Chapter 3 - The Invitation
“I heard I’m supposed to select my partner for my first dance at the ball,” the crown prince said.
“That is correct.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
Juselle looked at Hiel. To his knowledge, his son was not in a relationship, nor did he nurture special affections for any girl in particular. From an early age, Hiel learned that his future wife would be chosen for him. He had never felt the need to start a romantic relationship or approach the opposite sex. Thus, the current list of eligible ladies came to be.
“Is there a problem?” Hiel asked, scanning the list. “They all seem to be very charming young ladies.”
“Of course. I compiled the list myself,” the emperor boasted.
“Then I’m happy with it.”
What Hiel was actually happy about was the abundance of women for him to choose from. He had no idea there were so many beautiful, smart, and good-natured women living in the capital. Recently he had grown bored of how his mistresses quarreled over him, so this was the perfect opportunity to find a new plaything.
“It would be such a shame to reject all of the fine young ladies you chose,” Hiel mused for a moment, then perked up, as if he had an idea. “What if I invited them to a tea party? Then I could meet them all and then choose the lady I’ll dance with at the ball. How does that sound?”
Ian and Louison went pale. Their daughters, meeting the crown prince? They were still too young to meet any men, let alone a potential husband. But the two friends were not the only ones who looked uneasy. Everyone who had protested against their daughters being on the list began to look a little sick.
“Hmm…” Juselle pondered for a moment, then nodded his head in agreement. “You are the one who will be dancing with the young lady, so I suppose she must fit your standards.”
The emperor felt Hiel had made a good suggestion. “Marquis Horissen,” he called.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“This is a royal decree. Your daughters, and everyone else’s daughters, must be in attendance at the tea party!” Juselle ordered.
If even one person could remove their daughter from the list, everyone would want to do the same. Before this, the emperor had no idea that the nobles treasured their daughters so much.
Ian and Louison exchanged a glance. Both were desperately thinking of ways to ensure their children would not be summoned to the palace, but neither man could come up with a plan. They could not argue against the emperor, and that knowledge shrouded their features with the shadow of defeat.
All they could do was inform their daughters about the royal decree.
* * *
A man led his horse at a brusque pace, long black hair gently waving in the breeze. His blue eyes, shining like the stars in the sky, surveyed his surroundings: a battlefield littered with the bodies of enemy soldiers. Brushing his hair away from his eyes, he slowly turned his horse around.
“Commander Roy,” a voice called out to him. It came from one of the surviving members of his troops. The soldier walked toward him, clicking his tongue as he saw the carnage around them. It was as though his commander’s sword was a harbinger of death.
“You’re unbelievable,” the soldier said in awe.
Roy smiled bitterly, but it only seemed to enhance his already handsome features.
“Everything happened exactly as you said it would, sir.”
This operation—Roy’s operation—had been a resounding success. Victories while under his command happened so often that hardly anyone was surprised at this point.
“There’s a new letter waiting for you, sir,” the soldier continued.
It was common for Roy to receive letters. Although he did receive the occasional message from his friends, most of his correspondences came from common folk or young women enamored with his heroism.
“Right,” he said, treading ahead. “They all expect responses, don’t they?”
“These letters are becoming a pain,” Roy said, shaking his head slowly. He didn’t know what to make of his sudden and bewildering popularity, so he simply burned most of the letters he received after reading them. These kinds of letters came often and always requested that he reply to them. However, he lacked the time and desire to write back to a complete stranger.
“Let’s go back,” he sighed wearily, and the soldier nodded. Roy led his horse forward slowly.
The day’s battle was over.
* * *
Aris stifled another yawn and paid closer attention to the class… or at least pretended to. History class was as tedious as always, and pretending to be attentive was an act she was used to putting up. Whenever she felt herself slipping into slumber, she would pinch the back of her hand as hard as she could, trying to stay awake. She was just glad the professor allowed her to have a small break mid-class.
With how big the breakfast she’d eaten this morning was, it certainly was the cause of her sleepiness. It was becoming increasingly more challenging for her to keep her eyes open. The moment the professor stepped out of the room for a break, Aris took the opportunity to stand up and stretch vigorously. She could only do this when she was by herself, never while in sight of the professor.
Lucine entered with tea and snacks. The tea she brewed was always delicious, and Aris always looked forward to having it.
“Have some tea, my lady.” The maid offered.
The tea was sweet, with a delicate fragrance. Aris took a sip and bit into a soft cookie.
“The Marquis asks that you join him in his study after your lessons.”
“The study?” Aris frowned. Her father rarely called her to his study, and she couldn’t help but wonder if something had happened.
Aris tilted her head. According to the novel, nothing major was supposed to happen to her at this point in her life. Of course, the story started when she turned 19. Still, if anything significant had occurred in her past, it would have surely been mentioned.
‘I don’t know what it could possibly be.’
After she had transmigrated into the novel, Aris’s destiny had changed drastically. She was held in high regard by everyone, with a reputation of being an honest, hardworking girl. Perhaps she had changed so much that other elements of the story had changed as well.
‘I haven’t even made my debut yet.’
There was no way that she’d be receiving a marriage proposal, not at her age, she thought as she sipped her tea. Once the break ended, the professor returned, smelling heavily of smoke and tobacco. It seemed he’d gone out for a cigar.
‘Ugh, gross.’ She wanted to tell him to quit smoking, but she knew it was easier said than done. ‘At least he had the decency to go smoke outside,’ she thought, and smiled despite her mild displeasure.
“Do you remember where we left off?” he asked.
“You seem a little tired today,” noted the professor.
“It’s very embarrassing, but I believe I’m somewhat drowsy today because I overate during breakfast. My apologies, sir. This won’t happen again,” she murmured and daintily covered her mouth with one hand.
The professor nodded and patted her shoulder, saying, “It’s no problem at all, I understand.”
He left the matter at that and carried on with his lesson. Aris focused on her studies while taking small sips of tea. She was glad Lucine had left it there for her; with it, she did not fall asleep again.
* * *
By the time Aris was done with her lessons, it was already evening. She figured it would be best to speak to Ian before dinner and headed towards the study, with Lucine following close behind. Two knights were guarding the door, but when Aris approached, they granted her entry.
“Father, it’s me, Aris,” she announced before entering.
Ian, who had been organizing papers at his desk, stood to greet his daughter. “Come, have a seat,” he said, gesturing towards one of the sofas in the study. Once Aris was settled, he sat down across from her.
“I’ll bring some tea,” Lucine said before scurrying out. Aris studied Ian’s expression— it didn’t look like he had good news on his mind.
“What’s wrong?” Aris asked. Ian seemed to be struggling to form a response.
“Your tea,” Lucine said, setting down a tea set and a platter of treats. “I’ll leave you both to speak now.”
She left, shutting the door quietly behind her. Ian let out a small sigh and took a sip of the tea before saying, “There will be a celebration ball for the crown prince soon.”
“Yes, I heard.” She had also heard that a candidate for crown princess would be selected on that day but paid little attention. It wasn’t something that involved her.
“The emperor made a list of candidates for the next crown princess, and… your name was on that list.”
“Excuse me?” Aris blinked, not having expected him to say that of all things. She set her tea down and pointed at herself incredulously.
“You mean… me?”
“My God.” She was astonished. She had cleaned up her act and tried to build a favorable reputation, only for it to land her on a list of crown princess candidates. The crown princess wasn’t even a character in the original novel—she’d never even been mentioned. The author had only written about the love story between the male lead and Lucine.
So, then, why was she being considered for Crown Princess?
“There were many girls on the list besides you, too,” Ian added.
“The emperor made this list himself?”
Aris had been placed in a carefully curated register of the most eligible ladies in the capital, and somehow, this made her very pleased. While she had no desire to become the next crown princess, it still pleased her for some reason to know that people knew she could. However…
“What’s the issue?”
“It’s not that. The real issue is just…” Ian trailed off.
Ian held her hand tightly, hesitating.
“Just tell me, Father.”
“…The crown prince was supposed to choose from that list a partner to dance at the ball. But instead, he decided to invite every single lady on that list to a tea party.”
“I tried saying you were too young, but it was no use.”
That must be the reason her father looked so distraught—his little girl had been selected as a candidate for the post of crown princess.
Aris nodded in understanding. “What kind of person is the crown prince?” she asked. Having never paid much attention to the palace’s workings, she knew next to nothing about the prince.
“He’s a very calculating man.”
“Calculating?” She repeated.
“He’s quite fond of women, but only takes them as mistresses.”
Suddenly, Aris’s mouth was filled with an acrid taste. The crown prince sounded like the type of man she did not want to associate with. She took another sip of tea and smiled thinly.
“Since we are a noble household, and you are such a beautiful and sweet girl, the emperor seemingly wanted you to become the crown princess,” Ian added.
“Oh my.” She hadn’t expected that.
“Either you or Louison’s daughter.”
“Ah, the young lady?”
“Yes.” Her father nodded.
She had heard rumors of how the girl had just celebrated her 13th birthday and of her astonishing beauty.
The original novel had not mentioned who the crown princess was. After all, the main characters of the novel were the male lead and Lucine.
“When is the tea party?” Aris asked.
“Oh, there’s not much time left then.” Aris mulled over her thoughts for a moment, noting that she would need to get fitted for a new dress. She would also need to decide what kind of makeup she would wear.
Ian’s expression seemed to darken. “If only I had more power… then you wouldn’t have to go through this.”
“Well. This will be quite a headache for me,” she admitted.
Realizing that he would be sending his daughter to a place she didn’t want to go, Ian paled.
“Where will the tea party be held?”
“Since it is a special occasion, it will be held in the Spring Garden, where flowers bloom constantly,” he explained.
“The Spring Garden?”
The Spring Garden was one of the most stunning gardens in the palace. Flowers bloomed there year-round, giving the illusion of eternal spring. Aris had always wanted to see it in person, having seen only illustrations of it in magazines.
This could be a good experience for her. She was growing tired of being cooped up at home anyway. If she was to be forced to attend the crown prince’s tea party, she might as well take a detour and check out the Spring Garden.
‘There’s no way I’d be selected anyway,’ she thought, lifting her teacup to her lips. ‘Ooh, perfect form.’
It was only yesterday that she had learned tea etiquette, and she’d spent the entire night practicing the proper motions. All that practice seemed to have paid off; her table manners were executed with the utmost poise and grace.
“Don’t worry, Father. I’m sure there will be ladies far prettier than I am, and the Crown Prince may not even find me to his liking,” she said to Ian reassuringly. Her sweet words calmed him somewhat.
“I suppose that is a possibility…”
“Anyway, I heard that Lady Violet was quite the beauty. I’m sure the crown prince will be drawn to the most gorgeous lady in attendance.”
“But how can any woman be more beautiful than my daughter?”
Aris smiled bashfully at his words. Sure, in her father’s eyes, she might seem like the most beautiful girl in the world, but she saw herself objectively.
She had appealing features, but that was about it. She wasn’t a breathtaking beauty with flowing golden hair and twinkling sapphire eyes. She was just another girl with plain brown hair and dull brown eyes.