As Undine flipped herself upside down, the chambermaid couldn’t bear it any longer and screamed while scrambling away.
Claude’s expression was hard to gauge, whether he was surprised or completely unfazed.
“…Greetings, Prince Valentin.”
He nodded lightly.
Thud! A loud noise came from the area he had glanced toward. It seemed the chambermaid had tripped and fallen on the dark path.
It seemed Valentin didn’t particularly want to dwell on why I and the elemental attendant were alone in the deep forest at midnight. He just wanted to get through this uncomfortable situation quickly.
“Would you like me to escort her?”
“She knows the forest better than I do. She occasionally works as a forest keeper, too.”
“Even so, the forest at night can be dangerous.”
“For example, summoning a water spirit like Miss Estelle?”
Claude replied indifferently. He glanced at her with a knowing look, and she glared back at him.
As Undine finished her observation, she giggled and played along with his extended finger.
Her emotions seemed to be roughly like this:
1. Good thing + good thing = even better thing.
2. Humans = good thing.
3. Human + human = the best!
Contrary to Undine, Claude Prince made me incredibly, incredibly uncomfortable.
“…I won’t ask you to keep it a secret. After all, everyone at the Academy will know by tomorrow.”
With that, I turned my back to him, expecting him to let me go.
But Prince Valentin didn’t seem to have any intention of releasing me. His once lifeless, empty smile now took on a completely different hue.
“As you know, the position of Elementalists in the Empire has narrowed considerably. Ever since your dear father lost his head.”
That was a veiled insult.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
I couldn’t ignore his tone.
In a moment, the atmosphere turned icy, and Undine sensed something was amiss, so she flew toward me.
Claude looked down at his hand, where water droplets had formed but didn’t continue. He calmly addressed me.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said, ever since your father was executed. The former Count Aluster, the contract holder of the Spirit King of Fire.”
“Why are you suddenly bringing up this topic?”
“Just because your dear father can no longer spread his wings as an Elemental Summoner doesn’t mean others can’t appreciate his audacity.”
It was a mocking tone.
“What are you talking about?”
Faced with an inevitable question, my body tensed.
Sensing the change in the atmosphere, Undine kept an eye on me and fluttered closer.
This little bastard…
In the midst of a blatant argument, a spark ignited in my head.
“Have you seen me summoning spirits from the beginning?”
I asked as I approached Prince Valentin confidently. With every step I took, my vision tinged green.
“Yes, I have.”
The prince stood his ground, calmly observing my approach.
I boldly stood my ground, letting my fingers tense, ready to strike, as I continued speaking.
“The Undine is an intermediate spirit. I summoned her on my first attempt. I have a talent that no one can ignore! And yet, you want me to bow down and pretend to be a fool, closing my eyes and ears, ignoring the sound of the spirits calling?”
“If you had a conscience, you would.”
“Why should I? How could I? The guilt lies with my father, not me!”
“There is such a thing as shared responsibility.”
“How can you connect my lineage to any guilt? Does sin flow through the blood? Are you suggesting that the embers of wrongdoing have been passed down through the family name, like an infectious disease spreading through the land? It doesn’t make sense!”
Prince Valentin responded with lowered eyes.
“Sometimes, guilt can be inherited. And I believe I can rectify that.”
I paused, holding back the colorful curses I had in mind for the prince.
‘Inherited’ Prince Valentin.
I took a deep breath and opened the door to counterattack.
“Your Highness, you seem to enjoy playing the role of a carefree libertine. I won’t live like that.”
For the first time, Prince Valentin’s usually composed face wrinkled.
“What did you say?”
“I mean, Your Highness, that I won’t live as shamelessly as you do.”
I spoke firmly, staring into his messy gray eyes.
I had shed tears of blood for nearly 19 years.
I no longer had any intention of clinging to anyone’s ankles, begging them to look at me, love me once, or recognize that I was a good person.
I had no intention of imitating someone else.
“Even though you’re the first in line for the throne and act like a shameless libertine.”
A hint of red appeared on Prince Valentin’s face, revealed by the moonlight.
“What are you talking about… You’re mistaken. I’m not deliberately playing the libertine role; it’s just that I have no interest in complicated politics. It’s not just me who can inherit the throne; I’d rather forget about power struggles that only give me headaches.”
Most people believed his protests.
In fact, the First Prince had been a skillful actor all along.
He had even mimicked a fool so convincingly that he made the kingdom’s most outstanding theater actors cry.
A while ago, he had been both a double agent and a libertine, despite the Empress openly despising him. Still, some people had high hopes for the first prince, the royal bloodline, and the power struggle that was causing nothing but headaches.
Furthermore, in his younger years, he had shown promise in scholarship and martial arts.
However, as he grew older, it seemed that the prince had transferred his curiosity from books and swordsmanship to alcohol and gambling.
He repeatedly found himself barefoot and sprawled in the back alleys, drunk.
To find the prince, all you had to do was go to the noisiest tavern in the city that day; that’s where the rumors led.
The expectant gazes of the people gradually waned.
Some even dared to come to the palace gates, demanding that the prince repay his gambling debts.
Noblewomen who had never met such a person in their lives shivered and withdrew their expectations of the prince. Some were disappointed in the end, thinking that the talented genius had met his downfall.
But I… I alone knew that he had been pretending all along, even before he died.
‘I also experienced such moments, you know.’
Sometimes there were moments when the prince couldn’t hide his true self behind his ‘foolish’ mask.
The first time I noticed it was at a grand ball held at the palace.
The prince was in a corner, engaging in light banter with a servant carrying a tray. When she left to serve a guest, he waved her away with a smile.
It was the moment his absentminded gaze wandered into the distance.
Disgust or regret.
An emotion that defied categorization briefly passed over his face. It happened in an incredibly short span of time.
I was the only one who could have noticed, standing there like a wallflower among the court’s ladies, yearning to dance with a monster’s daughter.
Even after that, the prince occasionally revealed his true face hidden behind the mask when he believed nobody was watching.
At that time, I pretended not to notice that he was imitating someone else, even with my carefully crafted ‘good lady’ disguise.
Looking back now, I realize that I intentionally turned away from the image he projected.
In the end, it was an unremarkable conclusion for everyone.
The moment our gazes crossed, I, standing on the lectern, and he, on the lowest step of the dais.
“It’s not a problem. It’s just disgusting to hide your true nature and mimic others to disappoint those who expect something from you.”
Some people, who had hoped to receive something all their lives.
Even though no one had expectations of me and only kept on being disappointed. It’s strange. I bit my lip.
“Living without seriousness, as if you have no interest in the affairs of the world. Always mingling with commoners, nobles, and young aristocratic women, spreading rumors, and yet, in the middle of all that, while showing a vague smile to the ladies of the noble class, you never plow a single furrow in the field. It’s quite amusing.”
“Miss Estelle, close your mouth.”
The prince snapped his teeth and spoke. He snickered.
“You hurl insults at me, and then you tell me to close my mouth after just a few words? You are remarkably lenient toward yourself and harsh to others.”
“I told you to close it.”
“Forgive me. I mistakenly thought that Your Highness was behaving completely unlike the first prince. It was a misunderstanding.”
The prince’s breathing became more pronounced. He straightened up elegantly.
I mockingly cast my remarks at his disheveled face.
“Do you want to return to being Duke Charles, Your Grace? Unfortunately, that’s impossible. Both His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Empress have already discarded you from the royal family. If you still harbor resentment, you can only dig up your grave and shout inside.”
“His Majesty the Emperor treats you as if you don’t exist, the nobles mock you, and Her Majesty the Empress despises you while still being wary of you. Is it really amusing to imitate the libertine, feigning helplessness from this crack in society, Your Highness the First Prince?”
For a moment, the prince’s eyes displayed a profound emotion. It resembled the atmosphere when my eyes turned fiery red, similar to before.
It was the face of the real Claude Valentin, hidden behind the fake smiles I had seen piece by piece until now.