Chapter 9. Jealousy(1)
He wore a complete set of knightly armor. His cloak dangled casually over one shoulder, and his uniform was tightly fastened up to his neck.
Caelius gazed at his reflection in the mirror, his face devoid of expression. The contrast between his appearance in the mirror and the portrait was so significant that it was unsettling.
-“Dad…… I love you.”
-“Is Lily special to you, Dad?”
Stupid girl. What’s special to me is the throne. That’s all that matters.
Caelius laughed coldly. Behind him, Goshen approached.
“Your Majesty, the carriage is ready.”
It was the day of the palace’s annual spring equestrian competition.
He knew it was a pointless event, but he had to participate if only to introduce Aria to the social circles he’d only just begun to show his face to.
When he was finally ready, he walked out of the room with a stiff, angular gait.
His cloak swung from his shoulders as he took each step, and it was as red as the road he had traveled.
As he turned into the entrance foyer, Aria, dressed in her riding clothes, stood shakily, her eyes widening like a startled rabbit at the sound of Caelius’s footsteps.
She grinned and ran straight to him, and he thought it was just a little bit cute. Just a little.
She wasn’t one of those heavily perfumed, blatantly flesh-to-flesh women.
Her tied-up hair bobbed like a horse’s tail, and he imagined it would be quite amazing if he could drive his c*ck into her tiny mouth and down her throat.
‘Perhaps next time she’ll s*ck my c*ck….’
Caelius’ gaze shifted to Aria, his face oddly embarrassed. Aria could only grin, ignorant of the gory facts.
Aria hummed to herself and tapped her foot as they climbed into the carriage, but she didn’t forget to speak to Caelius now and again.
Maybe it was the few times we’d crossed paths, but she didn’t seem as uncomfortable with me as she had in the past.
For a while, I’d been avoiding her for no reason, making her frustrated, and now she seemed to be convinced that I wasn’t going to kill her right now.
“I’m surprised you’re having this event, though. It can’t be dangerous, can it?”
“There’s nothing dangerous about it; it’s an imperial event, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
Caelius looked at her suddenly skinny arms. He realized that if she fell, she might break every bone in her body.
“I’d better be careful, just in case. It would be a shame if I fell and hurt myself badly.”
Caelius had naturally assumed that he would be the one to ride with Aria at today’s ceremony; he didn’t know any other lords her age except him, and there was no reason for her to be on a horse with a bunch of old nobles. But his hopes were dashed for a moment.
“It is an honor to meet you again, Princess Wittelsbach.”
Until Leon Berja, Marquis of Berja, approached, smiling softly, Caelius had assumed he was her partner. No, even after Leon approached, he still believed that Aria would naturally choose him.
“Good morning, I am Leon Berja, eldest son of the Marquis de Berja, if you remember.”
The moment she stepped out of the carriage, Leon appeared as if he had been waiting for her. Aria smiled at him, feeling a bit out of place in her comfortable pants and heeless shoes.
“As I recall, you’re Aria von Wittelsbach.”
Whereas at the last banquet, she’d grabbed Caelius’s arm for support like a frightened deer, she now felt a sense of legitimate nobility.
It was weird, but she didn’t mind. A few words of greeting, and the conversation would be over.
Caelius stepped away to fetch his horse, and it wasn’t long before he reappeared, leading a well-maintained, shaggy stallion, but the words that came out of Aria’s mouth were like a bolt from the blue.
“Dad, can I ride a horse with Berja Young-sik?”
Caelius’s face, which had been smiling like a good person, instantly stiffened.
What did I just hear? He didn’t understand what he had heard at once. So he persisted.
“What do you mean? You’re supposed to be riding with your dad?”
There was a lot of irritation in his voice. Aria was taken aback by the unexpected response, as she had expected him to dismiss her without a care in the world.
“Oh… but she said she rarely rides with her dad at horse shows…….”
Yes, riding a horse with a father who wasn’t your peer at an equestrian competition was the kind of behavior that only a loner or a member of a Han family who was out of the social spotlight would do.
Caelius’ brow furrowed, unable to find the words to retort. Eventually, Aria pulled away from him, insisting on riding with Leon.
He was left alone with a steed that looked exactly like him. When he least expected it, he shot Leon a deadly glare in the back of the head.
Several women approached and flirted with Caelius as he stood alone, but he didn’t give them a second glance.
An unpleasant feeling coursed through his body.
* * *
Aria’s reason for leaving Caelius and riding with Leon was simple enough.
“I was just curious about the ‘traitor’ Leon Berja, who hadn’t greeted me since last time, and I wanted to find out what he was up to, preferably in advance.”
‘Judging by his reaction, I think he was going to ride with me…….’
‘If I suddenly end up riding with Berja Young-sik, does that mean Dad will have to ride alone? That would be quite embarrassing….…’
Aria glanced in his direction with a nagging sense of worry, but contrary to her fears, he was surrounded by a crowd of women.
“Well, he’s a hit with the girls. I don’t think he’ll ride alone.”
She pouted unnecessarily and scanned the women clinging to him in their scantily clad riding clothes. It was a strangely satisfying feeling. Aria looked at Caelius with a grimace, and Leon chuckled beside her.
“My dear, are you worried about the Archduke?”
“What? Oh, no, not really…….”
“Haha, don’t worry. His Highness is still very popular.”
One of Aria’s eyebrows rose and fell at Leon’s words.
Still popular. Doesn’t that mean he was popular before? Well, he was a crown prince, and he had a handsome face, so I suppose it’s understandable…….
“What’s wrong with a divorced man with a child?”
Aria glanced at him, then looked away, and the pure white horse at Leon’s side whinnied and showed off its mane. It was a far cry from Caelius’s black horse, which exuded an air of menace. Aria eyed the horse curiously. Leon, quick on the uptake, spoke first.
“She’s gentle. Isn’t she pretty?”
“Yes, her coat is very white and pretty.”
Leon smiled pleasantly and took Aria’s hand, bringing it up to the mane.
“You can touch it. She likes it when you touch her mane.”
It was her first time stroking a horse’s mane. Aria’s expression relaxed as she enjoyed the new experience. She seemed more relaxed than her usual tense self.
“Wow, her coat is so soft.”
“Haha, that’s because my family takes special care of them.”
Aria chuckled and stroked the horse’s mane with Leon. They looked quite affectionate together. Slowly, Leon leaned closer to her. Aria didn’t seem to mind, chatting with him and eagerly petting the mane as if it were cute.
I didn’t realize that Caelius was staring at me and Leon like he was going to kill us.
* * *
In the first place, the act of riding horses together was inevitably intimate. When Aria got on the horse, she naturally pressed her body against Leon. She squirmed uncomfortably.
“Are you uncomfortable?”
“Oh, no… just a little awkward.”
She forced a smile, the corners of her mouth tugging upward. It was the first time she’d ever been this close to a man who wasn’t Caelius.
“Maybe I should have just ridden with my dad……. Still, he’s a traitor, so I think I’d better find out what he’s up to every chance I get…….”
Aria made a grunting, wincing sound and leaned forward, her back pressed against Leon’s hard pecs. She glanced back and realized he was closer than she’d thought. Panicked, she turned her head away in a huff.
Why would Leon betray his father?
Ever since he inherited the Marquisate, Leon had sworn allegiance to Caelius. In hindsight, it was unclear why he had sworn allegiance in the first place. What comes must go, and Leon had aided in treason simply because he wanted a higher position.
“I’ll have to keep an eye on him.”
Leon’s hand closed over the one that held the reins. In appearance, they were no different from any other lovers.
Meanwhile, Aria’s decision to ride with Leon had forced Caelius to mount a horse with another woman, even though he hadn’t wanted to. He glared at them in annoyance.
“I’m already in a bad mood, but seeing Aria flirting with a dwarf makes me even more irritated.”
Caelius heard the woman in front of him muttering something in a Moorish accent, but he didn’t bother to respond. It was offensive.
* * *
The act of riding a horse was more strenuous than I had expected. When one thinks of horseback riding, a stroll through the fields may come to mind, but the reality is quite the opposite. The imperial games were held in the mountains behind the palace, which meant riding horses over rough mountain trails.
Aria prayed fervently to her gods.
“It would be quicker to be guillotined, nailed, and thrown off the horse.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and clung to the horse’s mane. Even with Leon’s firm grip around her waist, she was still terrified.
“What a crazy race!”
Having never ridden a horse before, Aria was terrified and just wanted to take in her surroundings and get this race over with. But the mountains behind the palace were vast, which meant the field was large. They had just started, and the finish line was a long way off.
“This is too fast……!”
Her body stiffened. Leon, sensing her panic, slowed his horse and whispered in her ear.
“Princess, are you all right?”
Aria’s eyes fluttered open as they slowed, and she looked back. Leon was looking at her with concern.
“Oh, yeah, yeah…… I’m fine.”
“I apologize. I think I was being inconsiderate of you and sped up too much.”
“No, no, no…….”
Despite her mouth saying no, her hand on the reins was trembling. Leon’s hand around her waist tightened. Their bodies pressed even closer together.
“How do you like this pace?”
“It’s okay, but at this rate, we’re going to come in last…….”
“That’s okay. We can finish last.”
He grinned. His smile was so sweet, it was hard to believe he was a traitor.
“What was the relationship like between Aria and Leon in the original story….…”
Even then, Leon pretended to be friendly with Aria, and in the original, Aria didn’t pay much attention to him. Eventually, he stopped paying attention to her, too, and they would only say hello when they saw each other.”
Their relationship was nothing more than that.
Certainly, it was not a relationship to ride on the back of such a gentle horse.
As she slowed her pace, her surroundings came into focus. Aria took a slow, deep breath to calm her pounding heart.
“But where is my father? Did he pass by first?”
Aria’s head whipped around, searching for Caelius as she relaxed a bit.
The equestrian competition was divided into teams that went fast to win and teams that went slow to spend time with their partners.
Aria and Leon happened to be in the latter group. There was a lot of giggling and merriment around them. One team was blatantly taking a stroll with their horses in the middle.
“At least we won’t be in last place.”
Aria checked her surroundings and smiled awkwardly. Leon returned the smile.
There was an awkward silence, punctuated by the clatter of hooves. Leon could feel the blood rushing to his skin where their bodies were so close together.
“I was hoping to see you again, which is why I’m attending the equestrian competition.”
“I had hoped to have a more extensive conversation with you compared to our previous encounter at the banquet, and I sincerely apologize for not making that happen.”
Unsure of his intentions, Aria pursed her lips without replying. Then Leon grinned and continued.
“If you hadn’t arrived, I would have left without taking part in the tournament, and seeing the carriage of the Archduchess of Wittelsbach made me incredibly joyful. You can’t imagine how delighted I am.”
Aria rolled her eyes at the abruptness of his words.
“I apologize if I offended you. I didn’t mean anything by it, it was just… my desire to get to know the princess.”
Well, on the subject of traitors.
My first thought was.
“Why is it that everyone in this town is so much more than what they seem, whether it’s Caelius or Leon Berja?”
Aria discreetly cast a sideways glance at Leon, who wore an innocent smile. She couldn’t help but wonder why he seemed so amiable when, in her apprehension, he might betray her and Caelius later on.
“May I ask about the reason behind your desire to befriend me? It appears somewhat sudden.”
Leon’s eyes widened in surprise at the straightforward question, but then he laughed heartily.
“Haha, I’ll be honest with you.”
The smell of flowers and grass mixed with a gentle breeze tickled their noses. Leon’s voice whispered in Aria’s ear on the breeze.
“As your Highness may recall, I have served in combat with Archduke Wittelsbach only once.”
Aria’s eyes widened at the mention of service. It was a story she didn’t recognize, not even in the original.
“It was during the war against the Duchy of Repta seven years ago that I was able to meet His Highness Wittelsbach up close for the first time.”
Curious golden eyes turned to Leon.
“His Highness saved my life once, back then. Though I doubt your Highness even remembers me.”
Aria tilted her head in disbelief at the unexpected revelation; that Caelius had saved a man’s life in a war.
“Yes, indeed. Archduke Wittelsbach has always been my idol, and when I caught wind of rumors suggesting that he had a daughter, my interest in the princess was only natural.”
“Hmm, so it’s not that you have a liking for me, but rather an admiration for my father, leading to your natural interest in me?”
“To be honest, I suppose you could put it that way.”
Then why did you betray him, after he saved your life at most? Aria wanted to ask, but, of course, she couldn’t.
“I’m quite surprised that the princess is so friendly and you call him ‘dad’.”
Normally, nobles don’t use titles like father and mother, and rarely do they use dad and mom. It was a title reserved for immature children.
“The contrast between the leader I initially witnessed on the battlefield and the one I now observe by your side is so significant… I often find myself questioning if they are indeed the same person.”
Leon chuckled as he rambled on about what he found so amusing. Then he stopped laughing and whispered.
“But don’t put too much trust in His Highness…….”
Aria whirled on him at the sudden comment, but Leon only smirked, as if to ask why she was surprised by his words.
At first glance, the conversation between them, with its tightly embraced waists, slow pace, and smiling faces, seemed no different from any other lovers around.
There was no further conversation between them.
The finish line was in sight, and the teams that had already arrived were sitting down to rest.
“Where’s my dad?”
I searched for him, but he hadn’t crossed the finish line yet. I was surprised because, naturally, he should have arrived before Leon and me. However, he hadn’t.
Someone screamed, and the finish line erupted into chaos.
Aria was surprised as she turned to see Caelius approaching her while wearing seven bloody gauntlets. He had a cold smile on his face and was carrying a human body in each hand. The woman who was riding with him on the black horse had passed out.
He walked slowly across the finish line with a human head in each hand. The once noisy finish line was instantly frozen. No one made a sound.
Even Aria was speechless, unable to comprehend the situation.
“What the hell is going on?”
Before she knew it, Caelius’s broad chest filled her vision. He leaned in close and called out to her, his voice no different from any other.
The body he was holding hit the ground with a bang. The black stain on Caelius’s path belonged to unidentified blood.
“I can’t do this, it’s dangerous.”
“I’ll ride with my Dad next time.”
The way he laughed through the blood was strange. Nothing could be spoken, not even by Aria.
Several people hurried to help the unconscious woman off the black horse and attempted to rouse her. Fortunately, a slap on the face and a splash of cold water brought the woman immediately back to her senses.
Aria was unaware of the situation at hand.
“No, no, no. What’s going on with this?
When was it announced that the palace could reopen safely?
Her head was too heavy to stay down; there had to be a human head there, the one he’d been holding; she fixed a hard gaze on Caelius until she heard Leon’s yell from behind.
She turned and saw the white horse that she and Leon had ridden lying still on the ground; the horse had looked so frail and powerful only a second before.
“What the heck?”
Caelius’s eyes were strange to Aria, so he bowed to bring them level.
“There’s an assassin hiding in the middle of the forest.”
“From the looks of it, the horses have been drugged to loosen their muscles.”
“Ha, but this is the Imperial Palace…….”
When the imperial palace was mentioned, Caelius’s eyes moved. There was a gathering of Azekrisis’s supporters, the nobility.
“Yes, this is the Imperial Palace.”
A few people in the empire dared to dispatch an assassin in the hills behind the palace. The remaining sentences were omitted, but the assembled nobility instantly grasped his meaning.
He found it difficult as well.
For a valid reason, the palace was thrown into chaos. An assassin at a horse show where a majority of the aristocracy was participating, along with the discovery of a medication designed to relax a horse’s muscles.
This was no ordinary event, and the nobility in attendance knew full well that the sword could fall on them at any time, even though the targets were now the Archduke and Princess of Wittelsbach.
One by one, the nobility fell into silence, and the faction loyal to the Emperor exchanged glances. Azekrisis promptly declared that a special commission would be formed to investigate the matter before it spiraled out of control.
The statement lacked credibility.
From the beginning, it was evident that the Emperor was orchestrating this, and he was willing to humble himself by presenting a disposable accomplice as a sacrifice to bring it to an end.