Chapter 15

 

***

 

Six years ago, when the imperial family was falling apart and the aristocratic chiefs were wearing the ‘emperor’s crown’, I heard a story while working at an inn.

 

Those who relieved the day’s fatigue with a glass of wine said with red faces, 

 

“A blood-crazed monster has won a great victory against the noble faction.”

 

At first, people chalked up the young man’s victory to luck.

 

After that, they said it was a series of coincidences, conventionally helped by the gods.

 

Otherwise, there was no way this impossible would be possible.

 

Those were words that circulated in the streets.

 

God gave that hero the mission to protect the imperial family, and that the restoration of the imperial family was what Heaven wanted…

 

In an Empire where politics and religion could not be separated, the people’s trust in the man as God’s representative gave him more and more power.

 

Furthermore, the man became a hero of the people at once, representing the hopes of the slaves and bastards who had been suppressed until now.

 

The man, who broke the prejudice that heroes should be noblemen, was an illegitimate child. 

 

In the process, the people’s new enemy became the aristocracy in power.

 

The young war hero was the emerging guardian of the sky.

 

And the aristocrats in power became the villains that such guardians must destroy.

 

With the tacit support and covert help of the people, the battle quickly became a battle between 99% of the people and 1% of nobles.

 

It was obvious how the fight would end.

 

The young man became a hero of the patriots after almost six years of hard fighting, and the restored emperor gave him a title.

 

All the people praised and loved the new hero, but I thought differently.

 

Even if the man did not restore the Emperor, the Empress, Karen, and Joseph to their former positions….

 

I didn’t have to tremble in fear that the Imperial family would be looking for me.

 

The second Princess who disappeared could have ended up missing forever.

 

So I knew I would hate that hero for the rest of my life.

 

That was, until I found out his name. Clyde Delanhill.

 

“This way, please,” said the servant, as the door of the parlor slowly opened. 

 

“This is Princess Stella, the Second Princess of the Empire.”

 

Our gazes met immediately. Would he recognize me?

 

When my shimmering eyes stared at him, he strode towards me.

 

What’s going on? Is he trying to say hello? I was pondering for a moment…

 

“Ah…”

 

The man hugged me tightly.

 

At the same time, his body scent rushed into my nose.

 

I could feel his body heat.

 

A hand that seemed to want something, but was also very carefully patted my head.

 

Suddenly, I felt something warm touch my neck, and I stared blankly into space. 

 

Perhaps he didn’t want to show his face, so he buried his head around my neck and his broad shoulders shook.

 

“Stella.”

 

He called my name. 

 

“Ethel.”

 

He called my name again.

 

At that moment, I thought to myself.

 

Why did Clyde have to return the crown to the royal family?

 

Was it because Joseph was Clyde’s benefactor, and the imperial family fed him and clothed him, so he wanted to return the favor? 

 

Was that why he chose to become a hero?

 

Or did he choose to become the sky guardian?

 

Then I realized that the reason he was here was exactly the same as the reason I was here.

 

To fight luridly for the people who had given him the only light in his dark abyss of a life.

 

I felt frustrated because I had come to understand him in this way, and I couldn’t hate him any more.

 

After that, I became worried.

 

If he is so loyal to the imperial family, there is a possibility that he will tell the emperor everything….

 

I tap him lightly on the back with my trembling hand.

 

I was afraid. This man knew Stella and Ethel.

 

I hated him. He was the one who pulled me away from my family, not anyone else.

 

But in the end, I was glad to see him.

 

The only boy who was there for me during my miserable childhood had become a man and sought me out again.

 

And so, with a feeling of serenity, I took him in my arms and swept his back as he shook his shoulders.

 

He made it here after a fierce battle, and if he was like me, he needed a pat. 

 

The man’s back was so hard and wide that my hands could not sweep it all the way.

 

* **

 

“Empress, Duke Delanhill is meeting with Princess Stella in the parlor.”

 

“…”

 

“Empress.”

 

The Empress came back to her senses and looked at the maid.

 

She then nodded and stared blankly at the teacup.

 

Her brow furrowed.

 

She was reminiscing.

 

In the teacup was the night sky of that day. There were people cheering, and there was Stella, shining brighter than anyone else.

 

Clink. The spoon was placed on the table and she buried her head in her hands.

 

Ten years ago, Stella left her family.

 

Yes. That was the truth that all people knew, that she remembered.

 

Stella was gone.

 

“Don’t ever disappear again. Not even a single moment.”

 

But the memories she saw in her naps and dreams said otherwise.

 

“Mother!”

 

She saw herself holding Karen and Joseph, turning away from Stella, who was calling her urgently.

 

Then the inner voice said.

 

‘Actually, you were turning away on purpose, weren’t you?’

 

No. She wanted to believe it wasn’t.

 

‘I threw her away. I threw away the incompetent and useless girl because I thought she would die on this occasion. I couldn’t get rid of her, then you’d let someone else do the job.’

 

It was heartbreaking.

 

Stella cried out for them desperately, but the iron gate closed coldly with an ear splitting clang.

 

While walking through the secret passageway, the child’s voice calling for her parents rang clearly.

 

She fled to avoid the rebellion and the conversation she had with her husband began to ring in her ears.

 

“How could a mother leave a child behind? Are you still a human?”

 

“You did the same thing! You wanted her dead, you wanted her dead!”

 

Suddenly the Empress grabbed the maid’s arm in a fit and said,

 

 

 

“Mrs. Fairfax.”

 

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

 

“That girl, Stella, left us. Isn’t that right? She left us, and now she’s coming back to us, isn’t she?”

 

“Yes. People say the second Princess came back with divine power and saved their lives. But why is there no trace of the glamorous detached palace that sheltered Her Imperial Highness?”

 

 

“There was no such thing as a detached palace.”

 

“Your Majesty?”

 

“Since the beginning, there was no such thing as a detached palace to hide that child…”

 

“Your Majesty, it’s been a long time since you’ve seen your beloved Princess again, and it seems that your body and mind have been overwhelmed. Even the people on the streets know that the imperial family cared about the youngest Princess and hid her in the secret palace.”

 

“…”

 

“Those who remember the truth are already dead… There was never a detached palace to hide the real Stella from the beginning. That poor child, Stella, disguised herself as Karen’s maid, and spent her entire life in her sister’s shadow, being called a fake…”

 

After hearing all this, Countess Agatha Fairfax, the head maid, summoned the court physician, saying that the Empress must have been mentally confused after seeing the second Princess for the first time in a long time.

 

The court physician diagnosed it as a delusion caused by severe mental shock, but the Empress knew the truth.

 

Instinct made her realize what had happened that day.

 

And the person she remembered herself to be was a bad mother.

 

The fact that nothing can undo what was done at the time also hurt the Empress even more.

 

It was so cruel to face the problems that had been neglected…

 

Stella did not disappear.

 

When the empress realized this, there was only one thought that came to her mind.

 

‘I will be really good to that child now. I will give that child back the title of Princess Stella, and I will take care of her as a mother sincerely with my heart. Because now we have met again. Because Stella is still with me.’

 

“Did you say she is with the Duke?”

 

The Empress rose from her seat.

 

* **

 

“Do you still play the piano?”

 

Clyde’s trembling hand on the parlor table approached my hand carefully.

 

Perhaps he wanted to hold my hand. At that moment, his fingers carefully stroked mine.

 

My skin was so sensitive that I could feel the slightest tremor between our touches.

 

I thought he would let go if I looked at him, but I was wrong.

 

His eyes fixed on me, he continued what he was doing like a thirsty beast.

 

I replied with warmth because I didn’t hate the touch.

 

“Not often, though.”

 

“I have a piano in my mansion on the Island.”

 

His hand slowly, slowly rubbed between my fingers.

 

A strange, though slightly ticklish, subtle feeling tapped at my fingertips.

 

The atmosphere was unfamiliar to me, so I looked him in the eye and asked him a question.

 

“Does the Duke also play the piano?”

 

“I have no aptitude at all.”

 

There was a moment of silence. I thought I would have much to say if we met again, but…the man was no longer a boy I used to know. He was like a different person. He looked pretty worn out and tired, and yet, he seemed to be insistent on something….

 

“But I know someone who’s good at it.”

 

“Who is that?”

 

He did not answer my question. Who could that person be?

 

Is it someone he liked in the past? Is she his lover? A one-sided love? Is that person a servant in his house?

 

He lifted the cup with trembling hands.

 

It was a small and cute teacup that didn’t fit his large and rugged hands, which made me smile for no reason.

 

When he was taking a sip of his tea, I asked,

 

“You said you wanted to take me as your wife….”

 

He coughed.

 

“Oh, are you all right?”

 

I handed him a handkerchief and he covered his mouth with it and coughed.

 

His face was burning red.

 

That’s when the aide standing behind him interrupted.

 

“I’m sorry. Your Highness, it was never the Duke’s intention to ask something like that…”

 

Clyde’s face stiffened at the sound of the aide’s voice.

 

His face was so cold that I couldn’t imagine him as the man who had almost tears in front of me earlier.

 

Was that how people tremble just by looking at that face?

 

The Duke’s sharp gaze turned to his aide.

 

He was a murderer in addition to being a war madman, so he must have stepped in a sea of blood with that look.

 

That’s what I felt like.

 

“Get out.”

 

“My lord…”

 

“You’re still standing there? I told you to leave.”

 

With those words, the aide bowed his head and then disappeared.

 

The Duke resumed the conversation shortly after.

 

His face was much more docile than before, however, my body trembled a little.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“No, it’s okay.”

 

Along with my answer, there was an awkward atmosphere in the air again.

 

He said firmly as he stared down at his hands.

 

“I got permission from your parents to marry Princess.”

 

“Yes…”

 

“But I haven’t gotten permission from the Princess yet.”

 

His eyes, red as the sun, looked at me as if they would swallow me up.

 

Immediately he took out a small box.

 

He must have been carrying it around for a long time, because the box was covered with handprints.

 

“I will be the Princess’s only knight.”

 

When he opened the box, the hot sunlight fell on the diamond of the ring, spreading brilliant light to tens of thousands of branches.

 

It was an engagement ring.

 

His hand trembled slightly as he held the box, like when he touched my fingers earlier.

 

Suddenly, the door swung open as he was about to speak. I stood up, thinking it was rude…

 

“Mother?”

 

The Empress’s gaze turned to the ring box. She looked pale as if she had seen something scary.