9: His Highness, the Knight and the Present (Part Two)
It was surprisingly easy to meet with Luca without letting members of the Duke’s household catch wind of it.
Luca was enrolled in the Royal Academy of Higher Learning this year. The Academy was founded on the auspiciousness of Gregorio I, the third-generation king and Alphonso’s ancestor. It was located near the royal capital.
Because of the history, royalty also had deep ties with the Academy. Hence, it had magnificent guest rooms for aristocrats.
Alphonso and Laurenz, who visited the Academy secretly, made their way in one of these rooms.
“Excuse me. I’m Luca d’la Love.”
After waiting for Laurenz’s permission, the door opened, and a 14 or 15-year-old youth appeared.
He seemed thin compared to the other youths of the same age. His fair white face was framed with platinum blonde hair reflecting the light, and he looked as beautiful as if the angel statue in the church had been brought to life.
Looking at the small gentleman who bowed elegantly, Laurenz cheerfully called out to him.
“You may be in the presence of His Highness, but since the visit this time is an unofficial one, be at ease. You can take a seat.”
Luca sat down on the opposite seat, not showing as much obligation as his words. The youth’s slender body stood out even more as he sat on the two-seater sofa.
The hands placed on the top of both his laps were covered with black gloves, which was rather bizarre. Alphonso lightly cleared his throat, remembering he was 15 years old.
“Luca d’la Love.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“I have an important task for you. Investigate which thing Lady Philia currently needs the most in one week’s time.”
Luca blinked his big emerald green eyes at Alphonso, who said this in an unnecessarily solemn tone as if he was giving the attack order.
Standing behind Alphonso, Laurenz rubbed his temple as if he had a headache.
“Al… Why are you talking with the same haughty crown prince-like tone you spoke in front of Phily?”
Laurenz lowered his voice and criticized him, probably because he couldn’t scold his master in front of Luca in their first meeting.
“I-I can’t help it. He’s my future brother-in-law, whom Phily loves so much, so I have to pay attention.”
“That’s why I don’t understand why you have to take a high and mighty attitude. I don’t get why it becomes so amusing whenever Phily is involved. Don’t you think your future brother-in-law will be surprised by your arrogant attitude?”
He was young and yet looked so pitiful, Laurenz thought. The reason why he was uncharacteristically caring was that he also had younger siblings he adored.
Luca looked like a quiet young boy who was much thinner than his peers with his light expression. Having the righteous conscience that children are targets of protection, Laurenz gently glanced at Luca to see if he was shriveled from Alphonso’s unnecessary air of intimidation.
But Luca sat there quietly and watched the two senior brothers carefully arguing in low voices.
There wasn’t any startled look in his cold eyes, which were like polished emeralds, but he didn’t show many childlike emotions. Laurenz couldn’t read any emotions either because of Luca’s sparse facial expression.
“Well, Luca, was it? To sum it up, His Highness wants to know what your elder sister wants the most.”
“Don’t you know? Phily’s birthday is next month.”
Luca’s eyebrows twitched.
“You’re Phily’s little brother, so you must be living in the same home, right? You should know that.”
Luca tilted his neck, unperturbed by Alphonso’s words, which were vaguely tinged with envy and jealousy.
“Of course, I remember my elder sister’s birthday, but why so suddenly? Excuse my rudeness, but as far as I know, there’s never a present delivered to my elder sister from Your Highness.”
“What? I delivered them every year without fail.”
“No, there are indeed several gifts from the royal capital, but the message was in the Queen’s name, accompanied with the joint signature card of His Majesty and Your Highness, so my elder sister knows it is from the Queen.”
“What! Is that true!?”
Alphonso asked in shock, to which Luca simply nodded.
Considering how the gift he selected after fretting about it for who knew how many months and sending it every year only for it to be jointly delivered with his family’s names and not even a fragment of his feelings reaching her, his shock was unavoidable.
“Your Highness… don’t tell me you haven’t written the card yourself.”
“T-There’s no need for words between Phily and me…”
“It’s not that it’s unnecessary. Rather, it’s at least sufficient.”
Laurenz’s gaze, whose tone became uncharacteristically polite, was colder than glacial at this point. For Laurenz, even if the gift was arranged by someone else, the attached card should at least be handwritten. He knew girls greatly valued trifling things like this.
So his cold stare glared at the back of Alphonso’s head, wondering why he couldn’t learn even such a simple thing.
“Well, I assume Your Highness wants to offer my elder sister a gift on her birthday, right?”
“That’s correct. Since you understand, keep it in mind.”
Said Alphonso to cover his embarrassment as he slumped back into the chair, and Luca just nodded without much concern.
He was much more mature.
“I understand. But if it’s only this, it’s pretty simple.”
Luca smiled at him. His green eyes glittered as if the statue had suddenly become a human being.
“My elder sister likes cats.”
“Cats? I had no idea.”
“It’s a secret because my father is allergic to cats. If father comes to know this, he has to get my sister a cat even if it makes him sick.”
“No doubt indeed about that.”
Alphonso was convinced of that possibility with how much the Duke doted on Philia.
“She keeps staring whenever a cat comes into the garden and looks extremely sad to see them go. That’s why I thought even if having a real cat is impossible, it would be nice if there were something that could comfort her.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Maybe because he was delighted finally to have some hint, Alphonso looked as if he immediately wanted to go and search for the present, but Laurenz calmly stopped him.
“Please wait, Your Highness. Luca, can I ask you something?”
“What do you think about Phily?”
Luca tilted his head, wondering why he had been asked such a question. Still, he replied immediately.
“She’s my beloved family. She had meticulously taken care of me ever since I was young.”
“But I heard you aren’t speaking with her much recently.”
“That’s because… I’m old enough to understand things. I’m just the son of the Duke’s second wife from her previous marriage, and I can distinguish that my position is different from my elder sister, who’s the only direct descendant of the Duke’s family.”
Luca’s tone, who had been answering dispassionately until now, bittered slightly.
As a foster sibling and close aide of the crown prince, expected to become the right hand of the future king, Laurenz scrutinized as if he was weighing something with his ashen purplish eyes.
Only a 15-year-old boy, Luca received his gaze head-on.
“But it doesn’t change the fact that my sister is important to me.”
“Do you think it’s a good idea to give information about your beloved elder sister to a stranger, even if it’s His Highness?”
That was where Laurenz thought it was fishy.
It should be impossible for Luca not to know that the Duke’s family was deliberately regulating the information about Philia as much as possible. Still, he easily leaked the information, even if it was for her birthday.
“Ah, so this is what it’s all about. Your Highness has feelings for my elder sister and is thinking about marrying her, right?”
“Then isn’t it every brother’s wish to see his sister happy? Beside… “
His stiff green eyes flickered suspiciously for a moment.
“If my elder sister marries in the royal family, the Duke’s position will be mine.”
His eyes were hiding something, something that didn’t match his handsome face, which still had a hint of immaturity.
Laurenz understood. This young man had instantly picked the best choice to see his goal met without being intimidated by the crown prince and his close aid.
He didn’t seem cute anymore, but he wasn’t uninteresting either. Especially his calm and cunning thinking made Laurenz feel something similar to himself, eventually acknowledging Luca.
“If that’s the case, I’ll need your full cooperation.”
“Of course. I will spare no effort to achieve my goal.”
If Alphonso were left on his own, there would be no progress with Philia for the rest of eternity. He would just take some irrelevant steps, fuss around every time, and when the work piled up, he would shift it to Laurenz.
They both took advantage of what they could, and now he had a pawn he could use to his heart’s content.
“I think we will get along very well, Luca.”
Luca only nodded, raising the corner of his mouth without saying anything to Laurenz, who smiled widely while ignoring Alphonso, the concerned party.
At this point, Laurenz’s conjecture was correct in a sense but fundamentally wrong.
Luca did promise to cooperate with Alphonso for his own motives but what he couldn’t guess was his goal wasn’t to obtain the Duke’s position but to tear apart the relationship between Philia and Alphonso completely.
Luca judged that it would not be profitable for him to go against His Highness’ orders which came in the form of a request. It was much more efficient to complete his goal by riding on his opponent’s idea.
It was entirely Laurenz’s failure to misjudge the situation.
Then again, who could have even thought that a 15-year-old boy didn’t mind deceiving the future king and his close aid for his love towards his step-sister?
This was Luca’s victory, who took advantage of his childishness. Perhaps it was at that moment the future was decided.
For now, no one knew about the goal of the young boy with green eyes who was vaguely snickering.
One month later.
After entering the office without any prior warning, as usual, Laurenz looked at the objects left on the office desk suspiciously.
“Is this… real?”
“No. It’s a stuffed toy. It’s a different color from the one I sent Phily.”
“A stuffed toy?”
“It’s well made, right? The fur is a recently developed artificial fur, and the eyes are made of lapis lazuli, Phily’s birthstone.”
The object Alphonso lifted proudly was a stuffed toy, which could be mistaken as the real thing based on its fur and shape.
However, the vivid face and body that seemed to be made by plaster casting, plus the lustrous fur that didn’t make it adorable at all, made it appear like a taxidermied animal.
Lapis lazuli was in place of the cat’s characteristic eyes. At first glance, one would barely tell it was fake. It looked so much like a real cat that most people would be surprised.
“I have been busy with budget compilations these days, and it was my bad not to check, but… was that the stuffed toy you sent Phily?”
“I thought it would make her feel like she had a cat. I’m glad it was done on time. I have also properly added the card this year.”
Laurenz pressed his forehead silently. His master was too disappointing.
He didn’t know if a cat lover would be happy to be presented with something that looked exactly like a cat. More so if it was a young girl. Why couldn’t his wise master understand this simple thing?
“There is a one in a thousand chance that Phily will be delighted… Please let me and Luca inspect the present before sending it next year…”
Not knowing that the main problem wasn’t this, Laurenz abandoned discussing the idea.
At the same time, in the Duke’s mansion.
“Oh, no! Young lady! The young lady fainted… Someone quickly call the doctor!”
On the 18th birthday of the only daughter of the Duke’s family, enough presents to fill up a room were delivered. The maid’s scream echoed from the room full of presents, and the whole family instantly became animated.
Luca snickered lightly while listening to the ruckus from afar.
“Forgive me, sister.”
His white fingers picked up the crystal queen piece from the chessboard nearby. He then kissed the cool crystal piece.
“I will definitely not give you to anyone…”