The sunlight was blinding. The wind was cool enough, and the far away rustling of leaves could be heard.
“Ho! Can you not hear me!”
Lying comfortably in the field, the young man with messy, curly, black hair made no movement. The face of the knight-in-training, the son of a well-to-do family who had exerted himself from the early morning in order to come get the man, turned red.
From the motionless, lying form facing the other way came a sudden, savage reply. For a moment, the knight-in-training looked surprised, but he soon spoke with a brazen expression.
“Why did you ignore me if you were awake?”
“This little bastard…..”
With one side of his face sporting an impression of the grass, the young man scowled and sat up. The knight-in-training instinctively took a step back.
“You wanna die, that it?”
“……W-what vulgar manner of speech!”
“The Commander asked for you so you should hurry up! V-Vice Commander!……Sir.”
“I’ll see you after, okay?”
With bits of grass stuck all over his back and bottom, the young man walked over to where the knight-in-training stood and whispered while placing an arm around the man’s shoulders.
After checking that the knight-in-training’s face had gone pale, he swaggered down the road. He could see two horses tied to the fence at the bottom.
Jumping onto his horse, he got further and further away. In the direction of the palace in the distance.
Then before long, the young man was picking his ears in front of the Knight Commander.
“What? Did I hear you right?”
The Commander’s face twisted. However, Leo did not say anything about the young man’s rude attitude, where he normally would have. As the Commander’s silence dragged on, the young man’s clear face finally began to contort as well.
Leo Dippet covered his eyes with his hand. He turned to the window with a miserable expression.
“You’re telling me…… to entertain….. that crazy woman?”
“That’s right! It’s me we’re talking about, Commander! I was slowly dying as a beggar amid rowdy street urchins! But despite all the discrimination and dismissal I became the royal family’s gold badge-wearing Vice Commander! That’s the kind of person I am, but what now? Do what?”
“Are you insane? You think I came all this way to be a prostitute?”
It was the voice of someone who was ready to kill. The Commander turned around and dissuaded him.
“Calm down. At least, at least for now, you must obey the royal decree. This is, the only way, you’ll live.”
“Fuck, why do I have to!”
Sieger kicked the desk next to him. The desk toppled backward noisily, cracking before splitting in two.
“Sieger, please. Listen to me carefully.”
The Commander grasped his shoulders, which were heaving in agitation.
“Don’t draw attention to yourself. Stay low, and bear with it. Try and do what she tells you to, okay? You must show obedience. I heard that she has a hobby of squashing those who resist. If you get caught up in that for nothing then your life….. Please just think about looking after yourself. Okay? Then I’ll definitely….. definitely get you out.”
Sieger’s under-eyes turned red. His shoulders shook with a mixture of anger and injustice, sadness, and resignation he didn’t want to acknowledge.
“Don’t give up. Ever. Understand??”
The Commander’s voice was shaky and sounded wet.
“What did you say when you came under me? You said that if you were going to take up a sword, you might as well become the best.”
“I’ll swear on my life that I will get you out. You can do it. Becoming the best.”
The young man known as Sieger had been with Leo for a long time. So he knew him well. The guy he knew was someone who would choose to break over bending.
“Commander, I think this country is insane.”
Sieger mumbled. As he knelt and clutched onto the pant leg of his benefactor.
The Commander wasn’t even able to cry loudly. He could only painfully express his despair and keep down the sobs that continually threatened to pour out.
Sieger let out a laugh. While packing his things in the small room that had served as his living quarters for the past year, he had thought of the past for a moment.
“Can’t trust that Commander. He said he’d save me. But if it’s like this, aren’t I just helping myself?”
He didn’t have many possessions. From the beginning, he hadn’t been attached to the place. Carrying two swords and a few clothes, Sieger headed to the knight’s quarters.
The entire time he was walking, he felt the prickling sensation of eyes on him. Sieger thought of the princess. That crazy bitch was off her rocker.
For him, it had been good news. They said that crazies didn’t live long, so let her just bite the dust already.
Even if that wasn’t the case, having escaped from his sickening life as a prostitute, Sieger thought that today at least, he would gladly obey an order to lick the ground of the training grounds. In any case, it would be better than licking the princess’s breasts.
Of course, if someone really ordered him to, he was prepared to tear their mug into pieces. Sieger’s eyes sparked like a coyote’s as he glared at each one of the figures treating him like some spectacle. They were mostly familiar faces. That’s why it sucked even more.
For now, things had turned out well on account of the princess going off her rocker. However, there was no way to know what else she would make him do. Really, just when he’d thought she hadn’t been coming around, she’d popped out of nowhere only to declare the dissolution of the order of prostitutes. He wanted to pick her brain.
That day, when he’d seen the princess again after so long. Sieger almost hadn’t recognized the princess. He didn’t know the reason, but for a moment, he’d thought she was a different person.
Sieger praised his animalistic senses. He clearly hadn’t gone rusty seeing as how he’d immediately noticed she’d gone insane.
The first time he had held back for the Commander’s sake, but if she tried to force him again, he was ready to kill that woman then gladly accept his own wretched death.
Sieger waved his hand at the person who had come out to greet him. It was the Knight Commander Leo Dippet.
Sieger was pulled into the Commander’s embrace. He let out a short laugh and greeted him.
“I am back.”
“……You did well.”
“But I thought you were going to get me out first?”
As Sieger retreated, Leo released his arms.
For a moment, neither of them said anything. Sieger scanned Leo’s subdued expression and laughed bitterly.
“I expected something like this. That even if I came back, everything wouldn’t go back to the way it was.”
“Am I being demoted? I’ll just think of it as going someplace quiet to get some rest. Which province is it?”
“Pretty heartless treatment of a comrade who made it back alive from a lousy situation if you ask me.”
Sieger hadn’t been even been treated as a human being while that woman kept him like a pig in a pen. He hadn’t even expected the prideful knights who put honor above all else to easily accept someone who had fallen behind like that.
Not to mention, Sieger had always been a blemish to them. Because he was a commoner. Moreover, he had been caught by patrol in one of those lawless districts for acting like a thug when Leo noticed him and took him in. Because of that, when Sieger was appointed to Vice Commander, many complained about unfair treatment and favoritism.
“I can convince them in no time. Then you’ll be able to come back.”
“So, where do I go now?”
Leo hesitated. After the princess’s personal order of knights had been disbanded, everyone left while Sieger was left alone. He had stayed and taken the promotion exam, officially becoming a knight again. Many people were envious of him, but there was no ignoring his skill.
But the high-ranking knights had pointed out that Sieger wasn’t qualified to even take the promotion exam.
“You do not have to leave.”
“What? What’s up with those guys?”
“…..You’ve been assigned to the outer palace guards.”
“Guards? The ones who patrol the tower over there and the outskirts?”
“In other words, they just hate the idea of me being a knight like them.”
Sieger ruffled his hair once, looked up at the sky, and couldn’t help but smile.
“Your Highness, should I let them in?”
I had just finished the homework Robia had assigned. I threw my pen onto the desk and stood up.
Shortly, the door opened, and three men, whose appearance was neater than before despite still being skin and bones, came in with faltering steps. As soon as our eyes met, they got down onto the carpet and bowed their heads.
Surprised, I stood them up. When I touched them, they visibly trembled. They were the slaves from Velrod that I brought from those bastards a few days ago. I turned to the maid who had come in with them.
“Prepare rooms for them, and have them trained as palace servants.”
“You’re probably curious as to why I brought you here. Try…. to adapt to this place. I’m going to let you live as servants. In this palace.”
One of the three asked, looking directly into my eyes.
But there was no anger or hatred in his eyes. It just seemed like an expression of subdued fear.
Pitying him, I reached out my hand. I was afraid that my sympathy would hurt them. But I couldn’t not reach out my hand, and had made them come all the way here.
“I promise. That nothing scary will happen from now on.”
Right then, a crooked voice flew at me from behind.
“You bought slaves.”
When I turned my head, I saw Robia leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed. I laughed awkwardly and waved my hand at him.
“Are you not of the age to know that it is foolish to buy slaves out of pity? Not to mention, it is illegal.”
“Are you condemning me? I already know, okay?”
“Quite bold, too. Anyways….. I had my reasons.”
I’d heard it hadn’t even been ten years since slavery was abolished by law. Since the royal family hadn’t shown any interest in making arrests, it was true that it was still popular.
And now I had….. Brought some into the palace.
“Anyways. Come in.”
Robia came in close and examined the slaves. Then he responded in an emotionless voice.
“They are from the east. Are they from Velrod?”
“…….You, would make it as a psychic.”
“Ah, I guess you don’t say that here.”
Maybe because of the noise of our conversation, Nadricka, who had been sound asleep, sat up on the bed, his hair messy.
The maid took that moment to leave the room with the three men.
I went and sat next to him, then arranged his tangled hair. Nadricka sat still as I ran my hands through his hair. And then his stomach grumbled.
“Are you hungry?”
Nadricka blinked his eyes before smiling and nodding his head.
I was smiling back at Nadricka when I noticed Robia standing up against the desk with his arms crossed, as if to challenge us to keep going. I saw Robia open his mouth to make all sorts of sarcastic remarks then,
“Should we eat first?”
I made the first move without hesitation.
“You haven’t had lunch yet, right? Eat with us.”
“With us, you say.”
Robia replied sullenly but I ignored it.
The meal was prepared instantly. Nadricka was deferential, Robia was curt, and the food was good.
“I’ve been thinking this for a while,”
At my words, Robia crookedly raised his eyebrows.
“You need to learn how to speak more nicely. You always look angry.”
With my head tilted I turned toward Nadricka.
Nadricka glanced at Robia then nodded in my direction.
“See, even Nadricka says so. Fix it.”
Robia was nicer than you’d think but he had the tendency to use harsh words. Though that inability to be honest was what made him cute.
Robia’s fork came down more forcefully than a minute ago. At that rate, he’d break his plate for sure. The tomatoes on Robia’s plate were spouting juice as they squished.
“Let us stop this and continue eating.”
I shrugged my shoulders and laughed. Nadricka followed me in laughing a little, when Robia’s already chaotic eyes angled sharply and focused on Nadricka.
I had thought that Nadricka would panic or avoid his gaze for sure, but it was a surprise when he lifted his head stiffly and met Robia’s eyes squarely.
Robia snorted dumbfoundedly before turning his gaze to his plate.
I tilted my chin and watched the two with interest.
“So, I have something to ask.”
“You two fought, didn’t you?”
Nadricka’s eyes shook like his tongue had been stabbed. Robia only knit his eyebrows and scowled, but didn’t seem too surprised.
“Why would I do something so troublesome?”
“Why? You know that thing that happens between concubines.”
It seemed Robia understood instantly, because his face twisted. Seeing his disgust, I pretended innocence.
“You know, something like fighting over affection?”
“From the start, are he and I even on the same level? As if……”
Unexpectedly, the vehement response came from elsewhere.
“I-It’s not like that! Not at all! Really!”
It was Nadricka.
“It’s not like that, that is, so what I’m saying is, that person kept, to Your Highness…….”
“……Without knowing his place!”
Without knowing his place!
His voice was so loud that the words shook the ceiling and echoed through the room. Robia looked fed up.
“You were really jealous, weren’t you?”
His face a bright red, Nadricka drooped his head.
Yuriel had disappeared from my eyes, and the peace which had seemed impossible had come, but I felt strangely anxious.
I thought I had been running straight ahead all this time, so it felt like I had missed something. Of course, it was just a feeling, and I could point to nothing concrete.
I also absentmindedly laid on my bed for half a day thinking about Eclot’s words.
What was I supposed to do now?
I had escaped the threat of death, but I was still in this world. Wearing the fake appearance of the princess. What am I supposed to live for now?
My previous self was gradually being buried. Even so, that didn’t mean I could become the true princess.
“Do not be like that and please accept them.”
I wordlessly stared at the viscount who had come to see me along with his second son. He was setting out in front of me what he claimed was porcelain obtained with difficulty from the east.
“I said I wasn’t interested.”
“However, just for Your Highness I went through some lengths to obtain….”
I waved my hand, cutting him off, then spoke.
“So, what is your real reason for coming here?”
The number of times something like this had happened almost exceeded the number of fingers I had. But I couldn’t just throw them all out.
“I wanted to request Your Highness’s opinion….”
The man in front of me was the first who had actually brought his son along.
His son was an adorable looking man with fair skin. He had been watching out for my reaction when the tips of his ears turned red and he stood up from his seat. I told you to tell me so why are you getting up?
“Your Highness. Before that, would you allow me to pour you some tea?”
Somehow, he read my displeased silence as a positive sign, because he approached me and poured tea into the tea cup offered up by his father. Then, while taking up my tea cup, he stealthily drew his body close to mine and smiled with his eyes.
Being forced to watch his father watch the sight with satisfaction was just.. I could tell that the original princess had accepted such bribes often enough.
Suddenly, the father faked a cough and said that he should get going.
Of course, the son didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving. He was wearing wide leg pants and had quietly lifted his pant leg to show me the bare skin of his calf.
When I didn’t respond, he pretended to accidentally spill his tea onto his chest.
…..That’s probably hot, though.
He made a big fuss about throwing off his shirt, then apologized while bowing.
“Enough. And you, bring a cold towel, since he might have been burned.”
The servant who had been on standby behind me quickly exited the room. Besides misinterpreting my words, I hoped she wouldn’t be so considerate as to let him and I spend quality time together by never returning.
It seemed the man was in pain because his under-eyes were red and he was gasping and rubbing his chest. Then he looked up at me through bleary eyes. Now that it had come to this, it was giving me a headache to feign innocence.
“Why? Do you want me to take you?”
His face flushed red.
Saying that, he jumped up and into my arms. I was only asking, when did I say we should roll around together!
“Your Highness, the towel…..”
I hurriedly stopped the maid who was trying to leave again after seeing us tangled up together on the sofa, and pushed the man’s face away with my hand.
Only at the end of the fiasco, after I had sent him back blubbering with the wet towel, could I finally pause for breath.
I didn’t know if the original princess would have enjoyed this kind of full body attack, but I didn’t.
I took back what I said about it maybe being okay to live like this. There was nothing shittier than living in someone else’s body.
I got up in a flash. There was a loud knocking on the door in the dark of night, then Daisy ran into the room. After that I saw people gathered there anxiously with lamps.
“What is it?”
“Ah, so, I went to check today too because Your Highness asked me to, so……”
“Get to the point.”
“They hung themselves!”
They were the ones who had laid their hands on Nadricka before. She meant that one among them had tried to hang themselves in their room. She said that the servant had been taken away and examined and thankfully would be okay.
“Your Highness, are you alright?”
Finishing her story, Daisy inspected my face.
“Do I not look alright?”
I did receive regular reports. And because Eclot had brought that problem up again, it was just yesterday that I had given the order to continue looking into things. If that hadn’t been the case, they would have been found dead tomorrow.
I had heard that a strange rumor was circulating among them. That the princess was playing around with them. That she was going to enjoy their suffering before killing them off one by one without leaving a trace.
Part of it was my intent. I wanted to make it so they would tremble in fear and never be able to do something so terrible again.
However, that rumor didn’t stop there. From avoiding them, people went on to disdaining and ignoring them. They had thus been isolated. I thought that it was right for them to experience it.
And ultimately, that had caused a young servant, who had done nothing except stand on lookout like their seniors had instructed them, to attempt suicide. And in doing so, they had beat out everyone else who had been far more malicious.
Far into the night, the servant was unable to regain consciousness, then dawn broke.
The more the incident was kept under wraps, the faster it spread through the palace. At dawn, two other maids who had been involved in the matter were captured while trying to escape.
More than any other day, the atmosphere in the palace was different. The servants whispered under their breath, and there wasn’t a single loud noise. Everyone was sunk with long-accumulated fear.
I acknowledged that I had to do whatever I could to find another solution to the matter.
Not what was right, but what was necessary in the current moment.
“What did you just say.”
Eclot headed to the princess’s palace as soon as he heard the news. The closer he got, he could see the servants from the other palace crowding together with nothing else to do. When they noticed Eclot, they made way for him and he was able to find the princess without much difficulty.
The princess was standing straight. As if she was receiving all of the sun’s rays on her own shoulders. She was calm but not cold.
So Eclot was unable to draw any closer. In this moment, his master who had all of his esteem was unbearably unfamiliar.
At first, he had simply thought that it was because he hadn’t been by her side in so long. But where had those strange and strong eyes come from that were now stopping him in his tracks. He didn’t know.
Then, it happened.
“Cut them off.”
At the princess’s command, the armed soldiers moved together in perfect unison. It happened in the span of a breath.
Axe blades cut through the right wrists of the four criminals whose heads were bowed Bestial cries mixed with blood as diffused out. Then, hunched over, they cried out in outrage.
But it was calm.
The even and straight gaze of the princess was like that.
Eclot could not dare look away and watched that calm for a long time.
The four leaders had their right hands severed. The bleeding was stopped and their wounds were bandaged before they were expelled from the palace. Everyone else who had been involved received seven lashes and were chased out.
Standing in front of those who had screamed in pain and received notice of their expulsion, the princess spoke concisely.
Pain is forgotten over time. That though your wounds would close up easily, you will not be able to forget your crime when you see your wrist. That such was their punishment.
How had her eyes looked.
Before he knew it, he was walking toward the princess’s palace.
Not even he could explain these feelings of his. He had always came with a reasonable motive but now, as if he was in a trance, as if he had lost his reason, like that.
“Where is she.”
Despite the reply that she wasn’t here, he couldn’t help but ask the question. Despite knowing in his brain that she would want to be alone. The maid’s face said she thought so too but without another word, she told him.
The princess was in little frequented passage connecting to the loggia. Because the loggia was in a corner, it was rarely used.
Leaning against a column, the princess was looking far into the distance. Though she soon turned her head when Eclot made his presence known.
“I greet Your Highness.”
The princess gave him a brief smile. The sun was setting behind her.
For the first time in a long time, Eclot found it difficult to open his mouth. He hadn’t been like this even during his first audience with His Majesty in his youth.
In the end, the first to talk was the princess whose gaze was focused on something far away. She appeared upset.
“In the end, it happened like you said.”
“Why aren’t you speaking?”
“Your Highness. Please do not be too concerned.”
At those words, the princess let out a short laugh. Eclot got a little nearer. The princess stared at him before turning away.
“That’s right, I knew you would say that.”
Eclot couldn’t understand what was the problem.
“You said that it wasn’t a matter of right and wrong. Nevertheless, tell me. Do you think this is right?”
“What do you mean.”
“My punishing them.”
“It is right.”
Eclot answered right away. Because there was no way to know the heart of the one he served, he just responded with everything he had. Hearing those words, the princess sat on the balustrade with her back to the outside.
“Is it because servants scorned their superiors? Or is it because they forced themselves on someone who did not want it?”
The princess only said words he couldn’t understand. Nevertheless, his heart was anxious because he wondered at the meaning.
He wished she would let him listen to her voice a little more. Foolish as he was, he wished she would teach him too. And thus, accept… accept him. His mouth went dry.
“…….I do not understand the difference.”
“If it is the first, then that is all there is to it, but if it is the latter, then anyone can be made to face the consequences of their crimes. Even the emperor himself.”
He called out to the princess, his voice laced with concern.
The princess he had met after 5 years was somehow different. Had she changed in that time. That was a strange feeling.
I couldn’t understand. Because my heart was in turmoil, my mouth opened on its own.
“Why do you prevent me from apologizing?”
I wanted to know what exactly the princess was for him to be kneeling on one knee at my feet. A man who was a good ten years older than the princess at that.
I watched the rippling light of the twilight sun spread out onto his dark blue hair, slight lighter eyes, and motionless shoulders. And I thought.
I was enjoying something that wasn’t mine.
Even though each moment our eyes met, I wished he wouldn’t be like that with my whole heart. And while I was wishing so, the thought crept into my brain.
If he had to subordinate himself to someone and offer up his everything, if he had to….
“I am going to ask you something right now.”
“…….Do you think you can give me an answer?”
“If the method is wrong, it can be fixed. You can just find an alternative method. But if the motive is wrong, then do you not think the method will be wrong no matter which it is?”
I watched as he listened intently with a serious look in his eyes. Seeing that face, which did not frown even once, I couldn’t not ask.
“Therefore, I ask you, will you be my wrong method?”
Like that, wishing that what I had done today wouldn’t become a wrong motive, but simply an alternative method I had chosen.
“……Or will you be my alternative method?”
I put out my hand. In his pure eyes was only me.
What are you thinking now.
If he had to subordinate himself to someone and offer up his everything, if he would never change, if he had to give up even his own life for his master…..
I would not see someone else become your master. I ended up thinking that.
“…..Your Highness, I will gladly become your alternative method. I will follow where you go. No matter where that is.”
He responded while clasping my outstretched hand. So, I said again.
The twilight sun that had dominated the moment went, and we wordlessly watched the darkness gather.
The moment had arrived to adapt and move forward according to the ways of this place.
“What do you mean? He’s on guard duty?”
Robia didn’t appear to be happy with the change in topic during lessons. However, he took off his glasses, placing them on the table, then leaned backed in his chair. It seemed he’d decided to take a short break.
“Then did you think that he would be able to return to his original place?”
“You said it, he was the youngest as well as the first commoner to become Vice Commander….”
I stopped what I was saying. Robia nonchalantly massaged his neck and glanced at me.
“…..So that’s why?”
“Yes, that is why.”
Robia’s response was cold.
“There is no way that those who claimed his empty spot would return it gladly, is there? In the first place, people were constantly going on about how outrageous it was when he became Vice Commander.”
“Really, nothing goes the way I want.”
I leaned back into my chair before suddenly being struck with a thought.
“But why am I only hearing this now?”
“Well, usually you do not care about this kind of thing, Your Highness. Is that not right?”
For a moment, Robia’s tone felt a little strange. But at once, he continued like normal.
“Since everyone who delivered pointless news died within the day, it is not strange that the servants would keep quiet.”
I supposed there was no way the princess would have been interested in that kind of clean up. But to me, it was quite the problem.
Right then, someone made their presence known outside the door.
“Sir Knight is here.”
“It is I, Your Highness.”
Following the maid’s words, I heard a familiar voice. I glanced at Robia and answered.
Eclot walked into the room as he normally did, then stopped when he saw me outside the bedchamber. To be exact, it was when he discovered me, and Robia who was sitting across from me.
But Eclot walked over with familiar movements and paid his respects. As I reached out my hand, he lowered his head and pressed his lips against my fingertips.
“So, what’s the matter?”
“I heard that Your Highness is directing the territorial negotiations with Rothschild. His Majesty said that I would be of help to Your Highness with matters related to the war.”
Now that I thought about it, hadn’t the emperor entrusted this to me in the first place so I would get along better with Eclot or something.
“But without getting some more rest? Recuperate from the fatigue of your travels for a few more days. Because Robia is doing a good job with helping me.”
At those words, Eclot’s gaze shifted over to Robia. Their eyes locked.
The longer the silence dragged on, the stranger the atmosphere became. Without warning, Robia opened his mouth.
“It is the first time seeing someone who has had fewer audiences with Her Highness than me.”
Eclot replied calmly.
“To be exact, it is not audiences you lack but shame, no?”
“Stop, both of you.”
Eclot instantly shut his mouth, and Robia looked at me with dissatisfaction.
“It’s none of my business whether you two fight, but how about you consider the time and place.”
“…..Apologies, Your Highness.”
“Can you come back later tonight? I have something to tell you. Right now, I’m a little occupied, as you can see.”
Eclot bowed his head as if in agreement and replied.
“I will do so. Then I will see you then.”
It was when he was about to turn around. Out of nowhere, Robia butted into the conversation.
“It is alright.”
“Speak here. It is alright with me so say what you need now.”
Robia’s face held no emotion, but he spoke quicker than usual.
“Why are you calling him separately? Is it something I should not hear? Because I let my eye wander?”
“Why are you bringing that up now?”
“If it is not that, then speak here.”
“But, Your Highness!”
It wasn’t something to get so worked up over, so Robia’s reaction was unexpected.
I reached out a hand with the intent of calming him. Robia hesitated for a moment while looking down at my hand, before reaching out his own and carefully placing it on mine. I gave his hand a light squeeze.
“…..Your Highness, please do not get keep that man close.”
Robia squeezed my hand.
“Don’t trust him. You cannot trust him. Do you understand me?”
Before I could speak, Eclot’s voice descended between us.
It was a chilly voice that had never been directed once toward me.
“In whose presence do you dare to show such discourtesy.”
Robia glared at Eclot with wild eyes. He opened his mouth.
“Your Highness. Will you punish me?”
When I didn’t answer, Robia turned to look at me.
“I asked if you would punish me.”
I felt a little put on the spot. Robia knew that my answer was already decided.
“That’s how it is, so stop butting in.”
Eclot ignored him.
“Your Highness, you must punish him.”
I sighed. And then I gave the order to leave.
“Both of you, leave.”
To both of them.
It happened as I’d finished my preparations to go to bed. Eclot came to find me.
I sat up to greet him, but a shadow loomed over me.
When I lifted my head, he had stridden over to me before I knew it. For some reason, it felt like we were closer than normal. I slumped back on the bed again and tapped the spot next to me.
“Do you want to sit here?”
It was awkward having him stand. There was no special meaning behind my words but
Eclot was unbuttoning his uniform, which had been done up to his chin.
Taking off his outer coat and placing it on the bed, he was now in a shirt and vest. He sat down next to me, and this time too, he was close enough for his arm to brush against me.
“What are you doing?”
“What do you mean.”
I cocked my head to one side.
“You wanted to tell me something…..”
“Before that, you’re being a little weird.”
He placed his hand behind my back then inclined his head toward me.
“…….If I seemed awkward, I apologize.”
“No, it’s not about whether you were awkward or not but….”
Eclot tilted his head more and spoke in a quiet voice. His breath grazed my cheek.
“May I touch you?”
So what you’re telling me is, this is that kind of situation.
……Like this, without any warning? I was flustered because I couldn’t guess his intentions.
“You’re asking to kiss?”
He nodded before his eyes fluttered closed. As his dark blue eyes disappeared behind his lids, he closed in. Our lips touched.
They pressed together a little deeper before Eclot gently laid me back. With his hand supporting my neck, I found myself lying back on the bed.
With our lips still together, he inhaled through his nose. Soon, Eclot opened his mouth and sucked in my upper lip, put his arms back and took off his vest. I heard the sound of clothes falling to the floor. Eclot brought his hands to the buttons of his shirt.
I pushed on his chest. Eclot put his hands on the bed and moved back obediently.
“Did I send any signals that could have been misinterpreted?”
“Right now, you’re trying to sleep with me?”
“When I asked if you loved me, you said no.”
“I…… I have a duty to serve Your Highness as a concubine.”
I put a hand on my forehead and then ran it through my hair.
“If anything I did displeased you then I will rectify it.”
“So, what you’re saying is, you’re not doing this because you want to?”
Eclot was quiet as though he were at a loss for words. It also seemed like he was searching for an answer. I sat up again. He retreated and sat down.
“Then it’s fine.”
“I’m saying there’s no need.”
I reached out and straightened his collar. Eclot stared down at my hands.
“Is it because of what happened earlier or……”
“It’s not because I don’t trust you.”
“And I’m planning on using you in a more valuable way.”
I suddenly recalled how Robia had been strangely worked up during the day. I didn’t know that ‘let’s meet later, just the two of us’ would cause this kind of misunderstanding. I wouldn’t know, not being in the business of calling men into my bedchamber at night.
“I really only called you to talk.”
With an uncomfortable distance between us, I scratched my cheek.
“If you don’t want it, I don’t plan on taking you. So yeah, I’m sorry for making you misunderstand.”
“It is not something for you to be sorry about. Please take back your words.”
He rose from the bed neatly. I watched him pick his clothes up from the floor with uncertainty.
What is this feeling. This uncomfortable but hard-to-define feeling….
“It is too late to talk. I will come find you again later. Please tell me then.”
“Um,…. Wait a moment.”
As Eclot was turning around after saying his parting greetings, I grabbed his arm. Our eyes met again.
“…..Get back safely.”
In the moment, I looked down, and saw something I shouldn’t. The place between his legs bulged.
I almost rubbed my eyes in disbelief.
In my surprise, I quickly turned my gaze up to the ceiling. To think that it had become like that….. It was really unexpec…..
I followed Eclot as he headed for the door. Leaning against the doorframe, I watched him step out into the hallway when I grabbed his wrist.
Unable to make eye contact, my eyes darted, and only after a long hesitation did I speak.
“It was good.”
“……Is that so.”
I let go of his wrist. He bowed his head in farewell for the final time, then the door closed.
With my back against the door, I slid down and slumped onto the floor.
What had I just said, and with that timing?
This was the worst.
I tousled my hair and buried my face between my knees.
For some reason, it hadn’t felt right to just send him off.
Was this why they said a lecher couldn’t make a benevolent ruler.
No matter how much you try, if you don’t have a clear head, then even a normal person can become a lech……
I slapped my cheeks with both hands.
“Get a grip.”
Why had Robia said not to trust him? At the very least, it hadn’t seemed like he was speaking out of mere jealousy.
I sighed while getting up. It looked like I wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight.
“We’re rotating! Sir! Please get up!”
Sieger opened his eyes. He saw a gloomy night sky without moon or stars. And next to him were two sentries looking down at him. Sieger brushed off the dirt from his clothes as he got up and stretched his limbs.
“Ah, that was a good nap.”
He was just about to pass by the sentries who still looked young, maybe because they were new, when one of them spoke.
Although the soldier next to him pulled on his companion’s arm as if to tell him not to, when Sieger turned around, the man looked him square in the eye.
“No matter how upset you are from being demoted, it will be difficult if you keep acting like this.”
“I do not know if it seems lowly to you, Sir, but we have our pride. From now on, if I see any negligence from you while you are on duty, I will report you to our superiors straight away.”
For a moment, Sieger stared at them without speaking.
“As a commoner like you, I respected you. Sir.”
“That sounds like you don’t now.”
When there was no response, Sieger let out a short laugh and scratched the back of his head. His gaze went from the ground to the sky before coming back to the two sentries, where it stayed fixed.
“You’re right…… Sorry.”
Sieger turned around and began walking. Because he could clearly hear the sound of the two sentries arguing under their breath, the corners of his mouth turned up briefly, but his smile soon disappeared without a trace.
Something had been bothering him.
The gaze he had been feeling for a while suddenly disappeared. Sieger continued walking while concealing his feelings, but he gradually slowed down and came to a halt. He turned his head in the direction where he had felt the now gone presence.
He couldn’t begin to understand her true intentions. It was the middle of the night so she should be knocked out, but instead she was out here peeping.
The one known as the princess.
He had even pretended to fall asleep, but that woman had just gone back. After watching from afar as if she was trying to see how he was doing.
He felt crappy. Because in that gaze, rather than murderous intent….was worry.
He couldn’t say how exactly, but it was clear that woman had become weird.
Sieger said those words over and over again then forgot them.
“Your Highness! Your Highness! I said! Your Highness!”
“Daisy, it’s enough to call me once.”
I replied, without looking away from my book.
“Are you not ready yet?”
“The victory commemoration party!”
“That’s still far off.”
“What do you mean? We have to go! I heard there’ll be a lot of yummy food!”
“Wait, right now?”
I dropped my book as I was pulled up by Daisy.
“I haven’t even washed my face.”
“That’s okay! Your Highness is pretty even if you don’t!”
“Do you wash your face to look pretty?”
As we were speeding down the hallway like that, we encountered Nadricka who had been on his way to my room.
“Your Highness? What are you…..?”
I suddenly grasped Nadricka’s wrist. And so Nadricka began to be pulled along with me by Daisy.
“What are we doing right now?”
“I don’t know either.”
When I shrugged my shoulders, Nadricka opened his eyes wide and laughed prettily.
“You were playing with her.”
“Look closely. I’m being dragged along right now.”
Right then, the head maid came running from behind and shouted.
“Ah, what a relief. I guess I’ll get to at least wash my face before going.”
Finally stopping, we smiled at each other. And Daisy was scolded for some time by the head maid.
With a sullen Daisy in tow, we came back to my room.
“So it was because of the victory commemoration party.”
“Right. What do you usually do at one of those?”
I asked while caressing the head of a deflated Daisy.
“There will be a granting of medals, ranks, or land as a recognition of distinguished services. Afterwards, people get drunk, dance, and talk.”
Nadricka laughed a little with a look that said he could guess what I was thinking.
“You still have to go. It will be helpful to let people see you.”
“I know….. But having to laugh when it’s not funny is more of a drag than you might think.”
“You do not need to laugh.”
Nadricka softly tucked my hair behind my ear.
“Because no one would dare ask that of you.”
I let out a short laugh.
“Are you busy today?”
“If you aren’t, do you want to be my escort today? I heard last time that it was etiquette to attend as a pair.”
“…..With me? Is that okay?”
I spoke casually while crossing my legs, when I felt Nadricka looking at me wordlessly.
“But are you well?”
“Yes…. Just in case. You said that you were okay, but surely if you stop using then……”
Ahh. This was about drugs.
“Um! You two look so beautiful and all but may I say something?”
Daisy’s hand shot into the air.
“I think Hess has taken all of the drugs outside as Your Highness commanded. And the place where they were hidden before was the kitchen storage room. So I wanted to say there is nothing to worry about now!”
“And you weren’t noticed?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What is this about?”
“I judged that keeping drugs close at hand was dangerous. Anyways, you don’t need to worry, since I’m fine.”
Even at my words, the worry didn’t completely disappear from Nadricka’s face.
“Like you said, who would dare put me in danger?”
As I put my arms around his neck, Daisy made a big fuss about letting us be alone.
I was heading out of the palace in the evening after finishing my preparations when servants began trailing behind me.
“Your Highness, just now in the palace…..”
The head maid looked from me to where Nadricka was, as he headed outside. Noticing that I was watching her, the head maid quickly bowed her head.
“It is nothing. Please get into the carriage.”
“Your Highness! You have to bring a lot of goodies!”
As if she were sad she couldn’t come along, Daisy saw us off with a face on the verge of tears. I promised her I would and got on the carriage with Nadricka.
Nadricka, whose palms were moist as though he were nervous, was wearing a dark blue suit, and a milky white corsage on his chest. It was a decoration that complemented his white blonde hair very well.
“Are you uncomfortable?”
“Is it your first time?”
If I had known this would be the first official appearance he would be making with me, I would have chosen a better occasion to bring him along.
When we arrived, the venue was already crowded.
“Are we late?”
Nadricka’s words were drowned out, and the magnificent sound of a trumpet filled the room. And after that came the voice of the herald announcing my arrival.
In an instant, the crowd quieted. In the middle of that quiet, I walked forward accompanied by Nadricka.
The crowd parted to make way for us. Everyone was looking at me. And they bowed their heads low whenever our eyes met.
“Because, it’s natural for the main character to be fashionably late.”
Nadricka whispered into my ear the words he hadn’t been able to finish.
I had forgotten while I had basically been cooped up in the palace, but I was taking in the princess’s strong presence.
“Ah, Princess. Sister. Come up here.”
“I’ll get some food.”
Before I could say anything, Nadricka withdrew and disappeared into the crowd. I didn’t have much choice but to climb the stairs to the dais alone.
Surrounded by royal guards, bodyguards, and secretaries, the emperor sat in the very center.
“You are just in time. This is a knight who has been acknowledged for his distinguished services during this past war. I confer upon you a title today and you have the honor of having the princess serve as witness.”
“I am moved to tears, Your Majesty! Your Highness!”
The man bowed his head while on one knee.
I really must have been late because with this final man, the conferment ceremony was over. I scanned the others who were standing off to the side, all splendidly dressed in uniform, but Eclot wasn’t there. The emperor rose from his seat.
“You battle-tested warriors who have once again brought us victory, I have high expectations of you. I will be watching you, therefore eternally use your strength for your country’s glory.”
“We receive your command!”
“It’s been a while, Princess.”
Right then, someone tapped my shoulder.
“You should come play sometime. It’s boring being by myself.”
Saying that, the woman laughed lightly. It was the timing for me to say something, but since I didn’t know who she was……
“It is nice to meet you, Your Majesty Empress Hariel. It appears you accompanied His Majesty out.”
The owner of the voice that had popped up out of nowhere was Nadricka. The woman looked a little surprised, and she seemed displeased at being addressed so suddenly. Although she swiftly fixed her expression.
The woman looked at me instead of Nadricka and laughed.
“……As you can see, I’ve been completely head over heels for this boy lately so I don’t have any time.”
When I laughed while interlacing my fingers with Nadricka’s, the woman covered her mouth with her fan and let out a laugh.
“You’ve changed to the point you are unrecognizable. Is this the power of love? I wish His Majesty would watch and learn as well.”
“That is outside of my power to do.”
The woman replied like that and laughed again. Then she went to the emperor’s side.
“I worry I’ve done something unnecessary by getting involved.”
“No, it helped.”
When I said those words and laughed, Nadricka laughed as well, but it wasn’t that bright of a smile.
“Um. Should we go get some rest on the terrace?”
I was leading Nadricka by the hand when someone tore my wrist away. My body was forcefully spun around by the recoil. My hand was released from Nadricka’s.
“Your Highness. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
It was a man I didn’t recognize.
That wasn’t surprising since I didn’t know that many men in this world. Anyways, it was an unpleasant enough meeting that I wished he could remain a stranger to me.
“Why? I was just trying to escort you since it looked like you didn’t have a partner.”
I was slowly starting to get irritated by how he was treating Nadricka like he was invisible.
“……Get out of my sight while I’m still feeling generous.”
“Wow, you haven’t changed. You think I don’t know you don’t mean that?”
He seemed drunk as he let out a trashy laugh and slyly ran his thumb along the inside of my wrist, giving me a wink as he did so.
Fine. I could surmise what his relationship with the princess had been. With my eyes, I signaled the knight who had been coming over to fall back.
“Don’t be like that and let’s go out, just the two of us and…..”
Just like that, I stabbed my heel down into the foot of the pest of a bastard. Then I put some force into it and ground down.
The hand on my wrist loosened and the man staggered backward. In an instant, his anger boiled over and he raised a hand to me.
I could hear the gasps of the people around us who had thus far been pretending not to be watching. I guessed that they themselves hadn’t anticipated him to take it so far.
But at that instant, something flitted past me and charged at the pest of a bastard. Then, they were rolling on the floor of the hall together. A large commotion followed, with the people they bumped into dropping their champagne glasses and etcetera.
“What, is this! Let go!”
While the pest was in agony from hitting the back of his head, Nadricka got on top of him and subdued him with an arm pressed to his throat.
“Fuck, crazy motherfucker, how dare you forget your place…..!”
The pest flailed his legs and struggled to get Nadricka off of him. Nadricka stubbornly stuck to him.
The three of us had instantly become the center of the commotion, with the nobles starting to surround us.
“What is going on?”
“That youth must be insane doing that to Her Highness…..”
“Whose son is he?”
I shouted again.
Only after the soldiers had tied up the pest did Nadricka peel himself away, teetering. He was breathing heavily as I approached him.
“Are you okay?”
He didn’t look okay.
The pest wasn’t even ashamed as he openly showed his hostility toward Nadricka.
“How dare you lay hands on me, me, you lowborn bastard whore! You’re dead, you hear me!”
I commanded the soldiers.
“Let him go.”
The soldiers gave each other confused looks.
The soldiers seemed to realize that I was being serious, because they released the thrashing pest and fell back. I calmly grabbed the pest by the throat and pushed. As the pest’s was cut off, he gripped my arm tightly. My expression didn’t change as I tightened my hold.
“What are you…..”
I whispered in a low, cool voice.
“Try to think a little.”
“You think that just because you shook your hips above me that I’m really below you now?”
The pest’s eyes filled with surprise.
“How bold of you to get on my nerves.”
If something like this were to happen again, I wasn’t sure how far I would go.
As I let my gaze sweep over the crowd, those who made eye contact with me trembled as if they had received an electric shock and averted their gaze.
“But that bastard was the one who……”
“Do you want me to cut off your tongue and feed it to you? Will that make you shut your hole?”
The pest’s hand that was clamped on my arm was moist.
“No. Bastards like you who like what’s between your legs naturally shut up when it’s cut off. Isn’t that right?”
I taunted, and sent my gaze down. The moment that he flinched and lowered his head to look between his legs,
I released the hand I was using to grip him, and delivered a blow to the back of his head. The pest yelped and fell down in front of my feet.
When he lifted his head from there, I slapped him like I had been waiting for it. The pest flopped backward and I issued a command while pointing at him.
“Pick that up.”
The soldiers immediately tied him back up. Then they dragged him outside of the venue.
Nadricka quietly took hold of my wrist.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah. Are you okay?”
“…..That man is the son of Earl Pelant, one of His Majesty’s favorites.”
“What are you talking about? I’m the princess.”
Nadricka shook his head in surrender and let out a sigh that sounded like a laugh.
The nobles walked on eggshells around us as they began to scatter.
“Then…… Shall we go to the terrace like we planned originally?”
I let out a sigh only after we had gotten to the terrace and made sure the curtains were drawn. For a moment, my vision was dark.
“Are you really alright?”
Nadricka asked worriedly.
“I just feel sorry. To you.”
“Why are you apologizing?”
Nadricka laughed softly without looking me in the eye.
“Because I’m embarrassed.”
“Because, not even being able to help your Highness, I’m a burden instead……”
“That’s not true in the least bit. You’re such a great help.”
I reached out and pulled Nadricka into my arms. When he had charged the pest just a little while ago, I had been secretly surprised. I would never have imagined he would do that.
As I patted his back, Nadricka buried his head in my shoulder and murmured.
“Because I’m nothing…. That’s why I’m sad.”
I hugged him tightly.
“You’re not nothing to me.”
“More than that.”
His voice was gloomy, but clear and resolute.
“All right, let’s become something more than that. You can do it.”
“I want to protect Your Highness too.”
“I’ll make it so you can. I promise.”
“……I want to protect you.”
“…….Your Highness doesn’t know anything.”
“……Are you sulking?”
When I laughed under my breath, Nadricka unhappily rubbed his face on my shoulder.
Nadricka left, saying he would bring something to slake our thirst, and I was left alone on the terrace.
What I saw as I lifted my head was the clear night sky. I slowly took a step away from the sounds of the party that issued through the firmly drawn curtains.
Was I on the right track? I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had completely assimilated to this place.
I wondered if I would live out my life wearing the princess’s skin, and eventually become emperor. And I wondered if that was my fate.
I wondered if there really was no way to return.
If I wanted to know that…. Ironically enough, I needed Yuriel. But that woman was my enemy.
I reached for the railing behind me.
No, I tried to reach for it. My hand fell through. In other words, I had just reached for thin air.
I didn’t even have time to scream as my body lurched backward. Jesus, I had wondered what kind of person fell from places like this, but I was that person. I had even been doing some serious deliberation. It was only the second floor so I wouldn’t die, ri….”
I squeezed my eyes shut.
When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was red eyes illuminated by the moonlight. The face obscured in shadows was familiar. I blinked.
“Um. It’s been a while.”
The one who had caught me when I fell from above was none other than Ettsen Velrod.
Without a word, he put me down on the ground. For a while, we stared at each other as we stood some distance apart.
Since he showed no reaction, I said suddenly.
“You’re always saying that every time we meet.”
Just like that time, a gust of wind blew between us. As if it were judging the unbridgeable distance between us.
“Did I really.”
I let out a light laugh. Though he didn’t.
“Oh, that’s right, congratulations on formally becoming a knight.”
“……Did you want me to thank you?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
As Essen opened his mouth to say something, with perfect timing, I heard Nadricka’s voice from the terrace from where I had fallen.
“Nadricka! I’m here.”
As Nadricka looked below the railing, I waved a hand.
“Your Highness? How did you get there? Are you alright?”
Nadricka’s face hardened as he noticed Ettsen standing beside me.
“I will go down.”
“No, I’ll come right up! It’s okay, stay there.”
I was about to turn when I looked up at Ettsen’s face for the last time.
“I’ll get going. ……..Or do you want to come in too?”
I didn’t think he had been prowling around here for no reason. Since it appeared that a decent number of knights had come to the party today.
“If you don’t want to go in together, you can head in first.”
He gritted his teeth but didn’t speak. It looked like I’d messed up again.
“……Okay. Then, take care.”
In an instant, he grabbed my wrist gently as I was turning. I thought back to if he had ever been so careful in grabbing me. I was inwardly surprised as I looked up at Ettsen.
“I have something to ask you.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“I already told you. I don’t have any more interest in-.”
“Then you should have killed me.”
Ettsen took one step closer to me.
“…….Are you asking me why you’re alive, right now?”
In that aspect, he was similar to Yuriel.
“That day, you told me you were sorry.”
He took another step. The tip of his boots touched me. I was about to take a staggering step backward but the heat from his hand around my wrist made me hesitate.
“Why? What exactly are you sorry for?”
“I know you and you are incapable of such emotions.”
“And how long exactly have we known each other?”
I replied, giving my best attempt at a laugh, but he was unmoved. At that moment, I came to a realization.
Ahh, he hadn’t come to enjoy something like a party. He had come to see me.
“At the very least, I have seen your ugly true nature.”
“So answer me. Why?”
He uttered the question in a low voice.
“Why are you helping me? I am asking why I am still alive.”
I swallowed. I couldn’t do what I had done last time. I had to stay strong.
“I don’t see what point there is in you knowing.”
“I told you to forget it. This’ll all be over as long as we don’t see each other again, so why-.”
“Do you think that is possible?”
He repeatedly squeezed my wrist. His voice was ragged while his words rushed out.
“You will never disappear from my sight! Do you know this pain?”
“When I open my eyes in the morning, when I’m eating and walking down the street, when I’m laughing and when I’m sad, and even when I’m loving someone! Even when I fall back asleep. You never disappear! To me, you are…….”
“But you, so easily……”
“I’m only butting in because it’s awkward to keep eavesdropping.”
In unison, Ettsen and I turned to look in the direction that the voice had come from. I saw a soldier standing at an angle with his back against the wall.
I recognized the soldier’s face as he walked out into the moonlight. He scratched his nose and lifted one corner of his mouth.
“Your Highness the princess, someone is waiting for you. From before.”
Saying so, he pointed his finger behind him.
Nadricka stood in the place he was pointing. When I gave him a small smile, Nadricka followed suit. Although it wasn’t completely successful.
I looked back at Ettsen.
“I know what you’re trying to say. But still, isn’t this peaceful?”
A short silence followed. I could hear the leaves rustling in the wind and the sound of conversation from the party.
“You and I……”
I took two steps back from Ettsen.
“Keeping this amount of distance between us is probably for the best. So don’t come any closer. Just stay there.”
“Did I….. approach you?”
The question seemed to be more directed to himself than me, and I ignored it. I left Ettsen and turned around.
“I waited but you did not come.”
Nadricka said as I approached. It was like he had been waiting to say the words.
When I turned my head back, Ettsen had already disappeared into the darkness. I righted my head and let Nadricka lead me.
“Thank you for showing me something good, Your Highness.”
Before I heard that voice, that is.
Anger flickered over his face as though he knew I had tried to pretend I hadn’t seen him. I hadn’t wanted to meet him again like this while he was standing guard at the party.
“Then is it not?”
It was Sieger.
“Why do you think so?”
“Since you have managed to bring him fully into submission after killing his family and ruining his country. Isn’t it a good thing?”
“Submission? It’s not like that.”
“Why? It looked like he was head-over-heels for you. He’ll never be able to admit it. So he’ll eventually die like that, a dried-up husk.”
“Yes, I know it.”
I let out a sigh.
“Are you angry because you feel like I ruined your life when it would have otherwise been smooth sailing, stepped all over your pride then threw you away like an old shoe? Do you feel lousy looking at him because it’s like you’re the one being brought into submission?”
“That’s all fine. But Sieger.”
Vivid yellow eyes like those of a wild animal looked squarely at me from beneath hair as black as night.
“You should know how to hide your hostility.”
Sieger’s breathing was rough.
“That way you might be able to stab me in the back later.”
I passed by him.
If I could end all of these past debts that way, it wasn’t a bad deal. And as long as I was living as the princess, I had to accept such emotions.
I wondered if it wasn’t arrogance on my part to think that everything could be fixed in a single moment.
And that was why Sieger was wrong. The emotions that Ettsen felt toward me couldn’t be explained so simply.
We had been walking without speaking when Nadricka suddenly said,
“I wish Your Highness could be happy. And that you would no longer be bound by a past you cannot remember.”
Ahh, I remembered now. To Nadricka, I was someone who had lost their memories. I could see the faint scar on his neck.
“But that past is still me.”
“No, it isn’t.”
He spoke in a sure tone. I chuckled.
We finally made it back to the hall. It seemed like people were surprised by me suddenly popping out of from the entrance.
We were laughing while facing each other when Nadricka’s gaze suddenly focused ahead. When I looked in that direction, I saw a man standing quietly in front of the curtains at the terrace. He appeared calm from the back but I got the feeling he was concerned about something.
He turned around with an expression of slight surprise, as though he hadn’t anticipated hearing my voice coming from behind him.
“What are you doing over there?”
“……I heard that there was an incident.”
“Since you seem alright, I will leave you.”
After politely paying his respects, Eclot slipped past me. It would have been fine to talk a little longer. It felt like he had gotten even more polite towards me. For a moment, I stared at his back as he got farther and farther away.
The party was a riot. But there was no point. No one approached me. I was slumped on the long sofa near the wall and ate fruit and drank cocktails in turn.
Of course, there were many people who ogled me. There were even some women. But even they stayed far away from me while talking amongst each other.
That was when I discovered him. Someone who was in the same straits as me.
People stared at him from a distance like they were viewing a monkey in a zoo and chattered amongst themselves.
I jumped up from my seat and headed in his direction. As I was walking over, I heard the same tired things as before.
That he had approached the princess with the intent of becoming the emperor’s brother-in-law, but had had the bad luck of becoming a concubine and was now suffering the humiliation of being discarded in favor of another, low-born concubine. Those kinds of things.
Eclot could have left the hall but was reluctantly staying in his seat. I thought I could hear his voice saying it was the duty of a subject.
I had thought of him as someone who could confidently stand on his own. And I had treated him as such. I had resolved to make use of him in a more valuable way than just as a concubine. And I had decided that he would have to become someone befitting of that.
But I had forgotten something. The fact that he was still my concubine couldn’t just be erased.
No matter how many honors he won, he couldn’t be recognized without my approval. People wouldn’t see him as anything more than a neglected concubine.
He would have entered the hall alone. Even during a party meant to celebrate his contributions, he was in a position of mockery just because the princess wasn’t by his side.
I trusted him, and I treated him well. But I hadn’t paid him my full attention even once.
Eclot raised his head as he detected my presence, then opened his eyes wide. I smiled.
“I’m here to do my part as the wife.”
I knelt down on one knee before him. My dress splayed out on the floor. Then I looked up at him. His hands, which had been neatly placed on his knees, flinched.
I stopped Eclot from standing up with a hand over his.
“……Your Highness. Please stand.”
While he was flustered, I reached out a hand toward him. I couldn’t stop the smile from spreading on my face. I could be doing this because of the alcohol. But…… I felt incredible satisfaction from surprising someone so wooden.
“Sir, may I have this dance?”
He blinked rapidly. However, Eclot’s hands slowly wrapping around mine were warm and sure. I grinned.
As I stood up, he also rose from the sofa. I put my other hand on his shoulder and standing on the tips of my toes, I whispered into his ear.
“The thing is, I don’t know how to dance.”
His eyes filled with a question. I laughed and led Eclot out into the middle of the hall.
When I spun around, Eclot placed a hand on my waist to casually support me. I gently put my arms around his neck.
“So help me. I need you.”
He gave me a slight smile. It was like a breath of fresh air on his ever-stoic face. Just in time, a new song was starting.
“I will do my best.”
“You’ll regret it.”
As soon as he said so, I stepped on his foot. He furrowed his brows ever so slightly. I really hadn’t done it on purpose.
However, Eclot simply nodded with an unwavering expression as though nothing had happened. Then he spoke as if he had been waiting for it.
“Would you….. excuse me for just one moment.”
“What are you planning to do that would require me to excuse you?”
I let out a short laugh and gave him a nod of my head.
Eclot gave me a quick smile and tensed his arms around my waist. And he began to move while almost carrying me.
“I don’t think my feet are touching the floor.”
He was someone who didn’t know how to joke around. Eclot responded like this, without tact. He whispered into my ear.
“To the right.”
“Three steps back.”
“No, you must move backward while spinning around. …….To the right.”
Our rhythm was off so our feet would sometimes bump into each other, but because he was so good at leading, it didn’t show. I enjoyed the music of his voice and rested my chin on his shoulder.
The princess and her knight. Dancing, a party. It was an obvious scene from fiction.
But that was the problem. He always led me into a fairytale. The ornate chandelier and radiant, gilded ceiling, glittering lights, dancing couples, and we were in the center.
“Please put your left foot next to my right foot.”
Even that rigid voice was making my heart flutter.
“I thought that I was the only one who needed you. I thought that was the extent of our relationship. Because I was receiving your loyalty….. But relationships aren’t one-sided.”
“I was trying not to seek you for just anything, but I should have paid that much more attention to you.”
“That is not so. I…. am alright.”
“Still, call on me. Whenever you need me.”
All of a sudden, I was struck by the desire to put my hand on his tired cheek.
“Because I’ll go to you.”
The song ended.
Everyone was staring at us.
I had spun around so much that the world was still spinning afterward. Eclot escorted me to the sofa.
“It was fun. Spinning around like that.”
Eclot had been watching me mumble while sagged on the couch when he took off. He came back shortly with a glass of water.
“I think it would be best to not dance anymore, Your Highness.”
After I had drank a couple sips of water, he once again took the glass.
“Where is that man.”
“He…. already left.”
Eclot slightly knit his brows.
“He is showing such discourtesy toward Your Highness in a public-.”
I met Eclot’s eyes.
“He was making way.”
“He knew that I was worried about you. He…. is always so considerate when he doesn’t have to be that I feel sorry.”
“Anyways, shall we go back?”
“……As you wish.”
Sieger happened to see everything.
That woman had showed up to the party with her golden-haired, slave lover. He admitted it. Sieger was surprised. He had never seen that woman laughing like that before.
She was kind. Or at least, she looked it.
So when Sieger found himself staring dumbly after the woman as she disappeared into the entrance, he almost punched himself in the eyes. All because of that laugh.
When he saw that profile harmonizing with warmth and affection as he had never seen her direct at him, he doubted his eyes.
It felt like he had been fooled by the woman. He felt anger well up in him at the thought that she was capable of treating someone like that.
He hadn’t been ignorant of the rumors. Everyone had been saying the princess was different. To be honest, it wasn’t any of his business if she had changed.
However, tonight he couldn’t say that. Either he had gone mad or that woman had. One of those was certain.
He considered the woman’s bright expression from the day she had come to dissolve the order.
There hadn’t been anything different, so he didn’t know why it was coming back to him.
But Sieger hadn’t forgotten. The things that woman had done. He recalled them one by one.
When he mulled over his unforgivable hatred and anger, the woman’s face from back then was washed away from his mind.
She’s still the princess. That crazy woman.
And a little while later, Sieger witnessed a sight that strengthened his conviction. He sensed someone sneak into the courtyard behind the hall.
Sieger didn’t feel like moving, but he didn’t want to see innocent people get hurt either, so he diligently headed over.
Someone was standing in the dark without a single light around. At first, he didn’t recognize who it was, but Sieger soon ascertained their identity.
The last prince of Velrod.
He had a sword at his waist. Sieger felt the danger of it. Just as he knew his own sword was dangerous.
And as soon as he had thought that, he heard the sound of giggling.
The woman was there on the second-floor terrace. Along with her pretty lover.
Sieger scowled and turned his head when he figured out why Velrod was standing there.
The man was looking straight up at the princess.
His hand didn’t even get near his hilt. For the longest time, Ettsen Velrod stood watching the two laugh and chat as they held hands as though he were stuck in place.
Sieger felt lousy. He wondered if the man wasn’t even allowed an audience.
Sieger put enough distance between them that Ettsen wouldn’t notice him and leaned against a wall. He was rifling through his pockets for a smoke when he noticed a strange movement from the terrace. Sieger witnessed Ettsen catch the woman like an act of fate.
Sieger realized that he had quit smoking. He clicked his tongue and left his place.
And there, he saw another one of the princess’s men. It was that nerd who had been accompanying the princess before.
He was prowling around the entrance of the venue and wasn’t in formal dress. That man soon came face-to-face with the princess’s blonde lover.
The two looked like they were arguing, but quickly stopped as though they were aware of people’s stares.
The blonde lover quickly headed in the direction that Sieger had just come from. It looked like he was going to get the fallen princess. And he must have seen the same thing that Sieger had because he stopped in his tracks.
All of them were annoying.
And Sieger found himself picking a fight with the princess.
I was able to leave the party early with the excuse that I was feeling tipsy. I wondered when everyone went to sleep since they – the emperor included – were still completely engrossed in the party.
When the door to my room opened and Nadricka came out, I slumped on top of him.
“…….Did you drink?”
“Yeah. A little. …….A lot?”
Nadricka hugged me and walked backward. The door closed. He laid me down on the bed and sat next to me.
“Do you have something to say?”
“How did you know?”
I rubbed my and smiled while stretched out a hand.
He was about to lower his head when we heard the sound of an argument outside of the room. The door burst open and then closed.
“What is it?”
Hess came in and bowed her head.
“I apologize, Your Highness. It was because he was obstinately trying to force himself in -.”
I sat up.
“Send him in.”
As soon as Hess opened the door, two soldiers burst in, dragging Robia between them. His clothes were a mess unlike usual. When I gave the signal, the soldiers retreated.
I left Nadricka where he was and walked toward Robia, but he swiftly approached me without waiting.
“What is it?”
His normally neat hair was drooping onto his forehead. Above his usually emotionless white cheeks his eyes were filled with raw emotion.
“Why did you not come see me.”
So the last time I had seen Robia was.
“I told you not to trust him.”
His voice couldn’t contain the surge of emotion.
“I waited for you.”
“You, I waited for you. Because I thought you would want to hear it from me. But you did not come.”
I reached out a hand in order to calm him down but he caught it.
“Am I not even worth that much? At least before you met him again, before you laughed and talked with him in front of other people….”
The whites of Robia’s eyes were bloodshot. However, I had to say my piece.
“I trust him.”
“……Am I that untrustworthy? I wanted to redeem myself, I…. I was trying to redeem myself but was that all just meaningless to you?”
Robia looked hollow.
“It wasn’t meaningless. It’s just-.”
“Then please prove it to me right now.
Nadricka called out to me from behind.
Robia glanced at Nadricka behind me before meeting my eyes.
“Please come with me right now.”
“Wherever that is?”
“Wherever that is.”
We were walking. We left my palace and walked along the main path for a while before turning onto a smaller path. I didn’t know where we were going but I didn’t ask.
We were headed into a densely wooded area. Robia pushed away the branches hanging over my head but continued walking straight ahead.
Soon after, a large empty space appeared. I blinked. It wasn’t just an empty space. I hadn’t realized because it was night, but
“It’s a lake.”
The moonlight was glimmering on the calm surface of the water.
“Do you not remember this place?”
I guessed it was someplace with memories of the princess before me.
It stung a little thinking that. I looked far into the distance. Whenever Robia demonstrated his feelings so passionately, I felt myself being swept away by a wave. It was probably because I wasn’t the real princess.
“We met here for the first time.”
“Did you want to reminisce about the past?”
“You said that you would prove it wasn’t meaningless.”
Robia turned his back to the lake and faced me.
“…..That doesn’t mean I love you.”
A small ripple formed on his otherwise smooth expression. He laughed hollowly.
“I know that much.”
He slowly walked over to me and slowly grasped my hand.
“Your Highness. You told me back then. That you liked how I got so easily jealous without being able to be honest about my feelings. And so I did this to your hair….”
He tucked my hair behind my ear. Under the dark blue night sky, his green eyes sparkled mystically. I think I had thought so when I first saw him. That he was like a fairy.
It was a magical and intelligent shade. It matched him perfectly. Illuminated by moonlight, the slender face and perceptive lips of the man absorbed in his memories were bringing me under their enchantment.
“Do you hate me?”
“Then, do you like me?”
He let out an airy laugh but a tear fell from one eye. I pushed him away as he tried to kiss me.
“Why? Am I not even allowed to kiss you?”
“I am undeniably your concubine.”
“Tell me. Why you said not to trust Eclot.”
I believed that once I heard the reason, I would be able to solve the misunderstanding. I wasn’t trying to disregard Robia’s words. I only thought that there was no rush.
I trusted Eclot, but I also trusted Robia. Having watched over him all this time, I knew that he didn’t say things that he couldn’t back up.
“…..Did you come with me because you wanted to know that? Right, I already know the answer. Then before that, please answer one of my questions first.”
“What is it?”
“I want to hear what your answer would have been back then. You chose me, but there was one other person there too…..”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t say anything.
“I am talking about Audren. It has been awhile since we have heard that name, no?”
“You kissed him here.”
Robia quietly examined me as if trying to confirm something.
“But you chose me. I have always wanted to know. Why you chose me. It…… could be that you simply wanted to see me go from happiness to despair. Nevertheless.”
Robia lowered his head and softly placed a kiss on my hand which he still had clasped in his. Tears fell onto the back of my hand.
“I want to hear it. From your mouth.”
“Just tell me one thing. That you were more attracted to me as a man than you were to him. Just the smallest amount.”
I could cover it up by saying I didn’t remember. I didn’t have the memory, and I could just push him to get the answer I wanted.
However, the only people here were us, and Robia was clinging to the ghost of someone long gone.
I hoped that he would finally be able to escape from under the princess’s shadow.
“That will be enough. With that, I will be able to achieve peace now as well.”
I wanted to give him the answer he wanted.
I wished that he would no longer linger on the memories of that day, that he would no longer hold them in his heart.
“Yes. That day, I …..”
Robia lowered his head.
“I liked you more.”
Robia didn’t move a muscle and kept his head lowered.
When he lifted his head again, all I saw were the tears that hadn’t been able to fall from his cheeks whereas his eyes were already dry.
In that moment, I felt instinctively that something was wrong.
“Audren Viod Cecilia.”
“It is the name of the emperor who passed away 12 years ago.”
He removed his hand and straightened his body.
“Do not say you mistook the name. Since you and I never came here together in the first place. This was not the first place we met.”
Robia replied and wiped away the remaining tears from his cheek. As if the tears he had shed just a moment ago had been a lie.
“Who are you?”
In the end.
“Who are you.”
In the end, it had become like this.
He gripped my arms. In a flash, I roughly shook them off.
“Don’t touch me.”
At my words, his movements stilled. He looked me over. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.
It, it wasn’t like I hadn’t expected this. I had spent long periods of time with him. I had spoken with him more than anyone, and at some point, I had stopped trying to hide myself in front of him. I had subconsciously concluded that he had accepted ‘me’ as the princess.
Even when I occasionally showed ignorance about the most basic of facts, he hadn’t regarded me strangely and had only sighed.
And so, I would sometimes imagine a future like this. But it wasn’t supposed to happen now. I had thought that even if he noticed, he would reach a more reasonable conclusion, such as that I had lost my memories. I had miscalculated.
“Don’t say you lost your memories.”
I bit my lip. How? Why? Fragmented questions churned in my head.
“You’re a different person.”
He was sure.
I stumbled back from him. He advanced in response, at which point I retreated again. He tried to come closer, but I raised my hand defensively.
“Don’t come near me.”
He looked as though he were regretting his actions somewhat.
“If I gave you a shock then-.”
“Fine, you’re right.”
It was quiet enough that my breathing was deafening.
“I’m not Yeldria.”
He clenched his fist tightly.
“So? What are you going to do?”
He shook his head once again and tried to step toward me.
“I said not to come near me!”
I tried to calm my pounding heart. I couldn’t fall apart here.
“Yes…… I’m not that woman.”
The words dug into my heart like a blade. The words I had never said to anyone. No, the words I couldn’t say. The deeply buried truth. The plain declaration that I was me.
I actually felt relieved. More than any other time. To the point that I could cry.
I breathed out deeply. I looked him straight in the eyes.
“Are you going to report it? That I’m not the princess?”
“I never said-.”
“If not that, why did you make me confess? Why did you trick me? What do you have to gain that you even showed fake tears.”
I shot out.
“Not the princess….. but you.”
“I wanted to meet you.”
Robia got on his knees where he was. He placed his hands on his knees and looked up at me. I discovered that his eyes were bloodshot.
“At first I thought that I had gone mad.”
“Had I fallen back in love with the princess. That’s what I thought.”
Trying to trick me again.
“First it was the princess, then Yuriel, and now me? You just, just need someone to love.”
“That is not true!”
“Why? Why not speak to me informally like you just were. I’m not even the princess to you.”
I couldn’t believe it. You knew I was someone else, you wanted to meet me, you love me.
It was laughable. I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I was filled with anxiety every night because I couldn’t even be certain myself if I had ever existed, or if I had always been the princess.
Who are you to be so confident.
“If not that, how would you explain these feelings?”
His reddened began to well with tears. His hands gripped his knees and his knuckles began to turn white.
“I already told you. You just need someone to have feelings for-.”
“I wish that was the case!”
His voice gushed out, laced with frustration. He set his hands on the ground. Then dripping tears, he suppressed a sob.
Silence descended on us.
“How am I supposed to trust you?”
Robia lifted up his tear-stained face and looked at me. His eyes and nose were red, and he wiped his eyes with dirt-smeared hands.
“I’m telling you now, but you’re the one who’ll be in a bind if you were to report me. Who do you think people will believe? The emperor’s blood-related sibling? Or the humiliated concubine who was caught cheating?”
“Just because I don’t kill people doesn’t mean I can’t.”
His hair fluttered in the wind. His shoulders seemed to rise and fall along with his clothes. The truth which had been so crushing was nothing special now that it had left my mouth.
“You…. are too kind.”
For a moment, I thought I had heard wrong.
In his eyes there was no anger, hatred, resentment…. or even sadness. Robia looked at me with worry.
“What are you trying to say.”
“To the point that you would lie about a memory you didn’t have for my sake.”
“Despite how much you hate living as someone else, in that moment you became that woman for me. What do I know about you?”
“You are noble and kind. The princess I know isn’t like that.”
He spoke as if he knew exactly where my anxiety stemmed from.
“The person I love is not the princess.”
“…….I thought I trusted you.”
He let his head drop before raising it.
“I know. That you will not be able to trust me anymore.”
Robia extended a hand to where I stood some distance from him. In the moonlight, the tear stains on his face were clearly visible.
“Please give me a chance. I will prove myself to you. That you will be able to trust me.”
I hesitated. But I couldn’t draw nearer to him.
In the end, Robia pulled back his hand when it didn’t reach me. However, he hadn’t given up.
“This is the reason I said not to trust Sir Eclot Pacis.”
Now I knew. Robia had had the same suspicions as me. That Eclot’s loyalty wasn’t to ‘me’ but to the royal family and empire. In other words, once he knew that I wasn’t a member of the royal family, Eclot would never choose me over his loyalty to the royal family.
“He is dangerous. He is a man who could take his own life for the sake of the royal family.”
“If he must serve a master.”
It was only after speaking the words that I was convinced.
“I decided that it has to be me.”
Robia was speechless for a while.
“The moment that he realizes you are not the real princess, he will be an enemy. He will cut you down.”
Robia looked hurt. Without even dusting himself off, he stood up, teetering as he did so. When I reflexively staggered back, he tightened his jaw and bowed his head.
“Even if you do not want it, I will prove myself to you. So that there is no reason for you not to take me. I will make it so.”
“I already have-.”
“Please have me as well. I will not ask you to have only me. Why do you to try to have only one in your arms?”
From his words, I recognized that he had laid everything down. He might have been prepared to do so for a while now.
Thinking that, I couldn’t bring myself to maintain eye contact and looked at the tips of my fingers as I spoke.
“Are you not afraid of me?”
“I find you loveable.”
I let out a laugh that was like a sigh, and he smiled finally. With a tear-stained face.
Like he had said, I was a fake. A fake princess. A fake Yeldria.
Hiding the truth, I had received Nadricka’s encouragement and devotion, felt remorse for Ettsen’s wounds and acted like the real thing for his sake, and demonstrated to Eclot a princess’s nobility.
But for the first time, I was just me. I could be me. It was okay.
Robia carefully approached me. I was crying soundlessly in place.
Soon, he embraced me. I didn’t trust him, but I still felt encouraged.