“Where did you go this time?”
“I went to the southern region!”
“Southern region? If you were there, you should have come to find me!”
“This trip was too long, don’t you think? I was worried that something might have happened.”
“Yes, even the First Prince was looking for you.”
“Tell me everything that happened in the southern region!”
Meanwhile, Charlotte was casually conversing with her friends, unable to regain her senses.
The social circle was scary, and they carefully held onto Johan, who was trying to run away, but he suddenly disappeared without a trace. She was worried that he might have died under someone’s heel.
“Charlotte La Bravant.”
At that moment, a quiet but firm voice cut through the joyful screams. The young ladies who had turned around without thinking were taken aback.
“Please give my regards to Lady Bravant.”
The crowd that had gathered split in two, and Grace, as always, walked gracefully in front of her younger sister. As soon as she met Charlotte’s shining eyes, Grace’s stern expression softened, as if there was no other choice.
“Welcome back, Charlotte.”
Charlotte smiled lovingly at her sister. But she didn’t say anything else. Her friends weren’t the only ones around her now. Most importantly, Grace was proudly making a name for herself as the head of the Bravant family.
‘Even if I don’t know the impact, I have to protect my sister’s honor.’
Charlotte gave a slight bow to her sister and master behind her. If her nanny saw her, she would be moved to tears and wail for three days and nights. She was truly a flawless lady.
“Excuse me for a moment.”
Charlotte, who had smiled beautifully, grabbed Grace’s hand. She could hear the sound of a noble’s son being gently awakened in the distance, but she decided not to pay attention. When they arrived at the deserted walking path, Charlotte turned her body quickly.
“Why did you get so thin? Half of your face is gone!”
“It’s nothing. I just got a little tan in the summer.”
“Ugh, liar! I told nanny to scold you! You’re the only family I have left, and if you keep doing this, I’ll be so sad that I’ll just, sob… be sad!”
It had only been a few months since she left the mansion, but why did she look like this?
She wondered how much Grace had been suffering all this time.
“If you keep doing this, I’ll never get married and live with you forever.”
“Instead of being like that, you should have secretly eaten skewers and potato fries like I did when you’re gone. What’s the point of starving!”
“Wait a minute.”
Grace, who had been watching her only younger sister’s tantrum with loving eyes, suddenly stopped.
“What did you eat when I wasn’t here?”
“I told you not to eat it because it’s not good for you health, but did you really eat that street food when I wasn’t here? Not once, but every time I wasn’t here?”
“No, it’s not like that. What I meant was….”
Grace looked at Charlotte with disbelief. Ah, sinners are wordless. Charlotte, who closed her mouth, turned her gaze away, and Grace, who had softened her expression, took a step closer.
“My sister, come here. Let’s hug.”
“Go away… I hate you.”
“Don’t say that, come on?”
As Grace subtly pulled her hand, Charlotte pretended to resist but allowed herself to be gently pulled into Grace’s embrace. It was the long-awaited scent of her older sister—a comforting blend of the old book smell from the study and the calm, feminine musk that was uniquely her own.
“Oh, sister,” Charlotte murmured.
“My Charlotte, did you fare well in the South?”
“Can’t you tell by looking at my face?”
“Yeah, it seems like you had a good time.”
Charlotte nestled into her sister’s embrace, smiling softly. Despite the pile of tasks awaiting her, she just wanted to rest like this for now.
* * *
Late at night, when stars twinkled above, Grace suggested they sleep together for once, but Charlotte quickly escaped the reception hall, claiming that her friends were having a bonfire and wanted to stay up all night. Of course, it was an excuse, but she wasn’t worried about being found out. After all, Charlotte was the type to make friends effortlessly, and Grace knew that all too well.
‘In other words, even if she’s my sister, she won’t suspect me!’
Though Grace often found herself confused about how many friends she actually had, she shrugged it off for now. Charlotte made a stop at Johan’s bedroom to remove her makeup, take off her accessories, and change her clothes before swiftly making her way to the Grand Duke’s bedroom.
As she slid onto the narrow bed, the door creaked open eerily.
“Hmm,” the Grand Duke muttered, surveying the spacious bedroom before nodding at the small mound on the bed. Charlotte pretended to be peacefully sleeping as the approaching footsteps drew nearer. A long shadow loomed over her head.
“…Are you pretending to sleep?” the Grand Duke asked.
“Oh, you are sleeping.”
With a swift movement, he extended his arm, touched her nose, and finally, the shadow hovering above her head disappeared.
‘Ugh, what a wretched person,’ Charlotte lamented silently.
Quietly, the Grand Duke, now undressed, entered the bathroom. After the door closed and the sound of running water could be heard, Charlotte subtly raised her head.
‘Wow, he’s surprisingly sharp.’
How could he have known that she was pretending to sleep?
In any case, she survived. Charlotte rolled over to the other side, lying face down, and recalled the information she had gathered earlier that day.
‘Why doesn’t the Grand Duke separate himself from the Emperor?’
It had always puzzled her. The Grand Duke was not only the Empire’s strongest knight but also a celebrated war hero. Yet, politically, he held a relatively weak position. He possessed formidable military power, worthy of being counted among the Empire’s noble bloodlines, but he couldn’t establish a significant faction in politics.
“Ethan, is there anyone as loyal to the Emperor as you are?”
“It wouldn’t be difficult to find someone who is as dedicated to His Majesty as I am.”
After remembering that, she understood. Politically, the Grand Duke and the Emperor were inseparable. Therefore, factions loyal to the Grand Duke naturally merged under the Emperor’s umbrella.
‘But the Emperor, in practice, is putting a check on the Grand Duke, and the Grand Duke doesn’t seem particularly loyal to the Emperor either.’
Then why did the Grand Duke allow his faction to be absorbed under the Emperor’s?
‘I don’t understand…’
Charlotte turned back to the other side.
“To refuse such a clear decree, the Grand Duke must offer something in return.”
“The Emperor holds what the Grand Duke desires most in his grasp. It must be regained by any means necessary.”
Just as she was about to ask Ethan for more information, the Grand Duke appeared, interrupting their conversation. But the gist of it was clear.
‘Does it mean the Emperor has caught the Grand Duke’s weakness?’
Knowing what a complete lunatic he was, it wouldn’t be strange for him to have hundreds of weaknesses.
‘I’m curious. What on earth did he do to be completely incapacitated?’
Just as Charlotte finished thinking, she suddenly turned her body around.
“Hey, didn’t you sleep?”
She had no idea when he came in, but the Grand Duke, with only a towel wrapped around his lower body, stood in front of the bed.
“I’ve come after my exhausting schedule, and yet you’re rolling around without even showing me your face. I guess I made you too comfortable, didn’t I?”
“Oh, come on. How could that be? My heart is always directed towards you, Your Excellency.”
“How is your heart directed? Tell me in detail.”
Cold sweat trickled down Charlotte’s back as she received his scrutinizing gaze. Stumbling to her feet, Charlotte pulled the Grand Duke’s hand and sat him down on the edge of the mattress, discreetly taking the towel he was holding.
“How can I alleviate Your Excellency’s concerns? How can I make you even a little more comfortable…?”
As she combed his wet black hair with her fingers, the Grand Duke’s shoulders twitched.
“What are you doing?”
“You should dry your hair. If you sleep with it wet, you’ll get bald. If you want to enjoy your thick hair for a long time, it’s best to listen to me.”
The Grand Duke looked at Charlotte with eyes that seemed to say, ‘What nonsense are you saying?’
Feeling burdened by his gaze, Charlotte subtly turned the Grand Duke’s neck to face forward.
“Ah, please don’t look at me like that…”
“I just… Your Excellency didn’t seem to be in a good mood, so I was worried. When someone touches your head at times like this, your heart feels more at ease, you know?”
Although she didn’t say it out loud, the Grand Duke’s expression clearly conveyed his thoughts that this was all nonsense. But Charlotte pretended not to notice and began drying his hair.
Read ahead here.