In his hazy vision, he sees a skin-colored orb, shimmering in a double blur.
As his consciousness becomes clearer, the orb gradually forms an image of a woman's face.
Long, slanted, moist eyes, long eyelashes, slightly disheveled red hair.
He woke up to find Valerie's face so close to his that the tips of their noses were almost touching.
With a whisper, Valerie puts her lips to Lucas's as if pecking him.
She felt the warmth of he skin and the solid weight of his body.
And while she rests her cheek against his chest, Lucas smiles faintly.
"Yes, I was watching Danna-sama sleep. You're so cute."
"...Please don't do that!"
Lucas unconsciously rubbed his mouth to see if he was drooling.
Valerie giggled at his panicked look.
Looking around again, Lucas sees that the walls are made of crude piles of logs, and sunlight shines through the cracks.
It seems to be morning already.
The sound of rain had disappeared, and the chirping of birds was echoing.
Yesterday, they buried the body of the Duke of Savignac in the woods to make a simple grave, and they spent the night in a hunter's hut they found in the woods.
How long had they held each other in the rain?
The thick rain clouds blur the boundary between day and night, and their sense of time is hazy. Somehow Lucas managed to break Valerie's shackles and arrive at the hut, with the occasional glimpse of moonlight peeking through the thick clouds.
Their bodies were cold and wet, and they had nothing to keep them warm but each other.
No, that is just an excuse.
They held each other tightly, as if they would die if they were separated, and they sought each other with the fury of their emotions.
A love like they had never felt before surged through them like a wave, and no matter how tightly they held each other, they could never be satisfied.
The irresistible thirst for why they are not one body shook both of them violently.
But just as the morning came, they cooled down, and they felt an itchy sense of embarrassment.
Now, between the tattered blankets and bedstraws that had been left behind in the hunter's hut, their bare skin touching each other, and the rawness of their warmth made Lucas's cheeks burn with a feverish heat.
Seeing Valerie up close, she is still beautiful.
Considering her beauty and status, the fact that her first experience with him was in this battered hut and with such a man makes him feel so unworthy and bitter.
"Don't you regret it?"
Valerie's lips twitched in disapproval, and she squeezed Lucas nose with her fingertips and twisted it.
"Ouch, ouch... what are you doing!?"
"What are you saying? Is that what a man says when he holds his wife for the first time? I mean, when you wake up, the first thing you should do is say 'I love you'. Then whisper to her that she's the most beautiful woman in the world."
"Who said that?"
"Uh, Eudin, I think."
"Don't listen to him."
It's unbearable to have that womanizer as a standard.
Anyway, Valerie lets go of her hand with a wry smile, puts her cheek on his chest again, and whispers quietly.
"If you ask me if I have any regrets, I am so happy to have become yours in body and soul that it is a wonder to me. There is no room for regrets. Rather... I'm so proud of you for telling me everything last night. I think so."
Last night, Lucas told her everything.
About what happened to her. Her father had asked him to protect her no matter what.
She listened quietly, without pausing, and when she had heard everything, she said.
She looked at Lucas, who was stunned, and then she spun more words.
"It is true that you killed my father. But if I think that was my father's last wish, I can forgive it for having been in love with my father's avenger."
Valerie's claim of love is too vague and ambiguous to rely on.
If Lucas is asked whether he loves Valerie, he probably does.
But because of a love, Her Highness went out of control, and her father lost his life.
While Lucas was silent, Valerie looked up at him and asked him.
"Hey, Danna-sama, the man the Princess loved, could he be my father?"
"Perhaps... perhaps he is."
They fell in love even though they have different status. But even they even promised to leave the country together, they couldn't work it out.
That's what the Duke of Savignac said.
He didn't want to betray the princess.
But he couldn't do anything about it.
Does the princess know about his feelings?
Does she still hate him so much even she knew his feeling that she feels she has to destroy his family?
Lucas stares at the ceiling.
Then Valerie closes her eyes quietly, rests her cheek against his chest, and murmurs to no one in particular.
"I don't think I can blame Her Highness, now that I know the joy of being near the one I love."
* * *
The Crown Prince Bastien was on his way to the summer palace where his aunt, Princess Verneuil was supposed to be.
Today he was not on a personal errand. As a royalty, he is visiting in a carriage bearing the royal coat of arms, accompanied by his escort of knights.
Across from him sat Charlotte, the youngest daughter of the Vandele family, dressed in a dark blue dress with white frills, a typical out-of-towner's attire.
It takes about two days to reach the shore of Lake Melville. However, a day and a half had already passed, including the overnight stay at an inn town along the way.
"Charlotte, are you tired?"
"I'm fine, Bastian-anisama."
Her eyes remained closed. She tilts her head and smiles slightly.
She was born after Bastian left the Vandale mansion and returned to the royal family.
However, Emilienne and Lucas treated him like an older brother, and before long she had come to call him big brother too.
Now the Crown Prince was going to take his aunt.
He would never have been able to be at peace with her, but her presence brought him some peace of mind.
If she had not been there, Bastian's heart would have been in turmoil.
In fact, he was accompanied by other people this time.
But those people are the ones he does not even want to meet.
They are the nobles who supported the first and second princes of the time, not the current king, in the previous succession dispute.
Normally, they would never work together, but they have a reason to do so.
There was already a rumor spreading among them that Valerie had murdered his aunt.
It could only be said that his aunt's plan was well thought out.
She was the ones who would use her own death as an excuse to condemn the duke, and if the royal family did not agree to it, the nobles, who was with the Crown Prince now, would turn against the duke.
Furthermore, if they did not see to it that his aunt was still alive, they might later accuse her of being a madman.
After a few hours, the Crown Prince's party approaches the shores of Lake Melville with six carriages. The lake waves in the breeze, and a path leads along its shores. It dead-ends. There, against the backdrop of a lush forest, stands a chalk palace.
After passing through the gate with a black iron fence, they passed through the garden, which was a little deserted after the summer, and arrived at the square in front of the entrance, which formed a circle around a blue fountain. Immediately, they saw a woman staring at them from the balcony.
"Oh, it's Her Highness the Princess!"
"She is really alive!"
The Crown Prince Bastian could hear such voices of the nobles from the carriages following him.
Indeed, the woman who was staring at the carriage with an expectant look on her face was certainly the Princess Verneuil herself.
However, as soon as she saw the Crown Prince and the others who stopped the carriage and got out of it, her expectant look faded as if she were a fallen lantern.
She slumped her shoulders and collapsed onto a rocking chair nearby.
The Crown Prince looks around at the assembled nobles and says in a grave tone
"I am sorry, but I must ask you to wait here for a moment. His Majesty the King has asked me to speak to her in private, and I would like to finish that first."
The part about His Majesty the King is, of course, a lie.
However, the nobles, who are puzzled at the sight of Princess Verneuil, do not seem to wonder about it.
They began to whisper to each other, trying to decipher what Princess Verneuil was thinking. However, perhaps none of them could come up with the correct answer.
Thus, the Crown Prince takes Charlotte's hand and steps into the entrance hall. Then, there was a grand staircase in front of the hall, and a silver-haired maid was waiting with her back straightened in front of the staircase.
She said, and started to go up the grand staircase without waiting for an answer.
The Crown Prince has spent many a tedious summer in this palace, which has only a nice view and a somewhat cool climate. So, he knows where everything is.
The palace is quiet, and only the footsteps of the maid, himself, and Charlotte echo in the stairwell like a circular chant.
No wonder it is quiet.
The palace is normally not used until next summer.
Apart from the Crown Prince and the others, there are only two people here: the Princess and the maid.
Then, after going upstairs, passing through two rooms, and coming to the door leading to the balcony, the Crown Prince told the maid.
"I don't need to show you the way from here. I beg your pardon, but could you show the nobles outside to the garden and offer them a cup of tea or something?"
The maid bows her head reverently in spite of her curt reply, and leaves the room for the grand staircase.
After watching her go, the Crown Prince opens the door leading to the balcony.
Immediately, a cool breeze comes in.
The end of summer, the beginning of autumn, a time of ambiguity. It is a glorious afternoon.
The sky is clear and the sun is shining softly, as if the rain of a few days ago had never happened.
As the Crown Prince and Charlotte step onto the balcony, they hear the rocking sound of the rocking chair.
"I didn't expect to be discovered so soon..."
Princess Verneuil, sitting on the rocking chair, turns her head and looks behind her, her mouth agape with boredom.
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