31. The Third Prince is Too Dazzling! I Can’t Look at Him Directly!
Chapter Thirty-One: Side Talk (Felix and Trianna Behind the Curtains)
“How are you feeling today, Felix?”
“Ah, Trianna. I can get up now. But I was told by the doctor to stay in bed.”
Twenty-eight years since our wedding. The smile Trianna only shows when it’s just the two of us is very soft. A change I wouldn’t have believed if anyone had told me back then.
It wasn’t the case, but at the time, and even in the first few years after we got married, there was no doubt in my mind that she had entered our country as one of Roke’s agents.
I want to outfox the machinations of my own country of Roke. I don’t want to lose a loved one ever again. I want to get rid of the conflict between Roke and Elvasti. The impact that her fiery words and even fiercer eyes made on my heart when she said those words to me that day is vivid in my memory, even now.
So you can imagine my surprise when she told me she wanted to raise the successor to the crown as an unprejudiced man who would hold his own views without being clouded by any instilled old prejudices. I realized then how serious Trianna is about aiming for a true, lasting change instead of a fleeting revolution.
I nodded when she had told me of her pact with her younger brother, who stayed behind in Roke, that they were working for a better future for the next generation.
Trianna briefly straightens my comforter and sits on a chair next to my bed.
“I wish we could just take time to relax until your full recovery, but many things are afoot, so I thought I should talk to you about them.”
“I’m sorry. The world finding out about my health problems is causing a lot of trouble, isn’t it?”
I had been worried about my physical condition for some time, but I thought I could deceive everyone and keep it secret for a while. The doctor says I could have fallen anytime before, so the one I was deceiving was myself. And now, the truth finally came out, at the worst possible timing. Still, I wish I could have bought just a little more time.
“You always exert yourself beyond what is healthy… At any rate, the more pressing issue is Gilbert.”
“Yes, he was showing off at the soirée, wasn’t he?”
It’s hard to act rationally in front of the person you like, but even so, I was quite surprised by how much he seemed to be enjoying himself there. However, to forget the complicated situations we’re all steeped in completely and tip his hand that clearly can’t be called anything but a bad move.
“That’s right. He showed just how foolish the young can be.”
Oh, Gilbert, who until now had been able to keep all appearances up and manage the princesses with uncanny skill and prudence, couldn’t help but become a complete idiot on his first true crush. Which had happened unusually late in Gilbert’s life, may I add. Witnessing such foolishness fills a father’s heart with warmth, though.
“At first, I thought it would be enough just to interfere… but then I decided it was safer to bound her, so I decided to keep that girl close. We can’t afford to lose her.”
Trianna has positioned herself as the Crown Prince faction’s ringleader by portraying herself in villainous ways. Making a declaration that she has grown fond of that girl and bringing her into the Queen’s circle would be the safest for her.
She is the frontrunner of Gilbert’s princess candidates. Still, if Trianna proclaims her intention to ascend her to Jerik’s consort princess, any move to put her in danger will be much harder to materialize.
“Gilbert didn’t take that move lying down, though, did he?”
“Indeed. That boy snapped at me last night, so I just fanned his passions by restating that girl is meant to bear the Crown Prince’s child.”
I see. That’s a clever way of phrasing it. The world won’t suspect anything from such a statement, but she knows Gilbert will soon notice there may be hidden connotations as to its exact meaning.
“We have to point these boys in the right direction. Jerik first. Gilbert is the last one. Then, our scenario will come along on its own.”
“Indeed. If that girl had met Jerik before Gilbert, there might have been a different path. But that was not meant to be, it seems.”
Jerik is earnest but lacks backbone. Gilbert is capable but unenthusiastic.
Initially, the plan was to let things proceed as they were and let Jerik take the throne, with Gilbert as his assistant.
But, that girl changes everything. I judged that she supplements Gilbert’s weak points all too well. And that changed our decision about Gilbert.
“It’s a good opportunity. He hadn’t found something to get absorbed in completely. Those who have never put everything on the line for something they really want can’t pull through in the event of an emergency. We’ll have him do that on this occasion.”
We’ll have him drop all pretenses and go all in. And have him decide what he wants to do with his life as a result.
“I left the judgment on that girl up to you, but it seems she has met your expectations with flying colors.”
“Indeed she has. Even though at our first meeting at the soirée I was little more than startled by her confrontation, and I only felt suspicion towards her…”
Right. I remember Trianna saying that girl stared at her from afar with a frightful expression, and then when face to face, she just started blurting out her mind unvarnished.
“The idea came to me during our little one-on-one. It’s almost as if that girl can read hearts. I believe she may be able to see eye to eye with me and appreciate my true wish. I’ll keep her close… and I’ll give her a proper upbringing.”
“You really seem taken with her. Quite the big bet you’ve taken on her.”
As expected, the daughters of Houses Ordis, Eusera, Bashle, and Richmond made it into the princess candidates nomination, but that other girl’s inclusion was completely out of the left field.
Not to mention the weirdness of that hodgepodge contract Gilbert came up with to retain her. That makes me wonder, though, does Gilbert have an eye for people too?
My initial expectation was that, knowing him, I just thought he would default to the path of least resistance and choose either the Bashle lady or the Richmond girl.
Along with Trianna, I was trying to figure out who Gilbert would choose and how he would move, but I could never have expected the appearance of that one ordinary girl onto our little drama to produce such an outcome.
“We made it this far, at last.”
It’s strange when I think back, but it feels as if not very long has passed.
Tracing back, it was when Rose passed away and the anti-Roke faction pushed for Gilbert to get married when Trianna started honing her villain act to keep them in check.
Before anti-Roke ideas could poison Gilbert, she protected him by placing Jerik ahead in the line of succession as the Crown Prince. Conversely, before the pro-Roke faction could influence Jerik, she had him engaged to the princess she had determined for him.
She has been performing this dirtiest of roles all that time, but she has never shone brighter in my eyes.
“That hope I envisioned back then is finally taking shape.”
Trianna and I reminisce nostalgically. Back then, she keeps a lot in. Always impatient and silently enduring. Us making it this far is a testament to how strongly we supported each other in moving forward.
In particular, two candidates for succession gave us quite a hard time. Although I decided to watch over their growth patiently with a long view, neither seemed to grow into a fully-fledged man worthy of being king, and I started to feel we were running out of time.
Then my health dwindled, and I realized I was not long for this world. When I thought that all our efforts could be unmade by this cruel twist of fate, I finally rushed to start Gilbert’s princess selection process… but seeing it getting on the path to a good conclusion has been a breath of relief for me.
“But after all, no matter how unwell I was, I really rue collapsing in public view. It was a terrible blunder. Taking on years, it’s not something anyone wants to do.”
“Being concerned with Gilbert’s engagement while attending to all matters regarding our vassals can’t be helped. To top it off, working behind the scenes on our secret project was bound to push your body’s limits. Please be easier on yourself.”
Her genuine consideration soothes my heart.
Since I succeeded to the throne, my vassals’ administration has progressed considerably. The stage for the two kingdoms to abandon their grudges is being set up, gradually removing the old die-hards from positions of power.
While my approach to passing on the reins to the next generation is calm and moderate, Trianna’s is immensely bolder. She feigns favoritism to pro-Roke extremists and appoints them to higher positions temporarily. When the time is right, this creates a pretext for falling out of favor with her, and she strips them of their power summarily. I can’t be anything but astonished by how skillfully she has handled the situation.
A gentle king and a fiery queen with a quicksilver temper. By playing our opposite roles, we have been able to maneuver through all manner of political machinations all these years.
Trianna’s playing a villain and a secret agent for Roke made everything so much easier.
Having placed herself at her faction’s top, she had access to all their information and movements. Who would think that she’d be the one controlling them so they wouldn’t cause too much trouble?
“I really am no match for you. Everything turns the way you want it.”
I say that with genuine admiration to my dear love, but maybe I didn’t choose my words right because her mood soured instantly. She looks at me sternly.
“What on earth are you saying? When have my two foolish sons done anything I want!?”
Speaking from experience, it has never ended well for me whenever we fight. I’d better nip this one in the bud, or I’ll be in trouble.
“I-is that so?”
“To a mother, sons are unfathomable creatures… Their way of thinking and acting goes beyond any expectations. I’ve never understood why they act as they do…”
Trianna pauses for a second, and her eyes stare into the distance as if consumed by a sudden recollection. But a second later, she just exhales in frustration, glaring at me sternly again.
I have no choice but to nod in agreement because she must have reminisced about our second son, Joel. Fortunately, I don’t think Jerik and Gilbert will ever display such outlandish behavior and ideas as his.
But, as I’ve already said, I have no desire for our intimate chat to devolve into a quarrel. In addition to retracting my words, I try to apologize immediately, but it is too late.
“Why are you smiling like that! If our sons were even just a little sincere, we wouldn’t have to deal with much trouble! All of them turned out to be impudent children after all!”
Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And by the tree, I mean you, my dear Trianna. I think so in secret, knowing full well that my head would roll if that thought made it to my mouth. Better try to calm down and let her vent out her frustrations, then say what I’ve been thinking about the matter for a long time now.
“Let’s just try a little longer. And when the dust settles, we can all gather around the table and sip tea as a happy family for once.”
Trianna sketches a sad smile for the briefest of moments. It’s a smile even I have not seen more than once or twice in all our time together. The high hopes and expectations she had for Jerik ended up creating a high and thick wall between them. I have long intended to restore their connection once we no longer have to act our roles in this political play. Surely there couldn’t be a much better reward than that.
But her sad expression disappears in an instant, and she raises her chin proudly, followed by a cold response.
“Do not worry about it, for I plan to act the villain to my last day.”
Even though we’ve both grown old, I still can’t get enough of her gestures and expressions. I even think them cute.
“Even so, won’t you be sad?”
Trianna’s lips curve into a smile.
“That is certain indeed. But that will suit me just fine. Even so, that girl may end up convincing Gilbert this is all just an act.”
“If that boy realizes that, it would be a tremendous sign of growth from him.”
“Indeed it would.”
As we laugh amiably at that thought, a voice is heard outside the door.
“Your Majesty, I have a report to make. May I enter?”
The one who entered was my valet. As he walks up to me, he casts a glance at Trianna and then whispers in my ear.
“Is the Queen hatching yet another… scheme?”
Trianna can tell what is going on and answers with her always bewitching face—the face that everyone here has gotten used to, the face of an overbearing, authoritarian, arrogant, sly queen.
“My, I have no idea what you may be referring to.”
Although he spoke so coldly of Trianna, I’m also pretending to be a king casting a dubious look at his queen. We have become so used to acting in front of others that we switch modes almost automatically.
“I just received a report from the crown prince’s chamberlain that you have made some suspicious movements since I fell ill.”
”Oh, neither Jerik nor I know anything about such things. Would you be so kind as to stop making allegations?”
At my side, the valet stares at Trianna. She is aware of his gaze but doesn’t deign him worthy of a glance and instead looks at me. Even as she plays the crooked villain, her straight-back figure and ability to catch my gaze head-on unperturbed are the definition of high nobility.
“I’ll leave it to you to appraise the situation’s veracity… Continue to carry out your duties. You may leave.”
“At once, my liege!”
Once the valet leaves, I take a breath and turn back to Trianna.
“And so, is any of that true?”
“Oh my, am I under suspicion?”
She brings her hand to her lips as an innocent young maiden. Whenever she changes her facial expressions, she always takes hold of my heart. I couldn’t help but light up and smile at her.
“Everything is in the palm of your hand, isn’t it?”
“I thought I just said that wasn’t the case at all…”
Trianna suddenly looks somewhat dissatisfied again. I wait for her next words.
“I thought of using that girl as bait for the final reveal… Those innocent will make no move, the guilty will. But I already have a hunch the latter will prove true. Those people served me passionately, but… their faith in me may have been misplaced. There’s no helping it.”
I’ve heard that Trianna’s charisma draws people as if to have almost blind confidence in her. It’s very plausible that they would make a move, taking the occasion of my falling ill and Gilbert’s defacto decision on his princess candidate.
“Precautions to ensure that girl’s safety are all in place, right?”
“There’s no need to worry. She is within my inner circle now, is she not? Furthermore, Gilbert’s royal guard has been secretly shifted to protect her as well. It seems that, among others, the Artaud family’s youngest child is planning something while taking account of the situation. It’s simply a matter to enclose and safeguard. At any rate, I don’t think any serious attempt on her person will be made, so I’ll leave it to the young people to deal with the matter.”
To her, even my health collapse was a means to advance her agenda. Above all, that makes me think she has far better eyes and ears than I do. It’s not my intention to just rest on my laurels… but lately, there hasn’t been any occasion for me to shine.
Trianna tilts her head as if suddenly struck by an unexpected realization.
“But, if I may bring up one thing… nothing has happened yet to contradict my assumptions about who will make a move. And we are still in the watch and see phase. The only action I have taken in this situation was to remove the guard posted at the girl’s door. I’m not sure how that will be perceived, but I think it won’t tilt my hand.”
For goodness sake, is there something this woman doesn’t calculate? Even considering the smallest of her commands, those which the people around her wouldn’t give a second thought to, and trying to foresee their ramifications… I’m really no match for her.
I take an inconspicuous breath. Let’s leave it to her. More than anything, this play’s climax will not occur in this act.
“And next in your predictions for this scenario would be our knucklehead sons banding together and come protesting to us, right?”
“Yes, dear, it would appear so to me.”
Trianna beams a smile.
“You’re really… making your villainous face right now, you know.”
“It seems that’s my role. This is the crucial moment that will determine the next decade, Felix. Try not to get in my way, OK?”
Whenever I’m confronted with this villainous smile of hers, there is only one thing I can say.
“Please go easy on me, honey.”