Chapter 49 – The Butterfly Of Society (2)
I was certain she was going to ask about Sovieshu. Or perhaps Prince Heinley or Viscountess Verdi. I didn’t expect her to ask about this.
Why her? I stared at Rashta, and she answered in a small voice.
“Is Duchess Tuania easy?”
I thought I heard wrong. Easy?
“What do you mean by that?”
I frowned at her, and she carefully examined my face.
“Are you upset?”
“Duchess Tuania is a good person and a good friend.”
Rashta hesitated, twisting her hands together.
“There are always men at Duchess Tuania’s side.”
“The Duchess seems to enjoy being with men too. I don’t know if that’s allowed when she’s already married.”
She looked up in embarrassment, then waved her hands in protest.
“Rashta is not asking for bad reasons. Rashta is asking because she doesn’t understand.”
“Duchess Tuania is popular with everyone, both men and women.”
She didn’t seem to believe me.
“But at the party, she was always with men…”
I sighed. She was asking me because she didn’t understand? That was worse in my view. It was better if she had some idea what she was saying, but if she was asking out of ignorance, she could unintentionally tarnish someone’s reputation. At the very least, it was fortunate that she was asking this when there were only the two of us.
“It only appears that way at parties, because men and women pair together to dance.”
“There is nothing wrong with Duchess Tuania, so don’t say anything else like that from now on.”
Rashta gave a small “yes”, and I turned around and walked back to the Western Palace. However, even after I returned to my room and spoke with my ladies-in-waiting, Rashta’s strange question continued to gnaw at me.
‘Why would she ask about Duchess Tuania?’
Presently, Rashta was disliked and shunned in society. Although the popular Duke Elgy sided with her, it would not be easy to restore her image. If she was interested in gossip…
‘Then by any chance?’
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Are there any bad rumors about Duchess Tuania recently?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Is that so…”
“Oh, I heard that Viscount Langdel has been utterly lovesick since he danced with Duchess Tuania at New Year’s.”
Countess Eliza gave a chuckle at the story.
“He must be completely wild about her.”
Noblemen falling in love with Duchess Tuania was not an unusual occurrence. I wondered if Rashta was trying to shift the topic of gossip towards someone else. Was I worrying for nothing? Well, in any case, Rashta didn’t have the social clout to influence people. It had only been a day since Duke Elgy met her as well, and there was no way he could spread strange rumors for her either.
However, I felt uneasy as I remembered the way Rashta constantly glanced at Duchess Tuania at the New Year’s ball.
“Why do you ask, Your Majesty? Did you hear something?”
Countess Eliza’s face twisted.
“Why would she do that?”
“I don’t know…just tell me right away if you hear anything strange.”
I kept busy with preliminary research about Rypt— I compiled information from tourists, merchants, and explorers who were recently at the Hwa continent, but their time was sparse and they couldn’t abandon their jobs.
I was so busy that I forgot my birthday was coming. Surprisingly, it was Sovieshu that brought it up.
“It takes several hours to go to the villa by carriage, so we should finish up our work and leave the day before.”
I was just finishing the imperial budget before submitting it for approval to Sovieshu. At Sovieshu’s sudden reminder, I put my feather pen down on the inkwell. It took me a few seconds before I realized what he was talking about.
Sovieshu chuckled as if he found my dazed reply amusing.
“The Empress really doesn’t care about anything when she gets into her work.”
It was a teasing remark.
“Can you guess whose birthday I was talking about?”
“I remember now.”
“You should remember your own birthday.”
“Do you mind if we leave a day early?”
“I’ll schedule it.”
I flipped through my schedule, and Sovieshu spoke up again.
“Do you remember the tree planted at the villa?”
I nodded, and Sovieshu stretched himself lightly as he reminisced.
“It was when you were still crown princess and very small. You were cute back then.”
This time I smiled. In the Eastern Empire, there was a story of a wish tree, and superstition had it that if you made a wish while planting a tree, it would come true.
When I was a princess I was very short for my age, and I found it especially stressful when I was always surrounded by adults. After worrying alone, with no one to share these feelings with, I finally planted a wish tree. The rule was that I had to shovel the ground and plant the seedlings myself. However, I was young and small, and after a few hours of inefficient digging, I hugged the seedling and passed out from exhaustion. When I woke up, I found Sovieshu digging the hole.
– Your Highness! If you dig, I’ll have to do it over again!
– It’s all right. We’re a couple. A couple is like one body, so it doesn’t matter if you or I do it.
– Yeah. That’s what my father the emperor said.
Shoveling was a tough job, so I relented and allowed Sovieshu to do it. After digging a decent-sized hole, I placed the seedling in it and covered the base with dirt. I put my hands together and made a wish, and Sovieshu said, “What did you wish for?”
– …I asked to be taller.
– Why? It’s nice to be small.
– I follow the Empress and she always goes beyond a screen. But the partition is bigger than me, so I can’t see…
After that I felt unwell with body aches, and Sovieshu got into trouble because his palms were ragged. Sovieshu was always taller and stronger than I was, but he was still young too.
The ends of my mouth tipped up in a smile. When I looked at Sovieshu, I saw him smiling as if he was remembering as well.
“But that tree worked, didn’t it? Now you’re very tall.”
I smiled wordlessly, picking up the feather pen again and looking down at my papers.
A bitter feeling mixed in with the memories. After all, my wish was not about my height. Back then, I prayed that Sovieshu and I would keep a good relationship for the rest of our lives.
…But it didn’t come true.