Right in the middle of the banquet hall stood a small stage set up for Templars of Dance and Templars of Song to perform atop. There was no one currently performing on it probably because they were in the midst of an intermission. But sometimes while the performers rest, there would still be Templars of Eloquence standing on the stage to relay various news from the capital, mediating some discussions and announcing political agendas. Considering the fact that the Empire had been based on Ancient Greek society, it naturally had many such spaces for active discussion.
But now, people were staring at the strange foreign princess suddenly standing upon the said stage. Staring at the people around me, I took a deep breath.
"My name is Ahasia and I am the Princess of Ra Harte, the Desert Kingdom."
I recalled how I practised with Ahasia all of last night as I made myself heard.
"I’d like to say something about the rumours that have been spreading about me recently."
Someone raised his hand before speaking. It was an elderly templar.
"I’m sorry to interrupt, princess, but that stage is only for templars of the Empire. And I’m pretty sure the princess is not from here, no?"
The people near him started nodding in agreement. The people who were nodding their heads all seemed to be slightly older templars. Their pride seemed to have grown with their age and authority so it was obvious why they wouldn’t like the fact that a foreigner, even if she was of royal descent, was standing on the stage. However, if I were to back down now, all my effort would come to nothing. I’d rather garner some sympathy for myself since I was already here.
"I know. But I took the liberty of standing on this stage to tell you my truth."
After quickly assessing the situation, I placed my hand on my chest before mustering as much remourse in my voice as I could.
"I understand that a princess from another kingdom getting caught up in a scandal on your lands wasn’t something you all wanted."
I stood tall and spoke to the old gentleman who had started speaking to me first before looking at those who were pitying me one by one while emphasising my every word. Ahasia never spoke quickly. She spoke slowly, almost sounding as if she was relaxed.
"For the sake of myself and the honour of my kingdom, Ra Harte."
People were gathering around in interest. Granius was also in the crowd along with Meta and Soricks who went out of their way to join too. The patrols were here. Perhaps the 2nd Prince and the 5th Prince whom I couldn’t manage to spot in the crowds were here too. And Castor was definitely watching me from elsewhere.
"I think most of you have gathered here because you have heard the recent rumours about me. I, ‘Ahasia’, will not allow the scandal to go on any longer and am here to tell the truth. To tell you the truth, the prince mentioned in the rumours…"
This was originally meant to be Fleon’s line. No, from the start, Fleon was supposed to be the one standing atop here to announce…
Just then, startled by the sudden weight on my shoulders, I whipped my head to the side.
"Sorry I was late."
The perpetrator’s brown hair continued to flutter. The hair looked so familiar. No, there was no way I wouldn’t recognise that brown colour.
Why was Dane here? Without looking directly into my surprised gaze, Dane muttered as he continued to look forward. He spoke so softly only I could hear him.
"Let’s get this started."
Dane’s hand dug into one of mine before clasping his fingers around it tightly. Dane looked back into the crowd before speaking slowly.
"I am the prince from the rumour revolving around Princess Ahasia."
Despite the commotion from our surroundings, Dane tilted his head. Despite his sweet gaze and his familiar eyes curling kindly, I stiffened. But what his gaze carried seemed different from usual.
"I’m thinking of getting engaged with her."
Dane slowly raised his hand and stretched it out to me. Though I had transformed into Ahasia, his hand was headed for my cheek. When I flinched, he gave a slight smile as if to assure me that it was alright.
"The first time I saw her, I fell in love…"
Goosebumps momentarily took over my skin. Was Dane really acting right now? Acting to fool all those who were here? But why was his gaze so deep it almost looked sincere?
"Hernan, you cannot hide love. You’re in love with that person."
The words I uttered to Hernan back then came back for me.
"I have fallen deeply in love with her."
Dane declared softly and sweetly but, at the same time, with a dignity I had never heard from him.
"And today, I, the 7th Prince, Dane Lowell Kaltanias, am here to spread the news of my engagement."
Not too long ago, in my palace. Terena Palace had always been noisy. And it had always felt crowded. It wasn’t because there were a lot of people in it. The palace was large, poorly maintained and we were always shorthanded. Nevertheless, it was filled with life.
Dane and Fleon.
"You can’t even do this, little chick?"
"… What else are you expecting from an 11-year-old?"
"Brother, don’t pinch her."
Visiting Terena Palace and staying the whole day had become their daily routine. They would come visit me early in the morning one day and only return to their palace once the stars rose in the night sky another day. It was only natural that I had my meals with them. At some point, I was so used to their presence, I would be surprised every time they needed to leave. It was only when they were leaving did I realise the sun was already setting. Other than the time I spent sleeping by myself at night, they had always been by my side.
"What do I mean to you?"
But that was until Castor slayed me. After going through that hell, our world disappeared. From some point on, the time we spent apart became longer than the time we spent together. With my heart and soul dead, I continued to meet new people. The time we lost slipped away from us like dust and before we knew it had formed a huge river.
And now separated by the river, we had all changed.
The change seemed to have come as suddenly as showers on a beautiful summer day. Before we could prepare ourselves, we had been forcibly separated from each other.
"Ashley, why don’t you smile anymore these days?"
I had forced myself to smile at Dane’s question.
"Dane, why have you been so busy nowadays?"
Dane had also laughed at my question back when I had been ignorant of his situation. I wondered what Dane thought back then.
"I have been working."
Even Fleon, who hated working so much, started coming and going from the 6th Administration. Dane had been busy working in the 2nd Administration, where only the most competent of those in the Empire could work at.
"What about Dane?’
"He’s probably the busiest man in the 2nd Administration. Come to think of it. Dane, are you the only one working there?"
"What are you getting at?"
On the days they weren’t here, all I could care about was my pain and my wounds. I had always been the recipient in our relationship. It was only later in the future, yet another day when they hadn’t come to visit, did I realise what our relationship was like. To be more exact, I realised how precious they found me if I had been accepting their love without even realising it all this time. That was how much love they had showered me with.
"Dane Lowell Kaltanias, the chief of the ‘Emperor’s Shadows’."
It took me a long time to realise what they had done for me. And the reason why Dane had gotten closer to Fleon in the meantime was because the secret he had been hiding was overwhelming him.
"It was for you."
While I struggled to advance to my future, Dane was fighting his own war.
But I didn’t know.
I really didn’t know. What had I given Dane and Fleon for them to cherish and love me like so? I reminisced the happy memories of us being together so long ago for a long while. But after going through those time loops, the light had faded from my eyes. What if all the memories I had lost remained within Dane?
Dane, what did he see in me? Why was he looking at me with such a deep, kind gaze?
Silence befell the entire hall. In the meantime, countless pairs of eyes turned to face Dane. It was as if they all could not comprehend what they just heard.
Dane was a reputable prince. He was recognised as a competent official and even managed to stand out in the 2nd Administration where only the best people could work in. Moreover, thanks to his outstanding beauty, attempts to court him never stopped.
"Come to think of it, Rebecca, Dane is the best man for this operation."
I had always thought Dane was always meant to shine and I was right. Unlike me, he shone the brightest out of the three of us.
"If Fleon really doesn’t want to do this, would it be better if we used Dane instead?"
When I had first drafted the operation, I had proposed Fleon to take the role out of mischief but I had been contemplating between two candidates– Fleon and Dane. But after finding out Dane’s secret which made me feel uncomfortable around him for the first time in my life, I was confused. That was why I proposed Fleon instead.
"The 7th Prince won’t do."
When I had asked her candidly, Rebecca firmly rejected my idea. She had approached me afterwards to explain herself. Why she thought Dane would not be the right man for the operation.
His extraordinary appearance, gentle personality and his outstanding administrative ability made Dane the perfect man–other than the fact that he was not a templar. In fact, if he had not been a prince of this country and instead another, he could have been a contender for the throne.
"The Wheel of Rome."
But this was an Empire ruled by the powers of gods. What made the Empire special was its pride in itself, its templars and its people.
"Those people are not from the Empire."
If I had to point out a flaw of Dane’s, it would be the fact that his mother was not from the Empire.
[The Wheel of Rome.]
Long ago, they used to be nomads and their appearance looked a lot like people of the desert kingdom. Coffee-coloured skin that could be often seen in the desert. Under the right lighting, their skin would glisten like jewels. Perhaps because their red, scarlet and emerald eyes looked so enchanting, they were often referred to as those with ‘bejewelled eyes’. Hence, many theorised that they had been expelled from the desert kingdom a long time ago.
"My prince, with all due respect… Are you going to marry a foreign princess?"
His people had been accepted by the emperor of the Empire from a few generations ago to be vassals of this empire. They then took the name of their people as their last name.
"My apologies but the prince should welcome those of the Empire…"
"Right, especially since the 7th Prince is a half-blood…"
"Since they’re not from the Empire, it’s a little…"
But that was a long time ago. The people had already assimilated into the Empire. Their reaction to this reminded me of Koreans’ reaction to foreigners. That feeling of exclusivity. So, it seemed like the Wheel of Rome was not welcomed here.
"Dane, why are you the only one busy?"
"Well, that’s because… I’m always busy."
The Empire which had prided itself in the powers of their gods and divinity had maintained their traditions for over a thousand years. Discrimination against those outside the Empire was arbitrary.
"Whatever you think I mean, my point remains the same."
His engagement to Princess Ahasia would mean that foreigners would immediately be allowed to be involved in the Imperial Family. This was not how they reacted to Castor’s engagement to Ahasia in the original story. Because he wasn’t a ‘half-blood’ and the thought of foreigners involving themselves in Imperial affairs ‘again’ never crossed their minds.
"It is for this reason that the 7th Prince will not be suitable, mistress."
That was why Dane should not have been the one to be here. Because this would only threaten his position here. Because he was not a templar and because he was a ‘half-blood’, he could never be the emperor. In other words, there were so many reasons why he should not be here.
I couldn’t help but to look up at Dane. From his long neck, to his smooth yet manly jaw, to his lips and his curling eyes. Almost immediately, Dane tightened his grip on my hand. He seemed to have felt my gaze.
"As you all know, I am not fully from the Empire. But what you are all worried about will not happen."
Dane gently tilted his head before looking down on those who had protested.
"When I get married, I will be leaving for the desert kingdom."
The templars kicked up a fuss. The meaning behind his words were clear. He would no longer be part of the Imperial Family and he would be moving to another country.
"Y-You’re leaving the palace?"