Chapter 9

 


***

 

The Imperial Palace was exactly as I remembered it.

 

…… Over there, yes. There was a family portrait hanging right there. It was the only one with five people in it. It was me, Joseph, Karen, my mother, and my father.

 

The Emperor looked at me with disbelief. The Empress’s eyes turned red. Their demeanor was different. They both looked at me with indifferent expressions, because I was probably just another fake.

 

‘I have no memory, I will not let the stars in the sky rise. Then how can you believe that this child is Stella!”

 

The angry emperor was no more.

 

“Didn’t you say she’s a child with no memory, Karen?”

 

When Joseph’s gaze went to Karen, she said, “When the child came back to the Imperial Palace, the memories came back to her. Now she has memory,” she stammered.

 

I stepped forward. I touched the wall and cast my eyes down.

 

“The wallpaper here was originally red. It was a favorite color of my great-grandfather, Alexander the Sun King.”

 

“Hey, how did you….”

 

It was the Empress’s voice.

 

“And that room was your room. Is it still?”

 

I turned to look at Karen. Karen’s expression was one of confusion.

 

“Of course, it’s still the same.”

 

It was the largest and most beautiful place of the Imperial Palace.

 

“It always smelled of jasmine.”

 

“I’m going with freesia now. I’m tired of jasmine.”

 

Joseph closed his eyes and laughed softly, and I turned my head away and deflected his smile.

 

I hated it. All of it. When I turned my gaze, I saw the Emperor.

 

“Father.”

 

He shivered at the sound of my voice.

 

“Does your left arm still hurt? You were out reindeer hunting and it was grazed by a bear’s claw.”

 

“Well, how about that….?”

 

“Mother had insomnia, and the court doctors jumped at the chance to cure her, but to no avail. I don’t know if the insomnia was cured. And brother Joseph…”

 

“Oh my God!”

 

The Empress hugged me tightly and sobbed. But that didn’t last long. Her legs weakened and she sat down.

 

“Stella, my child. My child. My beloved…..”

 

While the Empress was crying and hugging me, I looked at Karen, who was standing behind her.

 

Looking at her flustered face, I suddenly thought, did Karen really want Stella to come back?

 

No, she did not.

 

If she had wanted that, she wouldn’t have filled her sister’s place with a poor impostor with no memories or abilities.

 

There was a chuckle. It was because Karen had finally done what she wanted.

 

It was obvious that she wanted to make sure that her family knew that the real Stella no longer existed.

 

It was her goal to show them the fake so that they would let go of their lingering feelings for the real Stella.

 

If I was lucky enough to succeed in fooling them, Karen would ask me to erase the beautified Stella from the family’s minds forever.

 

And if I failed, she would still be happy that she had reaped a good harvest.

 

To put it bluntly, it was a profitable business.

 

“You’re alive.”

 

Joseph tried to take my hand, but I quickly moved it away.

 

I stepped back and the Empress looked at me with tears streaming down her face. The emperor had a confused look on his face.

 

“Did Karen teach you to say that?”

 

He looked as if he wanted me to say something different.

 

So did Joseph.

 

Karen, the Empress, and the Emperor all stared at me with distant eyes.

 

I spoke calmly.

 

“If anyone asks, I’m a decoy. Introduce yourself as bait and trick them into believing so.”

 

The Emperor’s eyes were shaken by my calm voice. The Empress covered her mouth and burst into tears.

 

The insipid voice flowed out once more.

 

The bait is there for the safety of the real youngest princess. You are an impostor. Do you understand?”

 

“…Stella.”

 

“Those words were not something Karen can teach you. It was something the Emperor said directly to Stella.” The Emperor said.

 

“Stella. It’s really you, my, my…..”

 

Joseph looked at me in a daze. The Emperor looked like he was hit in the head with a mallet. 

 

“I didn’t want to come back.”

 

“Huh, why not?”

 

I didn’t want to face the look of panic on the Emperor’s face as he looked at me. I said as I looked at Karen’s room,

 

“The day of the rebellion, Karen’s room smelled of jasmine as well. That’s right. So I walked over and called out to my father. Oh, please help me,” I said. 

 

“No, you can stop now…”

 

“Thanks to my ragged appearance, the rebels mistook me for a servant.”

 

“Stella!”

 

“I am alive. And Karen threatened to hurt my life savior.”

 

My gaze went to Karen.

 

“Stop it!”

 

Karen raised her voice.

 

I was silent, and Karen looked at her family.

 

“I want to help you.”

 

It was depressing to see Karen worrying about the reputation she was going to lose.

 

Karen was such a bore.

 

She was endlessly afraid.

 

She was afraid Stella would come back here. She would have to face her again. But Karen was nothing after all.

 

She was just an ordinary ‘person’ who only worried about her own safety, and that was the same for the rest of the Imperial family.

 

That was all.

 

At the end of the earth, I looked down at the pit of darkness and feared to sink down there, but when I went down, there was not much.

 

I just realized that what was consuming me was fear itself.

 

The monster was inside of me.

 

And the name of that monster was not Karen or the Imperials, but fear itself.

 

I did not tremble.

 

“I’ve heard that my marriage has been decided.”

 

I looked at my father for a second. For the first time, I didn’t shy away from his gaze.

 

“I’m going to live there quietly, so please stop searching for me.  Please abandon me one more time. I’ll live quietly and you’ll never see me again.”

 

I clenched my fists and stared at my family.

 

“Leave me alone.”

 

Even when I got used to the fact that I was abandoned, and tried to learn how to live with it… 

 

Even when I came to terms with the fact that I could never, ever be a top priority…

 

I’ve never felt such a strange emotion before.

 

My chest heaved like a stormy sea, and it hurt somehow.

 

I wondered why. I thought I was really getting better. That was what I believed.

 

My family looked at me blankly, having forgotten how to breathe. The Emperor was the first to speak.

 

“I can’t let you go to that monster,” he said. “This is how we reunited again, but never! To that monster….”

 

“Monster?”

 

I laughed.

 

“Who’s the monster?”

 

Karen blinked and raised her voice.

 

“Stella Ethelanche, there’s something you can and cannot say. What is it now..?”

 

“It’s been a while, sister.”

 

I said as I made eye contact with Karen.

 

“You must have had fun twisting Ethel’s neck into playing the good and beautiful princess.”

 

“What are you talking about, Stella?”

 

Joseph interrupted.

 

“Who’s Ethel?”

 

He turned his gaze towards Karen. Karen was frozen in place, speechless.

 

“Karen!”

 

Karen avoided Joseph’s gaze. She couldn’t stand the tension, so she tapped me on the shoulder and then moved away. 

 

I stared at my mother, father, and Joseph.

 

“I’m back.”

 

“…”

 

“You invited me here for a marriage proposal, didn’t you? From what I’ve heard, my husband-to-be is a famous war maniac, and I’m sure you didn’t want to send Karen to this monster, and you suddenly remembered that there was another princess.”

 

“No, it’s not true. We’re not going to send you to that monster.”

 

“That’s right, baby. Never will I send you to that monster. Never.”

 

The Emperor and Empress shook their heads quickly. Just then, Joseph whispered.

 

“No, Stella.”

 

When I made eye contact with Joseph, he continued speaking in a calm voice.

 

“The reason why your marriage was decided is simple. The Duke wanted you. Not the first imperial princess, but you. On the day he received his dukedom, he knelt down before father and said, ‘The only thing I want as compensation is Princess Stella Ethelanche.’

 

“Why is that?”

 

“He worked in the imperial palace and might have been watching you.”

 

“Who is he?”

 

“He was my swordsmanship training partner and mentor.”

 

I heard the sound of my mother sobbing. My father averted his gaze, wrinkling his brow.

 

***

 

“You’re a goddamn lunatic! You madman…. you…to my family, to me.”

 

For a moment, the pen stopped, and the Duke’s eyes glanced blankly at the document.

 

Suddenly his rough hand shook as he saw the blood pooling under the pen. In his memory, he, himself, was a monster.

 

Clyde compulsively filled his wine glass and quenched his thirst. As the last drop touched his throat, he heard a voice with a knock on the door.

 

“It’s me. Your Highness.”

 

It was his aide.

 

“What is it?”

 

The Duke hoped he wouldn’t continue talking about the First Princess. Because his hands were itching.

 

His red eyes rolled slowly and scanned where his sword was.

 

It was an animalistic movement.

 

“She’s back.”

 

“Who is?”

 

“Princess Stella Ethelanche.”

 

“…What?”

 

“They say that the people are gathering at the imperial palace to see Princess Stella float the stars in the sky. How curious must they have been when they were told that she was the hidden princess?”

 

“…”

 

And the most important fact remained. According to the rumors of the people in the Imperial Palace….”

 

“What is it?”

 

The Duke wrinkled his brow. He had no idea what the aide was trying to say.

 

“They say the returned Princess Stella is truly beautiful. They can’t take their eyes off her.”

 

***

 

“She’s back?”

 

The blond man looked down at his glass of whiskey, slowly distributing the elaborate glass with one hand. Then he threw the dart in his other hand in an insincere manner.

 

With a “thunk,” the dart pierced the red target with precision. The dart made a chattering sound.

 

“Who?”

 

Jason Evanders averted his gaze and looked at the servant. The servant lowered his head.

 

“Princess Stella is back. It’s like a festival in the palace. The people want to see Princess Stella raise the stars…”

 

Jason clicked his tongue and looked mischievously at the servant.

 

“Hey, why don’t we make a bet?”

 

“What? What do you mean?”

 

“I’ll bet you a diamond mine in Sutherland territory that the Princess won’t be able to raise the stars.”

 

“I won’t do it, because you never put money on a bet you’re going to lose.”

 

Jason laughed and moistened his throat with whiskey.

 

“You’ve been working in this mansion for over a decade, but you haven’t learned anything, have you?”

 

“I always learn, Young Master.”

 

The servant bowed his head politely and turned around. After taking two steps back, he stopped where he was.

 

“I was fortunate enough to avoid the bet, but the people at the casino would certainly be interested. It’s a diamond mine in Sutherland. How many people would refuse?”

 

Jason smiled brightly at the words.

 

“Then let’s win the jackpot again today.”

 

“Good luck, Young Master.”

 

After the servant left, Jason quickly put on his jacket.

 

He smiled confidently and headed out the door.

 

A stand-in that resembled the real one.

 

He wondered how that woman could fool the imperial family, but the heavens could not be fooled.

 

His hands were already itching to see how much money he’d get this time.

 

A jackpot at the casino, followed by a scene of horrible despair as it was revealed that the woman was a fake.

 

It had to be a spectacular sight.

 

***