Daisy was asleep….
In complete silence, I crawled under the covers and looked at the old ceiling.
I let out a small sigh, If I fall asleep like this, will I have that dream again?
‘I don’t want to dream.’
I didn’t want to have any more dreams about my family. I wanted to forget it since they’re all gone, but why do I keep dreaming?
I closed my eyes and counted sheep in my head.
I took a deep breath and the air rushed into my lungs, choking me. As I tossed and turned, the story we read earlier rushed into my head.
“The Ugly Duckling met a very special duck.”
“It was a tough duck that took care of the ugly duckling princess.”
I thought of Clyde Delanhill.
The Imperial’s best swordsman.
He was a slave who scrubbed floors, but on the recommendation of the Imperial knights who took notice of him, he became Joseph’s swordsmanship partner.
I still remember all of it vividly.
The metallicity of the swords as they clashed, the sweat that ran down the foreheads of the two young men.
The man would always give my brother a last-minute loss.
Even though it looked like he could win.
When the practice was over, Karen would run to Joseph and give him a water bottle and a handkerchief.
Karen would tuck her hair behind her ears and smile like a spring breeze.
“What…Did you get hurt, brother? It was pretty intense.”
“No, Clyde is very useful.”
Karen glanced over at Clyde.
“I heard he’s born with a talent. He must be… well dressed and happy, right? I heard he was originally a floor cleaner, did you smell anything on his clothes, brother?”
“Karen. Don’t say that about Clyde. He’s my Swordmaster.”
“What? No… I was just worried about you, brother. And now seeing that a humble person like him is doing well, I, the Princess of the country, feel much better.”
“Well, Karen. That’s very thoughtful of you to say that.”
Karen laughed as Joseph patted her on the head.
I stared at them as they conversed, then glanced at Clyde.
Our gazes met, and I twitched, and the boy turned quickly to the side.
I thought that the man was exactly like a creature. A foal that had not been tamed.
He was the complete opposite of Joseph, who looked like a prince in a fairy tale with blond hair and deer-like eyes.
The boy’s dark hair and red eyes were definitely something to catch the eye.
Our gazes met again, and this time I pretended to look elsewhere. My hands were sweating.
Then, one day.
“Your Highness! Are you all right? Oh my god, your arm is bleeding…”
With a dull thud, the sword in Clyde’s hand fell to the floor. The tip of the sword had the blood of the crown prince on it.
My brother’s blood.
Clyde had a confused look on his face.
When they would practice fighting, he always stopped at the end and let my brother win…
Our eyes met each other.
When Joseph’s sword came his way, he tried to block it, but accidentally cut Joseph’s arm.
“Oh my god, you, despicable thing! Big brother, big brother, are you alright?”
Karen ran to Joseph.
“Guards, guards! Arrest him for trying to kill my brother immediately!
You shouldn’t trust the lowly, brother. Are you all right?”
As Joseph nodded vigorously, the guards quickly snatched the boy’s arm.
I slurred his name.
The man’s empty eyes and resigned face caught my attention.
He stared at Joseph with his red eyes which held no defiance or explanation, just waiting for his punishment.
I was curious to see the wry smile on his face as if he was relieved that something boring was finally over.
“No, Brother Joseph!”
I stood in front of the man and looked at Joseph.
“Please don’t hurt this man. I beg you.”
In the darkness, I was always hoping for someone to reach out to me among the light. But no one came and I complied rather than resisting.
I was used to my situation because no one listened to me. Everyone pointed to me as the “ugly duckling” who was not capable and was not outstanding.
So, I understood Clyde’s grimace as I looked at him.
He, too, felt as if he was left alone in this world, and had given up fighting.
I wanted to reach out to him.
Karen screamed at me.
“Brother’s arm is injured and you’re defending that lowly? How much faith did brother have in him? He’s an ungrateful filth. I wonder who it was that let him hold the sword with his dirty hands…”
It was Joseph’s voice as if he was telling her to stop.
The attendants were stopping the bleeding in his arm. He bit his lower lip, struggling to resist the pain.
In the meantime, Karen raised her voice again.
“I need to look into the background of that lowly thing. I’ll call the doctor, and…..”
“Sister is kind.”
As I watched them, I spoke.
“Brother, please have mercy. I was watching and he didn’t mean to do it, but I’m sure he made a mistake because he was distracted.”
“Stella, what are you talking about? He was distracted because he was looking at you?”
“That’s not what I’m trying to say…”
“This is the first time I’m hearing an excuse that dumb and unbelievable. If that lowly thing likes you, he will tell you the truth. Stella, you are making outrageous excuses in an attempt to satisfy your self-interest.”
Karen said, emphasizing the word ‘self-interest’.
It was a typical behavior and interest of Karen in using rather difficult words. The nobles often praised Karen for her cleverness, saying the 12 years old Princess would surely become a great leader.
“Your compassion for those below you is worthy of high praise, Stella. What shall I do, brother? Shall I let that lowly thing go out of pity?” Karen said sarcastically.
“If Clyde had intended to attempt an assassination, he would have put poison on the tip of his sword.”
Joseph’s words caused the soldiers to let go of Clyde’s arm.
As I sighed in relief, Karen looked at Clyde with a still disgruntled look on her face.
“Hey, floor cleaner.”
“Are you sure you were distracted because of my sister’s face?”
The guards giggled the whole time Karen was talking.
When Clyde was about to open his mouth, I interrupted him.
“I misspoke. Ah…Actually he stopped to steal glances at the beautiful Princess Karen. That’s why…”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, it is because you are so beautiful…”
“You should have said that from the beginning, then there wouldn’t have been any misunderstanding.”
The adults said that lying is bad.
Was that why the lies I told hurt me so much?
Past Karen, I met his gaze.
His hair was as black as jet, and under those dark brows, his eyes were as red as flames as he looked at me.
The man had a truly magnificent appearance. I gazed at him blankly for a while, forgetting all about courtesy.
Our gazes crossed and Karen’s noisy voice broke the silent tension.
“Come on, let’s go back to your room. You need to rest, brother.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as the two of them disappeared. I was just about to head towards the door with my usual quiet steps.
A voice stopped my feet.
I turned around and our gazes met, and Clyde, perhaps embarrassed, ruffled his hair while looking at the ground.
When he was about to say something, I interrupted him.
“I’m not Your Highness, I’m just Stella.”
He looked at me as if he was confused by my statement, and I calmly explained.
“The term ‘Highness’ is too excessive for me.”
I was born as the youngest daughter of the Empress, but I had never been a Princess.
It was because I was ordinary.
Because I was not beautiful.
I wasn’t capable so I couldn’t be the child the empress expected.
That was why I became a fake.
The real Princess Stella, the youngest of the princesses, was somewhere else. Somewhere in the palace, she was very beautiful, smart, and capable. That’s how the world knew it.
I was the fake Princess. A fake playing the real one because they were afraid people might scare their beloved youngest daughter, the Princess. I was a bait… a shield.
“I’m Princess Karen’s maid. That’s why I’m unworthy of the status.”
The man said.
“Why do you look like you’re about to cry?”
I blinked, snapping out of my reverie. How dumb was that?
I was sure I could have done better by now. Fake acting.
“When people ask, you tell them you’re a fake. Introduce it as bait and trick them into thinking you’re a decoy.”
“Bait that exists for the safety of the real youngest princess! You are an imposter. Do you understand?”
“Tell them that the real youngest princess is in the detached palace and that she is beautiful, and powerful at the same time. You’re Karen’s maid. Do you understand?”
I didn’t want to be a bait…
I remembered the words I was unable to say. I shook my head.
No need to think about it.
I told myself.
I had a real family now.
Daisy, Mary and Hans. I no longer connected with the people of the Imperial family.
I didn’t need to be someone I wasn’t for others any more.
But, that man sure looked like him. Clyde Delanhill.
I closed my eyes, thinking of the knight who visited in the morning.
I suddenly felt warm.
Karen laid on her bed, her head propped up in one hand as she pondered.
“I’m sure the Duke’s aide said there’s a woman somewhere who looks just like Stella.”
The maids bowed their heads in fear at the mere sound of Karen’s voice.
Karen sat up, glancing through the maids.
“I have to find her, that woman. You know who I need help from, don’t you?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Then let’s go see the commander. He’s very difficult to please.”
Karen left her seat. The maids followed her without saying a word.