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    It had only been a day since the Holy Emperor entered seclusion for prayer. The atmosphere in the Pearl Palace was changing rapidly.

    The Pearl Palace, which had been like a small isolated island within the imperial palace, began to see a gradual increase in people coming and going.

    Servants carrying neatly stacked letters started bustling about, and small gift boxes and bouquets began to be delivered.

    The reason for this change appearing belatedly, despite the access restrictions being lifted for quite some time, was clear. Until now, people had been hesitating and wary of the Holy Emperor’s watchful eye.

    As visitation requests started pouring in from here and there, the only dedicated maid also became busy as a result.

    “Oh no, we have a big problem, Your Highness!”

    Just as Seongjin was about to head out to the lobby for morning training, Edith called out to him with a very tense face.

    “What’s the matter?”

    “A message just came from the Ruby Palace. The empress said to prepare a tea set without fail as she is coming with an esteemed guest!”

    Isn’t that just a normal reception?

    “What’s the problem?”

    When Seongjin stared blankly, Edith made a distressed face.

    “But I don’t know how to properly brew tea?”

    “…What?”

    You punk. Then, even though you were fully aware that your skills were lacking, you’ve been bringing me such unpalatable tea until now?

    Seongjin felt his blood pressure rising.

    “Why did you get a job as a maid if you can’t even brew tea?”

    “I didn’t know well. In the first place, the only hiring condition was [aura user].”

    Oh, right. She said she was originally aspiring to be a knight.

    Still, it’s already been two years since she started working as a maid. There was more than enough time to learn how to brew tea.

    However, Edith also had some excuses.

    “Your Highness didn’t originally enjoy tea, and there were hardly any occasions where guests visited.”

    “I heard Father occasionally visited?”

    “His Majesty the Emperor always brought the head chamberlain with him, so I had nothing to do separately. Sir Louis always brought perfectly prepared tea sets from the main palace.”

    Come to think of it, it did seem like Louis personally served tea during the last audience.

    “What should I do? I tried practicing a bit just now, but this just tastes like rotten grass steeped in water. How can I serve this to a guest?”

    You know well what the tea you brewed tastes like.

    “Well, tea is originally water with steeped leaves. Wouldn’t it be okay?”

    When he answered half-heartedly, Edith stomped her feet.

    “But Your Highness! The empress strongly emphasized. Since it’s the first time Your Highness’s fiancée is visiting the Pearl Palace, the reception must be impeccable!”

    There, Seongjin heard something he couldn’t ignore and asked Edith back.

    “Wait, Edith. I got engaged?”

    “That’s what I’m saying. When did you get engaged without me knowing, Your Highness?”

    “…Huh?”

    “…Pardon?”

    ***

    “I was lonely, so I invited Lady Valois to the imperial palace. But suddenly, I realized you two haven’t met yet, even though the marriage talks have been going on for quite a while.”

    1st Queen Lizabeth had arrived at the Pearl Palace, and Seongjin was able to sit at a tea table that had been hastily put together.

    The queen saw the tea set that had been prepared for appearance’s sake and didn’t find any particular fault. She didn’t seem to have any intention of sitting comfortably and tasting it though.

    It was a fortunate thing for Edith. Seongjin had absentmindedly taken a sip of the tea in front of him, and a deep bitter taste like steeped bile juice had risen.

    ‘I think this every time, but how does this taste come from water steeped with leaves?’

    Trying hard to manage his expression, Seongjin faced the new visitor the queen had brought.

    Lady Chloe Mia de Valois.

    With her fluttering light blonde hair and aqua dress, she was a small girl who looked like she would float up into the sky with a light touch.

    According to the empress, the Valois family had roots in Brittany and was a prestigious family that had produced outstanding scholars for generations. Even the headmaster of the Delcross Theological Academy was from the Valois family.

    So even before Chloe was born, there had been occasional marriage talks between her and Morres from the empress’s side. Fortunately, it seemed to be a story that only came up in private conversations and not an officially recognized engagement yet.

    Yes. Considering the times, engagement in the womb was not something he couldn’t understand. The problem was the other party’s age.

    ‘…12 years old?’

    When Morres turns 15, there would be a pretty good age gap when they become adults. Of course, if it were the real Morres.

    Seongjin’s age before he died was roughly sixty-four, and a 12-year-old was almost like a granddaughter.

    No matter how much he decided to live pretending to be Morres, this was far beyond what he could handle.

    The girl sitting across from him, quietly chewing on desserts and swinging her legs. Seeing that sight, cold sweat ran down Seongjin’s back.

    “Seeing you two together, I’m even more convinced of this marriage. Don’t they make a truly beautiful couple to the eye?”

    “…”

    Seongjin unconsciously frowned, then had to take another sip of the poison-like tea to hide it.

    Beyond the bitterness, my tongue is going numb.

    Edith, did you perhaps put poison in the tea?

    Anyway, it was an awkward tea time with the queen chattering alone and the two parties of the engagement maintaining silence.

    “It’s been a while since we had such a harmonious tea time. Seeing the prince so well-behaved, it seems Lady Valois is to your liking. I’m satisfied that you two seem to get along better than expected.”

    Ah, so it’s good enough if I don’t act out.

    Queen Lizabeth continued to talk about various topics, from trivial matters like the weather to the latest news of famous salons in high society and the 7th Knight Order being newly established as the capital’s defense force.

    Chloe obediently chewed on cookies and agreed, while Seongjin blankly nodded and occasionally took sips of the bitter tea.

    “I didn’t realize how tactless I was. The conversation was so enjoyable that I didn’t notice how quickly time passed.”

    After some time, Queen Lizabeth stood up, leaving Chloe behind.

    “I will leave first, so you two continue your conversation a bit longer. Since opportunities for you to face each other are rare, I shouldn’t waste that precious time like this.”

    As if the conversation was truly enjoyable, not just empty words, the corners of the empress’s eyes, which usually seemed sensitive, had softened quite a bit.

    Following her, the maids and escort knights all got up and left, and finally, only Edith and the two parties of the engagement were left alone in the spacious parlor.

    ‘This has become troublesome.’

    While looking at the small girl who was carefully observing his mood and picking up cookies, Seongjin clicked his tongue.

    I’m not used to dealing with young children…

    After pondering for a moment, Seongjin carefully opened his mouth.

    “Um. So, Lady Chloe…”

    “Please call me Chloe, Your Highness.”

    The girl finished chewing the piece of macaron in her mouth and said.

    Because she had been quietly maintaining silence until now, he thought she might have a timid personality, but her clear-cut tone was unexpectedly blunt.

    “If we keep too much distance between us when marriage talks are going on, it can also become a topic of gossip for others.”

    “…”

    The girl slightly narrowed her eyes to create something resembling an eye smile. Of course, her eyes weren’t smiling at all.

    “Why are you looking at me with such an apologetic face? Your Highness, are you perhaps thinking of rejecting the marriage and embarrassing me?”

    This young girl seemed to have keenly noticed the rejection Seongjin was feeling to some extent.

    As she said. Seongjin, who had intended to tactfully express his rejection for her sake, realized that this problem was not so simple.

    “If this engagement is broken off, Chloe… will be in a difficult position?”

    “Well, it’s not that I’ll be in trouble. I’ll just be embarrassed in front of my family elders, embarrassed among the young ladies I socialize with, and become so embarrassed in the high society I’ll debut in that I’ll want to die, that’s all.”

    …You’ll be in a lot of trouble.

    “Isn’t it burdensome to have your marriage decided at such a young age?”

    “Burdensome, you say? A marriage talk with the imperial family is a great honor for the family, even just the fact that it’s being discussed. Regardless of who the other party is.”

    Even if he’s a notorious troublemaker.

    The girl’s lips curling up seemed to have swallowed such words. However, Seongjin had no intention of reacting one by one to the small provocations of a child with a twisted personality.

    “It won’t be easy to break it off later either. The family’s honor doesn’t guarantee Chloe’s happiness, so wouldn’t it be better to be a bit more cautious about marriage? Is it okay to make such a thorough choice solely for the family?”

    “…Pardon?”

    “You might suddenly have a different dream for the future or want to live abroad. Or maybe, even later on, you might meet someone you really want to marry.”

    “…”

    “In any case, once the marriage has progressed to some extent, it won’t be easy to change.”

    “Hmm…”

    Chloe dropped the mocking smile from her lips and put on a serious expression. She observed Seongjin’s face like that for quite a while, then carefully opened her mouth.

    “…Your Highness?”

    “Yes?”

    “Do you perhaps think I was dragged to this place against my will, unable to resist the pressure from my family?”

    Bullseye.

    Why have such a stereotype? If it’s a 12-year-old noble girl, she seems likely to cry her eyes out, saying, “I’m going to marry a prince on a white horse later! I don’t like the partner my family chose!”

    Ah. Of course, Morres is somewhat like a prince though.

    “You’re prepared to sacrifice your life for your family?”

    “No, that’s not it.”

    Chloe answered firmly and touched the corners of her mouth smeared with cookie crumbs with her fingers.

    “Hmm, this is a bit unexpected.”

    The girl looked at Seongjin with slightly deeper eyes, as if lost in thought.

    “Since it seems Your Highness is genuinely concerned about me, I will also speak honestly. Just the fact that marriage talks with the imperial family began even before my debut can draw great attention to me when I debut in high society.”

    “Is that important?”

    “Yes, it is. Because the influence I will have in high society afterward will become my power and lifelong asset. It’s definitely not a choice solely for the family.”

    Chloe seemed to have quite a firm opinion about this marriage. They said her family had many scholars for generations, so even this young child thinks differently.

    As he was nodding in agreement with a somewhat unpleasant feeling, she glanced at Seongjin’s expression and carefully continued.

    “Moreover, Your Highness doesn’t need to attach great meaning to this marriage either.”

    “…Why?”

    “It’s not a relationship where we both have to feel a heavy sense of responsibility. Your Highness probably has more than just me as a ‘talked about’ marriage partner, right?”

    There are other fiancées?

    As Seongjin looked at Chloe in shock, she flashed a slightly mischievous smile.

    “Isabella, the daughter of the wealthy merchant Scarcepino, and Julia Meyer, granddaughter of Cardinal Meyer and a knight of the Imperial Guard. Both are from prestigious families and are ladies who are currently in full bloom, boasting mature beauty.”

    Isabella Scarcepino, known as the flower of high society, and Julia Meyer, who was recognized for her outstanding talent as a knight and received an exceptional assignment as the deputy commander of the 7th Knight Order at a young age.

    As he listened to Chloe’s explanation, a thought suddenly crossed Seongjin’s mind.

    Queen Lizabeth, who had talked at length about the main news of high society and the newly established 7th Knight Order out of the blue before leaving. He had thought her occasional glances at Seongjin’s face were simply out of concern for Morres’ health.

    The queen was conveying the recent status of the other marriage candidates and observing Seongjin’s reaction.

    “It seems you have no memory of them either, Your Highness.”

    And the queen got her answer and left with a somewhat satisfied face.

    Seongjin’s lips stiffened. A newfound wariness towards Queen Lizabeth arose.

    He had only considered her a pitiful mother with a troublemaker son, but why was she indirectly probing instead of asking directly? Does she have some ulterior motive she’s hiding from Morres?

    Above all, the fact that she arranged this meeting as if she had been waiting as soon as the Holy Emperor was absent proved that she had also been wary of the Holy Emperor’s watchful eye until now.

    “None of the marriage talks have been finalized yet. A marriage talk that is only mentioned in private conversations for a long time means that both parties will eventually gain something as it drags on. So Your Highness…”

    Perhaps based on how she interpreted Seongjin’s stiff expression, Chloe’s smile faded a little.

    “If the reason you are dissatisfied with this marriage is purely out of concern for my position, please don’t be the first to reject the marriage.”

    “…I understand. I’ll wait patiently until Chloe dumps me.”

    Since Morres’ reputation is already at rock bottom, what difference would a couple more instances of being dumped make? It’s not a difficult thing.

    As Seongjin readily nodded, Chloe blushed slightly, then picked up the teacup with a relieved expression. Her attitude had been leisurely throughout, but it seemed she was anxious that this side might recklessly break off the marriage.

    “Wait…!”

    Perhaps because her throat was quite parched, she downed the tea before Seongjin could stop her.

    “…Gulp! Oh my!”

    Chloe, who managed to swallow the tea without spitting it out, widened her eyes.

    Her trembling pupils lingered on Seongjin, who had half-risen from his seat and stopped. Soon, her eyes alternated between Seongjin’s already half-empty teacup and Edith’s face.

    Chloe’s eyes, turned back to Seongjin’s face, were filled with a newfound realization.

    “Your Highness, you are much more tolerant than I thought.”

    Since you still keep her alive despite this.

    Although she didn’t say it out loud, the meaning of her cold gaze towards Edith was clear as day.

    Gulp. The sound of Edith swallowing dry saliva was heard from behind.

    ***

    “How was the imperial palace, milady?”

    In the carriage returning to the mansion, the maid carefully asked Chloe, who was unusually quiet.

    The little miss, who had been on edge like a hedgehog with bristling spines in the morning, was now quietly settled as if lost in deep thought.

    “Hmm, it wasn’t as bad as I thought.”

    She couldn’t express how annoyed she was when she suddenly received an invitation from Queen Lizabeth last night.

    She thought it wasn’t a story that would progress deeply in the first place, even if it was called a marriage talk. Prince Morres not only had a bad reputation, but there were already plenty of other excellent crown princess candidates.

    That was probably why the queen specifically invited Chloe. She was the easiest target to order around as she pleased.

    ‘But…’

    Prince Morres, whom she met in person, was a very handsome boy, unlike the rumors. She had heard his personality was also terrible, but seeing him today, he seemed quite thoughtful and serious, didn’t he?

    He didn’t ignore her like a child as others did, and treated her properly as a lady. When he definitely promised to dump her, he was even a bit cool.

    Chloe touched her slightly flushed cheeks and mumbled as if talking to herself.

    “Maybe I should start regularly sending bouquets to the Pearl Palace from now on.”

    “…Pardon?”

    The maid asked back in bewilderment, but Chloe’s small mind was already swiftly turning.

    Isabella Scarcepino, who is arrogant and haughty, relying on her innate beauty.

    Julia Meyer, known for being devoted only to knight training and shutting out suitors.

    ‘Okay. If I move one step ahead, my chances aren’t bad either.’

    Hehehe.

    In front of the maid who was puzzled, not understanding the situation, Chloe smiled and clenched her fists.

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