Chapter 73 – A Sudden Change (2)
The news spread in a matter of hours. Everyone stole surreptitious glances at me at the Central Palace, and hurriedly quieted themselves when I passed by. As soon as it was time for dinner, I sent the workers back. Despite my success in keeping my composure calm all day, my facial muscles were fatigued.
What should I do when Rashta’s baby is born? I remembered how the previous empress treated the emperor’s illegitimate children. She had treated most of them fairly enough, but she was cold to the children of the concubines she particularly disliked.
It wasn’t going to be easy. People were sympathetic to young children, and both Rashta and Sovieshu were so beautiful that their baby would surely be as lovely as a fairy. If I were cold to such a precious child, who was also the Emperor’s first baby, my reputation would be ruined. Everyone would stare at me and whisper, ‘What is wrong with her?’ Furthermore, if I didn’t want that child to get any foolish ideas, I had to give birth to my own legitimate child before the age gap became too great.
As soon as I entered my room, I fell into an armchair and took a deep breath. It was as if the surrounding air was trying to crush me.
My hand was resting on my temple as I lifted my head and saw Countess Eliza near me.
“What is it?”
“Prince Heinley is here. He seemed to be in a hurry to see you…”
I sat up from the chair. Why was he here?
Since becoming a secret friend, Prince Heinley hadn’t come to visit me outright, choosing only to exchange the customary greetings and pleasantries when we met outside. I had also visited him only once when I was worried about Queen. If he had come in person, it must be urgent.
“Bring him in.”
Concerned, I quickly went out to the drawing room. There was no need for me to change clothes as I hadn’t undressed from my formal ones yet. The same time I entered the drawing room, Prince Heinley walked in.
“Would you like tea, Your Majesty?”
“Yes, thank you, Countess.”
As soon as Countess Eliza closed the door behind her, Prince Heinley walked up to me and held up his arms in the air.
“I’ve been wanting to console you. Can I give you a hug, as a friend?”
I stared at him, and Prince Heinley looked at me encouragingly.
“Friends hug each other for comfort.”
Oh…that was what he was here for. He came running here to cheer me up. A sense of relief flooded my body.
As soon as I stepped towards him, he hugged me tightly.
I couldn’t help but notice the firmness and broadness of his shoulders. I leaned my forehead in, inhaling a familiar scent. It was always the scent of Queen. Did Queen smell like the prince or did the prince smell like Queen?
Although Queen’s hug was comforting, Prince Heinley’s body was much larger. I felt safe as I was engulfed in his arms. Everything is fine, his body seemed to say, and between the familiar scent and unfamiliar arms, the turmoil in my mind settled. Even the sound of his heartbeat granted me a sense of security. It was healthy and loud and fast.
“I really must be a rotten jerk, Queen.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I came here to comfort you because I was afraid you were upset. But I was having bad thoughts in the meantime.”
What was he talking about? I pulled away my forehead in confusion and stepped back, while Prince Heinley lowered his arms. His face was red as he slightly backed away.
“Was I too close to you?”
I looked at him worriedly, and he gave a tentative “Huh?” His ears turned red and he waved his hands.
“I wasn’t having bad thoughts about that, Queen. Absolutely not. I’m not the kind of person who gets excited like this.”
I stared at him.
“I’m going crazy.”
Prince Heinley covered his eyes with both his hands as if he wanted the ground to swallow him.
“You didn’t even ask me in the first place. I dug myself into this, didn’t I?”
At the sound of his distress, my mouth couldn’t help but turn up.
“Well, I’m smiling in the middle of this. Human emotions are complicated.”
“Well, I’m glad that my embarrassment made you smile.”
The prince sighed and then gave a chuckle. Just then, Countess Eliza came in with the tea. She set the tray down on the table, then hurried out to leave the pair of use alone again.
I held up a teacup for him, and he carefully accepted it. I could feel his hand trembling as our fingers brushed against each other. His gaze was cast downwards when I looked up at him, but he slowly lifted his eyes, revealing purple irises from underneath his soft gold eyelashes. It was captivating.
“If Prince Heinley was a woman…”
“The Emperor would fall in love with you. Your eyes are gorgeous.”
“What a peculiar way to give a compliment.”
He stared at me for a moment then burst into laughter, then brought his cup to his lips.
“If I were a woman, I would become the Queen’s lady-in-waiting.”
“We can stay together all day.”
“Do you wish to be my lady-in-waiting?”
“Not that. Focus on the part after that, Queen.”
There was laughter again. After hearing the news about the baby, I was happy to find relief with Prince Heinley, though I knew it was a temporary prescription and I would feel nauseous again after he left. As I was about to bring up the topic about the bird Queen, Countess Eliza knocked on the door again.
“Your Majesty, Duchess Tuania is here.”
“Bring her in.”
What was she doing here at this time? I had a good relationship with the duchess, but there was no occasion for noblewomen to visit me in the evening without an invitation, not unless they were my ladies-in-waiting. I was just as surprised as I knew she was loaded down with her problems. Was there something she needed me to do for her?
When Duchess Tuania came in, her eyes were wet.
“I’ll take my leave, Queen.”
Prince Heinley sensibly realized it was not a conversation he should be involved in, so he gave a nod to the duchess and left. I took the duchess’ hand and led her to sit on the couch.
“What’s wrong? Are you alright?”
Duchess Tuania’s back was straight and her posture was graceful, but she looked more worn than usual. As soon as she sat on the couch, she took both my hands in hers. I waited for her to speak instead of prodding her, and finally the duchess managed to choke out the words caught in her mouth.
“Your Majesty, I am so ashamed to ask you this, but…please save Viscount Langdel.”