details, my attention was still rapt on the huge birdcage.
Suddenly, I felt a strange tightness in my chest and before I knew it, my dark past came flashing before my eyes.
The birdcage I was locked in for five years of slavery was, of course, much smaller than this.
I remembered how I was only let out of the cage for baths or being dolled up.
On the days I was out of the cage, I’d be forced to sing until my throat was raw and I’m coughing up blood.
In front of the gleaming extravagance of the society, the onlookers had treated me as if I’m a record player, not a human being just like them.
I was coerced to sing songs for their celebrations.
The birdcage I was trapped in was the only world I ever knew about back then.
What do you think you’re doing! Sing!
A shudder went through me.
I thought I heard someone say that to my ear.
My breathing came out ragged and uneven, and it was getting so hard to breathe.
“Iona” The emperor asked in concern.
He knew something was not right.
“Are you okay, Iona Why are you sweating”
At that I snapped out of my senses.
I could feel my back drenched in cold sweat from being reminded of my past.
He walked towards me and took my right hand on his.
“Your hands are shaking too.
What is it Are you feeling ill” His brows were drawn in concentration.
“N-no… it’s nothing.” I shook my head hastily before he could suggest calling for the doctor again.
I heard the tremble in my voice and I must be more stunned than I thought.
“I know it’s not nothing.” The emperor prodded, and I know he was only concerned.
He stepped closer to me, and my body shivered from the close proximity.