Chapter 16

***

 

“Stella.”

 

The Empress called me in a determined voice.

 

Her gaze immediately went to Clyde, but Clyde seemed to sense what the Empress was about to say.

 

He had an impatient look on his face as he was holding the ring box, but he didn’t act rashly.

 

At his silence, the Empress spoke,

 

“It’s been ten years.”

 

“…”

 

“I said I’d give you my child, but it’s been a decade I’ve been away from her, Duke. However, what can this poor mother do if you take her away so quickly without giving her even a fleeting moment?”

 

The Duke’s eyes sank low.

 

“Think about it. Wouldn’t my daughter miss her family too? She needs to rest in her father and mother’s arms. Yes, we promised to give her to you, but to take her away like this…”

 

“I want to leave with him.”

 

The confrontational gazes of Clyde and the Empress turned towards me at once.

 

It was an impulsive act. It was just a funny thing for my mother to say, that she was now going to play the role of a mother.

 

It didn’t seem like a bad choice. To leave.

 

When I came to the place and showed what I was capable of, I knew I couldn’t go back to my home, to the inn’s ‘Ethel’.

 

Looking at countless joyous faces of the people who were happy seeing the stars, I was heartbroken.

 

For I had made a choice that I could not take back. In the name of protection, I ended up becoming Stella and came to this place.

 

In order to be influential and protect my family, they couldn’t be my weakness.

 

I couldn’t go home, could I?

 

I felt that way, and it hurt.

 

So, if I couldn’t go home, I would rather be in Clyde’s mansion than in this dreary imperial palace.

 

Even if he was the one who had separated me from my family.

 

Better than these people who abandoned me.

 

“My daughter.”

 

“Don’t you see? The reason I’m here is because I’m fed up with the search for me. Mother said I disappeared, but I didn’t. I didn’t disappear, not for a second. Because it was mother who abandoned me.”

 

“Yes, I abandoned you.”

 

There was great despair on the Empress’s face. She tried to say something, but only bit her lower lip.

 

I didn’t say anything more, and the Empress squeezed my hand, as if she was afraid that I would leave her.

 

Her hands, which I had not felt for a long time, were a little rough.

 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

 

She said after a long silence.

 

For a moment, I was afraid that I almost forgot that she had abandoned me because her wet eyes were shaking precariously.

 

I was scared beyond description that the eyes were looking at me with regret, with understanding.

 

I was afraid I would forgive her.

 

I was afraid it would weaken my heart.

 

I wonder if I have ever craved so much, the touch of my mother.

 

It’s funny.

 

I brushed off her hand. Because there was no Stella they were looking for.

 

“Don’t apologize.”

 

“My child…”

 

“It’s too late. I don’t want any more apologies from you. So, if you’re sorry, just leave me alone.”

 

“…”

 

“I’m happy as it is. I don’t need mother, father, or brother.”

 

“…But you came back… Didn’t you come back…for us?”

 

“No, I did not come back to ease mother’s guilt.”

 

“…”

 

“Mother, you say you’re sorry but you’re still the same. Once you’ve thrown me away, you have to take responsibility for how much guilt you have.”

 

My hand trembled as I gripped Clyde’s wrist. Slowly, we walked past the Empress.

 

The aide and Joseph standing at the door stared at me blankly.

 

“Let’s go.”

 

I turned and spoke calmly to Clyde.

 

“…to where we can talk more quietly.”

 

***

 

The Duke and I were in front of my bedroom door, and we stopped at the sound of a voice leaking through the gap in the door.

 

I could hear the indignant voice of the Emperor.

 

“You lied to me!”

 

“Your Majesty…”

 

“You’ll pay the price with your life. Guard!”

 

“I could not tell you about the letter, as the Princess who was writing it seems to be in great grief. Please have mercy on her…”

 

“Father.”

 

I headed into the room. I had to intervene.

 

The young maid who talked to me earlier was in tears and trembling in the angry presence of the emperor, and the guards were holding her little hands without consideration.

 

The drawers of the vanity table were opened and my letter was in the Emperor’s hands. His face immediately softened when he saw me.

 

“What’s going on in my room?”

 

“Stella.”

 

“It’s mine.”

 

“…”

 

“Please give it back.”

 

I reached out and took the letter from him with a trembling hand.

 

passed my hand to him and he handed me the letter with trembling hands. I immediately hid the letter behind my back.

 

 “I’m not gonna hurt you. Please be honest.”

 

He looked at me, waiting to hear my answer.

 

“You didn’t expect me to sit like a useful puppet, did you, father?”

 

“…”

 

“Don’t worry about me.”

 

“…You are the Second Princess of the Bellvic Empire.”

 

The emperor said without stepping back.

 

“Soon you will be wearing the crown of the princess in front of the people. I was going to give you the title. But before that, tell me where did you come from? What kind of pain did you suffer?”

 

“No. You don’t need to know where I came from, but I thought you should know I’ve been rolling in the mud. You are suspicious because I made the stars float, aren’t you? Because the second Princess was incompetent to begin with. She was useless…”

 

“Stella!”

 

“Who cares if I’m fake or real or where I came from, father? I’m sure that never mattered to you.”

 

“You are Stella Ethelanche, the Second Imperial Princess of the Bellvic Empire. And I am your father.”

 

The Emperor grabbed my arm tightly as if he was about to crush it.

 

“I swear to you, I will not do anything to hurt you. With my power, I am your most glorious….”

 

“With the power created by whom?”

 

“…”

 

“…Father, don’t mind my business. Please let the poor maid go.”

 

At the end of the sentence, I headed to the door.

 

As the servant opened the door, there was the beautiful face of the Duke who stood behind the door.

 

That’s when.

 

“Do you hate me that much?”

 

The Emperor’s trembling voice stopped my steps.

 

“How could you resent your family to the point of agreeing to marry a Duke you’ve never seen before, and to follow him without hesitation?”

 

“I am resentful?”

 

It was ten years later. There was not much I could say.

 

“I just wanted you to stop looking for me.”

 

“Stella.”

 

“Goodbye, father.”

 

“Duke.”

 

My body jerked as the Emperor called the Duke.

 

My hands spontaneously sweated. From the moment I said goodbye to the Emperor, my legs finally supported my body and there were no thoughts in my head.

 

The only thought was to leave. But then the emperor said to the Duke, 

 

“Put Princess Stella in her seat. Looks like there’s a lot to talk about.”

 

When my gaze met the Duke’s, I shook my head.

 

If the Duke is on the Emperor’s side, how am I supposed to endure this?

 

My body trembled as he walked slowly towards me. I didn’t have the strength to resist.

 

No, even if I had the strength in the first place, I wouldn’t be able to defeat him as a knight.

 

Is this a checkmate? 

 

What I said to the Emperor was a foolish move, but after I said it, it was spectacular….

 

However, I should have been a little more meticulous.

 

I should have used my brain a little more and acted better. At least pretend to love the family.

 

I couldn’t stop myself from feeling nauseous.

 

Does Princess Stella have to do something in order to be happy? 

 

Only if she’s good at something, that is.

 

Can she be loved and be safe?

 

I was a child then, and I am a worn out, tired person now.

 

Clyde’s intimidating shadow loomed over me, and I looked up to speak.

 

Tears slowly streamed down my cheeks, and as our gazes met, he covered my back and supported my legs, taking me into his arms.

 

How warm his arms were, how generous and steady he was.

 

I forgot what I wanted to say and looked at his face.

 

“All right, now sit back on the couch. Tell the head maid to serve tea.”

 

Asking the head maid to serve tea was to give me strength.

 

But none of it was pleasant.

 

Even though the young Stella had wanted it so badly…

 

“Duke.”

 

I opened my eyes wide at the Emperor’s voice.

 

“Duke!”

 

Clyde walked silently down the hallway with me in his arms.

 

I stared at him with a look of wonder. Clyde was the one who had brought the crown to the royal family. Clyde was also the one who had made my father emperor again.

 

However, such a man disobeyed the emperor’s words.

 

His aide walked quickly and followed the Duke.

 

“Your Highness, honor is hard to gain by and easy to lose.”

 

Clyde didn’t even pretend to listen as he strode silently on.

 

“You must make a wise choice. As long as the wedding hasn’t taken place, the Princess is the property of her father, the Emperor. Her Imperial Highness, who belonged to the Imperial Family, can’t be taken for granted like this… Your Highness, you can see Her Imperial Highness later. When His Majesty approves the marriage, then…”

 

“How dare you?”

 

Clyde’s grim expression made me shudder.

 

“You talk a lot, don’t you?”

 

“Your Highness.”

 

“She doesn’t belong to anyone.”

 

“Your Highness, please be patient and calm about this….”

 

“Peter Gilworth, your head is still attached to your neck has proven enough that I have patience.”

 

 

“What, huh?”

 

“I hope I don’t have to see you today.”

 

“That means….”

 

“You’re fired. I’ve found what I need, and I don’t need to walk around with an Imperial family’s aide.”

 

“You can’t fire me. The Emperor himself assigned me to you…”

 

“I’m glad to return you to your original place.”

 

“Wo, Your Highness!”

 

Just like that, Clyde carried me away.

 

What will my life be like from now on?

 

As long as I let the stars float in the sky, I could not return to be Ethel. The Imperial family would need me.

 

It was fine. Because I was ready.

 

Where there’s something to gain, there’s something to lose.

 

As long as I’m here as Princess Stella, my real family is safe.

 

I’ll make sure they will be safe.

 

What about me, then?

 

I hadn’t thought about it.

 

I just feel that I have to protect my family first.

 

But what if I want to see my family? What if I miss their warmth so much that it makes me nostalgic?

 

What if I get tired of being “Princess Stella”?

 

Should I still smile for all the world to see?

 

I was living a life where no one cared about me, yet I routinely lied and said “I’m fine”. 

 

It reminded me that I had to live and lie every day.

 

I looked at Clyde.

 

This was all his fault.

 

He was the reason the Imperial family started looking for me. It was also the reason I had to leave my adoptive parents.

 

But I couldn’t bear to hold a grudge.