"I’m glad to hear that."
The prince, whose face was flushed red, finally blurted out.
"She… Y-you said that she would be in the academy, right? When I return to the kingdom, my brother will already be in attendance. As in, he would already be attending it as a student too."
I already knew that. The 1st Prince Solorenian. The male lead of the . And the fated partner of this world’s protagonist, Rusbella. He was someone I would never cross paths with. Because I was originally meant to be dead. I hadn’t been mentioned anywhere in the original novel but it was clear that I had already been dead at that point. No, had I really been dead? Countless deaths were now blocking my way to my future but what about the ‘original’ Ashley? Perhaps she too had survived the terrible regressions?
"Well, you must come visit the Kingdom of Walter. You must! Must!"
The prince never forgot my favour. Of course, I would never get to visit Walter but I nodded out of politeness.
That was how I parted from the prince. Unlike how I acted in the other banquets I attended, I mingled with various aristocrats. I exchanged jokes, recommended some snacks and smiled at the people praising me about how beautiful my performance was.
"Princess, you’re such a charming woman!"
Some old gentleman complimented me out of admiration. In response, an envoy from one of the northern countries nodded in agreement. I just smiled inwardly. That was how I passed my time before Ray who had been accompanying me tapped me on my shoulders. When I glanced at him, he nodded stiffly.
"Ah, my head."
I hurriedly groaned and grabbed my head.
"I’m feeling tired so I’m going to take my leave now."
"Oh dear. Please take care of yourself, princess."
"Oh my, princess. Please drop by my Teleros Domus (large mansion) when you’re free."
"Yes. I will!"
I slowly walked out the front entrance with a smile on my face like a celebrity waving their fans goodbye. I made sure to let as many people as I could witness my exit. Then, as soon as we left the hall, Lord Ray quickly hid me in his embrace. He then hurriedly ran towards one of the countless rooms along the hallway.
"How is it going?"
"Everything’s been prepared. You just need to sit here, princess."
With the help of Hannah and Lena whom Rebecca had gathered beforehand, I changed my clothes. The clothes I changed into were very different from anything I had worn in this world so far. They were very loose around my body and left my body very exposed. Well, of course it would be since they were not my clothes.
"… I look like Cleopatra."
Rebecca spun me around to check the clothes before handing me a bracelet.
"Apparently, the Templars of Vulcanus had been working on this the whole night."
"What does this do?"
"It will help achieve your goal, princess."
I quickly placed the bracelet on my wrist. The bracelet felt more like an arm cuff that was supposed to be worn on my forearm and not like an actual bracelet. And the moment I put it on, a strange mist circled around my body. I could tell that it was divinity based on my past experiences with it. The bracelet soon seemed to suck in the red mist before my whole world turned upside down.
"… It’s alright."
Hannah came running towards me before helping me up. Then, I met Rebecca’s surprised expression. Perhaps she was aware of the expression on her face because she turned emotionless.
"Please keep in mind that this would only last one hour. It’s apparently impossible to keep divinity within the artefact any longer than that. You’ll have to finish everything within this hour."
Holding my hand, Rebecca explained everything to me clearly.
"Once you leave this place, princess, I will immediately leave this room and wear the same artefact."
"Alright. That artefact is only for non-templars, right?"
"Yes. I will be wearing your face, mistress, and be staying in the Terena Palace."
I glanced at the Artefact of Vulcanus before nodding. This felt a lot like that time I had taken that drug Amor had given me to become ‘Ahn’. Before I realised it, I grabbed the straight orange hair that cascaded down my back, instead of my usual wavy blonde one, before letting it go.
"I’ll be right back."
"Hurry and clean out the room and wait."
As soon as Ashley left, Rebecca left the maids behind to tidy up and sprung to her feet to leave the room. She might call it the adjacent room but she was actually heading to a room through a direct entrance from the room she was just in. For an empire that held decadent banquets for pleasure for so much of its history, there were many of such rooms built purely for taking care of said desires. But Rebecca was not currently looking for privacy with her lovers.
"Are you ready?"
Rebecca reached the room that Fleon had been waiting for her in. She had now transformed into Ashley and left the room at the same time Ashley who had transformed into Ahasia entered the hall. However, Rebecca was forced to widen her eyes just when she was about to enter the room.
Rebecca was rarely surprised but she could not hold back her shock.
"What happened to you!"
The room was filled with blood. No, to be more exact, only one spot was stained with blood. Fleon glanced at Rebecca who had uncharacteristically raised her voice. Then, he grimaced.
"Keep it down, ducal princess. You’re making my head spin. If you scream anymore, I’ll kick you out."
"Where did you get stabbed?"
"I was stabbed on my way here. Damn it, I let my guard down."
Fleon grabbed his abdomen before clicking his tongue. One of the patrols next to him was also bandaged. The templar looked as if he needed urgent treatment but they were unable to summon the cleric given the situation since the clerics belonged to the Imperial Palace.
"Damn it, I didn’t know they would be after me. I should’ve been able to avoid it…"
Just as he mentioned before, Fleon knew himself best. Even if he knew the attack was coming, Fleon could not have avoided the attack. Unfortunately for him, Fleon was not the most athletic.
‘Damn it… Had it been a mistake to send Rex to Terena Palace beforehand for the artefact?’
It was at this moment Fleon resented his body the most for being unable to do anything. But he couldn’t just sit there.
"Ducal princess, tell the people outside to get ready."
"Don’t tell me that you’re going to go with that body?"
"Isn’t it obvious?"
"… Can you walk?"
After a moment of silence, Fleon spoke softly.
"… Of course."
Rebecca calmly assessed the situation. The blood flowing out of Fleon. The blood that was soaking through his top. Rebecca recalled the moment she saw her father returning injured from battle a long time ago. Back then, the Duke of Aventa had laid motionlessly, suffering for three days straight. If a templar who was so strong ended up like that, how was Fleon, a non-templar, going to stand up and announce his engagement?
Rebecca had wanted to remain optimistic about the situation but it was impossible. She decided to dissuade him in her mistress, Ashley’s, place.
"No. You cannot."
Rebecca stated flatly.
"I’d rather use this artefact to transform into the 6th Prince than to send him away when he looks this bad."
"Don’t be ridiculous, ducal princess. Non-templars can barely maintain the transformation for half an hour! The divinity in the artefact would run out."
"I didn’t say that because I didn’t know. I still think I should transform into you."
Rebecca muttered as she stared at the bracelet stiffly. Time was indeed running out. Just when Fleon was about to burst into protest.
"It’ll be enough if I’m there."
The two turned their heads around sharply simultaneously.
"You’re not the only prince here, are you?"
There Dane stood breathtakingly. It was as if he had just come running from someplace else. His clothes were a mess and the crown on his head was crooked. Nevertheless, his languid gaze could still be seen through the strands of his messy hair.
"You! I thought the emperor called you in today…"
Fleon couldn’t stay silent. He was the only person in the room who knew exactly why Dane was called.
"Ah, I just ignored him to come here."
Dane threw the black clothes he had been carrying alongside him aside and walked in.
"Ducal princess, could you call an attendant to help with my clothes? As quickly you can."
"Yes. It’d be better if you go instead."
Momentarily forgetting about his pain, Fleon cried out.
But no one could hear his shouts. Dane soon appeared again in neat robes before placing his crown back on his head.
"Here’s the artefact. People usually wear it around their forearm."
As if she had been waiting, Rebecca handed the artefact to him gracefully.
"No, there’s no need."
Rebecca stood there blinking. Was he not going to take the artefact? Did that mean he was planning on going as himself? She quickly found the answer to her question.
"Come to think of it, it’d be better if it was me instead of you."
Dane paused for a moment before continuing.
"Even after the announcement today, they’ll still be after you, brother."
"You! Have you gone insane? Think about your situation."
He was the chief of the ‘Emperor’s Shadows’. And the current emperor had wanted to let Ra Harte destroy itself. There was no way Dane didn’t know that. Even the 2nd Prince, who was favoured by the emperor, was forced to just watch by the sidelines under the emperor’s watchful gaze though he did not wish for the kingdom’s destruction either. But even so, Dane was planning on going as himself. Fleon thought he had gone insane..
"Ah, brother. It’s alright."
Dane plastered an enchanting smile on his face that could make people almost forget their reason..
"You’re worried about the shadows, aren’t you, brother? That ‘shadows’? Once she had learned the truth, there was nothing more I could do with it."
Anyway, in the first place, it had been a position he had been forced to take in someone’s place. And if he were to choose between that position and that person, it was clear to him what he would have to choose.
He had always felt suffocated wearing clothes he had not worn for a long time. He was not afraid to get blood on his hands while deceiving the person he loved. But the regrets he held for not having the strength to protect them ate at him. For a very long time now.
"Brother, you don’t have to worry about anything."
What scared him most was that person getting hurt again. Slowly raising her head, Dane smiled at Fleon.
" I’ve always done the right thing since we were children."
Dane trudged through the wide open door. Fleon wanted to stop him but he couldn’t.
Why wasn’t anyone coming? According to the original plan, I was supposed to meet Fleon in front of the hall a while ago. But even after a long time had passed, no one came. I glanced at the faces of the patrol accompanying me but he shook his head as if he, too, didn’t know anything.
"Lord Aprix, you don’t know anything either, do you?’
"Yes. I haven’t gotten any news."
It was strange to hear a voice other than Lord Ray’s next to me. But I could not continue to let Lord Ray stay by my side since I had transformed into Ahasia. It would be nice if he too could use the artefact as well but there were only two of them and non-templars could only use the divinity stored in it for 30 minutes. In my case, my small amount of divinity allows me to use it for an hour. That meant I could only last for another half an hour.
Even now, time was ticking. There must have been a reason why Fleon was late. And they would somehow resolve the situation soon and he would show up. Actually, I didn’t trust Fleon to accomplish his task that much… but I believed in the patrols, Rebecca and Dane.
I believed that Fleon would eventually appear after dealing with whatever he needed to.
"Did I misjudge something?"
However, another 10 minutes passed but Fleon did not appear. As time continued to pass, I was getting more and more impatient. I thought of announcing it by myself but I was afraid I would get stabbed by a sword I didn’t manage to see. It wasn’t that I was afraid of getting stabbed but if I faint and my transformation unravelled, I would get in trouble.
Moreover, I would need to pay more attention to how I act because I was not the princess anymore but Ahasia. There might be situations in the future where she can no longer undo the things I had done today and her difficulties might only escalate.
"… There’s nothing more I can do."
Time continued to pass again. I couldn’t stand still any longer. If I missed this chance, no, if I lose this day, either Granius or I might be punished for kidnapping Ahasia. I was not afraid of getting punished but I could not let anyone else get in harm’s way.
This had been my decision from the first place.