Huge thanks to Nkeoken for the kofi! (1/1) ✨
01. A Humble Princess (8)
Three years ago, when the rebellion had caused a bloodbath in the Imperial capital, obituaries arrived at the Caliburn Duchy almost every hour. Catherine remembered it vividly. She’d glimpsed from afar while visiting the duchy, the sight of countless pieces of papers announcing the death of many in a neat pile.
Lancel had been busy attending various funerals in his father’s stead, while Catherine had withered away day by day like a rose that sprouted in the desert. She’d even wondered whether her father’s name would appear at the top of those white papers.
“Although she spread false rumours that she’d spent the night with His Highness, that boast itself wasn’t the problem.”
“Are you saying that the crime wasn’t because she was caught?”
“To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. There’s probably no one in this world who can truly understand his motives. The Archduke is such a person after all.”
Liese murmured as she fastened a gold belt around Catherine’s waist.
“They say there’s a big festival happening at the Caliburn estate for the youngest Ducal Princess. How about going there together and getting to know each other better?”
It seemed that Liese had no idea she’d never even ventured outside this castle before.
Bam! The door swung open without a knock. Liese quickly stepped in front of Catherine and shielded her from view upon realising the silhouette that rushed in belonged to a man. But as soon as she recognized the intruder, she greeted him immediately.
“Greetings to Your Grace, the Duke of Caliburn.”
“Young Lady. I told you to serve the Ducal Princess, not to stir up unnecessary troubles.”
“I apologise, Your Grace.”
“Enough with the apologies. Besides, there won’t be another chance for you to meet the Ducal Princess. You may go now.”
Liese saluted and swiftly exited the bedroom. Catherine, left alone in front of the mirror, watched Liese’s retreating figure enter the corridor dazedly.
Was it because it was practically her first time talking to a woman of her age? She felt a twinge of regret.
Perhaps he sensed her gaze, Lancel pushed the door closed, Bam, and strode into the room.
“Catherine. Did she entice you to attend the festival with her? That Young Lady?”
“No. She only mentioned that there was a festival. And…”
She looked at her own reflection in the mirror. She looked at her still damp, crimson curls. The skilled Caliburn maids usually straightened her unruly waves into flowing locks, but it couldn’t be helped today.
“I won’t go, no matter how much she insists. After all, it’s too dangerous for me to go outside.”
As the family’s disgrace, she couldn’t roam the streets confidently. That’s probably why Lancelot is so concerned.
Lancel’s expression softened.
He came up behind her, loosened the tangled belt and re-tie it around her waist with rather skillful actions.
“This meeting was about defining the boundary points, so it didn’t take long. I noticed you were asleep just now.”
“It wasn’t a major meeting?”
“The eradication will be handled by His Highness and Lanius. The Caliburn Knights will oversee civilian evacuations. Anyways, ordinary people can’t kill chimeras. The Lanius Knights can’t do much without His Highness……”
As he untied the twisted ribbons, Lancel suddenly stopped speaking. He raised his gaze to stare at Catherine in the mirror. When he was met with her attentive blue-gray eyes, he sighed softly.
“I’ve been rambling on pointlessly. It must be a boring topic for you.”
“It’s not. It’s about the safety of the territory’s citizens, after all.”
“Come this way. I’ll re-wrap the bandage for you.”
Catherine followed Lancel’s lead naturally and sat on the edge of his bed. He retrieved ointment and bandages from a drawer and knelt on a knee in front of her.
“Look up. I’ll apply some ointment first.”
When Catherine tilted her head slightly, Lancel’s brows furrowed slightly. It wasn’t very large, but it was a wound that couldn’t be ignored. He gritted his teeth, causing the muscles near his jaw tensed.
As her head was raised, she didn’t notice his expression at all. She just spoke innocently.
“Erm, about the lamp last night, thank you.”
“The lamp? What lamp are you talking about?”
“When I was ill last night… Ah.”
His ointment-smeared hand touched her wound. She winced at the sharp, needle-like sensation that surged all of a sudden. Lancel immediately withdrew his hand from her with a start.
“I’m sorry. Does it hurt a lot?”
“It’s okay. This much is just…”
‘Compared to what he did to me…’
Catherine swallowed back those words. She couldn’t bring herself to utter the sensations that had passed through her, unbidden.
The dizzying sensation when that almost beast-like man bit her neck. The hot, sticky breath mingled with the metallic yet sweet scent that poured forth as their lips met…… Even the discordant notes of the piano, akin to their panting, echoed vividly in her ears.
Without realising it, she had clenched her dress tightly. Her heart began to thump loudly.
‘What should I do? My ears feel so hot…’
With a jolt, her consciousness was jerked back to reality like it was struck with a rake. Oh, when did Lancel get up?
With the bandages in hand, he was staring at her with a rather peculiar expression. Catherine finally noticed that her face was so flushed that it might burst. She lowered her head and avoided his gaze.
“I’ll… bandage it myself. If you give it to me, I can do it…”
He pressed his lips tightly together, as if trying to hold back something. After struggling with it for a while, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, as if he was comprehending something.
He let out a heavy sigh. His broad frame, covered by the white uniform, expanded and contracted. His now visible blue eyes held a deep bitterness. With the bandages in his hand, he sat down next to her.
“…I know why you came to me like this today.”
Catherine casually shifted her hair to one side to make it easier for him to wrap the bandages. She was completely unaware that her exposed, fair neck had caught his attention.
“You must have been frightened. After facing him alone last night. I should have taken care of it before something like yesterday’s events took place…”
“Everything happened so suddenly. There was no other way.”
“Actually, there is a way. There always is.”
He had a way? Always?
A sense of guilt welled up in his blue eyes, which was as clear as a summer sky. Instead of continuing, he just pursed his lips relentlessly. Then, after a while, he lowered his head, avoiding her gaze completely. He must have been so tense that his lips quickly turned pale in a few seconds.
“You can marry me. As my wife, you’ll be under Caliburn’s protection.”
Catherine sprang up from the bed in shock. The unfinished bandages followed her actions like a leash.
Such a disgusting idea.
She didn’t dare to repeat his words.
A sense of humiliation, as though he’d used those words to slap her, surged within her. She barely held onto her blurry vision and placed a hand on her chest in order to calm her heart. She didn’t even know where to start pointing out the flaws in his reasoning.
“That’s not a solution. In…cest, have you forgotten that it will result in immediate execution?”
It was a crime that could cause them to be beheaded and their heads to be exposed side by side in the Imperial capital. Furthermore, the future generations bearing the name of Caliburn would live in perpetual disgrace.
“It’s not incest. Because there isn’t a drop of Caliburn blood within you.”
His words flew and struck her heart like arrows.
“If you publicly acknowledge your full Rediot status and apologise, the imperial family will retract the marriage proposal. Of course, there will be repercussions, but you won’t personally face any severe punishment. The sins of a slave are the sins of their owner, so some of the attention will be diverted just by marrying a Rediot. Most importantly, that responsibility will be borne by Caliburn entirely. The Archduke’s marriage partner will be changed to Ducal Princess Charlotte Caliburn instead of you…”
“Rediots are unable to marry humans. It’s against the law.”
It was impossible to become a mistress, let alone get married. According to imperial law, they were intelligent livestock, not humans.
“A couple is a bond formed between people. If the Duke uses a Rediot as a woman, that’s, in essence, treating them as the family’s possession.”
“Even if it doesn’t happen in reality, that’s what they become. Be it socially or legally.”
Revealing her identity would cause Catherine to cease to exist. She would become nothing more than a possession of the Duke of Caliburn, used to satisfy his desires.
“The kind of being that whenever you, the previous Duchess and Charlotte pass by, must prostrate on the floor, bow their head in respect to slaves, and it’s not illegal even if someone gives them pig feed. Lancelot.”
“How could you ask me to reveal that I’m a Rediot? That’s, I would no longer be a human then. I…”
A lewd woman, a licentious woman, a lowborn woman. For all their flaws, they were still human. Unlike Rediots.
She felt suffocated.
‘Is this really the only option left in my life?’
To hide her true identity and marry a cruel traitor, living in fear for the rest of her life, or a slave carrying the stigma of being considered a blood relative and living comfortably within the confines of contempt.
Neither option held any dignity. The dignity she had tried to preserve even in the face of countless slights and disdain, the dignity as the daughter of a scholar and duke she could be proud of.
I want to get out of here. That thought completely consumed her flickering mind.
White bandages and crimson hair fluttered through the air. Catherine turned and rushed out of the bedroom like she was trying to flee from him. Her dress trailed behind her like a green-coloured wave.
Just as she grabbed the doorknob, a hand reached out from behind and grabbed the door before it could open fully. The door closed again with a thud. Catherine desperately pulled on the doorknob.
“Let go of this…!”
“Catherine, I’m not saying I’d really do that with you. I’m just trying to protect you…”
“How could you do this to me? Not someone else, but my own brother…!”
“I love you.”
He leaned his forehead against the door, his eyes tightly closed as if enduring pain, and managed to say it.
“I have never not loved you, Catherine.”
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