The two of us run off towards the woods.
I can tell that we’re heading in the direction of the impoverished village.
It’s already morning though, so is it really okay for us to be going there now
The thought hits me hard as the sunlight shines into my eyes.
But I don’t question her about it.
And like that, we reach the woods and plunge straight in without stopping.
In a way, the trees seem a bit ominous.
More ominous than they do at night at least.
Somehow, with the odd bits of daylight barely making its way through the canopy of the trees, instead of the calming and cool pitch-blackness of night, an eerie gloom hangs about palpably on the forest floor.
“Alicia! You’re not wearing any shoes!” I cry, after we had run through the woods for a little bit.
I was minding a root sticking up on the ground when I noticed that her feet are completely bare.
She doesn’t stop running at my sudden outburst and I can’t help but notice as she takes her long strides that the bottom of her feet are blackened with dirt.
“Don’t worry about it.
More importantly, have you noticed anything different about me”
She seems to not mind at all that her feet are getting filthier by the second.
“….Hmm, as I thought, the way you talk now seems different, I think”
I peer searchingly up into Alicia’s face as I say this.
At my words, a small wrinkle appears between her brows and her eyes get a faraway look as she gets lost in her thoughts for a moment.
“Could it be because I haven’t been able to talk with anyone in a while Do I sound weird”
“Not weird exactly, your voice just sounds lighter.
Softer than before,” I reply thoughtfully, to which Alicia gives me a small, gentle smile.
There’s no hint of forced malice or sarcasm in the look.
It’s like she forgot all about appearing wicked for a moment and is just smiling naturally at me.
It’s a look devoid of her usual artifice.
It reflects a bright intelligence and an honest, genuine character.
“You may be right.
I really might be talking differently now.”
“Did you really not talk with anyone at all for the last two years”
A slightly troubled expression crosses Alicia’s face.
Normally, she wouldn’t let such feelings show in her expression like that.
Somehow, it feels like she’s completely lost all the sharpness, all that villainous intent that she was always striving so hard for before.
“You just thought that I don’t seem as villainous now, didn’t you”
“How did you know!”
My shoulders stiffen involuntarily from the shock of her guessing my thoughts.
I never thought the day would come when she’d actually be able to read what I was thinking so clearly.
Did she use some sort of magic spell on me
“It’s not magic,” Alicia tells me matter-of-factly, the corners of her lips quirking up.
Ah, that face, that playful, teasing smirk…..
now that’s the Alicia that I remember.
“Then how did you know”
“Because your expression is like an open book”
That has to be a lie.
During these past two years, I’ve been working hard on preventing my thoughts and emotions from surfacing on my face.
Moreover, I’ve learned how to adapt my expression to best fit each situation.
No, I’m certain that it wasn’t my face that gave me away.
“….I’m kidding,” Alicia says, grinning so hard that little crinkles appear around the corners of her eyes.
My heart gives a startled jerk.
In a lot of ways, the girl before me is nothing like the Alicia that I knew.
All these changes are disarming.
“But I’m still the same.
I haven’t changed, Gilles.
I’m still just me.”
She knew exactly what I was thinking.
I stare at her wide-eyed for a moment before she suddenly lets loose with peals of laughter.
I couldn’t help it! Your expressions were so funny, I just had to tease you.”
Out with it.
How did you know”
“Come on~ It’s nothing to be that miffed about, right~”
“Just hurry up and explain yourself.”
“Well, you know how Grandpa Will seems to always know what someone’s thinking despite not even being able to see them I’ve been hypothesizing these past two years on how that’s possible.”
“So You were able to figure it out”
“No, not really.
I still don’t know how he manages it so perfectly.
But, I do think I figured out at least the gist of how it works,” Alicia admits to me proudly.
Somehow, she seems much more upbeat and lively than she used to be.
“I was the only one living in that little cabin, but lots and lots of people exist in the world outside of it, right Though that should just be an obvious fact, I suppose.”
And” I say, following along but still a bit unsure of where she’s going with this.
“Are you saying that you learned how to be more perceptive to the changes in the people around you” I continue a bit skeptically.
“Exactly. As expected of my assistant, you can understand what I mean even with nearly no explanation.”
As she speaks, Alicia gives me a rough, affectionate pat on the head.
Warmth floods through me at her words and touch, and yet again I reminded just how much she can affect me.
Nothing brings me greater joy or satisfaction than her recognition or praise.
“Tone of voice, expression, attitude, manners, mood….
just from listening closely and tuning into the aura and impression that another person gives off, theoretically, it’s possible to read their heart.
Though, the more I study this art, the more I come to realize just how difficult it is to put into practice.
Because it’s you, I can manage it to some degree, but my skills are nowhere near Grandpa Will’s level of mastery.”
“But still, that’s amazing, Alicia!”
There’s nothing really amazing about it,” she tells me coolly.
There’s no hint of frustration or impatience to improve in her tone.
She sounds like she honestly means that, like it’s truly no big deal.
“Even if I put in the same amount of effort, I doubt I could replicate it.”
“Effort It’s not like I’ve been trying especially hard do learn this.
It’s not through effort or hard work.
But at the end of the day, I’m only doing what needs to be done in order to become a villainess.
Nothing more, nothing less.”
“You say it’s for the sake of becoming a villainess, but I would say you seem much less villainous now than you did before.
Earlier, you even let that troubled expression show on your face…”
“Oh, that…. That was because I didn’t know what I should and shouldn’t say,” she explains while letting her features lapse into that same troubled expression from earlier.
With a serious look in her eye, she seems to be pondering hard about something and she falls silent.
She seems to be hesitating about whether or not to say something to me.
Of course, there’s no way that I would ever reveal something that she had told me in confidence, but there’s no point in telling her that.
If she doesn’t know that already, then my words will just sound like idle pleasantries.
Besides, Alicia needs to be the one to decide whether to tell me or not.
If she doesn’t want to, then I won’t push it.
After what feels like a long while, Alicia lightly shuts her eyes and lets out a small sigh.
When she opens them again, she immediately turns to me, piercing me with her strong gaze.
“You asked if I had talked to anyone during these past two years, right Well, I did.
When my mother came to see me.”