"Why did you say that you’re quitting the shadows?"
"Because you don’t like me in it."
Dane gripped our interlocked fingers tighter. His fingers moved first.
"You don’t want to see me in it."
Then, his gaze.
"Because you’ve been avoiding me."
Perhaps it was because we stopped at the spot where sunlight was shining the strongest, his red eyes stood out even more under the intense rays.
"… You’re quitting because of me?"
"It doesn’t matter, does it? I only joined it at first to protect you."
"Why are you responding so indifferently? I don’t like you sacrificing yourself for me."
Dane tilted his head and laughed causing his hair to flutter down like waves.
"I’m not sacrificing myself for you, I’m just making a decision."
I thought I should be saying something in response but what should I say? No, what was happening now was that I was being rendered speechless by every word he said. I was still in the midst of figuring him out but I had to stop because he was only getting more distant from me in the meantime.
The moment I bit my lips. The eyes that were staring at me grew larger. And as he seemed to grow bigger, I felt something falling on my shoulders. Dane quickly grabbed what seemed to be the hem of my growing clothes in a hurry. Perhaps the divinity in the artefact had been exhausted. Dane hurriedly embraced me to escape into an empty room nearby. Since we were close to the main hall, there was still a chance I could get caught.
"… Dane? Did I change back?"
Entering the room, Dane held my clothes with one hand so that they wouldn’t slip down and removed his top with his other hand. No, rather than a top, it was more like a toga. He draped the long cloth over my head before tying the ends atop my collarbone. Thanks to the clothes, I looked as ridiculous as a cartoon character but it was better than the loose clothes that were threatening to slip down at any time.
"I don’t think we can continue having a serious conversation like this."
"It’s alright. You can talk as much as you want."
We seemed to have entered a small storage room. The lighting was dim perhaps because the windows illuminating the space were small. With half his face casted in shadows, his hands captured my sides as he smiled gently.
"In my eyes, you always look pretty."
I was at a loss for words. Even now, Dane smiled without a word. He had taken off his clothes in a hurry so his hair was now a mess and his figure was giving off a strange vibe. Without realising it myself, I quickly grabbed his toga which was wrapped around my shoulders.
"Ashley, I’m smart. I remember everything I’ve only seen once and as soon as I learn something, I immediately learn many other things. This wasn’t a talent I wanted to have but I realised that I had it very early on. So, whether I want to or not, with just a small piece of a puzzle, I could see the big picture. Even if I hadn’t wanted to."
Dane combed through the hair that was cascading down my shoulders. His touch was very gentle as if I was something fragile. He murmured slowly.
"Someone had called me a wizard of emotions. And following that someone’s advice, I had decided to use my talents for the ones I love."
Holding my hair, he sighed softly. This was the first time I had ever seen Dane hesitate.
"Ashley, the reason why people change is usually because they have gone through great pain and hardship. I wondered why you had changed overnight. During that month of Habermia. The day I was away, the maids had reported that it had been like any other day except the fact that the Crown Prince came to visit as well. As a result, one of your maids, Hannah, had been stabbed and injured but was that the reason why you had changed? No, that couldn’t have been enough of a reason. Humans are more selfish than you think so as long as they are not hurt themselves, they’re fine. But you changed overnight. It was as if you had been reborn."
He raised his head before smiling woefully.
"I have lost count of how many times I have been crushed by your change. It was almost as if you had given up on the world, resigned into some cave and closed off your heart. I tried to understand."
For a moment, he glanced wordlessly at my cheek. And for that moment, it felt like there had been a stone rolling around in my heart. I knew this feeling. It was like something that had been bothering me weighing heavily on my heart. This was a sea of nightmares. I could forget about it momentarily as long as I didn’t look at it but it could never disappear. The sea was ready to attack me at any given moment. For a split second, I saw myself in Dane but that quickly disappeared.
"I hadn’t noticed it in the beginning."
With Dane’s hand on my cheek, I raised my own. He then removed his hand and opted to grab mine instead. He slowly raised our interlocked hands before bringing it to his cheek.
"I’ve been watching you every day for the past four years."
He whispered softly and spoke without blinking.
"I remember everything you’ve said."
In a very low voice.
"I have never forgotten a single breath you took."’
With a puff of air.
"Until I finally found out."
His smile was so filled with sorrow as he spoke wistfully.
"That you’re a corpse in a living body."
The time I was spending with him now felt more like night than day. A starry night to be exact. A night that gave people the strange power to tell all their secrets. And at a night like that, Dane leaned in towards me and let it all out.
"The emperor had wanted you in the crystal for the Lord of the Gods. That was why I became the chief of the ‘Emperor’s Shadows’."
As he now brought my other hand to his cheek, he spoke slowly. It felt like this bubble of time, which had stopped, was flowing again. Though he seemed to be whispering to me a secret, his whispers sounded deafening.
"Before you, there had been two other princesses in the Empire. Ashley."
He brought my hand down before bowing slowly. Even though the room wasn’t windy, I could feel gusts of cool wrapped around my neck and face.
"All the princesses who had been born in the Empire had been sacrificed to the crystal for divinity. To make up for the current emperor’s lack of divinity."
What did Dane just say? It wasn’t as if I didn’t hear him. However, no matter how I looked at it, such a world sounded too cruel and ruthless.
"What do you mean? What do you mean I was supposed to be sacrificed to the crystal?"
"It’s just as I said. The emperor has no divinity. But the crystal requires divinity."
"Is that why he has been sacrificing women with divinity?"
"That’s right, Ashley."
The Empire’s crystal was something that the Lord of the Gods had gifted the Empire and possessed an enormous amount of divinity. This divinity was also used to protect the Empire. The power that allowed the emperors to remain in their positions of absolute authority for thousands of years was because only the emperor could utilise the powers within the crystal. This was why the Empire always had clear weather and arable land. In other words, the power could also be considered an incomplete emperor.
"Why must it be the princesses?"
Dane bit his trembling lips before speaking.
"The Imperial princesses had awakened their divinity when they were 10 and 18. And at times, they would awaken a powerful ability. That was what happened with the late 1st Princess."
The 1st Princess. Those words sounded very unfamiliar to me. Perhaps because I had thought I had been the only Imperial princess this whole time.
"They might be gone now but the emperor was granted foresight. You know, don’t you? The ‘Power of the Lords’ grants the ability to see the future. The emperor was foretold that all the future imperial princesses would possess divinity."
The truth sank into my mind like lead.
"Princesses cannot be the emperor."
Dane’s words sounded so cruel.
"But it would be a waste of divinity to send them to another country."
No matter how much I thought about it, this world was too heartless for me. Of course, it had no obligation to be kind. But it was clear it had no intention of letting people live their lives happily.
"This was why the emperor didn’t even look back after leaving you, his only daughter, in the poorest westernmost palace. There was no need to tell anyone about this anyway. Because you were going to disappear without a word once you become an adult. Just like the 1st Princess from so long ago…"
The world had never been kind to me my entire life but now I had just been told that I had been destined to die in some dumpster since I was born. I burst out laughing. Ah. I see.
Who knew I had been living the happiest life I would ever get to know in the past life I could barely recall? My last memories of suffering dimly flickered through my mind. The extent might have been different but I had truly only struggled.
"Since when have you known about that?"
Based on his silence, Dane must have known for a long time. Ah. Was that why he became the chief of the ‘Emperor’s shadows’? It would have been too dangerous for him to just know about this. I slowly raised my hand. The moment my hand touched his cheek, Dane froze.
"Dane, why are you so devoted to me?"
I never liked the word ‘devotion’. One of my seniors from work in my past life used to say that habitual commitment to your partner was what made a person seem like a devoted lover. I didn’t entirely agree with those words. I knew that there were bad people in the world who would consider being kind a boon. And there had been a lot more bad people than I thought.
"You didn’t have to go that far."
Right. Dane always had faith in me. He had always comforted and consoled me. But he didn’t have to. In other words, he didn’t have to twist his life for this. Would he have lived a normal life if it hadn’t been for me? He could have lived a peaceful life and enjoyed as much happiness as other people.
Dane seemed to have noticed what I was thinking. As he looked down at me languidly with his keen eyes, I was reminded again of how smart he was.
"Don’t judge how I live my life."
His soft yet determined voice poured down on me like summer rain.
"Just like how you are standing before me now through the choices you made and your will. My choices are what brought me here."
With a soft voice, he covered my eyes and drew me out of lingering feelings. He could have just simply answered my question instead of doing all this. I removed the hand that was blinding me. I asked him.
"Do you regret it?"
At my question, Dane smiled without hesitation.
"Do you regret it, Dane?"
His smile, though sweet, looked firm and for some reason, looked more and more bittersweet like spilled chocolate.
"I have but only one regret after meeting you."
Dane grabbed my cheek.
"Being unable to stop Castor Dje Kaltanias on the 10th day of that month of Habermia."
I could see the dust floating in the air. A huge banquet was currently held not too far away from us and yet this small self-absorbed space was quiet and felt separate from the rest of the world. I stared at him as he got closer. Only his soft voice rang in the dim storage room.
"There’s one more thing I regret."
Dane stopped right at the point where I could almost feel his breath on my nose.
"For not speaking my mind sooner."
Someone banged at the door. Dane removed himself from me slowly.
"Princess Ahasia, is Prince Dane here?"
His whisper sounded a lot like one of the patrols. When he called for me again, I was certain that the voice belonged to Lord Aprix, the patrol who had escorted me today.
"You suddenly disappeared so I had to knock on every room here. I thought there might have been a problem so sorry for rushing you…"
After asking the attendants, discovering that I had been last seen around this area and the fact that Dane was also missing, Lord Aprix quickly searched the rooms to look for us. Fortunately, many of these rooms were used by the maids as storage so he had no hesitation when opening the doors.
"I’m here to confirm if the divinity has worn off."
He placed a long veil over my head. What ladies would use as a fashion statement was now being used to cover my face. I was also wearing Dane’s top over my clothes so though I might look like a violent criminal, I wasn’t recognisable. No, doing this much should prevent people from even knowing who I was.
"Excuse me for a bit, Ashley."
But that didn’t seem to be enough for Dane as he embraced me again. I didn’t even manage to see Lord Aprix’s surprised expression.
"If you walk like this, you’ll get caught in no time. You and Ahasia have a huge height difference."
"Can’t Lord Aprix hide me instead?"
Dane responded lightly.
"It’d be best if no one touches you."
His voice was so soft that only I could hear him because he was embracing me.
"Other than me, of course."