Chapter 22 – Tears That Only Queen Knows (1)
“My apologies, Lady Rashta, but I am already exhausted.”
Prince Heinley smiled and turned away.
“I cannot dance twice in a row. This handsome man has a surprisingly weak constitution.”
“Then what about after you take a break? When you get your strength back.”
Prince Heinley suddenly looked over and our eyes met, and his gaze softened.
“There’s someone else I want to dance with again.”
I pondered his repeated refusal towards her. He was determined to cut her off, far different from how most nobles presented themselves. Rashta didn’t expect to be rejected, and she touched her hair, disconcerted, and turned away. Our gazes met, but she didn’t acknowledge me and instead turned to Sovieshu with her eyes shimmering with tears.
“Your Majesty, Rashta has no one to dance with.”
“Take a break. You cannot dance with the same person twice in a row.”
Rashta was similar to Prince Heinley. He, too, had no qualms about expressing his feelings, when most nobles would be too proud to voice their thoughts out loud.
She whined like a baby, and the surrounding nobles chuckled, not out of mockery, but of endearment. Rashta was not noble, and her behavior was rude, to say the least, but to everyone else she was like a fresh and pure novelty.
“Lady Rashta, would you like to dance with me?”
Several other noblemen approached Rashta, but she weakly replied, “No thank you,” then trudged towards the edge of the room. Sovieshu stiffened, as if he wanted to run towards her. If the music hadn’t started at that moment, he might have really gone after her, but he stayed on the floor.
Coincidentally, the music was calm and the dance required some distance from one’s partner. Sovieshu and I had been dance partners since we were young, and we were used to falling into the rhythm together. As children, we held on to each other with laughter, complaining that the steps were awkward.
‘Those days will never come anymore.’
When I remembered holding a large map and discussing new construction projects, I felt a chill in the corner of my heart. How stupid and naive I was at the time to believe Sovieshu and I would be together for the rest of our lives. When the dance finally brought us close to each other, I still felt like we were far apart.
Sovieshu spoke in a low voice.
“What did you talk about with Prince Heinley?”
“We had a normal conversation.”
“Have you heard the rumors about him?”
What did he mean by that? I didn’t say anything for a while to focus on the complicated steps, but I didn’t miss the crease between Sovieshu’s eyebrows.
“What do you mean you had a ‘normal’ conversation with him?”
“He was very entertaining.”
“He’s a playboy, so of course he’s entertaining. People like funny men.”
The distance between us grew apart again. As I turned around, I saw Prince Heinley standing near a table and watching me. He smiled and waved a hand when our gazes met.
“I have Rashta as my concubine, so I won’t tell you that you cannot take another man as your lover as well.”
“Still, I don’t believe it should be Prince Heinley.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“If you are with Prince Heinley, he will not be your concubine, but you will be his.”
“Wouldn’t that be disgraceful to the Empress of the Eastern Empire?”
“I don’t know what you’re imagining, but Prince Heinley and I don’t have that kind of relationship.”
“Good. Don’t be the match for the fire that spreads everywhere.”
I was about to protest that Prince Heinley wasn’t like that, when Sovieshu suddenly came to a halt. The music hadn’t stopped yet. Sovieshu was frozen on the floor, and I couldn’t dance alone so stopped as well, jamming the traffic around us.
What was the matter? I wondered if he sprained a foot, but Sovieshu strode away. The people around me looked on with puzzled expressions. Sovieshu finally stopped in front of Rashta. She was standing against the wall, crying.
“Rashta. Why are you crying?”
Sovieshu looked at her in surprise, and Rashta stretched out her arms and hugged him around the neck.
The murmur of the crowd grew louder. I could feel the nobles’ eyes on me. Sovieshu and I were dancing together, before he threw me away and went to Rashta.
My jaw clenched. I felt blood drain from my head as my vision turned spotty. Rashta kept crying while Sovieshu tried to comfort her, and eventually he picked her up and they left.
“Oh my god. So it’s true that the Emperor loves the concubine.”
As the two of them left, the gaze of the crowd pressed down harder on me.
“But I heard she was a runaway slave. Is that true?”
“Nonsense. The Emperor just said it was a rumor.”
“Watch your mouth. His Majesty said he would punish anyone that spoke of it.”
“No, wait a minute. Does the Eastern Empire allow runaways slaves to become concubines? This is not possible in our Northern Kingdom. I even brought her the Sea Jewels of the Northern Kingdom as a gift.”
“I’m sure the Emperor did nothing of the sort.”
The music stopped, and everyone was either looking at me or talking about Rashta. I wanted nothing more than to flee the room, but I forced myself to walk calmly away.
I had no idea where I was going, but I heard someone following my footsteps and glimpsed Prince Heinley’s reflection on a smooth pillar. I did not feel like being civil and talking to a foreign prince. For now…I just wanted to sit somewhere.
I found myself walking through an empty palace corridor. Sir Artina, the deputy commander of the knights, fell into step beside me.
“Are you all right, Your Highness?”
“You should get some rest. You look pale.”
I nodded. I went to my chambers, passing the drawing room before going into the bedroom. I fell face down on the bed, hugging the pillow and curling up on myself. My whole body felt unbearably heavy. How much was I carrying on my shoulders?
There was a tap on glass, and I saw a Queen sitting by the window. I opened it wearily, and Queen entered, blinking his large eyes. I took the bird into my arms. As his heat spread from his warm little body into mine, tears burst out of my eyes.
How could this creature provide such great comfort? I soaked in the warmth Queen gave me like a person abandoned in a bitter winter. By the time I was finally calm, I realized I had been hugging the bird for too long. He was probably annoyed. I looked up, and to my surprise, Queen was simply peering at me.
“You always give me strength.”
I was embarrassed to say it out loud and whispered it in his ear, and Queen covered his face with his wings.
“Sometimes you’re like a real person.”
Queen’s eyes widened and he darted around the room, and there was a commotion outside. The paper hanging above the bed fluttered, and I pulled him towards me.
I rang the bell to signal my permission for them to come in, and the main door opened and voices came inside. I went into the drawing room with Queen in my arms, finding several ladies-in-waiting there, including Countess Eliza and Laura. They had come straight from the party, and were dressed more splendidly than usual. However, the clock showed that the end of the ball itself was some time away. Why were they here?
“Countess, what’s going on?”