Royalty coming to visit the house of a Duke was not a common thing.
It was true for most things, the person who would invite guests was usually higher in importance. You called for people that you had business with. People who could do this did not move around lightly on their own.
And while Charles was still young, he was royalty. His station did not allow him to move freely and without thought, there were too many restrictions and traditions keeping him in place. Just as authority must not be wielded light-heartedly, one must now allow themselves to appear overly familiar.
So why then, had it been decided that Charles would pay us a visit?
The answer was simple.
This promise of marriage between me and Charles was not because I would be marrying into his family, but was because he would be marrying into mine.
In this country, it was quite common for royalty who were not heirs to become subjects of the state. This marriage that was made without I or Charles’ will had the intention of one day making Charles into the next Duke Noir. I could sense this intent through the political considerations that showed from every corner. Even in ‘Labyrinth Destiny,’ there was a route for Charles that ended with him becoming Duke Noir. Well, in that scenario he would marry Mishuli and the girl who looked like me and was called Christina, would drink poison and die.
With all of that considered, it was unlikely that my guess was wrong. After all, many people viewed Dukedom to be a sort of receptacle for royalty rejects. That was the reason for this marriage.
I was thinking about all this as I waited for Charles’ arrival. Then, a question suddenly hit me.
“What is it, Christina?”
I say to father, who was waiting beside me. We were currently waiting for the messenger to announce their approach, and because it was just the two of us here, there was no need to be polite.
“Charles’ marriage to me must signal his omission from the race to the throne. But he is only five. Do you not think it is too early for that?”
“…Christina. I hope that you understand that you must never say such things in front of His Royal Highness?”
What did he take me for? I curled my lip at father’s most insensitive words.
It was only because I knew that it would be incredibly disrespectful that I was asking no one else but him.
“Well, is that not the case?”
The first prince was eight years old. The second was six. I especially remembered the first prince from ‘Labyrinth Destiny’ as he was one of three people who had the possibility of marrying Mishuli. The end route for the first prince was especially bright and wonderful as it meant that Mishuli would become queen of the entire kingdom… But, to be honest, I was not fond of the first prince in that story, and I did not want Mishuli to get involved with him in this one either.
But the thing was, there was an unusual lack of an age gap between these princes. And so I thought it was quite strange for Charles to be cast out so soon.
To my question, father struggled, but managed to explain:
“His Majesty, Charles… How can I put this, he is seen as having a special sensibility you might say. It was determined very early that he would not be fit to rule.”
I nod at this.
Well, he was the type who would run out at night with a book, crawl under bushes only to realize that ‘it is too dark to read’ and be sad about it. He was strange without a doubt.
Thinking back, he was always depicted as being a rather laid back character in Labyrinth Destiny.
“I see, so that is the reason.”
“But, Christina. Don’t worry about it!”
Perhaps father had misinterpreted my curt nod of satisfaction, because he quickly began to make an addition to his explanation of the situation.
“From what I have heard from His Majesty and his caretakers, Prince Charles is not a bad person. They say that he is full of curiosity, and well, two people with strange sensibilities might… Oh, never mind. In any case, I do not doubt that the two of you will get along!”
It was true that after having actually met Charles, I found him to be interesting and good, but that slight slip of the tongue from father was very unpleasant to hear.
I slowly brought my hand to my heart and lowered my eyes, making a show of my weakness.
“Oh, father. I am ever so worried now that I have heard of His Highness’ disposition. My heart is in pain from just thinking about what I should say when I meet him… Why, I think there may be nothing for me to do but go and embrace the archangel Mishuli, and replenish her healing essence…”
“Stop lying, Christina.”
“How did you know?”
Father said gently, and I could only pout in return. As a reward for seeing through me, I will pretend like his previous rude words had not been spoken.
“But I do want to replenish on Mishuli’s essence. You know, Mishuli was so sad that she tried to stop me from coming down here.”
“Is that so? That seems rather unusual for her to do… Well, she had always taken such a strong liking to you.”
“Fufun. Of course, she does. I am her older sister.”
Our warm conversation continued until we heard the sound of knocking on the door.
“Forgive me, my lady Christina. His Highness Prince Charles has arrived at the front gate.”
It was time. So came the end of our family talk.
“I understand, I will go out now. …Christina. I will bring His Highness to this room. You must receive him here and greet him.”
“I understand. Leave it to me, father.”
My first meeting with the third prince. It was actually to be my second, but I was prepared to make this fact hidden to all who observed us. I was equipped with the most perfect of manners, and I had a genius plan to surprise Charles as well.
I was brimming with confidence now, yet for some reason, I could see a hint of worry in father’s expression.
“Christina… This time, please don’t do anything senseless like you usually do. Understand?”
His words could not be missed this time, but I accepted them with a smile.
And after that smile, I immediately erased all expression from my face.
“Enough about that, hurry up and go.”
“…Uh. of course.”
I showed my wrath through my lack of expression and sent him away as if with a kick. Father looked a little hurt by my quick little lashing, but he quickly exited the room.
I snorted as I saw him leave.
Really, what did father think of me? I was physically beautiful, I had a brilliant mind and cared for my family, I loved my sister unconditionally. I had it all. No one could have asked for a more perfect daughter, but this is the treatment I get. He has already decided that I am going to act out of turn. It was most annoying.
“…Very well then. I will do the most perfect greeting he has ever seen.”
I am a genius. If I succeed in this greeting without a single flaw, my father will have no choice but to raise his unjust estimation of me. My resolve to do what I had already intended only intensified as I waited for father to bring Charles to me.
Though, I would not be waiting for long. The entrance to this mansion was not far from this room.
After a brief moment, a knock echoed from the door.
“Christina. His Highness, Prince Charles is here. …May we enter?”
They were here!
My heart started to beat faster at this long-awaited visit from a friend, but I did not show it.
After all, I must be a lady from here on out. A lady must swallow any emotions and act with grace. I must not allow myself to show strong happiness through my face.
“…Yes. Please come in.”
I flicked the switch and put on my ladies disguise. My graceful voice gave them permission to enter.
“Very good. …your Highness, please come in.”
“Yes, thank you, Lord Noir.”
Led by father, the silent Charles and one other figure entered the room. The other man who came in after Charles appeared to be in his early twenties. His large, muscular frame and his stiff reply to father gave him an air of the military. He must be a knight or something similar. Likely, he was Charles’ caretaker or guard or chaperone. Maybe he was all of those.
Well, he was not important to me. I felt that it was safe to disregard his existence here. I decided to leave any speculation on this person I saw for the first time and move my gaze to the real subject at hand.
A five-year-old child with golden hair and blue eyes like Mishuli. While you could tell he was a boy, his face would have still been most aptly described as cute and soft.
It was likely that he had been told to stay quiet. The road to here must have been tremendously boring, for Charles’ eyes looked clouded and he seemed disinterested. However, his expression immediately lit up with joy when he saw that I was there.
Fufu, he was an honest one.
But his face immediately switched to one of surprise.
I felt a strong sense of pleasure imaging how the rest of this scene would play out, but I do not show any of it. Finally, father entered the room and closed the door. Here, I pulled one leg backward at a slanted angle and lightly bend the other knee. My hands gripped the hem of my skirt and I lifted it at the appropriate height.
And like that, I bend forward and lower my head towards Charles.
“I am honored to make your acquaintance, Prince Charles. I am Christina Noir, daughter of Duke Noir, His Majesty’s humble servant.”
I greet him with a courtesy and the highest possible respect I could contain in my introduction.
“I am honored that you His Royal Highness has come to see me, though I am most unworthy.”
I say these words and raise my head in order to give a smile that would enrapture all.
Fufu, I was perfect. As evidence of the extent of my perfection and grace, the man who stood behind Charles had let out a sigh of admiration.
And just as I had intended, Charles too wore an expression of surprise. He was surely shocked at the discrepancy with the girl he had met in the gardens. My little joke had gone well.
I chuckled inwardly at his face.
Well, now. Now we are even with ‘first encounters.’ I was proud of my win as I looked on at him.
Usually, this would be the moment for Charles to greet me back. I was waiting for him to do so, but perhaps it was because he was young. Charles was in so much shock that he could not reply, he ignored all notions of good-manners and raised his arm.
What was this boy doing?
Such doubts entered into my head, but his bizarre behavior did not stop there. While all three of us watched, Charles most rudely threw up his finger and pointed directly at me.
“This is a fake Christina!”
He had pointed at me with such force that it was almost audible, and then he made the loud accusation.
This unexpected reply from Charles caused my smiling face to freeze.
What did he just say?
“Prince Ch-, Charles!? What are you talking about! You are being most insulting towards the lady Christina…!”
“But she’s acting strange! She is clearly not Christina!”
The guard or the caretaker did his best to persuade him, but Charles’ tantrum would not stop.
“Her way of talking is too gross for her to be Chris. She is definitely an imposter! Right? Fake Chris over there! What did you do to the real Chris!”
I see. My being a lady is apparently strange. Not only that, but from Charles’ point of view, it was completely gross.
Hmmm, mmmm, I seeeeeee.
As I was apparently a fake Christina, I decided to move closer to Charles. I smiled silently as my shoes loudly sounded on the floor.
“Prince Charles, were you not listening when I told you so many times to stay quiet… Ah, lady Christina. I understand that you must be very upset, please forgive him…! I will be sure to scold him about this later on…”
The man was letting out pained sounds as I approached, but I ignored him. I began to address Charles through my stiff smile.
“Prince Charles, may I?”
“What is it? Fake Chris.”
He returned sharply to me, a lady. He was surprisingly feisty. What was I going to do with him?
This whole time father was looking at me with suspicious eyes that seemed to ask, ‘what did you do?’ But he was also giving the guard or caretaker a sympathetic look that said, ‘you must struggle a lot.’ What was that? It annoyed me.
No matter how you sliced it, I was clearly not in the wrong on this occasion.
“Now that you’ve been exposed as a fake, do you feel like bringing out the real Chris?”
“Why no. That is not the case at all. The thing is…”
Charles was glaring at me with the same blue eyes that Mishuli had, I kept my graceful, lady-like smile and stretched both of my arms out.
And like that, I grabbed both of his cheeks and pulled as hard as I could.
“…Now, Charles. Is this the mouth that calls me a fake Christina Noir? Is this the soft and stretching mouth that is calling my proud self a fake? Hmm? Really, Charles. If you insist that I, who is in front of you is a fake, then why don’t you go and run around the mansion and find the real Christina? I will give you permission to search the attic and the basement, even the pantry. So go and find the real me. What do you think, Charles? I may be able to agree with your notion if you can bring the real Christina before me now. Of course, you won’t find her any time soon, so I will have to be pulling these soft cheeks for quite some time!”
“Ouff, ouchff! Stofff…! You areff the ffeal Chriff fnow!”
“Hahaha, I do not understand a word you are saying, Charles. As a punishment, you are sentenced to additional stretching…”
“L-, lady Christina…?”
“…Oh, it was just a most well-intentioned jest, I do not wish to extend the sentence at all.”
Hearing the voice from the side, I immediately returned to my lady mode.
My hands promptly released Charles’ cheeks and I laughed in a ladylike gesture towards the man who had called me through a quivering voice. But I was not too confident, having to create a smile at such short notice could be difficult.
“That…really hurt. But, you really are the real Chris then.”
I should not have let him go free. Charles’ unconscious and giddy attack as I had only begun to retreat was enough to make the smile I was wearing twitch visibly.
A witness to the destruction of my fraudulence, Charles’ guard or caretaker quietly looked away as if to say, ‘I didn’t see anything.’
…How did this happen?
I was facing a reality where my ideal had crumbled into dust. I could not help but ask myself, even as my smile continued to twitch. This was supposed to have ended in my complete victory as Charles was awestruck by my ability to be a lady. Why was this happening…!
Father had seen the whole of this troublesome exchange between us, but for some odd reason, he let out a deep sigh after saying my name.