Karen approached me as her shoes were tapping the floor sharply.
I put down the rag I used to wipe the table and bowed my head.
Thoughts went through my head. Maybe she recognized me.
Her clean hands were in my field of vision. And my rough hands, too.
Traces of time we’ve been living.
Then, I heard a gentle voice.
“You work here?”
“Raise your head. I am Karen Ethelanche, the first Princess of the Empire.”
Suddenly, Karen grabbed my hand. Did she recognize me?
From my voice?
When I stared at her with a confused look on my face, Karen said,
“I’m here to see Ethel, who works here. Where can I find Ethel?”
I thought, listening to her soft voice.
My sister hasn’t changed a bit.
Karen was kind to people. With her beautiful smile and kind voice, she could easily win people’s favor.
There was no one who didn’t like Karen. And if I wasn’t Karen’s sister, I might be swayed by her gentleness.
It was rare for a princess to hold a commoner’s hand while meeting her for the first time.
But I quickly snatched my hand out of her grasp.
Karen stared at me in surprise, but I didn’t want to play along with her kind Princess skit. Because I knew how Karen was.
“I’m surprised you hold the hands of the humble.”
“…No, the hands of the people are the honorable hands that sustain this empire. Please, do not refuse my favor. As an Imperial princess, it is only natural for me to take care of my people.”
The knights standing behind her looked very impressed. Karen looked around.
“This is a really nice store. By the way, do you have a reception room here?”
“By the way, what’s your name?”
“I once had a sister who had brown hair and brown eyes, just like you. She was a cute kid. I really cared for her. Everyone in my family loved her very much, but she was lost when the country was in turmoil…”
Karen looked startled for a moment, but quickly regained her composure.
Nonetheless, the “it can’t be” didn’t go away easily.
“It’s so beautiful…..”
She said in a small voice. Our gazes met, and she said flatly, “Oh, please pretend you didn’t hear me.”
“I heard that Jason startled Ethel quite a bit. I apologize.”
She held out her beautiful hand to me, and I looked at it silently.
I couldn’t believe she’s letting Jason be the villain and calling herself a saint….
Jason must have had Karen behind him. I said in a distant voice.
“How am I supposed to hold the hand of a royalty?”
Taking a step back, Karen was about to say something.
Perhaps to point out my attitude.
I spoke quickly so that she wouldn’t catch the wordplay.
“We don’t have a reception room, but I’m sure we can talk in my room if you don’t mind the dirtiness.”
With just those words, I turned around.
If she was the Karen I knew, I’m sure she would be cursing inwardly, wondering why I asked a noble princess to come to the room of a commoner.
It was none of my business.
I didn’t hear her footsteps for a while, but by the time I reached the top of the stairs, another slow thud echoed through the air.
I quickly made my way to my room without looking back.
I took a deep breath and squeezed my hand, which was getting colder.
I didn’t want any of my emotions to leak out.
“This is my room.”
Karen’s brow wrinkled, and when our gazes met, she deliberately put her friendly face back on.
“I believe you are well aware of why I am here, Ethel.”
Karen sat down on the bed and lightly tapped the seat next to her with her precious hand.
I sat down next to her, keeping my distance, but she grabbed my hand.
Karen tried to speak with tears in her eyes. When I tried to pull away, she squeezed my hand again.
“Please, Ethel. You’re my last hope.”
Finally, Karen burst into tears. The tears streamed down her cheeks.
Then she said briefly, “I’m sorry,” and turned her face away.
After wiping away her tears, she looked at me with tearful eyes that seemed to have a lot of stories.
“I’m sorry for showing you my weakness. But please listen to what I have to say. My family has been living with guilt over the loss of my sister, Stella. Endless guilt. Do you know what it’s like to live with guilt? It hurts my heart. The pain of the family is…………”
“I’m sorry, Your Highness.”
My voice was trembling slightly. I shook off her hand and looked at her.
“I am a commoner. I don’t have the ability to play a noble person.”
“She doesn’t remember anything from her childhood. And after living outside the castle for ten years, it’s natural that she will act like a commoner. ….”
“I’m sorry, Your Highness.”
“A real Princess could be alive.”
“There is someone I love.”
Karen’s firm voice interrupted my words.
“He’s a poor man who lives in the past because he can’t forget the woman who might be dead. He’s not the only one. The entire Imperial Palace can’t forget her and is living in the past.”
Karen’s voice became desperate.
“If I didn’t know better, I would be fooled by your voice, thinking Ethel is Stella.”
Karen burst into tears, put her face in her hands and her shoulders shook.
If I had magic, I would erase Stella from their sight.
I felt like I’d been hit in the head. When I was a child, I had to be a fake Stella even though I was the real one.
Now I was told to be the fake one again, to soothe the guilt of these people.
There was no Stella, not anywhere.
“Have you ever loved your sister?”
Karen was surprised by my question. Those were words she never thought she’d hear.
However, her reply was simple.
“Of course. I love my sister with all my heart…….”
“Then how can you ask me to be her so easily? This is the life of a person who may be alive. How can you ask me to take it away? The princess is…..”
“You don’t need to feel sorry for her, Ethel.”
“She’s probably dead. I know. Please don’t ask me how I know. I just do.”
“How do you know?”
Karen’s perfect smile turned crooked.
“I’ve heard that the Princess is very devoted to her family.”
Karen bit her bottom lip.
Despite the darkening of her expression, I said what I wanted to say.
“The same goes for me. Please don’t take my family away from me. I love my family as much as you love yours.”
“I do not want to live as Princess Stella. I love my family now. So please…….”
Mary, Hans, Daisy and this inn were all I had.
I didn’t want it to be taken away from me.
I was loved as Ethel, and I lived as Ethel. I don’t want to go back to that place now.
“Your Highness. Please go back.”
“Ethel, I can’t do that.”
I knelt down in front of Karen. I bowed my head deeply as I didn’t have the confidence to make eye contact.
My mouth was bitter. My heart ached.
My withering heart, which was already so full of scars that I believed it would never hurt again, ached.
Still, I had to protect it.
I had to protect what I had.
My “real” family, the one I love.
Even if I had to do it this way.
Karen looked down at me without saying a word and eventually got up from her seat.
“What would you like to have here instead of an inn? A fruit shop? A seafood shop? A manure store wouldn’t be a bad idea, would it? The commoners farm and eat directly, so there would be a lot of demand.”
“What did you just say…?”
“Choose something that can replace the inn when it’s gone. Don’t you understand?”
I was dazed. How could she threaten to destroy one person’s life and family so casually?
How could someone who claimed to care so deeply about her family said those words? She started to laugh.
“I’ll give you one week. I’ll let Ethel make a choice….”
Karen turned. As she went to grab the door handle, I opened my mouth.
My voice was as cold as ice. Karen turned around and looked at me.
“What kind of choice is that if I can’t choose? You say I can choose while holding a sword to my neck.”
“What kind of choice is it when I have to choose while you hold the breath of my family? How about your family? You said your family loves and misses Princess Stella…while you’re doing this to my family.”
My voice was stifled, and my unkind, cold voice was spat out of my mouth.
“So this is really what you’re doing for the people who miss Princess Stella?”
Karen snorted as if she was speechless.
It was just me and her in the room.
She showed her bare face because her plan didn’t go her way.
“…Since you feel so sorry for her, I’m sure my dead sister must be in tears in the sky and feel very grateful. You’re acting presumptuous as if you’re already the second princess just because you look like her ….”
“As you said, I had to be the perfect Second Princess, right?”
In the cold ice, I made a disastrous proposal.
I could see a faint surprise on Karen’s face.
“I’m a very useful person to Her Imperial Highness, so if she needs me, I’ll do what she wants.”
“I’ll have to start correcting that habit of yours. You certainly don’t seem to know who I am since you are a commoner who didn’t learn much.”
“Yes. However, since you are a noble princess, I am sure you will understand.”
Karen glared sharply at me with a look of unresolved anger.
She looked as if she was about to call the guards and order them to tie me up.
Of course, she wouldn’t do that because she needed me.
“Come to think of it, the first Princess I remember was an Imperial Moon who was compassionate and noble, and who always thinks of the lowly ones.”
“But now she’s different from what I thought. I’m sure the guards standing outside would love to know this, wouldn’t they?”
I walked past her and headed to the door.
“Can I take the carriage?”
“Also I’d much rather it be at an inn than a fertilizer store.”
I opened the door and headed out and Karen slammed the door behind me and grabbed my arm.
“Watch your mouth….”
“Her Imperial Highness hurts my arm so much.”
As my knees touched the floor, I grabbed my arm, acting as if I was in pain, and the knights stared at Karen.
She smiled awkwardly and released my arm, taking the lead.
I quietly watched her silver hair as it wavered, and then I stood up.
Daisy peeked out and looked at me, and I shook my head at her.
Daisy nodded and quickly ducked behind the door.
I thought as I walked down the empty hallway.
The Imperial family is hanging on the fake Stella and trying to erase their guilt.
And Karen, hiding behind a mask of hypocrisy to satisfy her own “self-interest.”
I wanted to destroy the Stella they had painted.
I didn’t want to be a victim of their black atonement.
So I decided to go back to where I belonged and erased myself from them.
The beginning was a reunion.