Chapter 18 – Curiosity (1)
His voice was soft and sweet, but there was a note of self-important pride in it.
And he had called me Queen. He was not the only foreigner to do so, but the word felt strange as I had been sending messages with Queen the bird.
Did that mean…Prince Heinley was Queen’s owner? Did he think I was his letter friend? I had a moment of suspicion, but soon dismissed it. It didn’t matter if he wrote those letters. I had no intention of meeting Queen’s owner in real life.
The knight standing next to me frowned as if offended. He seemed to think that it was rude for the prince to ask me to guide him around the palace.
Nevertheless, there was no knowing when his country would surpass the Eastern Empire. I would not stir up unnecessary trouble with a prince who might succeed to the throne in the future.
After a moment’s thought, the proud attitude on Prince Heinley’s face vanished, to be replaced with an innocent smile as he offered his arm to me. I took it, and contrary to his beautiful and fine appearance, his arm felt densely muscled. I let go of it in surprise, and he looked at me curiously.
“What is it?”
I couldn’t very well say that he was more solid than I expected, so I quickly looked away.
“Have you ever been to the Silver Garden? It’s the closest garden to the Southern Palace. It’s very beautiful.”
“I’ve been around the Southern Palace, naturally.”
I pondered for a moment as we walked along the corridor exiting the Central Palace. The Central Palace was primarily used for work, with many forbidden areas to outsiders, so it was inappropriate for me to show him around there. The Southern Palace was used to house the foreign guests, and he must have already toured around the area.
Then there was still the Western Palace…we could share a cup of tea there, so the Western Palace should be at the end.
I could escort him to the Emperor’s Eastern Palace, but I was reluctant to run across Rashta. We could easily skip that and go to the Northern Palace…
I was strolling forward without saying a word, and Prince Heinley called out to me. Something in his voice made my ears tingle.
“I was thinking about what to show you first.”
“Ah. Then I want to go—”
Before Prince Heinley finished speaking, a familiar person ran towards us from the garden bushes.
Rashta. Despite my efforts to avoid her, she still appeared in front of me. I sighed, keeping on my mask as I nodded to her.
“Your Majesty, are you taking a walk? Rashta’s taking a walk too.”
I had no idea where her inexhaustible energy came from. Last time I saw her, we didn’t part on the best terms.
“I came from over there.”
She pointed her finger at the path she had followed, then smiled brightly and bowed to the prince.
“Hello, I’m Rashta.”
I thought the prince would be offended by this unnoble greeting, but he smiled unexpectedly and copied Rashta’s mannerism.
“Hello, I’m Heinley.”
Rashta’s giggle was like a silver bell.
“You’re funny! Your Majesty, who is this? I’ve never seen him before.”
Heinley introduced himself before I could.
“I’m Prince Heinley from the Western Kingdom.”
Rashta covered her mouth with her hands, then squealed in excitement.
“Rashta has never seen a prince!”
“Haha, is that so?”
“You really look like a prince. From a fairy tale book.”
“Goodness. You flatter me, Rashta.”
A pink flush rose on Rashta’s cheeks.
“Are you two taking a walk together?”
“I asked the Empress to show me around.”
“This place is wonderful, isn’t it? There are a lot of places to see.”
“I haven’t seen everything, but so far, it’s been incredible.”
Unlike the nobles who were embarrassed by Rashta’s speech or behavior when they first met her, Prince Heinley carried on easily with her. Rashta asked if Prince Heinley was feeling comfortable, then posed him another question with a beaming smile.
“Well, Prince Heinley, do you want me to guide you?”
Prince Heinley’s eyebrows lifted.
“Rashta has been exploring the entire palace lately. There’s no place I don’t know!”
Rashta glanced at me and added kindly,
“Her Majesty is busy, so Rashta will do it for you.”
“Ah. Thank you, Lady Rashta. But that’s all right. The Empress is a great guide. ”
I hadn’t even shown him anything yet. Prince Heinley glanced at me apologetically.
“Ah! Then Rashta will go with you. It would be more fun if the three of us took a walk together!”
Rashta attached herself to Prince Heinley’s side, and he returned a soft smile.
If he allowed Rashta to accompany us, I would simply leave. I thought through the words that would give me a reasonable excuse.
Busy? No, I said I was not busy.
I just remembered that I was busy? No, that was too hasty.
Perhaps I had to rush to the bathroom…No, absolutely not.
In any case, I didn’t want to create a scene of the Empress and the Emperor’s concubine taking a stroll with the neighboring country’s prince. There could be no such ridiculous thing. But before I even choose an excuse—
“I’m sorry, Lady Rashta.”
Prince Heinley turned down Rashta in a gentle but firm voice.
“Three is too many.”
Rashta looked surprised, and Prince Heinley left her with a parting, “Enjoy your walk,” then calmly strode away. He was polite, but surprisingly cold. Usually when someone offered their company, the polite thing to do was accept.
I glanced sideways at his profile in surprise. Before I knew it, he returned to the prideful attitude from when he asked me to guide him. I frowned in thought…he certainly had a rude personality. He really was a man that depended on his good looks. Was that the reason for the buzz in the social circles?
Prince Heinley stared at me while I thought. I avoided his gaze for fear of being too obvious, when he asked me an unexpected question.
“Do you not find me handsome?”
What was he talking about? I gave a slight frown, and Prince Heinley continued.
“It’s strange. People are usually interested in me at this point. Why is the Queen so cold? Is my face swollen today? I made sure to dress finely.”
I must have heard him wrong. I stared at him, Prince Heinley suddenly burst out laughing.
…Was it a joke?
“My apology, Your Majesty. You were so rigid a while ago.”
“The woman from earlier, was she the Empress’ mistress?”
Prince Heinley used the term “mistress” instead of “concubine.” This, too, was not typical of nobility, and it produced a smile of its own.
“The Emperor is a strange man. How could he look elsewhere with you in front of him?”
“Thank you for your kind words, but…”
“There is no need to thank me. If he cannot appreciate you, it is his loss.”
Perhaps that was why he was called a playboy. For a moment I was pleasantly surprised. I knew his words were meant to be pleasing to my ears, but his haughty face made me unable to accept his flattery. He looked like the type that would be unwilling to give compliments even if he was held by the throat and ordered to do so.
I forced a smile, and he gave me a boyish grin in return.
“So, if you don’t mind, Your Majesty, would you invite me to the special banquet on the last day of the New Year’s celebrations?”
Those present at the final New Year’s banquet were highly distinguished guests of high status, or made great achievements, or were expected to make great achievements. However, the Emperor and Empress only invited ten guests. Naturally, most of the invitations were already sent before the New Year, and Prince Heinley was naturally the first on that list.
“Didn’t you already receive an invitation? It couldn’t be…”
“I received it. But it was an invitation from the Emperor of the Eastern Empire.”
When he looked at me again, his eyebrows lifted.
“I would rather be the Empress’ guest.”
“I appreciate it, but I have already sent out all my invitations.”
“Why don’t you cross out the Emperor’s name and write down your name below?”
He was speaking nonsense, and he chuckled at his own words, then offered up his arm again.
“Shall we keep walking?”