A chilly silence descended in Russell's parlor.
Before him sat his two dukes, the noblest of servants of the Tristan Empire.
Elliot Proud was, as usual, expressionless.
Wells Honeywell, on the other hand, was staring daggers at the duke beside him, urging him to talk first.
If they continued their never-ending silence, the day would end before Russell got the answers he needed.
He had to make the first move.
“Duke Proud, this is the Marquise of Rosenberg, and she has—no, my sister has requested this agreement, do you understand?”
Duke Proud's lips tightened as his Emperor continued to drive a wedge in his plans.
[TL/N: Meaning, every word the emperor speaks to him jeopardizes his plans to marry Rose Honeywell and seize their power.]
“While my sister resides in the Imperial Palace, I've directly appointed Lady Honeywell as her temporary lady-in-waiting.
I apologize for the inconvenience this brings to your engagement, as it will need to be postponed until my sister has taken her leave.”
With his gaze lowered, Elliot assumed the image of a man submitting to his circumstances, but secretly, he watched the Emperor and the Duke of Honeywell from the corner of his eye.
“It was a request that Rose herself accepted; how could I possibly object? But I will have to ask for Your Majesty's understanding regarding the postponement of my engagement to Rose.”
Focusing on the teacup placed on the table, Elliot warned the emperor.
“Your Majesty, as well as the other aristocrats, have been eagerly awaiting my engagement ceremony with Rose Honeywell.
As it was Marquise Rosenberg's request, I will abide by it for now, but when the New Year arrives, I can no longer compromise.”
Rising from his seat, Elliot bowed to the emperor elegantly.
“I will take my leave, Your Majesty.”
Silently watching the Duke of Proud leave the parlor, Russell's face remained stiff.
That is, until the door closed, and he thus stuck out his tongue while cursing.
“A fox! That man is a sly fox.”
He was angrily cursing out loud while Wells remained in the room, readily agreeing with his words.
“You're right! It's a relief that our Rose has started removing the bean pods sucked by that Duke Proud.”
[TL/N: She is removing the rotten clutches that Elliot has latched onto her.
Simply put, she's breaking the hold Elliot had on her.]
Russell smiled at Wells, who was fired up, nodding and cursing Elliot proudly.
However, all too soon his smile was wiped away.
Leaning closer to his friend, Russell whispered as if sharing a grand secret.
“By the way, even if the Duke of Proud has backed off for now, come the New Year, he will insist on having the engagement ceremony.
What are we going to do?”
Wells sighed heavily.
“Haa, yes, Your Majesty.
Can't you just give him a direct order?”
“I can, but will that man listen and obey?”
Russell, too, gave up the urge to dictate orders to Elliot.
He was in a position where he could not discuss the engagement ceremony of his servant as it was a direct conflict with their personal matters, plus he was entangled in his own personal feelings.
It's still an order.
Buried deep in his chair, arms crossed, Russell thought of any command he would give to Elliot, fully aware that Elliot would ignore it when the time came.
…Would you back down if I told you that I would make Rose my empress?
Russell, imagining Rose as the empress of the Tristan Empire, glanced at Wells, who was engulfed in his own troubled thoughts.
His plan was dismissed at once.
If I do, Wells might take Rose and leave the empire and hide, and that's not the worst scenario.
Russell immediately called out to his friend when a sudden thought occurred to him.
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Why is Duke Proud trying to force the engagement ceremony with Rose like this?”
“I do not know.
Elliot might have been struck by lightning and fell in love with Rose.”
How sarcastic of you, Wells.
Russell shook his hand and withheld his reply.
“Even if that were the case, Duke Proud would know it well to fall in love with anyone else besides the Honeywell's.”
“There is an unwritten rule that Honeywell and Proud do not reconcile by marriage.”
Both families have rules like that.”
As if he had found the answer, Russell's amethyst eyes shone brighter than ever.
“Then isn't it enough to use that as justification? There's no need to mess around like this for nothing.”
I forgot about that rule for a while because it wasn't specified by law.
From the beginning of the Tristan Empire's founding, the Honeywell and Proud families made an unspoken rule not to reconcile through marriage.
If that is the case, Wells would call Elliot back and talk about breaking up the marriage right now.
Contrary to Russell's expectations, however, Wells didn't even race to find Elliot and only hardened his face.
Wells's tightly closed mouth opened belatedly.
“Does Your Majesty know why that unwritten rule was created between Honeywell and Proud?”
“Why can't I know that? It's the first thing the heir to the throne learns about in the history of the empire.
Russell tilted his head and tried to explain what he knew, and only then realized what Wells' stern expression meant.
However, it was difficult to understand easily; Russell was speechless.
Wells stared at his friend and lowered his head.
Our Rose should never become a person of the Proud Family.”
Wells' voice sounded watery.
He whispered with difficulty, almost confessing as he waited for Russell's reply.
[TL/N: He confessed the secret reason to the emperor.]
However, what awaited Wells was a savage hand grabbing him by the throat.
Wells' body, which was being strangled by Russell, was pulled to its feet by the emperor's power.
It was only when Wells met Russell's eyes that he felt a chill run down his spine at the bloody gaze of his master.
It was the first time he'd seen such a gaze coming from his master, the emperor.
“Wells, neither I nor any emperor before me has asked Honeywell and Proud about 'it' because everyone knows you're loyal to us.”
Russell's hand gripped Wells' collar, and strength went into his hand.
“But I have to ask the Duke this one thing.”
Wells shut his eyes tightly.
“Who else knows of the secret rules restricting the union of Honeywell and Proud.”
Russell looked down at Wells' face, who had his eyes tightly shut.
The Honeywell siblings resemble each other despite their large age difference.
The siblings could be confused as a pair of twins.
Had it not been for Wells' facial lines and bones being thicker and more defined, it would have been difficult to tell the two apart just by their faces.
As Wells remained closed eyed, Rose's face came to mind more clearly.
The emperor's expression contorted; he let go of Wells' collar as if he were throwing him away.
Staggering, Wells collapses onto the sofa.
The emperor, too, collapsed into the seat, wiping his face with the palm of his hand.
He spoke in a muffled voice.
“I'm sorry, Wells, I was upset and embarrassed that I did not know those reasons and ended up disrespecting the duke.”
I understand why you did what you did.”
“Does anyone else know of the vessel?”
“There is no one.
It was just my father, my mother, and me who were aware.
After the two of them passed away, only I knew, and from now on, it's just the two of us, Your Majesty.”
A new and different silence settled over them as Russell struggled to make up his mind.
It's not that I'm upset about these new secrets in the Proud and Honeywell families.
I'm furious about what will happen to Rose…
Russell swallowed the words that bubbled up.
Take a moment to catch your breath, then try again, Russell.
“Let's go see this secret.”
Wells said nothing.
Rather, the Duke of Honeywell bowed properly and quietly left the drawing room.
Left alone, Russell tiredly buried his face in his palms.
Sitting in that position, he refused to move until the sunset light bathed the room.
Standing up, he staggered unsteadily before forcing his body to regain its strength and walking out.
Waiting for their emperor, the knights set to guard the door to their master's parlor fell in line and escorted the emperor to the advisory gate.
The grand Imperial Palace, with all its splendor, was designed with long corridors and numerous, large, and extravagant windows, all of which fully maximized the natural beauty of the sun's light and the night's moonlight.
Alas, sunset brought about a beauty all of its own, as the corridors of the Imperial Palace had been dyed a fiery red.
Walking down the hallways brought about the illusion of stepping through flames.
Unaware of his surroundings, Russell headed straight to his bedroom.
“I'll be retiring for the night.”
After commanding the knights and sending them on their way, he shut the door.
The bedroom was as large as the knights' training ground, but Russell ignored it and instead chose to go to the built-in bookshelf, unhesitantly removing a plain book depicting the history of the empire.
To his surprise, the moment the book left its shelf, the large bookshelf mounted on the wall effortlessly began to move.
Beyond the shelf, there was a narrow entrance that could only fit one person.
Entering the hidden staircase, what lay ahead was left to his imagination, as the path was accompanied by endless darkness.
The darkness gave way to the illusion of a never-ending staircase and an ominous, cold breeze.
Closing his eyes, he trusted his senses and stepped into the darkness.
With only the sound of his footsteps in the darkness, the bookshelf soundlessly slid back into place.
Startled by the movement, Russell subconsciously opened his eyes.
Although it was hazy, he could make out the shape of the stairs as they descended.
Walking forward, he used the tips of his fingers as a guide against the wall as he began his journey.
He wondered to himself as he reached the bottom of the stairs: if it was a secret passage, where did the breeze come from? A secret passage couldn't have windows.
Stretching out his hand, he felt the direction of the wind.
It picked up, blowing his silver hair and his clothes away.
When there was a pause in the breeze, Russell moved on.
It was to climb upwards.
As he rose to the top of the next set of stairs, he guessed he had climbed the exact distance he had descended.
Pushing against the wall in his way, a click sounded as the wall slid open.
He'd arrived at a wide cave.
Inspecting his surroundings, he found himself in a wide cave where even the smallest of movements would cause an echo.
“I haven't been here since my father brought me here when I was a child.”
His eyebrows furrowed.
There was a heavy pressure from that place.
It was crushing and all-consuming.
Just standing, a person would have to constantly fight against the urge to get out as soon as possible; feeling ill was only the start of their troubles.
Russell continued forward, going deeper and deeper into the cave.
At the end, there it lay.
A single sword.
Stuck in place.
It had endured for a long time, but rust had slowly consumed its edges, removing its once sharp blade.
The emperor drew closer to the rusted weapon.
Before his feet, an engraving on the ground caught his eye.
“Spear the heart of the evil being with this holy sword.
Imprison its body in a mirror, bleeding and suffering, neither red nor blue.
Put the soul, the source of destruction, locked in the vessel.
So long as this holy sword does not pierce the vessel, the evil being, the destroyer, shall no longer destroy.”
Looking at the crudely engraved phrase, Russell rubbed his eyes in frustration.
“I have this vague idea that the Honeywells are in possession of the vessel…
But who is the vessel? That too—“
He abruptly ended his sentence.
In his mind, a complicated thread began to untangle itself.
“Did the former Duke of Honeywell place the beast into Rose's body?!”
He thought of Rose, the shy girl who avoided celebrations, and he realized that he'd rarely ever gotten to see her.
At the least, he'd seen her at the banquet at the Imperial Palace, but her expression was always grave.
To put it bluntly, she was always tense.
Whenever she was in the presence of Elliot Proud, that tension would ease, but Russell had never seen Rose Honeywell smile brightly.
So what if she is a member of the Honeywell family?
He knew that had she not been a part of a ducal family or if he'd not been friends with Wells, their paths would never have been fated to cross.
But their paths have already long since crossed.
The emperor would do anything, even using the emperor's authority, if it meant Rose smiling brightly.
And he'd done so in the past.
For Rose Howeywell to smile again, he'd approved the engagement and marriage between her and Elliot Proud.
The engagement of two families, just to make her smile, would have become the starting point that would drive Rose to hell.
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