“Miss Storm, hello and welcome,” the servant said as she opened the door. She bowed and stepped to the side, making way for Nova to enter.
The servant girl was quite pretty, but the maid outfit she wore was too modest and not at all revealing. It was plain, even. More work clothes than anything else. Nova couldn’t help but be disappointed, every time she visited this place and saw the maids working there. It seemed like Altera’s monarchy had yet to realize that maid outfits deserved the chance to shine the brilliant light of truth and goodness down upon the unenlightened masses.
Nova wasn’t going to say anything about it, though. People might misunderstand and see her as a pervert who lusted after the maids. That would be awkward.
Especially since she didn’t.
All the maids here, no matter how pretty they were, clearly saw Nova as someone of a higher standing than themselves. They were all too polite and too formal. Nova had tried to get them to loosen up a little, to make them see her as someone who stood on the same grounds as them, but her attempts hadn’t borne fruit. The divide between commoners and nobles was much starker within the palace than outside it. Here, most of the nobles walking around the place were prominent ones who cared about their status, and tradition here held more sway over people’s values. Nova herself was a commoner, but it seemed that her friendship with the kingdom’s royal family was enough for these maids to immediately put her on a pedestal.
They couldn’t be blamed for this, of course – behaving like this was part of their job, after all – but it was still a huge turn-off, for Nova.
She had no interest in being worshiped – or even served – by anybody. It made her intensely uncomfortable.
Nova’s prideful nature demanded that people show her respect and courtesy. It demanded that she be seen as an equal by anyone she saw, no matter how supposedly ‘great’ they were. She deeply resented people who considered her as lesser than themselves – like that duke’s son from earlier, for instance, who evidently regarded her as more of a sex toy than an actual person.
But she also disliked people who viewed her as higher than themselves.
Nova did find it less offensive to be seen as the superior one in her interactions with other people, but she was still repulsed by obsequiousness, servility or flattery, even if they were directed toward her.
Unequal relationships in general, no matter on which side they leaned, were dubious propositions, she felt.
Which was why Nova only gave a curt nod to the maid and let her guide her deeper into the atrium, without attempting more conversation. The two didn’t go far before they saw Delia heading down the stairs leading to the second floor. She’d clearly been informed that Nova had arrived because she didn’t look the least bit surprised upon seeing her.
She only waved her hand and approached, a bright smile on her face. “Nova. Long time no see.”
‘Hi,’ Nova’s robotic voice answered.
With a friendly nod from Delia, the maid who had guided Nova quietly left them alone. “We weren’t sure whether you’d be coming to visit or not,” Delia then said with a smile. “I’m glad you did.”
Nova tilted her head. ‘Called yesterday. Told you I would.’
“Yeaaaaah, but it really wouldn’t be the first time you said you’d be coming, then didn’t. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure it only occurred to you to come see us because Ryner or Lynn reminded you, right?”
Since it was true, Nova didn’t intend to hide it and only nodded. Even if she denied it, Delia probably wouldn’t believe her anyway.
If it had been Lynn, that nod would have earned Nova an instant tackle to the floor. Then, Lynn would have caught her in a chokehold, and given her a murderous noogie as punishment. Delia, fortunately, was more self-possessed. She only shook her head and gave a wry smile. “And you even admit it so easily. How shameless…”
“He’s upstairs. Reading. And fuming silently in righteous indignation.”
‘Fuming?’ Nova repeated as she followed Delia back up the wide stairway she’d just descended. ‘Why?’
“Some… guests… came to visit. Louis didn’t approve of them, but as the next king, he had to swallow his displeasure and politely receive them. So now, he’s sulking. He’ll probably go punch a pillow, next.”
Fufu. Why does this description make him seem more like a puling child than the 20-year-old, famous genius prince that he is supposed to be? But… guests, is it? I wonder…
‘Clifford?’ Nova asked, fishing out Goatee’s name from her memories of Marian talking about him and his family.
Delia glanced back at Nova over her shoulder, quirking a graceful eyebrow. “Did you run into them?” The question seemed only out of pure curiosity, but Nova could still hear the undercurrent of worry in Delia’s voice.
‘Sterling impression. Son is a real gentleman.’
As they spoke, they’d already arrived at their destination. Delia stopped with her hand on the door handle, turning to face Nova. A frown creased her brows. “Did he do anything strange?”
Nova shook her head. ‘Butted heads. Mine butted harder.’
Delia’s gaze flicked over Nova’s face, trying to guess more of what had transpired from her expression, but there was no way she would be able to see past Nova’s flawless poker face. In the end, she didn’t insist and only said, “Be careful. Duke Clifford isn’t a paragon of virtue, but he can at the very least be reasoned with. His son, however, is a brainless thug. And he has something of a reputation as a playboy. If you caught his eye…”
‘Then I pluck it out. And make him eat it.’
A smile pierced through Delia’s anxious face. “Oh, right. I forgot that you’re even more of a thug than he is. I kind of feel sorry for him, now.”
She’d given some appropriately tough words, but while Nova was confident she could deal with Richard Clifford himself, the influence standing behind him could be a lot more dangerous. On the other hand, though plucking eyeballs sounded way too disgusting, she was indeed still angry and itching to push him in front of a bus or something.
There is no way I can do anything to him on my own, but that scumsucker may go after me first and seek revenge for the hand I broke, even though he so obviously deserved it. I’ll need to tell Ethan and Hiraki to be ready, in case something does happen. These two might even feel grateful for some action, after several dreary days spent following me around without any fireworks to be seen.
Even as a part of Nova’s brain was planning how to deal with this potential threat that might shortly arise, another part was quietly wondering at the continued strangeness of her own behavior.
Nova’s thought processes had changed radically, compared to her past life. On Earth, she would never have been so calm and poised, knowing that someone might want to do her harm. Back then, if she’d found herself in her current situation, she likely wouldn’t have even dared to take a single step outside her house. Even when being directly subjected to Richard Clifford’s overbearing and unwelcome interest, let alone breaking his fingers and making him eat the floor, she wouldn’t have dared to retaliate or speak up for herself. She would have simply gritted her teeth and borne with it, all the while inwardly wishing for him to die in a variety of painful ways.
But now, she behaved with incomparably more self-confidence.
Nova hadn’t really noted how much she had changed, beforehand, steeped as she had been in Viper Nest’s atmosphere, where behavior like her own was accepted as the norm. But now, it had only taken her two days to realize the change. Starting from the moment she’d slammed Jimmy the Two-faced Weasel’s head into the wall of the elevator, she’d try to assess how and how much she had changed. And she indeed had to admit that she’d essentially become a trigger-happy, violent madman. Even Delia, her childhood friend, didn’t hesitate to call her a thug!
Or, perhaps more accurately, rather than actually becoming a more violent person, it was simply that now, she dared to give voice to the violence she’d always wanted to inflict on the people she disliked.
Her propensity for violence hadn’t appeared out of nowhere.
I’m not sure I like what that says about me, though. The old me wanted to assert himself but was too cowardly to do so. And the new me is a lot more self-confident, but that self-confidence only allowed me to become the bloodthirsty psycho I’d always been deep inside… People usually advise children to ‘just be yourself,’ but I’m not sure such a thing is actually desirable for someone like me.
Brought out of her thoughts, Nova raised her head and focused back on Delia. The girl was looking at her worriedly, her hand still motionless on the door handle. ‘Yes?’
“Is something the matter?”
Nova shook her head. ‘Reflecting on my thuginess.’
“Haha, don’t worry. Out of all the thugs in the world, you’re definitely my favorite.”
Laughing brightly, Delia finally opened the door and entered a lavish room in the center of which two curving sofas faced each other and formed a split circle. Wide window panes – which were no doubt bulletproof – were lined up along one of the walls and gave a nice view of an inner, enclosed garden full of carefully sculpted and molded greenery. The rest of the walls were decorated by judiciously placed paintings. One in particular Nova recognized as one she herself had produced some time ago. Every time she came into this room, her eyes were unconsciously drawn to it, invariably filling her with a mix of pride and embarrassment. She quite honestly felt that, while this painting was indeed a pretty good piece out of all those she had made, being juxtaposed to the kind of masterpiece deserving to decorate the walls of the royal palace didn’t exactly put it in a flattering light. Still, Louis and Delia had both insisted Nova’s painting stay there, and Nova wasn’t going to fight them for it.
Louis was at this moment sitting in the corner of one of the sofas, his back ramrod straight, plinking furiously away at the keyboard of a laptop resting atop a small wooden platform bridging his knees. His brows were scrunched up in a deep, displeased scowl, like the laptop had killed his favorite goldfish, and the subsequent grudge would not be resolved without bloodshed.
When the two girls entered the room, he raised his head and, though it wouldn’t have been obvious to anyone who didn’t know him closely, it was apparent to Nova that Louis’s mood lifted as he saw them.
“You’re finally here,” he said to Nova in lieu of a greeting. “What took you so long?”
Before Nova could type her reply into her bracer’s speech synthesis program, Delia had already snatched the chance, a broad and very unprincess-like grin on her face. “What’s wrong? Did you miss her so much? How cute.”
Louis wasn’t flustered. He simply frowned and explained himself. “No. I’m simply curious at to why the time Nova took to reach the inner palace doesn’t match the time it should have taken from when we were informed of her arrival. It’s a simple inference that she was somehow delayed.”
By the time Louis had filled his verbosity quota for the day, Nova had reached the sofa facing his. She dropped her jacket at one end of it, then plopped down on top of it, stretching to her full height and lazily slinging her long legs over the armrest. The sloppy display would be sure to annoy Louis and his flawless posture.
‘Deathmatch in the hallway,’ she said to explain why she was late.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Louis asked, dumbfounded.
“She ran into our leaving guests,” Delia clarified for him. “What do you think Richard Clifford did when he saw her?” she asked with a crafty smile.
Immediately, Louis’s already serious face turned to metaphorical stone. “Oh? What did he do?”
‘Too long to explain. Will write a report later, Highness.’ Rather than her own situation, something else had piqued Nova’s curiosity. ‘Why did Clifford come here?’
This time, both Louis and Delia hesitated.
Nova tilted her head in question. ‘State secret?’
Louis shook his head and waved his hand in the air as if dismissing the very idea of state secrets as preposterous. “No, no. Nothing like that. To tell you the truth, they came here to discuss a marriage alliance between our two families.”
Marriage alliance? With this incredible jackass? You’ve got to be kidding me. Who in their right mind would ever agree to such a thing? That’d be like feeding a sheep to a wolf.
Nova’s gaze flicked back and forth between Louis and Delia. The two didn’t say anything more, seemingly waiting for her reaction.
‘Congratulations, Louis. Wish you happiness with new husband.’
Delia burst out laughing, but Louis’s face only turned pained. “No,” he said weakly. “Not with me. With Delia.”
Nova turned her attention to Delia. “Feel sorry for you. Need a thug to kill him?’
“Meh. No need,” Delia said. “There is no way Mom and Dad will agree to it, in any case. In fact, I very much doubt Duke Clifford expected us to agree in the first place.”
“Correct,” Louis continued, nodding. “The salient purpose of this whole business isn’t the marriage, but the alliance. We of course can’t pair Delia to a ludicrous dirtbag like Richard Clifford. The duke himself knows this. Instead of a binary choice ‘accept or refuse’, the difference will lie on how exactly we proceed to refuse him. We can do so politely and leave the door open to future negotiations, or we can slam the door into his face. The marriage is just an excuse. The statement we make when we refuse this marriage is what actually matters.”
“Are you seriously saying that my marriage doesn’t matter, Brother?” Delia cut in, pouting exaggeratedly.
“No, of course not. My apologies. That was somewhat insensitively put. But you understand my meaning, don’t you?”
I keep thinking this, but my new life really brings me to strange places. Am I in a fairy tale, now? Talking with a princess about her marriage… If only Louis didn’t put his big, dirty political fingers on everything…
“What about you, Nova?” Delia asked suddenly, bringing Nova’s attention back to the conversation. “Want to marry into our family?”
“Why not?” Delia continued. “You can’t be unaware that your family is the single most powerful one in the country, right? If your parents followed after Duke Clifford’s example and also requested a marriage alliance with our Astia family, I’m quite sure there wouldn’t be any fuss. Mom and Dad would directly agree to it.”
“Indeed,” Louis added, his posture now looking rather stiff and uncomfortable. His fingers, which had been continuously moving even while he discussed the political ramifications of Delia’s love life, were now motionless over the keyboard. “Even if only looking at the public opinion, a royal marrying a commoner would drastically increase the Astias’ popularity among the masses. If it were anyone else, some high noble houses might consider protesting, on grounds of tradition and custom, but anyone whose opinion actually matters knows what the Storm family means for this country. In fact, I daresay that, let alone protest and oppose, most noble houses might support the idea. They’d see it as a way to deepen the link between your family and Altera.”
Hmm. Is he… nervous? Quite rare to see him all awkward like this… But I suppose someone who’s never entered even a single relationship in almost 80 years of life really shouldn’t be judgmental.
Nova wasn’t so dense that she wouldn’t understand what the two siblings were driving at. More than that, she’d known Louis and Delia since long ago; she’d had time to notice Louis’s affection for her.
However, while his interest was certainly a lot more flattering than Richard Clifford’s, Nova didn’t intend to reciprocate. In essence, she only saw Louis as a good friend she could spend a pleasant afternoon reading tons of books with, in quiet companionship.
Nova took her legs off the sofa’s armrest and straightened up, sitting properly and looking seriously at the prince and princess in front of her.
‘Already have a fiancée, no?’
“Fiancée candidate,” Louis corrected. Nova’s keen eyesight caught a small bead of sweat rolling down the side of his brow. For someone who prided himself on his unflappability, this was quite the reaction…
‘Candidate? One of many?’
Louis hesitated a little before answering. “Several houses have sent proposals, yes. But…” His voice trailed off before he could finish his sentence.
Nova pondered for a moment before replying. ‘Harem master? Good job. Can be proud of yourself.’ She gave him a thumbs-up to punctuate her compliment.
This time, instead of answering and digging himself deeper, Louis only clapped a hand over his face and fled from the conversation. Delia’s shoulders were already shaking in mirth, next to him, but she showed mercy and didn’t give voice to her laughter.
“Want to be a harem candidate, too?” she asked Nova.
Nova wasn’t sure if Delia’s support for her brother’s attempt at a confession was genuine, or if she just wanted to push Nova into teasing him even more than she already had.
But if they asked her straight out, then Nova had to answer in the same way, as well. Anything else would be disrespectful. Better for everyone involved to cut things nice and clear.
Still, as far as I’m aware, Louis has been carrying this torch for several years, now, and he’s never felt the need to talk to me about it. Why is he suddenly forming a tag team with his sister and rushing straight to marriage? What’s up with him? I would usually expect more subtlety from him. Or could it be that he felt threatened when Delia implied Richard Clifford had shown interest in me? He couldn’t be that insecure, could he? Well, in any case…
‘Nope. Not interested. Too troublesome.’
“Troublesome? What is?”
Louis would inherit the throne from his father. It stood to reason that his wife would become Altera’s queen upon his coronation.
“Being queen is a drawback?” Delia asked, disbelieving.
‘Yes. Heavy responsibilities. Power-hungry subordinates. Intrigues and plots… Can’t think of anything good about it.’
“I see,” was the only thing Delia said in response. She thankfully didn’t try to push the point any further. Next to her, Louis didn’t seem to want to talk, either, and was wholly focused on the screen of his laptop. His hands still weren’t moving though. Neither were his eyes, in fact.
Well, that sure as hell dampened the mood… And I’m supposed to be on vacation! I’m not relaxing at all! I’m dealing with problem after problem, here! Surely, this day won’t get any worse, will it?