I grabbed his collar and pulled him down. With a forceful motion, a few buttons flew off and fell to the ground. His crisp shirt rustled in my hand.
There was only a breath’s distance between us now. Our breaths mixed in the air as we faced each other.
In this moment, it felt like there were only the two of us, breathing and living in the world.
His gray eyes seemed to burst with intensity, and gradually, they took on a reddish hue. Mine were no different. The tension was palpable.
“Are you planning to duel with me, even now? I won’t stop you.”
At that moment, the prince’s resolve seemed to falter. He spoke, almost as if he were sighing.
Without releasing my hand, he momentarily held onto my wrist. Though he didn’t seem particularly strong, my wrist was firmly trapped within his grip, then he pushed it away.
Valentine, the prince, retreated several steps from me.
He adjusted his disheveled clothing while glaring at me coldly.
“I won’t apologize for what I said. You looked so wretched that I couldn’t bear to watch.”
“Oh, so it’s a mutual offense? Well, our opinions differ. I believe the fault lies with Your Highness for initiating this rude exchange.”
Neither of us backed down, and we continued to confront each other, our breaths quickening.
For a moment, the only sound in the air was our breathing.
[Uh, Undine. I’ll go back to the spirit realm…]
Suddenly, the forgotten Undine chimed in, her voice trembling with fear.
I had completely forgotten about her. The small spirit fluttered her wings timidly, cautiously seeking my approval.
I nodded belatedly, and her face immediately brightened with relief.
When I turned my head, Valentine, the prince, had concealed his expression again.
He stared intently at the spot where Undine had disappeared.
The fervor of our fight, which had heated my mind, gradually subsided. In the distance, a bird cried at regular intervals.
The prince, who had been holding his breath, suddenly exhaled heavily and wiped his forehead with his hand.
His golden hair, now devoid of its luster in the darkness, flowed through his fingers. His low voice followed.
“I didn’t understand why you caused such a commotion, even during the day, and formed another contract with a spirit. Do you understand now?”
He muttered to himself.
“Your actions were incomprehensible to me. Well, I started the pointless argument. I apologize. Sorry. Is that enough now?”
“…Do you still dislike that I can summon spirits?”
He hesitated and couldn’t respond.
In the fragmented moonlight, his face was devoid of his earlier smile. Weariness was the only emotion that briefly surfaced.
I urged him quietly, “Why are you hesitating? You’ve already said everything you wanted to, and even apologized.”
“…I felt like I had misunderstood something.”
“In the daytime, I thought the chaos was caused by you. If you had seen it from the middle…”
“In the end, you shouldn’t have banished Baron Barden’s family so abruptly. You dissolved their prestige with the Duke’s authority. Even though the public opinion is against them, especially within the academy where Baron Barden was highly popular among both students and faculty. You’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest by antagonizing her.”
You should have been prepared for that.
Leaning against a tree, the prince rolled up his sleeves and added with an air of inevitability.
“…So, you should have let them be, even if you had to compromise. I don’t care if you had to pretend to be a friend of the Grand Duke’s. It’s too late now. Why did you provoke me like this today?”
“…Was it really that difficult for you to apologize?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I did what I had to do. There was no other way. Today, the servant arrived at the perfect moment. You were lucky.”
“Criticizing without offering alternatives is the worst, even if you haven’t taken a course in Imperial Studies.”
“If it were me, I wouldn’t have created such a situation in the first place, Estelle. Even if there were problems, I wouldn’t have escalated them. Who wouldn’t find it frustrating to watch someone take the difficult path when an easier one is available?”
Tsk. The sound of his tongue clicking was clear even in the darkness.
“When you say the easier path…”
“Flexibility, adaptability, a disposition to laugh and move on even if something is taken from you, amiability, inclusiveness, and the judgment to bend at the right time.”
He loosened his grip on my collar.
“People tend to be more forgiving when they perceive someone weaker than themselves. The cost of making an enemy out of an utterly ridiculous opponent is quite low.”
This time, I crossed my arms in front of me. The prince kicked the tree trunk and straightened up with the recoil.
“From that perspective, I also spoke without thinking, and it was excessive. I admit it. I’ve realized it now. There won’t be such incidents in the future. I won’t cast a single glance at you. So, will you let me go now?”
It was almost a pleading tone.
The grip on my collar tightened.
His intuition was correct. The fight was about to begin again.
Claude Valentine was infuriated.
“…Your Highness, you were able to take the ‘easier path’ because you weren’t truly a ridiculous person.”
“…What do you mean by that?”
“You can never become a ridiculous person.”
Prince Valentine gestured toward me with his chin, asking for an explanation.
“Your Highness, you are the First Prince by birthright. That’s why.”
Heh, I couldn’t help but let out a bitter laugh at what he said.
‘Flexibility, adaptability, a disposition to laugh and move on even if something is taken from you, amiability, inclusiveness, and the judgment to bend at the right time?’
“Would a truly ridiculous person act like you do? Laugh and move on, pretending to be an easygoing fool even if something is taken from them? I think even the lowest of creatures would be treated worse than you if they acted that way.”
Claude Valentine’s face hardened.
“Are you annoyed by the façade of the First Prince position? Do you dislike the umbilical cord you were born with? The reason you’ve been able to beg for your life so shamelessly and wear a mask that doesn’t belong to you, turning away from your true nature, is because you have that damned First Prince position!”
Prince Claude Valentine shouted. His face, reflected in the moonlight, was pale.
He growled with anger and shock.
“How dare you claim to know anything about me?”
“Why not? While you look down on me for taking the easy path and call me a fool, why can’t I treat you like a fool as well? Even this time? Just because you’re a prince?”
We began to bark at each other like rabid dogs.
We poured out hatred, spat venom, and glared at each other. We tore down the last bastion of reason. We transcended the barriers of class and gender to become ordinary humans who simply hated each other, shedding blood.
“Then should I jump around like you, carelessly and recklessly? Should I desire to be completely unaware of the world’s dangers? Should I make enemies from all sides and seek trouble for myself? That’s the worst, that’s foolishness!”
“Jump around like me? It’s fine even if you call it foolishness. I will never run away from my life again. I will never forget who I am. I will bite the boots of those who step on me and eventually stand up against them. You can continue to live that way if you want. If you become the Emperor one day after being the Second Prince, what’s the worst that can happen? You may face the constant threat of assassination, and at most, you’ll lose your life in an instant. You keep calling yourself human, but such a life is worse than that of a lowly insect. It’s a meaningless existence. Do you know that? I’m just a trinket for the ladies. A fake brooch made by a swindler, glittering on the surface but tainted with impurities inside!”
In the end, it was almost a scream rather than words.
After pouring out everything we wanted to say, we stared at each other for a moment, panting heavily.