“Am I correct in assuming that all three of you are under the impression that I’m actively favoring C.C.?”
His words – his accusation – was met with a wall of silence. Behind them, C.C. sat quietly as she tried to fight the instinctual desire to shrink. Face aflame and unable to look the Prince in his eyes, she studied the patterns the melting snow left on her boots.
Reluctantly lifting her gaze, she answered his call. He stood with his arms crossed and brows furrowed as if he were nothing but disappointed in her. Ashamed – what for, she didn’t know, but it didn’t change the fact that she still felt sorry – she honestly replied that yes, she did believe he was actively and intentionally favoring her.
Pursing her lips, she wondered how detailed she should be. Surely there was no need to mention any of the kisses. Though they were infrequent and had merely been on the back of her hand or his cheek, mentioning such acts of affection was hardly news they would welcome. Nor could she bring up the quiet evenings they’d spend together after Marianne went to bed. While they were completely innocent of any possible breach, she knew that should she begin to describe those precious hours, it would soon become apparent how they were ripe opportunities for intimacy and affection to flourish. So then what could she possibly say without dousing the fire in fuel?
“You lent me your gloves. And you also uncovered your face in front of me.”
Gino raised his hand, apparently having mustered up enough courage to speak out against his leader.
“You take her out hunting really often even though it would be more efficient for Xingke or Jeremiah to go. No offense intended, C.C. I think you’re a great shot. Just not the best.”
“I take her out hunting more often because she needs the practice.”
“Why don’t you have one of us teach her then? Hunting consumes time you could otherwise use for other things, like leading.”
“Okay. Then why don’t you take the post, Gino? Since you so generously suggested the idea.”
She couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the news. Of course, Gino’s skill as a marksman weren’t to be sneered at, but spending time alone with the Prince – with Lelouch – had been nice, and while she understood this was a necessary measure to prove the lack of bias, she still tasted traces of bitterness over it.
“What other complaints do you have?”
“I understand why C.C. is staying in the main house, since Ms. Marianne lives in the main house, but why are you? Why don’t you stay here in the boarding house like us?”
“Why have you removed your mask in front of her but not before us?”
“Why is it that when we were separated in canyons, you chose to search for her? Why did you pick her well-being over the majority’s?”
The points he made following the barrage of questions she knew to be valid. All the same, it still stung to hear him speak of her lack of experience and consequent inability to care for herself properly under the trying circumstances of their outlaw lifestyle. As for why he was residing at the main house, he explained coldly, was simply to put Lady Marianne at ease. She knew the Black Prince the most intimately and therefore would be more comfortable with him of them all. Not to mention how they’d have indubitably preferred to have some kind of privacy in resting and recuperating than constantly having to mind the line dividing men and women.
“Now if that’s all of the grudges you hold against me, I’d like to discuss our future plans. First warm breeze, we’re out of here and going southwest.”
He had obviously noticed the distance between them upon the meeting’s close, but as Marianne immediately put her to work as soon as they returned, privacy was scarce until later in the evening after the matron had retired to bed.
Her knees drawn close to her chest, she sat huddled under a thick blanket as he stoked the fire. Coming to sit near her – though farther than he usually sat – he stretched his legs out before clearing his throat.
“I’m sorry if I caused offense.”
He scrutinized her with skepticism but chose not to argue. Sensing his discomfort, she lifted her head up.
“It just made me consider things I’d never really given that much thought before.”
“Like the future. It’s…liberating, this kind of life, but it’s not sustainable. There are too many risks with no stability whatsoever that I feel it would be appropriate to create some sort of goal that can mark my end as an outlaw. But there aren’t many ways a woman can support herself without having to give herself away to a man.”
The silence was filled with the sounds of the fire crackling and popping. C.C. glanced at him to try and gauge his reaction. Though their relationship went beyond that of a leader and his subordinate, to say that they were in any position to even consider the proposition of marriage was a bit much. Of course, their thoughts on the matter could differ, but if the Black Prince were so light with matters of the heart, hers certainly couldn’t have been the first hand he had asked for.
“If you would like, I could request for Cornelia to take you on as a ranch hand. It’s strenuous work under a dictator, but it can’t be any worse than the current circumstances. And as strict as she may be, she’s fair and will compensate you honestly according to your work ethic.”
She hesitated. The offer seemed a little too good to be true, but then again, so was the reality of a woman owning and operating her own business. The only catch was the newlyweds, but she suspected them to be manageable; she had dealt with them before. Who was to say she couldn’t again?
“If you think Cornelia is in need of an employee, then I’m prepared to work under her.”
He nodded. “Then I’ll make the arrangements the next time we see her.”
She thanked him quietly. To be honest, she was a little surprised he hadn’t protested any – when Suzaku had announced his retirement, he’d gone as far as pulling him aside amidst the group to speak to him – though she supposed the leader’s right hand man taking permanent leave was more serious than the departure of someone with her status.
“Is that your only concern or is there more?”
Of course it wasn’t, but after the day’s events, all her questions seemed trivial. So she merely shook her head.
“Well, if you have any doubts, I would be more than willing to listen and help you through them.”
He spoke with such intensity in his eyes, she was compelled to smile. His offer had been so earnest, despite the serious tone, it helped dispel the dark mood she’d sunk into since that morning.
“I understand. I’ll keep that in mind for the future.”
And she was comforted by the purity of his smile.