Not wanting to violate the rules set by the imperial court, no aristocrat of a high enough ranking would dare invite me. Even if there was one, the person must be on the same level as the imperial family… Right, Castor might be able to. But he was never the type to host banquets.
Also, there was no mention of Castor in my diary so I thought I was safe.
‘I hate the fact that I’m relieved about this but…’
When I returned to my desk, Soricks smiled brightly.
“Pipio! Why don’t we go to the training grounds together?”
Seeing Penne shake his head at his words, he must have failed to stop him. I laughed albeit a little apologetically.
“Sorry, Soricks, what can I do? I have to leave early today.”
“Really? There’s… nothing I can do then. But if I had the duke…”
“Are you talking about me?”
Hernandez gracefully replied when he heard Soricks talking about him.
“Yes! Could you duel with me?”
At my request, Hernandez swore to only stay by my side in the Soletorium. Hence, once I returned to my palace, he would leave sharply too like a sword.
“I also want to witness the skills of an outstanding templar like the duke…”
In fact, he looked as if he wanted to follow me all the way to my palace but since Fleon was there, I flat out refused him.
Hernan resigned himself to my demands and would return to wherever he came from once I returned to my palace.
“It might be shameless but can I?”
Excluding me, he did not seem to have any affection for the people here so I thought he would turn down Soricks’ request. But for some reason, he turned towards me and looked a little worried.
“What? Huh what? It would be great if you could. The people in my squad would really like to meet you.”
His clear eyes shifted before he stared at Soricks again. Tilting his head, he tapped on the desk with his fingers before smiling politely.
“… Good. Let’s go together.”
“Really? The captain would love it!”
“Is that so? Ah, my young lady.”
“Be careful on your way home.”
“Yes. You too, your grace.”
I nodded anxiously.
As always, he closed his eyes gently. But his clear eyes that resembled that of a lake remained fixed on Sorick’s hand that laid on my shoulders.
I traced the window with the tips of my fingers. The passing scenery halted. As if it had been waiting for me, the door opened and warm wind flowed inside.
Grabbing the hem of my dress, I got off the wagon whilst holding onto someone’s hand to climb down the steps.
There was a welcome face here.
“Long time no see, Ashley.”
His eyes that were like a blossoming red rose looked welcoming.
“What’s the matter? You told me you were busy.”
“Unfortunately, I still am.”
Dane’s voice sounded tired. At the soft mellow beauty of his voice, goosebumps ran down my skin for a moment, The face I had not seen for a long time remained etched in my head. As if he found me interesting, he flashed me a friendly and pretty smile.
“Did you not miss me?”
“Yeah. I guess I did.”
“This child. You’re making me sad.”
He whispered softly as I nodded playfully.
Soon, Dane lowered his head before breaking out into a charming grin as if he had bitten into ripe grapes. His soft brown hair fluttered and brushed against my cheeks.
“Can you not stand me?”
Dane was clad in short robes that were commonly worn by officials in the Central Palace. The elegant appearance of the imperial family’s unique long robes were as graceful and beautiful as the ones I saw in the murals painted in temples.
“You worked hard today as well.”
The layers of his robes spread gently like waves crashing onto the shore in the wind. He wrapped his long sleeves around his arm so that they would not bother me.
His headdress that symbolised the imperial family rustled in the wind and left a golden glint as an afterimage.
I knew he had been on the way to travel somewhere. Still, he managed to come see me despite his devilishly busy schedule.
“These days. Why have you been so busy? And what the heck are you doing with Lord Ray?”
When I asked, Dane kissed the back of my hand lightly. Together with his smile, he looked as sweet as spring.
“Shall I tell you?”
Listening to his gentle and friendly voice, he reminded me of the wind.
Right. He had always been like that. Dane, Fleon and Lord Ray were like rain that poured onto dry hard ground. Without noticing their consideration, time had passed and the ground gradually began to soften.
I shook my head gently.
“I mean. How am I supposed to know if you don’t tell me? Because sometimes you make things sound so complicated. Have you been eating well?”
“I think Fleon has been fired from the palace he had been working in. He had nothing to do so he has been stamping his timesheet in my palace instead.”
“Really? That brother of ours does whatever he wants at times. He misses you even more than me.”
“… Fleon? It’ll be more believable to hear if Lord Ray was the one who missed me.”
When I showed my displeasure, Dane burst into laughter.
Unlike Fleon or me, Dane had been an excellent asset since he was a child.
He did everything well and always showed outstanding performance. And I knew since he was someone I always took lessons with. Once he was able to, he received numerous love calls from various administrations at the same time. And it was Dane who helped Fleon come of age.
Even though it was not new knowledge, it was nice to see more of his character.
He did everything with a calm friendly attitude without a single whine. From the moment I could remember, he always had a sense of maturity.
It was as if he started out being an adult since he was born.
“I heard you were invited to a tea party by the duchess?”
“Are there already rumours spreading? It was Fleon, wasn’t it?”
Dane smiled softly. The deep smile on his calm face melted like sugar.
“This is your first time participating in such things. I thought your first party would only come after your coming-of-age ceremony.”
“Is it a pity?”
Dane lowered his eyes slightly.
The smile that spreaded across his face now looked a little sad.
“Now that it came to this, we can no longer delay things. Can I ask you for a favour?”
I thought I knew what he was going to say so I lowered my gaze instead of replying him.
Dane had seen it earlier so he knew. What kind of situation a powerless imperial member with no family backing was stuck in.
It was a reality I was going through too. I too had experienced it vividly and clearly. After being lost in his thoughts for a while, he sighed.
“I can’t wait to leave.”
That was not what I wanted him to say.
“I’m just asking because I’m curious. What’s the world outside like?”
It would have been great if I could just leave the things I had to do behind and become more comfortable around them. There was a time where I had no doubts about it too.
The road I could not travel on before unfolded before my eyes like I was in a dream. Back when all I thought about was how I could allow my brothers and I escape from the ruin in the future. During those sweet and tearfully peaceful days.
If I had grown up normally, even when I became an adult, I would have still acted childishly in front of Hannah and my nanny. I would have saved what little money I had to run away. I would have shamelessly screamed at the top of my lungs till I turned 18. For the longest of times, I had been stuck in that dream.
‘There’s a limit to how far imagination could go.’
Closing my eyes, I erased the sight. It was a future that was no longer available to me forever.
The road I could not take, the option that was deprived from me had been so sweet I could cry.
“Are you not going to congratulate me? This is going to be my first tea party.”
I smiled and gazed into the eyes that resembled red petals. I had not expected things to turn out this way either.
Two years ago, I had not imagined I would be falling apart, breaking down and becoming the mess I was now.
Like a european noble who hid his terrible smell with god awful cologne, I was hiding my tattered self with a bright smile. Dane smiled as he wiped the corners of his eyes with his pale hand. Congratulations.
“For your first time, a tea party will be better than a banquet. I’m relieved that the duchess will be the one holding it.”
“Yeah, I thought so. The duchess is a good person. But what do you mean by a banquet? Is there anyone I know attending a banquet?”
“Me and brother.”
I looked up at Dane in surprise.
‘If it’s a banquet, he must be talking about traditional symposiums.’
Did they not drink wine instead of water there? Amazing. This Empire was amazing for allowing minors to drink.
“We’ll be attending in three days.”
“Yes, both brother and I have been invited to a banquet hosted by Her Majesty.”
“No wonder you didn’t look like you wanted to go.”
“Only a little.”
As if troubled, Dane smiled. I wanted to ask him more but he did not look like he wanted to talk about it so I just tapped his shoulders.
“If you’re there, you’ll definitely be the flower of the banquet.”
“Perhaps there’ll be no prettier lady than Dane himself.”
He cracked a smile.
My brother who was now an adult and seductively mature had grown to the point it was frightening me. He had long evolved from the boy who could knock out a few maids with just his gaze alone.
Indeed, his smile was dangerous for the heart. His eyes languidly curved as it melted before turning towards me.
“Why would there not be? There’s already one here.”
I flinched before covering his eyes. I had been saying this since I was young but I did not like it when Dane looked at me like that.
“Don’t joke around like. It makes my heart skip.”
“But I wasn’t joking.”
Dane grabbed my hand and playfully pecked it.
“I’m always sincere.”
Dane raised his head up to the sky as if he was looking for something fleeting before hanging a ripe smile on his face. His eyelashes that were covering his eyes looked longer than mine.
“Time sure passes quickly.”
The wind scattered Dane’s soft brown hair as his white robes fluttered like a flag on a flagpole. I pressed down on the hem of my clothes in the wind. Soon, a small smile spread on his face.
“It’s a pity you’re my younger sister.”
“Because we’ll be separated one day?”
Deane did not reply. Instead he returned with a gentle gaze as if nothing happened and continued observing me.
Staring puzzledly at my arm, Dane spoke.
“Don’t get hurt. I appreciated the fact you were saving your lady-in-waiting. But it’s sad to know you got hurt.”
After a brief pause, I soon answered calmly.
“… It was Fleon, right?”
Dane smiled quietly.
‘I’m going to cry, you know?”
Fleon, that loud mouth. He told him everything. He was so loose-lipped. I tried to escape but Dane pulled my hand.
“Are you okay now?”
He examined me carefully and calmly. Then he smiled softly.
“I know it’s your body but I’m more worried than you.”
Dan always stared at me like I was fragile. He always wanted me to think of myself first. Because he had always been worrying about me.
‘Or because I’m so worrisome.’
As soon as I saw him speechless, I grabbed his hands.
“I’m worried about you, too.”