Chapter 22

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I pondered on the Crown Prince’s words.

 

If what he said about Claire and not being lovers was true, then their relationship was very tenuous.

 

She was much closer than a friend, but not a lover. …Claire might think so too, but it’s not hers that’s important, it’s the Crown Prince’s point of view.

 

I thought as I held the chess horse in my hand.

 

Then what exactly was Claire to the Crown Prince? A friend? A mistress? If she was not a lover, did he think of her as a toy?

 

Probably not the latter, judging from his attitude towards her. There were some nobles who occasionally comforted beauties of lower status than themselves. However, their attitude and the Crown Prince’s were completely different.

 

There was a similar but subtle difference between a lover and a concubine, and a concubine and a toy. In particular, the boundary between lover and concubine was a particularly blurry one. A concubine was like a lover, but a little lower than a lover.

 

‘Does the Crown Prince intend to make Claire his concubine?’

 

 

The empire had a Queen system and a concubine’s system.

 

The Empress was the officially recognized concubine, and the concubines were naturally lower rank than the Empress, but they would be treated better than the royal family who lived in the palace. They occasionally threatened the status of the Empress, if they were more favored than the Empress.

 

 And while they were not officially recognized, they were instead treated as “people of the emperor” and could freely come and go from the imperial palace with the emperor’s permission.

 

Of course, they often lived in the Imperial Palace and received a kind of dignity maintenance fee.

 

Claire’s low status would make it impossible for her to become an Empress, but it would be possible for her to become the Emperor’s concubine.

 

Now, even in the situation of a Baron and a daughter with no power, Claire still had the favor of the Crown Prince on her back, and she had Roxana to play with in her own hands.

 

However, if she later gained power and became the Emperor’s most  favorite concubine, what would happen then?

 

It would certainly be an incomparable headache compared to now.

 

“It’s …….”

 

I grunted as I quickly hit the king with my queen and knocked him down.

 

The fallen horse made a clear sound and hit the chess board, rolling a few laps before coming to a stop.

 

The ruby of the crown ornament on the horse’s head glowed intensely in the setting sun.

 

I looked down at the fallen chess horse with a worried look on my face.

 

Actually, it didn’t really matter what Claire was like in the Crown Prince’s mind.

 

All I was worried about was what they might do to me in the future.

 

I looked down at the chessboard again.

 

The game was over now that I had defeated the king, but I could see in my mind that the Rook, who was advancing as fast as he could on the edge of the board, the weakest one in chess, was the Pawn, who could be anything except a king once he reached the end of the board.

 

Rooks, Bishops, Knights, and even the Queen. So I could never underestimate them.

 

As long as they don’t bother me, I don’t mind if the Crown Prince and Claire show their deep affection in front of me.

 

Even if the Crown Prince thought of Claire as a beautiful ornament or a pet, it would not bother me because it had nothing to do with me.

 

However, she would surely become a great threat to me at a later date if I left her like this now. It’d be better to cut off the buds that would bloom later and become a problem from the beginning.

 

It would be foolish to leave them in place knowing full well that they would cause trouble later. I put the chessboard in a drawer and got up from my seat.

 

I started the day with a light heart, but by the end of the day, my heart seemed to become heavier.

 

I felt nauseous and frustrated because of the tea I had earlier.

 

***

 

On the way back to the Imperial Palace.

 

The Crown Prince looked out the window with a worried look on his face.

 

The residence of the Duke of Lillian was gradually disappearing at a rapid speed of the carriage ride.

 

He tapped his seat with his fingers impatiently, thinking of Roxana’s face he had seen earlier.

 

It was the first time she had left her seat before him during all the time they were together. Roxana was his fiancée and companion.

 

His relationship with her was not passionate, but it was friendly and peaceful.

 

Usually like a friend, and sometimes like an old lover…..

 

Over the last two years his relationship with her has deteriorated, but he never thought that a few fights would drive her so far away from him.

 

But today she was as unfamiliar to him as if he was looking at a stranger. He was sure she was close enough that he could reach her, yet strangely far enough away that he could not reach her. He had never felt such terrible anxiety while he was with Roxana before.

 

He met her when she was a little girl, and watched her grow up very closely.

 

He had always prided himself on knowing her better than anyone else, but after facing her today, he finally realized that he was wrong.

 

Today she seemed to have grown a lot more than before.

 

Even though it was less than a month, she seemed much more mature and somehow much more natural than when he last saw her.

 

She tried not to show her emotions like she used to, and she deliberately distanced herself from him. The way she looked at him made him realize that the hurt she had suffered in the past was not small.

 

‘Looks like I made a mistake……’ 

 

At one point, he looked at her and wanted to heal those wounds, but somehow he ended up like he had sprinkled salt on her wounds instead.

 

‘Roxana was lonely and hurt a lot.’

 

When he remembered her when she was small and frail, he felt twice as sorry.

 

She was such a beautiful and smiley girl back then, but it seemed like a long time since he saw her smile.

 

‘How long has it been?’

 

The carriage stopped and the door opened.

 

“Your Highness!”

 

The distant, supple voice roused the Crown Prince from his reverie.

 

As he stepped out of the carriage, he saw Claire approaching from the front. 

 

She was holding a bunch of fresh flowers in her arms that looked like they had just been plucked.

 

From the looks of it, she must have gotten them from the garden of the Crown Prince’s Palace. The Crown Prince himself had allowed her to come and pick the flowers whenever she wanted. Only today, however, he couldn’t understand why the sight of her in the Imperial Palace felt so foreign to him.

 

“Your Highness?”

 

Claire tilted her head curiously at the quiet Crown Prince.

 

“Claire, how long have you been here?”

 

The Crown Prince unconsciously reached out and stroked her head as he always did.

 

She clung to the Crown Prince’s waist and whispered in a sweet voice, keeping her head down.

 

“It hasn’t been long. About…two hours?”

 

“You must have been bored while waiting.”

 

“A little. But it’s all right, because I’m sure I’ll be just as bored when I get home. And since I’m waiting for His Highness, I can wait as long as it takes.”

 

The Crown Prince gave a soulless nod and looked down at Claire in his arms. Normally, seeing her made him feel light-hearted, but that was not the case today. Unfortunately, Claire was wearing a dress that was the same color as the one Roxana wore earlier today.

 

The sight of her reminded him of Roxana’s image he had seen earlier, flickering in front of his eyes.

 

Even though they were dressed similarly, their appearance and moods were distinctly different. While Claire was as innocent and lovely as a wild flower blooming on the side of the road, Roxana was as gorgeous and elegant as a red rose in the garden.

 

Unlike the roses that were under someone’s protection in the hedge, the wild flowers could be easily plucked by anyone. In a society full of arrogant and black-hearted aristocrats, it was never a good thing to create attraction if they were not strong enough to protect themselves.

 

Shortly after Claire made her appearance in the society, she experienced firsthand the status dividend.

 

The fact that she stood tall in spite of the bewilderment and horrible situation was unusual and caught his attention. So he helped her out a few times, and before he knew it, they became close naturally.

 

 

Come to think of it, he had never thought about it deeply.

 

“Did Your Highness just give her that many luxuries just for that reason?”

 

So, when Roxana asked him earlier, he was in a daze, as if he was hit on the head.

 

‘Do I love Claire?’

 

It was fun to be with her and she definitely had a talent for putting other people’s minds at ease.

 

However, he didn’t know exactly how he felt about whether he loved her or not. As he agonized over it, tiredness rushed in, and the Crown Prince made a grimace without realizing it. He asked Claire, who was still in his arms.

 

“So what’s going on today?”

 

 “Is there always something that has to happen?”

 

Claire said in a sultry voice.

 

She looked so lovely and adorable.

 

But unlike usual, the Crown Prince did not respond, so Claire moved away from his chest to get a better look at his face.

 

Then she looked up at him with a bemused expression. The Crown Prince had always been tormented by his various classes and duties, but today his face looked particularly tired.

 

When she looked at his pensive eyes, it was as if his mind was in a different place. His more than usual distant demeanor was strange, but Claire asked him without a hint of pretense.

 

“Your Highness, what happened today?”

 

“Nothing much. More importantly…….”

 

The crown prince slurred his words.

 

Claire bit her lips lightly.

 

The Crown Prince was always like this.

 

He listens well to others, but when they ask him, he doesn’t answer. For this reason, even though she had been by the Crown Prince’s side for two years, she was never able to learn more about him, but today for some reason, he looked strangely blank.

 

She thought she should know.

 

“Is it because of Princess Lillian?”

 

“…”

 

The Crown Prince frowned.

 

Seeing the Crown Prince’s reaction, Claire was convinced that his unusual demeanor was because of Roxana.

 

When she thought of his attitude, which had been lost in thoughts for the past few weeks since the Imperial Banquet, something hot was rising in her heart. The feeling of excitement was infinitely quieted until it was time to look around the beautiful garden and admire the beautiful flowers.

 

She thought he would not speak until the end, but the Crown Prince nodded surprisingly honestly.

 

However, his next words were enough to freeze Claire’s heart.

 

“I was told that you were first to blame for what happened that day. I heard you bragged about the gifts I gave you in front of Roxana and even made fun of her. Why on earth did you do that?”

 

Claire could not answer his question and her eyes fluttered in surprise. Her face twisted in frustration as if she was falsely accused.

 

“Your Highness saw what happened that day. I was merely greeting the Princess, but she was …….” 

 

“What I saw was from when Roxana was about to raise her hand to you. I did not see the situation before that.”

 

The Crown Prince spoke, cutting her off mid-sentence. Claire looked up at the Crown Prince in disbelief.

 

“I would never do that to a princess.”

 

“Then, Claire, are you saying that Roxana lied to me?”

 

Tears filled Claire’s big eyes with golden lashes at the Crown Prince’s words.