Updated: Dec 26, 2022
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Kyle presents Tara with a challenge as the travelling party arrives in the Central Provinces
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Episode 187. About 10 months (64)
I rearranged the loose reins in my hands and held them firmly.
With his usual expressionless face, he added.
"Or maybe I betrayed my country in my previous life."
“Is that possible? Since you met me, Your Highness must have been very virtuous in your past life."
Unwilling to lose, Kyle raised his eyebrows arrogantly as he answered back.
"Really? I suppose we'll see. Depending on what our relationship is like in the future, we'll know whether you betrayed your country or saved it."
"No way! You are so stubborn…!"
"Keep up. We are going to be riding just as quickly as before," Kyle ordered briskly. He shifted back into work mode in an instant.
Having become accustomed to his sudden changes of subject, I answered immediately while bracing myself for the run.
"Yes, Your Highness!"
He spurred his horse into a swift canter.
I stared at his back; I couldn't deny the man was a good kisser… My horse spun in place beneath me, I grasped the reins more firmly and spurred him forward, unwilling to fall behind.
Oceria, the Capital.
Every prestigious family in Oceria was invited to attend the birthday party held in honour of House Elias's fifth child.
[I am sending this invitation hoping that the honourable noble families of the Capital will join us in celebrating my lovely daughter's 19th birthday.
Please make the occasion brighter by attending Tara's birthday banquet.
Birthday Banquet Venue: Elias Mansion in the Capital - Grand Banquet Hall.
Banquet Dates: 1 night and 2 days - starting Sunday, January 29th.
Main Schedule: Cake cutting ceremony and dinner, birthday ball and fireworks. A birthday celebration picnic will be held the next morning.]
[Sincerely, Countess Victoria Elias]
For the noblewomen gathered inside a famous bustling dress shop in the downtown shopping district of the Capital, the news of House Elias inviting all of the most prestigious noble families to the birthday banquet swiftly became a hot topic of conversation.
“Even though I don’t have a daughter close in age, I also received an invitation. Why is that?”
"Oh, me, too, Countess. The eldest daughter's birthday party was also grand, but the guest families all had children of the same age…"
"It's strange. I heard that one of Empress Vivian's ladies-in-waiting, was also invited."
“Isn’t it a bit ostentatious for a young lady who hasn’t even made her social debut? I also can't believe it includes one night and two whole days.”
“This used to be popular for birthday banquets in the past. It's trendier these days to keep things simple. I'm curious, so I'm going to accept the invitation. There were rumours of a feud in the family, so I was a little puzzled that the Countess is hosting it herself."
"That's true. I suppose this way you will get to see why you have been invited."
A few streets back from the downtown area, House Elias was also a hot topic at the card clubs patronized by the Capital's noblemen.
"I'm troubled by the fact that House Elias has allied itself to the Second Prince."
"Well. Isn't the Elias family hot these days? There's nothing to lose by developing a closer relationship with them."
“Hmm, but if the Second Prince is knocked out in the Crown Prince Competition, wouldn’t Elias be in trouble as well?”
“Certainly. However, according to rumour, the leaders of House Elias are making a large profit these days, and their client base has increased significantly. Though even with that amount of assets at stake, it's not very risky. What if they manage to acquire enough wealth to rival even House Toulouse?"
"Could that happen?"
"Hmmm. As soon as their wealth is on the same level as House Toulouse, they will quickly become even more difficult to destroy. I'm sure the 2nd Prince will lend them some of his strength to achieve this. Even if the Prince is inflexible, you can't deny he is capable. And if he manages to secure economic power in addition to his national defence and security forces…?”
"Whoa… I told my wife to turn it down, but perhaps I should attend this birthday party after all. Hahaha."
Behind the nobles who were chatting about the Elias family at a card table, a man perched at a poker table nearby, playing as he listened in on their conversation.
“What would you like to do? Sir."
Hans Button answered the dealer's question with a smirk.
"… Should I not kill them?"
"Ah… I made a slip of the tongue. I'll bet half. Half. Hahaha."
He laughed amiably, but his smile didn't reach the corners of his eyes.
'Why is he keeping that fat woman so close? Because of her strange hair? Because she's an Elias? No… That's not it…'
Hans shook his head slightly.
‘Until now, he's never taken in such close a Palace administrator, so why her…’
"… Excuse me, sir?"
When Hans failed to check his cards even after receiving his new hand, the dealer had decided to prompt him. Without touching his cards, Hans smiled and said, "Dead hand."*
The dealer paused for a moment and took a half step back. He avoided Hans's eyes before reaching out and retrieving the cards.
Most of the families who were invited agreed to attend the banquet.
As a result, the birthday party of House Elias's fifth child, being held this Sunday, was going to be attended by a large group of prestigious nobles from the Capital. Every young woman in the Capital discussed the upcoming event with envy.
The Second Prince and I arrived at [Du Roi, Central Province’s favourite luxury inn] that evening, and the rest of the party joined us there late the same night.
“From here on out, I will be hiding my identity. I will be impersonating a member of an inspection team under the Ministry of Finance.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
In situations like the Sorbonne Wine Incident, where he had disguised himself as a cargo ship worker, I knew he employed various methods to hide his true identity.
Certainly, him presenting himself openly as a Prince would attract a lot of attention, and we might end up wasting time dealing with unnecessary formalities. In addition, the assassination risk was high, and would be excessively distracting and burdensome for anyone trying to work with him.
Being a Prince was rather complicated. Therefore, on small business trips like this one, the 2nd Prince often chose to hide his identity.
In keeping with the Prince's disguise, I also became a member of the inspection team. My false identity's administrative ranking was the same as in my role as the Second Aide, so it wouldn't require much adjustment.
My assigned room was small and shabby, despite the Inn's name promising 'luxury' accommodations.
However, there was a wooden tub for washing in each room, so I counted myself fortunate.
"There's no hotel better than this in the Central Province."
Conversation floated towards me from the hallway.
"I wonder what it's like next to us. What's the name of this hotel again? It's pretty rustic, isn't it?”
I wanted to say, 'It's pretty much the same here', but I held it in.
I decided to take advantage of the wooden tub. The hotel manager had given me two extra towels as part of the hotel service.
While I was looking around my room, there were people passing by the rooms in the hallway
Standing there, one of them exclaimed in admiration.
“Oh wow, Paul. Isn't this the best local hotel you've ever been to?"
"I know. It's amazing there is a hotel in a place like this!"
“I thought we would spend this business trip in the barracks, but His Highness is extraordinarily considerate.”
Their conversation helped me look on the bright side, and I immediately decided to agree with them.
My accommodation was on the second floor, right next to the Second Prince's quarters.
I had been stressed all day long and should have been tired after everything that had happened. But surprisingly, I was not tired at all, perhaps because of the Aurore the Second Prince had given to me.
"Well, I didn't really save my country in my previous life. Judging by the fact I ended up here, it might be more accurate to say that I must have destroyed a few countries in my past lives… Ha…”
When I turned off the light in preparation to go to sleep, I heard a knock just as I was about to lay down in bed.
"… Who is it?"
"Are you sleeping?"
It was the Second Prince, Kyle.
No! Why was he here at this hour? After I kissed him earlier today…!
I frowned and opened the door a crack so I could peer through.
"I was just lying down to sleep, Your Highness. What do you need…?”
That was what I said, but my gaze was clearly asking, 'Can I not leave work alone for a while? Even though we are on a business trip?'
He leaned against the door frame with his arms crossed, and the scent of his freshly showered body drifted through to me.
Damn, he smelled good.
“Are you going to sleep now?”
I raised an eyebrow
"Your Highness, don't tell me you're thinking about what happened in the cave… I mean, what we did…!”
But I was immediately cut-off when he slid a wrapped stack of documents through the crack in the door.
“Why? Does that kiss keep running through your head?”
The back of my neck was hot for a moment, but it was fortunate that the room was dark enough to hide most of it.
"Whoa, uh, what kind of… Not at all. I've already forgotten everything about it!"
I knew that my immediate denial was basically an affirmation, but I was so embarrassed that I responded too strongly without even thinking about it.
"That's it? I'll have to try harder next time.”
This guy! What a nonsensical thing to say. He really was trying hard to convince me to kiss him again!
"Huh. Really. What do you mean, 'next time'? By the way, what is this?"
I hurriedly changed the subject. And the Second Prince mercifully complied with the change of topic.
"If you're on a business trip, you have to work. Moreover, I want to see how much my Second Aide's skills have improved since the Sorbonne Wine Incident."
At the mention of the Sorbonne Wine Incident, I widened my eyes and smiled obnoxiously at him as if on the verge of laughter. His own smile vanished.
I dropped it. And the Second Prince also decided to let the topic of that incident slide.
I stared at the Prince's face.
"Is this a test?"
“It’s not a test since you're already one of my people. I just want to see to what extent you can show off your skills. Besides, I thought I would give you a chance to raise your promotion score.”
Yes! Promotion points! Just what I needed the most right now. I needed to get promoted so I could read those top-secret documents that only First Aides could access!
It felt like the blood rushing through my veins had suddenly accelerated.
I wanted to solve it. I wondered what was in that stack of documents!
“What must I do?”
“Look at them and identify what’s strange about them. If you find something unusual, try to infer my intentions, which you failed to do correctly during the Sorbonne Wine Incident."
"What do you mean?"
“My true intentions behind coming to the Central Province.”
What? Was he saying that the Central Axis inspection was just a front to hide his primary goal?
For a moment, my heart was racing so hard that I needed to press my palm against my chest.
"When's the deadline?"
Naturally, my voice trembled slightly.
"Two days. You just have to report your findings by the morning you are scheduled to return to the Capital. If you want to look around Central Town or the Castle, go with Paul."
“What if I can’t figure it out?”
"Of course, you will miss out on a high promotion score. But there will be no demerits. Instead…"
“You will be disappointed.”
"No. I will teach you.”
I was genuinely surprised. I pulled the documents halfway to me, then raised my head towards him.
I sometimes thought his expressions were indecipherable, but they weren't. One of his eyebrows was slightly raised. Which meant he found the current topic intriguing.
He had so many different expressions… Eh? Was he expressing himself differently than before?
I always used to think the Second Prince looked expressionless or cynical. However, at some point, I had started to notice the slight changes in his facial expressions.
Wait. Did he just say he would teach me?
"Your Highness, what do you mean 'teach me'?"
"How to think and infer details comprehensively from a single occurrence. How to prepare for the future and reduce mistakes, etcetera. By that I mean, I'll teach you how to do these things with me."
“What’s with that frown?”
* This is what a "Dead Hand" refers to - https://www.poker-king.com/dictionary/dead-hand/. Hans' poker section of this chapter had a lot of subtext and it was tough find an interpretation that worked. It does not work perfectly in context but I wanted to keep the unsettling death connotations. Coincidentally there is also a poker rule called “Dead Button”… Make of that what you will.