Endless thoughts raced through my mind throughout my trip back. The last thing I wanted to do was stay at the home of the girl that just rejected me, but I had nowhere else to call home in this world. At the very least, I had a place to gather my thoughts and decide what to do next.
Where had I gone wrong? After traveling and fighting together for nearly a year, I had thought we had a connection. In my heart, I had hoped that our bond would extend beyond that of a master and her servant, but had that been simply my own wishful thinking?
The cold, hate-filled glare as she screamed her rejection at me left me stunned and numb to my surroundings. There were moments where I stumbled into objects along the path. Paying them no mind, I simply brushed myself off and continued on my way.
Were all nobles like this? Starving for greater power and willing to throw away anything at the first opportunity? She didn’t seem at all concerned about the passing of her uncle as she made no mention of him. Had he simply been a stepping stone in order to reach the high life?
I didn’t want to believe that the girl I served had been capable of that, but since I had plenty of time alone, my mind inadvertently drew up those kinds of accusations. Perhaps it created excuses for me to blame her, rather than place any more blame upon myself.
Before I knew it, I had returned back to the Faulkner home, gone to my room, and plopped myself into bed. I closed my eyes to drown away the thoughts that continued to drive me into a corner. When was the last time I felt so hopeless?
“What are these grades, son? Why are we paying for you to waste your time in college, when you can’t even show us results?”
The voice of my mom railed against my back as she lifted up an iPad displaying my midterm scores. A spread of Cs and Ds were displayed next to each subject.
“We sent you to school so that you could figure out what you wanted to do. Should we pull you out and have you work in the restaurant instead? You did pretty good as a part-timer.”
My dad’s calm voice, always searching for alternatives and options to offer.
I didn’t care for any of that. I just wanted them to leave me be so that I could go back to my hobbies.
In truth, I went to college just to escape from them. To procrastinate from choosing a path to adulthood. To continue satisfying the simple pleasures that came with being a teenager. Was it so much to ask that I be given just a little bit more time?
So I ran. I found every excuse not to see them. I ignored their texts and calls, only to half-heartedly apologize later for missing them. I didn’t have the motivation to deal with it. I simply wanted to lose myself in the things that I enjoyed.
I was awoken by the gentle shaking of my shoulder. Opening my eyes, the morning sun shone right into them, causing me to flinch and turn away. Upon opening them again, a small face topped with blond hair stared at me.
Finding those words strangely comforting, I reached out to stroke her hair.
“Thanks. I’ll get up now.”
I found out later that Eryn never came home. She would be staying with the Duke until their marriage ceremony in roughly two weeks. Despite the fact that Eryn was still underage, if both parties accepted then it was allowed to proceed.
Within the next day, news of the engagement spread across the kingdom. The Duke had never chosen a wife before, despite being known to be prolific in the bedroom. I winced in disgust that Eryn had thrown herself upon such a man for the sake of power.
Though I wanted to leave it all behind, the small hand that grasped mine made me hesitate. Ludmila insisted on being my servant and going where I went, which made me reevaluate my plans.
I couldn’t support a child at the moment, given that I now had no income. Even if I wanted to become an adventurer or get a job somewhere, there would be no one to watch over her. Therefore, I decided to stay at the Faulkner home for the time being. Knowing that I would come home every day, Ludmila finally relented letting me find work, while being trained as a maid back home.
As I walked through the streets alone trying to figure out what to do, a voice called out to me.
“Excuse me, aren’t you the Demon Cleaver?”
A slim, studious, young man called out to me. Adjusting his glasses for a better look, he carried a notebook that was overflowing with page markers. Since he seemed rather harmless, I nodded in confirmation.
“Oh good, allow me to introduce myself. I am Dengel Berle, the secretary to Duke Charlemagne.”
The mention of that man’s name made me grind my teeth. What did he want with me now?
“As Miss Faulkner is no longer in need of a partner, I thought it would be a waste to let such talent slide out of our hands.”
“Talent? What talent could I have for a dingleberry like you,” I retorted sharply.
The man’s forehead twitched at my name-calling, though his face remained frozen in a cordial manner.
“Now, let’s not get personal. With the passing of Roland Faulkner, someone needs to take over the trading company. Though the company will technically be acquired by the Duke, there is importance in establishing an intermediary with someone the staff can trust. As a person with extensive knowledge unknown to this world, you have already demonstrated several breakthroughs that have elevated the company’s standing in the past year.”
“You’ve done your homework, I see.” Though I hardly wanted to be connected to the Duke, this man’s praise drew my interest. There was nothing I could lose by listening to him.
“Of course! Do you know how much I have to deal with? How widespread my Lord’s influence is? …Excuse me, I’m just rambling to myself. In any case, I would like to offer you that role. Please continue to be the keystone for the company by creating new lines of products. I will use my expertise to guide the company in places that you are lacking.”
The deal didn’t sound so bad. As long as I kept creating more products, the trading company would continue to thrive. I would get the help needed to stand on my own again, and there would be a place for Ludmila and I.
“Give it some thought. I’ll return for your answer tomorrow.” Dengel walked past me and soon disappeared into the crowd.
I immediately ran back home, having grasped a speck of hope. Now, I needed to see it through.
Immediately running into the kitchen upon returning, I made plans on what to cook next. However, as soon as my knife touched the first ingredient, something felt off.
“Huh? Did I miss? How strange.” I moved my knife over it again, and this time, it cut through.
But moments later, the knife bounced off again. Although the motions in my hand were well experienced, I had started making mistakes for no reason. By the time I finished chopping, the task had ended up feeling tedious.
Trying not to let it get to me, I continued mixing the ingredients and seasoning the stew. At some point, Ludmila walked in, sniffing curiously at my concoction.
“You wanna try some?” I spooned a small amount into a dish to let her sample.
Gingerly taking a spoonful, I was surprised to see that she immediately spit it back out.
Did I mess up somehow? Though it was a new dish, it shouldn’t have caused such a reaction. Taking a spoonful myself, I questioned what could have gone wrong.
To my shock, it was worse than anything that I had ever made. How could I have made something so badly? It was likely because I tried to do something unfamiliar. That was it.
In a panic, I stopped the pot and started cooking something different, something that I was used to making. Yet, as I went through the normal procedure and motions, something felt off. My movements felt…robotic. My hands were shaky and inaccurate. The usual scents that drifted into my nose meant nothing to me. I was forcing the steps onward in a mindless way.
Carina walked in at some point and tried a bit.
“How strange. It’s not like you to mess up like this.”
My cooking had become hollow. In the depths of my heart, I had a feeling as to why, yet my mind refused to admit it.
What was the reason I cooked in the first place? The image of a girl smiling as she partook in my dishes floated in my mind. Though I tried to mentally brush them away, they kept drifting into my vision.
Eryn had always been the motivation for me to push forward. She had been the reason I focused my efforts, aiming to please her. And now, that drive was gone.
I laid my knife down on the counter and walked away, convinced that it no longer belonged in my hand. Forget about leading the trading company. I could no longer cook a simple dish. I could no longer cut properly. Once more, I had become the useless person I was before.
An old voice in my head tried to pull the wool over my eyes.
‘You had a good run for a while, but in the end, you’re still your same old self.’
‘Why care anymore? It’s time to give up.’
‘Run away. Be free again.’
A different voice boomed over these, drowning them out.
“I came to check up on you, but what do I find? An embarrassing excuse for a man, much less a chef and demon slayer.”
I looked up to see a familiar, suave face looking at me. His blue hair swayed in front of a pair of eyes that looked down at me with disdain.
Without another word, Cornelius grabbed me by the collar and dragged me outside.