I stared at Dane in shock. What was he talking about? We had never discussed any of this. Fleon was not supposed to say any of those lines. The rest of the hall was consumed by a commotion more cacophonous than the one when Dane first stepped up on the stage.
"Is that true?"
"Why are you doing this? My prince!"
"Please reconsider your decision!"
It was likely that the ones who were protesting this announcement weren’t doing so out of their concern for Dane. The prince had just announced that he was about to move to another kingdom as a son-in-law. Sending one of their own princes to another kingdom was a matter of pride. To these prideful templars, letting this happen was considered a disgrace.
We might not have lost the war but the prince was now going to move to a failing country? One after the other, templars of both high and low ranks protested while those who were non-templars observed the situation with apt interest. I could not help but to glance at Dane. I knew better than anyone else that from this point on, Dane could no longer take back his words. Dane had never been someone to speak without thinking. Compared to me, he had always been more rational, smarter and wiser… A chilling wind brushed against my heart. But why?
Dane stared straight ahead. As if aloof of everything, even at this moment, he was like a huge ship unshakeable by the waves of anger rushing towards him. He did not look as desperate as a man who had given up on everything. What was he thinking?
Just when I was struggling to utter his name. A buzz grew in volume from the back of the crowds and as if Moses himself had parted the sea of people, the crowds made way for the guest.
"I was wondering what the fuss was about–"
One by one, people lowered their heads. It looked like a huge wave had just rippled through the crowds.
"You all seem to be discussing something interesting without me."
A man strutted along the space created by the crowds parting into two. The moment I spotted his black hair, I unintentionally let out a gasp. Was Castor invited to this banquet as well? This was bad.
"We greet Your Highness, the Crown Prince."
His black hair fluttered gently alongside his movements.
Dane did not look at all surprised at Castor’s arrival. In fact, he had lowered his head as calmly and coolly as he had back when we took classes together before Castor’s presence. (1)
"Did you manage to hear everything?"
"You were making so much noise, were you not expecting me to hear you?"
As relaxed as always, Castor tilted his head. It almost looked as if he wanted to say, ‘How could I not hear you?’. Soon, his strange golden eyes that glowed brilliantly under the light of the lamps turned towards me. Our eyes met for a while which was why I turned my head away involuntarily.
"That’s good to know."
As if he too had heard Dane’s soft mumbles, I noticed small movements in his black hair.
"I didn’t do this just to find an excuse to ignore the emperor’s call. I did this to meet you, brother."
"Because you are the emperor’s representative."
Castor’s smile deepened. It was only at this moment that I knew. This was how Castor expressed his anger. Even with Castor in front of him, Dane smiled as softly as he usually did.
"It’s good to know that there was a ‘stage’ this convenient to use in this Empire. My words are going to spread so far and wide, it would be impossible to refute."
"You’re beating around the bush just to say that you’re planning on causing a scandal."
"Yes, I used my brain a little for that."
Dane said, gently but firmly.
"Brother, I’ve lived as our Imperial Family’s ‘guard dog’ for four years now."
Smirking, Castor’s eyes lit up. His smirk was forced.
"So, you’re going to lay it bare today? This is going to be interesting,"
Castor, who had just been smiling without a word so far, gradually gained an edge in his voice.
"Dane Lowell. In other words, you’re putting your neck on the line."
He spoke so loudly everyone could hear him. At the sound of the Crown Prince’s threat, some clamped up and distanced themselves away from us. In the meantime, Castor took a step towards us.
"No way. I could never be that bold."
"Then what are you planning on doing?"
Castor whispered sultrily.
"You are the emperor’s most favoured child after Julian. Considering how you had saved our market, I think our father would still need the ‘capable’ 7th Prince on his side."
As if daring Dane to protest against his words, Castor narrowed his eyes slightly. But he soon shook his head as if to let Dane continue.
"I have something I want to protect so I don’t want to do anything reckless anymore. Because as long as I stay silent, I know I am still worth saving."
"Right. You sell your value. And father has been satisfied with your work thus far and has taken care of you as a result. Will you regret doing this? Your people would only look at your actions on the sidelines and still will not hesitate to continue these dirty deeds for the sake of becoming an actual citizen of the Empire."
"That’s what Deros wants. Not me. I have been a puppet leader, merely a chief in name. Hadn’t Deros been carrying out the orders himself this whole time?"
"You mean your cousin has been responsible for all those dirty deeds."
Castor had appeared from below to look into Dane’s face but he still looked as if he was looking down at him.
"I don’t want to make the person I love cry."
Dane then lifted his hand to block my view.
"I don’t want to do anything she would be sad about."
Dane pressed his lips tighter than a tree frog on a tree. Noticeably wrecked with anxiety, Dane placed his hand on his chest.
"Sir Hernandez had crossed a river of no return. After seeing him, I just didn’t want to leave any more regrets."
Dane spoke so quietly only Castor and I would be able to hear him.
"I really don’t want to hold any regrets. After a hunt ends, useless hunting hounds will only get boiled for meat. And that is what’s going to happen to me in the future. But I cannot die. The person I love… will be sad."
He looked towards the most crowded spot in the hall before speaking to Castor. No, his words might be directed to Castor but in fact, he spoke so that everyone else could hear it loud and clear as well.
"Thank you, brother. As per your advice, I will marry this woman and live with her happily."
Smiling, Dane added.
"I’ll also be quitting the ‘shadows’."
Goosebumps trickled down my skin. Was this what Dane came down here for on top of announcing the engagement? He was using a dangerous method so that the emperor could hear him out. He made sure that everyone could hear him and made his announcement irrefutable. What did he mean by ‘shadows’? People started whispering amongst one another which only sparked a glint in Castor’s eyes.
"Ah. I’ll relay your message to our father."
HIs eyes slowly lowered. And like a dream, his eyes met mine. Castor’s eyes did not lower too much. Even though Dane was embracing my shoulders, it still felt as if I was facing Castor alone. No, I shouldn’t be thinking about this. I was now Ahasia. I didn’t know why he had appeared here but we had already shown everything we had prepared. The operation was a success.
"Congratulations on your engagement, Ahasia. As your fiance’s brother, I give you my blessing."
Audible gasps exploded behind Castor. This was a blessing from the Crown Prince, the one who possessed the ‘Power of the Lords’. This was not a blessing just anyone could receive. I did not receive it as positively as the rest but I had no reason to refuse him. He strolled up towards me and held out his hand. He narrowed his eyes in content as I slowly laid my hand in his. Madness seemed to be swirling like a whirlpool within his golden eyes.
"You will be happy with your loved one."
He gazed upon me with a smile that would have made any unsuspecting passersby smitten. A faint golden mist showered upon me like stardust. It was so mesmerising I almost forgot the situation I was in.
"Could you lower your head for a moment?"
Castor spoke so that everyone could hear him. As I slowly lowered my head, Castor tapped on my shoulders. The moment he tapped my shoulders and whispered into my ears as if he was about to give his blessing.
"This was what you wanted, wasn’t it? So that both you and ‘Ahasia’ could live."
His languid sultry voice struck my ears like lightning.
There was no way I wouldn’t recognise you.
After finishing our announcement, we stepped out of the hall. This was what we had decided to do from the beginning. The limitations inflicted by the artefact and the fact that we might come across desert envoys had prevented us from remaining in the hall for too long.
Someone called out for us as we returned from the hall. No, to be exact, they called for Dane. The person who scrambled to run after Dane to call out for him was probably sent by the 2nd Prince. The person exclaimed that Sir Julian had been running around searching for him. It was not that I hadn’t been curious about the 2nd Prince but today was not the day.
Just like that, we left and for a long time, we spoke no words as we walked along the empty hallway. Neither Dane nor I spoke up. No, Dane had always been the one to speak first whenever it was just the two of us. Once again, I realised how indifferent I had been to him.
Could I call out for him now? There was no one around us now. But just because there was no one around did not mean there was no one listening or watching our conversation. The Empire was filled with powers I couldn’t begin to understand.
He finally stopped walking. He glanced at me slightly before slowly speaking. He remained gentle.
"The artefact lasts longer than you think it does."
"It’s almost run out but I’ve been keeping track of its duration."
Did it mean that even amidst all that tension, he was taking note of how much time had passed? I could only admire that head of his. No, it didn’t seem to be possible because of his mind alone. I stared at Dane.
"Why are you looking at this?"
"I have too many things to say but I don’t know what to start with."
I had known for a long time that there had been a need for a conversation between us. Rather, I had been avoiding it. I had let countless opportunities for a conversation pass and that was what created this situation.
"I couldn’t understand a single word of your conversation with Castor just now"
Not wavering, Dane replied to my words.
"Really? I remember when you first started calling him by ‘Castor’ instead of ‘1st Brother’."
He then added candidly.
"The fact that you had died and came back to life and the fact that only happened after you met the Crown Prince."
As we continued holding hands, I could only blink. I was a little flustered by the unexpected words he uttered. Had I accidentally mentioned it? Have I ever mentioned it? There was no way I could have. It was just a feeling but it was almost as if Dane knew everything or was I just overthinking this? No, my senses had only sharpened after finding the diary and experiencing those deaths. Maybe it wasn’t just a hunch.
"What are you thinking about?"
"If there’s anything that has never changed about you is the fact that you’ve always been bad at lying."
My eyes blinked rapidly. His face seemed to be tinged with regret. A rush of emotions overwhelmed me. I still had something I retained from my past? Why did that sound better than hundreds of words of consolation? Since I had been caught so suddenly, I became certain I needed to avoid this conversation. I said nothing in response.
"Why did you say that you’re leaving for the desert?"
"Ashley, the emperor will never send me to the desert. It’s impossible."
"The Wheel of Rome has been producing a particular ‘scent’ for generations now and so far only I can make them. The emperor has been making a lot of money by selling it to other countries. And on top of that, it looks like the emperor has gotten himself addicted to the scent.’
If that really was the case, he was rather entangled with the emperor. Then why was he giving it all up? Why?
I have once again forgot my friday post…
(1): I am assuming what she meant by back when they had lessons together to be like whenever they had to greet the teacher? But I didn’t want to make assumptions so I just left it like that to tell you that was exactly what she said.