...

Completed ― The Unwanted Princess Becomes Loved in the Werewolf Kingdom and Becomes Queen!

Chapter 1: The beginning of things

“Have you still not found her?! You useless fools!”

Emperor Karl Heinz shouted, causing the kneeling subjects to clench their fists in unison.

One of them, Count Benjamin Von Engeberg, thought to himself, “This foolish emperor is reaching his limit.”

“The scheduled departure date was today! Are we not going to make it?!”

About a week ago, the Emperor’s youngest daughter, Ermengard, had run away before her wedding procession.

The princess’s marriage destination was the neighboring country, Shenka, the country of the werewolf tribe. It was what they called a political marriage, aimed at strengthening the alliance with that country.

Prejudice against the werewolf tribe was still deeply ingrained in the Bral Empire. Among the few subjects who were informed of the major incident of the bride’s disappearance, it was rumored that they simply didn’t want this marriage to happen.

However, Engeberg, who had long served as the imperial educator and became the Shenka ambassador several years ago, knew Ermengard’s character well.

That princess is not a coward who would flee from a marriage with the barbarians out of fear. We can only speculate about the reasons, but it’s probably because she has a strong will and is using incredibly selfish reasoning.

“Knight Commander! You can’t even find a single naive princess!”

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. With the gag order in place, we can’t devote too many resources to the search.”

The unfortunate Knight Commander bowed his head, but he didn’t forget to be sarcastic. However, the Emperor, who was boiling with rage, didn’t notice the frustration of his subordinates.

Engeberg sighed as he looked down at the ground.

This is what happens when you don’t have a decent relationship with your daughter. If you can only impose things on others and can’t do anything else, it can be said that you don’t have the ability to match your position.

Beside him, Empress Constanze remained silent about both the Emperor’s anger and their daughter’s disappearance. It was proper for her as a wife to step back and support her husband, but incomprehensible as a parent.

“If it has come to this, then there is no other way, Count Engeberg!”

“Yes.”

“Now is the time to use that trump card. Have it serve as Ermengard’s substitute.”

Those words made Engeberg’s blood run cold.

After receiving permission, he looked up to see Karl Heinz’s esteemed face with an ugly grin, showing no signs of reflecting on his inhumane actions.

“But Your Majesty, such recklessness cannot be allowed to pass! Surely it will be exposed somewhere.”

“Are you opposing my words?”

“No, Your Majesty. I am merely stating that the danger of exposure is too great.”

As their name suggests, werewolves are a robust species that possess both human and wolf forms. Even the slightest neglect could result in a terrifying retaliation.

“That is why we need a substitute. If we were to suddenly demand the cancellation of the marriage, what kind of reaction do you think we would receive?”

“But…!”

“This is an imperial decree, Count. There is no need for further argument.”

Engeberg swallowed the rest of his words deep into his throat. Even though he was at an age where retirement was being considered, he couldn’t bear to be executed for the crime of treason.

The most important thing for this emperor was his vanity. He would say things like valuing peace with his mouth, but in his mind, he didn’t want to bow his head to barbarians and the like. It was he who had formed an alliance with Shenka, pressured by their increasing power.

“…Very well. I shall accept your imperial order.”

And so, Engeberg took on the responsibility for the entire scheme.

Chapter 2: Town girl on the frontier 1

Oh divine one, how can one atone for the sin of falsehood?

As she approached the empty lot on the outskirts of the town, Ernesta’s gaze always flew to under the big tree. It was a habit she had.

Eight years ago, she had met a wounded wolf here and treated its injuries.

It was like a fairy tale memory, and she was afraid her family would faint if she told them. So she kept it to herself.

It had been a golden wolf. However, since she was only ten years old at the time, it was more likely that the fur was just a brown color illuminated by the moonlight.

The image of the wolf had become vague now, but she would be so happy if she could meet it again. But the fact that there was no news meant that it was probably doing well somewhere. That was enough for her.

Ernesta smiled faintly and faced forward.

The sound of cicadas chased her from behind. Her body, which had been working hard to gather herbs, was complaining of severe exhaustion. But it was almost time for the sun to set, so she had to hurry home.

Ernesta adjusted the basket with the herbs on her back and began to walk, her braided brunette swings.

As she approached the town center, the streets became more crowded and the shops across the road became lively. Lamps hanging on the eaves shone and reflected in deep green eyes, and the bustling town was filled with people from various countries.

Weisberg was located close to the eastern border and adjacent to the werewolf country, Shenka. Even before forming an alliance, there were quite a few people coming and going from that country, and it was a famous town for transportation.

Then, there was a blacksmith called North Star down a narrow alley. This was where Ernesta lived with her foster parents and it was also an important shop they managed.

However, when she returned home after a few hours, her house looked a little different from before.

First of all, there was an unfamiliar carriage parked in front of the shop. It wasn’t glamorous, but it looked sturdy and robust.

And above all, she could hear noisy voices coming from inside the shop. Upon hearing the bickering voices, Ernesta sighed in exasperation.

Surely, a strange customer had come and was causing trouble.

In this town where a motley crew of people come and go, it was not unusual, so without any particular feeling, Ernesta pushed open the door. But what she saw there was a slightly different scene from what she had expected.

“Please go back! I can’t grant such a request!”

Anyone who met him would, without exception, rub their heads against the ground and beg for forgiveness. His words and the aura emanating from his back had an immense power.

“Please! This is a crisis for the Bral Empire…!”

The man with an unrecognizable face was rubbing his forehead on the floor with a desperate cry. He had a noble appearance, but his groveling posture made him lose all his dignity.

Ernesta’s foster father, Bruno, faced the man. He was a big man with bulging muscles who seemed to be a blacksmith, and while he was actually gentle and family-oriented, his face was twisted with anger now.

As soon as Bruno saw Ernesta, he raised his eyebrows. He untangled his crossed arms and gestured for her to leave this place.

It was clear that a considerable abnormal situation was occurring, and Ernesta felt that she had to lend her father a hand. However, during that brief hesitation, the man who was kneeling down noticed Ernesta’s presence and turned around to face her.

The man was probably around fifty years old. His face, marked with wrinkles, twisted in distress. However, when he caught sight of Ernesta, his eyes widened as if they were about to overflow.

“Ermengard-sama…!”

For Ernesta, who had a complicated background, that name was special.

Her unseen elder sister. And the name of the first imperial princess of our country, whom she would never meet.

Ernesta was born as the daughter of the current emperor and empress of the Bral Empire. The only thing that was different from the norm was that she was the younger twin.

In the Bral imperial family, twins were considered ominous. If twins were born, the younger child would be immediately killed, and it would never be made public.

The second imperial princess was lucky. Isolte, who was the palace’s astronomer at the time, offered to become her foster parent.

If such an offer was made, permission would be granted on the condition that the child was raised in the common people’s area. And so, Ernesta has been raised as a regular citizen until today.

“I can’t believe it, they really are identical…! What a surprise!”

The man sighed in admiration and was at a loss for words. Just from his reaction, Ernesta realized that he knew about her origin.

“Ernesta-sama! I am Benjamin Von Engeberg!”

The man—Engeberg—now prostrated himself before Ernesta.

“W-What is it? Please raise your head…!”

“I have been sent by His Majesty the Emperor to request your assistance.”

Engeberg did raise his head, but he remained sitting on the floor without making any further movements.

Ernesta looked at Bruno with a perplexed gaze. He repositioned his arms without changing his furious expression and shouted at the emperor’s messenger without regard for his status.

“I told you to leave! Don’t come here asking for this child’s help now. Have some shame!”

Judging from his tone, it seemed that Bruno had already been informed of the situation. He was completely enraged and there was no turning back, but she couldn’t just chase the messenger away without knowing the reason behind it.

“Calm down, Dad. I can’t just ignore their request without even listening, especially since they did something for us before.”

“Forget what they did, Ellie. You don’t owe them a thing!”

Ernesta was almost killed at birth and abandoned by the country’s authorities. It might not seem like a big deal now, but…

“This person is a noble. We could easily threaten and make them obey us, but they are willing to have a sincere discussion. If we just reject them without any explanation, it will damage the reputation of North Star.”

When facing her father head-on and making her point, he sighed and shook his head.

“…Fine. I didn’t want to introduce you to them because I knew you would say that.”

Bruno understood his daughter’s stubborn personality well. Ernesta felt sorry for her father’s consideration and turned back to Engeberg.

“Indeed, I am Ernesta Gentner. Please tell me your story.”

“Ernesta-sama…! Thank you very much!”

Engeberg lowered his head, his voice trembling with emotion. Then, he told her an incredibly sudden and unexpected story.

“I humbly request that you marry in Shenka in place of Ermengard-sama!”

“…Excuse me?”

Ernesta’s response was rude, given the content of the request, but Engeberg seemed not to mind at all.

“Surely you know that Ermengard-sama will soon be marrying King Ivan of Shenka, our neighboring country?”

“Uh, yes… I’m aware of that. It’s a national celebration.”

Shenka, the neighboring country, is a unique nation with a small territory mainly inhabited by werewolves. Despite its small size, it boasts military power comparable to that of a large country due to the outstanding martial skills of its individuals, making it a peculiar country.

They generally have high physical abilities, and it’s interesting to see everyone who comes to this shop buying big weapons. They have both wolf and human forms, and they give the impression of being generally hearty and serious people.

“As a matter of fact, Ermengard-sama was very reluctant about this marriage. And finally, she ran away all by herself.”

It was a sudden and unbelievable story.

The first princess ran away without any companions? If that were true, it would undoubtedly be a major event that would shake the entire country.

“Ermengard-sama was an artist who devoted herself only to painting. Her farewell letter only stated that she would go and paint the world… So, while we searches for Ermengard-sama, we would like you to marry into Shenka.”

“W-Wait a minute! This conversation is jumping around too much!”

Bruno nodded sullenly in the back. He must have been thinking the same thing and asking the same questions.

“Normally, shouldn’t the marriage be annulled?! fraud on a national scale is unacceptable!”

“Shenka and us had finally formed an alliance a year ago. We must solidify our relationship through marriage, and it would undoubtedly cause a significant rift if we were to cancel it at the last minute. By the decree of His Imperial Majesty, this plan was put into action.”

Ernesta felt dizzy. She had tried not to think too much about her birth parents’ personality, but it seemed that she couldn’t expect much from them.

“But, won’t they notice that we’ve switched? I don’t have the education of a princess.”

“That won’t be a problem. Ernesta-sama and Ermengard-sama are incredibly identical, so no one will undoubtedly notice.”

“Even so…! Is it really possible to find Ermengard-sama?”

“At present, we are doing everything in our power to find her. It is only a matter of time until we discover her whereabouts.”

With no rebuttal, Ernesta fell silent. His eyes held no lies, only a deep earnestness, despite the outrageous plan.

“I cannot handle such a great task. Even if our faces look alike, I am not a princess.”

Ernesta listened carefully and came to that conclusion.

Yes, such a lofty role did not suit her. She lived day by day helping out at the shop, hoping to someday marry someone and build an ordinary household. She believed without a doubt that no matter how she was born, her family who raised her was the most important, and she did not want to worry them.

However, Engeberg did not back down easily.

“Of course, if you were to take on this duty, we will prepare an appropriate reward. Is it possible that Isolte-dono is currently ill?”

Bruno’s reaction to the remark was quicker than Ernesta’s. It seemed that he had not heard it before, as he turned his sharp gaze towards the messenger.

“I don’t recall ever saying such a thing.”

“It’s something that can be understood with a little thought. When I arrived, a pharmacist came out of this shop. Inside, there were two men, you and who seemed to be your son, and both of you looked healthy. And the person who actually took in Ernesta-sama, Isolte-dono, has not shown her face during this crisis. Therefore, it should be assumed that it is Isolte-dono who is sick.”

Ernesta and Bruno both gasped at the sharp insight. Meanwhile, Engeberg calmly continued to present his thoughts.

“There are a large number of medicinal herbs in the basket that Ernesta-sama is carrying. Therefore, it is natural to assume that Isolte-dono’s condition is expected to continue in the future.”

It was an undeniable fact, derived from his tremendous powers of observation.

Ernesta was left speechless, but her father did not seem to be.

“…What are you trying to say?”

Bruno intimidated the messenger with his deep and rumbling voice. Despite the intimidating tone, Engeberg did not show any signs of fear and accepted the ultimately affirmative response.

“If you accept, we will provide you with our country’s latest medical treatment.”

Chapter 3: Town girl on the frontier 2

“Is that true…?!”

This time, Ernesta cried out.

She remembered the emaciated face of her foster mother who had been bedridden for a year, and at the same time, she felt as if a beam of light was shining through the clouds.

“The Emperor has ordered us to fulfill any wish you may have. If Ernesta-sama nods, we will dispatch the best pharmacist tomorrow.”

“I understand. I will accept the offer.”

It was an immediate response. If there was a chance that her mother could be saved, she was willing to do anything. No matter how dangerous the plan was or how reckless the mission was, she didn’t care.

“What are you saying, Ellie! Are you really going to trust what this man says?!”

It was Bruno who raised objections, as expected.

Ernesta faced the stern-faced Bruno firmly. No matter what he said, even if it would make her dear father sad, she had no intention of backing down.

“Dad, there’s a possibility that mom could be cured. And it’s the most promising option we’ve had so far.”

“It’s no use! Being a substitute and marrying someone like that Shenka’s king! Especially him, the ruthless Werewolf King!”

The king of Shenka is famously known as a ruthless Werewolf King, feared as a demon in battle, and having no hesitation to send his subordinates to their deaths.

“I don’t care what happens to me. Whatever happens to me, I wouldn’t trade Mom’s life for anything.”

Feeling his daughter’s determination, Bruno was briefly silenced.

However, he did not fully agree with it and soon glared at her with burning eyes.

“You foolish daughter! You cannot ensure your Mom’s happiness just by sacrificing yourself like this!”

“Yes, it’s only for my own satisfaction. I won’t tell Mom about the substitution, so it’s fine, right?”

“That’s the problem! It concerns not only your life but also your future!”

His angry voice shook the entire shop. It may have even reached Isolte’s bedroom, but hopefully, she didn’t hear the details.

Ernesta felt Bruno’s concern so deeply that it made her heart ache.

In this situation, it was agonizing not to be asked to sacrifice herself for Isolte. While Bruno believed that there was nothing more important than his wife’s life, he made the difficult decision, weighing his stepdaughter’s life against his own wife.

It is enough. These beloved parents showered me with just as much love as they gave to my younger brother.

I must repay them. Considering all the kindness I have received until now, it’s not enough, but I have to do something.

“Mom saved my life. So now, I will save Mom. Even if the possibility of success is only 1 percent, I will do everything I can. No matter what Dad says, I absolutely will not stop!”

Ernesta’s impressive declaration blew away the intense atmosphere for a while, but then Bruno averted his eyes from her and let out a deep sigh. He did so with the weight of the words he had to tell himself.

“If that’s the case, then do whatever you want. It seems I raised you incorrectly. I should have made sure to remind you to prioritize yourself in the end. If you were more cunning and flexible like most people, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Ernesta’s heart filled up with self-deprecation mixed with a joke in his muttered words.

She wanted to apologize for causing worry, but she couldn’t find the right words to say and remained silent. As she did, Bruno raised his face and glared at Engebert.

“Three months. Even if Ermengard-sama is not found, you must return her in three months. Got it?”

Engeberg calmly nodded at the intimidating assertion, saying, “We will definitely find her.”

Bruno still had a sharp look in his eyes, but he didn’t say anything further.

As they opened the door connecting the store to their residence, Ernesta nearly screamed in surprise when her younger brother was waiting for them.

“I was so… surprised! Konrad, did you hear that?”

“Isn’t it obvious?! Why does it always have to be like this, Nee-san?!”

Konrad is fifteen years old this year. He is a cute and intelligent younger brother, with short, rigid hair, and intellectual eyes just like both parents. He knows the secret of Ernesta’s birth, and even though he knows it, he still adores his big sister.

Although his harsh words were usual, Ernesta stopped in her tracks, surprised to see him this angry.

“You’re always being so reserved like this…! You’re just doing it to look cool!”

“Konrad, listen. I——”

“I won’t! If you’re willing to sacrifice yourself, then do it yourself!”

When did he learn such adult-like expressions? Ernesta still thought he was a child, but he had already surpassed her in height.

This brother rarely expresses condolences in words, but Ernesta knows he is truly kind at heart.

“Please protect Mom, okay?”

“I don’t need to be told that! You’re an idiot!”

Konrad screamed with a red face and angrily left the house.

Feeling Heartbroken by their argument, Ernesta walked again, this time to say a temporary goodbye to her mother.

After knocking and entering the room, Isolte was wide awake and sitting up in bed, welcoming Ernesta.

“Ellie, what happened? Are you okay?”

Ernesta felt uneasy seeing Isolte’s arm and neck exposed, with only skin and bones visible from her nightwear.

Even though she was bedridden, Isolte was still beautiful. Her chestnut hair pulled back in a single bun, and her blue eyes that never lost their shine. They were different from the colors that Ernesta possessed and felt painfully distant at that moment.

There probably wasn’t much time left for her. Thanks to the recent incident, there was a glimpse of hope for her treatment, which was truly fortunate.

“It’s okay. Dad just got into an argument with a guest.”

“Ugh, your Dad has a terrible temper. Did the argument end peacefully, then?”

“Yeah, both of them seemed to have reached an understanding.”

Up to this point, Ernesta had told no lies. However, as she faced her visibly relieved mother, she felt the pain in her chest as if it were about to burst.

“Mom, I’ve actually been thinking of going into service.”

Isolte’s eyes opened wide. Ernesta apologized for surprising her with such a sudden topic, then sat down on the chair next to the bed and held her mother’s thin hand.

“But it’s only for three months, and this store will get busier. Can you forgive me?”

No, in truth, an imperial messenger had come. Ernesta should have told Isolte everything since she had raised her, but she didn’t.

“Ellie, you’re pushing yourself too hard.”

Ernesta was struck by the accuracy with which Isolte had read her thoughts and involuntarily tensed her hand. That small movement must have conveyed her emotions to Isolte.

“What’s going on? I’ve told you before that you don’t have to worry about my medical expenses.”

This blacksmith shop is making a decent profit. So far, they haven’t had any trouble with the cost of medicine, but that’s why the fact that Isolte wasn’t getting better had been frustrating for Ernesta.

Ernesta would never leave her sick mother behind for meaningless service. Isolte understood her daughter’s personality well and probably felt uneasy about her sudden offer.

“Well, that’s not the reason. I want to go to the north to study dyeing.”

“The north?”

“Yes. Don’t you hear that the northern people have amazing skills? I’ve always wanted to go there.”

Although it was a good lie for an impromptu excuse, the reasoning for the unnatural offer was somewhat doubtful. Of course, Isolte was not convinced enough to believe it, and after staring into her daughter’s eyes for a while, she finally laughed wryly.

“It seems like you’ve already decided. Okay, have a good trip.”

“… Is it okay?”

“Yes. As they say, ‘let cute kids go on a journey.’ You won’t pull back once you’ve decided.”

Isolte laughed and said, “You’ve inherited my bad parts.” Ernesta felt a mixture of guilt, loneliness, gratitude, and various emotions, and her vision blurred without her understanding why.

Will the best pharmacist be able to cure Mom while I’m away?

If they can’t…what if something happens while I’m gone…?

No, I shouldn’t think about that possibility. Ernesta must go, even if she cannot be there for her mother’s final moments.

If not, it wouldn’t be a debt that could ever be repaid.

“Hey, Mom. Why did you raise me? Why did you help me so much?”

Isolte had to leave the palace after saving a baby who was about to be killed. Despite working at the country’s top research institution, studying her beloved astronomy had to be abandoned as she took on the responsibility of carrying another person’s child into the city at only twenty years old. Ernesta doesn’t have any memory of that time, but she surely went through unimaginable hardships.

Perhaps Isolte was thinking about something serious when she saw her daughter’s earnest gaze, as she seemed to adjust her posture a little. Her gentle smile still remained on her face, however.

“Well, I think that’s because I was also the tutor for the current Empress when she was a princess. I didn’t want to see her sad. But more than anything, that baby was so adorable. It’s because you were smiling.”

Unaware of the fact that the baby was destined to die, she had innocently laughed.

Such arrogance that seeks to erase such a pure life for the convenience of adults. Isolte thought bitterly, unable to forgive it.

How Mom-like her motives were.

As a mother, as a woman, and above all as a human being, Ernesta thought she was someone she admired.

It was good to have been raised by this person. She was probably the luckiest person in the world.

She wanted the baby to live, no matter what kind of suffering she had to endure herself.

“Mom, I’ll do my best. So please do your best, too.”

When she declared her determination, Isolte also nodded strongly.

“Okay, thank you, Ernesta. Is that okay? When you feel down, just count the stars.”

“I know, it makes my own worries feel so small that I don’t care anymore right? I understand.”

Isolte also smiled contentedly as her daughter made a gesture of looking up to the sky with a self-satisfied expression.

Chapter 4: Encounter with the king of the country 1

Ernesta is now dressed in a traditional Shenka outfit called “Arkrig,” standing in front of a tightly closed door.

The color is pale red and the satin material is of the highest quality, even discernible to an amateur. The hem widens at the waist, and the sleeve with a slit flip over, resembling that of a goddess of spring.

Her hair is not in the usual pigtails but half-up, with cascading strands framing her face. The attire exudes a different atmosphere from Bral’s culture, filled with emotional excitement and sparkle that would make any young girl’s heart flutter.

But that’s only if it wasn’t her wearing it.

Ernesta let out a sigh. The hurriedly made princess costume would surely give a meager impression at first glance. If it were Ermengard with the same face, she would exude elegance without a doubt.

What kind of person is this king on the other side of the door? If he is faced with someone like her, surely he would be disappointed, but there’s nothing else to do but prepare oneself for the worst.

The servant pushes open the heavy door. In that brief moment, Ernesta decided to contemplate on what she must do.

❂❂❂

Having said goodbye to her dear friends, people in town, and family, Ernesta was now being carried in a carriage with Engeberg.

The deadline was three months. Of those, six weeks would be spent on round-trip travel, meaning that she would only have to act as Ermengard for half of the actual time.

Even in such a short time, she wanted to show her gratitude to the people who took care of her. With that in mind, Ernesta timidly smiled at the gentleman in front of her.

“Nice to meet you. Um, should I call you Count Engeberg?”

As she spoke while gauging the distance between them, Engeberg smiled at her with a troubled expression.

“It’s okay. However, I would appreciate it if you could talk to me more comfortably. Ermengard-sama doesn’t have to use honorifics with her subordinates.”

“Oh no! That, that’s impossible!”

Nobles are a presumptuous presence to commoners, even the act of seeing their face can be audacious. So, even if suddenly asked to talk more easily, it’s not an easy thing to do.

“Please, I beg of you. This plan is risky and will end on the spot if it’s exposed. With your skills, you could avoid the danger.”

Engeberg seems to maintain this attitude even in an empty room. He is bound by absolute loyalty to the imperial clan as a noble, but Ernesta is just a commoner.

“I understand… I’ll do my best. As much as I can.”

“That would be very helpful.”

“Um, Count Engeberg, do you happen to know Ermengard-sama well?”

Ernesta tried to correct her speech to be polite, but Engeberg just smiled wryly and said nothing.

He may be sharp, but fundamentally he is a kind-hearted person.

“I do know her well. I have been a lecturer on the history of Ermengard-sama.”

“I see… that’s how it was. In that case, could you tell me about Ermengard-sama? I’m afraid I’ll be suspected if I come back and my personality and behavior are too different.”

It’s only natural for Ernesta to think that if she’s going to do it, she should do it properly and not raise any suspicions.

“Ernesta-sama, you don’t have to try to imitate that person.”

Despite that, she was turned down flatly. Being able to imitate just the tone of voice is quite a sloppy substitute.

“Why not?”

“It’s impossible. Ermengard-sama’s unique way of speaking, thinking, and acting… none of it can be understood by someone with a common sense.”

It was a pretty harsh thing to say. Ernesta, who suddenly became interested in her real older sister, felt a bottomless sense of anxiety and her face twitched.

“Um, what do you mean?”

“That person is a genius, in a bad way.”

In response, Engeberg was calm and collected. His expression and tone of voice clearly showed resignation.

“But if there is one thing I can say, it’s that she is a very resolute person. She always carries herself with dignity and I have never seen her in a panic.”

“That’s amazing. I don’t think I could ever not panic no matter what happens.”

Ernesta slumped her shoulders in disappointment, realizing that she couldn’t possibly imitate the only feature she had gained. Engeberg seemed to understand and nodded easily.

“Ernesta-sama seems to have a sensible personality, so it would be best for her to continue as she is. Once Ermengard-sama returns, let her think that she has gotten used to it and is just being herself.”

“Is it okay to do that? Are you sure everything will be fine?”

“It can’t be helped. This plan is insane, so let’s take advantage of the possibility that they won’t even consider it.”

Although the last line sounded like they were saying they weren’t sane, Ernesta decided not to touch upon that since Engeberg’s eyes looked exhausted. It seemed that he was quite a hard worker.

“Will Count Engeberg stay here in Shenka for the time being?

“Yes, I plan to stay until Ermengard-sama arrives. Also, I will keep the letter from His Majesty the Emperor in safekeeping. Surprisingly, there is a lot of work.”

“Oh, I see. That must be tough for you.”

Engeberg spoke as if it was nothing, but his eyes seemed to be looking into the distance.

“By the way, we communicate with those who are searching for Ermengard-sama through carrier pigeons. With a transmission rate of over 80%, it is a very convenient means of communication.”

“Wow! It must have been tough to train them.”

“Haha… I never thought they would be this useful…”

His smile still lacked power.

Ernesta nodded while confident that this ambassador was a hardworking and industrious person.

“In that case, please tell me about King Shenka. I want to know all the necessary information.”

“Hmm, Ernesta-sama is diligent. I am impressed.”

Although it was not diligence but rather a little bit of curiosity and wanting to avoid mistakes as much as possible by obtaining information, Engeberg looked satisfied.

“The fearsome Werewolf King. He is cruel and merciless, lacking any compassion, and will not hesitate to cut down even his subordinates if necessary. Despite significantly developing his country during his eight-year reign, he is a man who shows no blood or tears, driving his compatriots into other countries’ battles. He is also a genius of war, possessing swordsmanship skills that have no rivals and is feared as a demon on the battlefield. This is probably all you have heard about him.”

Ernesta nodded, conveying agreement. The Bral Empire is well aware of the ruthless Werewolf King of Shenka.

However, whether it was true or false, it could not be a reason to refuse the request. That’s why she hadn’t confirmed it until now.

“So, what’s your opinion?”

“I think his greatest achievement was organizing the werewolf warriors scattered throughout different regions as part of the king’s army. He also formed alliances with several countries, displaying a tremendous political acumen. Although I have only met him a few times, he left the impression of being a composed and strong-willed person.”

Engeberg spoke calmly but ultimately concluded that he couldn’t say more. He didn’t know the person well enough to speak freely, and he didn’t want to make unwarranted speculations.

Indeed, he was right. Ernesta had no intentions of judging someone’s character based solely on rumors about them, especially without meeting them in person.

“Ernesta-sama, you should try to become friendly with King Ivan.”

“Reasonably friendly?”

“Yes. This marriage is an important part of strengthening the alliance between the two countries. If we don’t show a willingness to compromise, we don’t know what kind of trouble it might cause.”

The relationship between the werewolf nation of Shenka and the Bral Empire was still relatively new. With their overwhelming physical capabilities and ability to transform into wolves, it was understandable that people would feel a sense of awe towards them.

“It’s not nice to approach them with such feelings just because you can pick on them.”

Ernesta does not hold any prejudice against the werewolf tribe. She has had some interactions with them in the border town, and she knows they are a similar species with kindness and are no different from themselves.

“Indeed, it is not good for building a trusting relationship. However, your job is to serve as Ermengard-sama’s substitute.”

Ernesta felt embarrassed by the reasonable suggestion.

It’s true. If they get too close, the risk of her substitute status being exposed will increase.

“Don’t underestimate the divide between werewolves and humans. Just nine years ago, Shenka was at war with the neighboring country, Leutravia. Some werewolves still remember the horrifying experience of war with humans and there are many who express hatred toward them.”

Ernesta doesn’t know much about that war. Although neighboring countries were in conflict, it was an event taking place far away geographically.

Engeberg honestly tells Ernesta about the bad relationship with the werewolf tribe. Although grateful for the information, imagining her days in that country made Ernesta’s heart sink.

“Do your best to maintain a moderate and good relationship without revealing your true feelings. That’s the mission that has been assigned to you.”

It was an extremely difficult requirement. Engeberg probably knows that too well. He avoided her gaze with an apologetic expression and looked out the window.

Ernesta is filled with inexplicable anxiety. She also turned her gaze to the scenery outside that was swaying and flowing.

Will the good relationship that is convenient for them be realized?

Chapter 5: Encounter with the king of the country 2

The capital city of Shenka is located in the mountainous area and is much cooler than Bral during this season. However, wearing long robes still makes it feel quite hot, and due to nervousness, Ernesta has forgotten how to stop sweating.

Focus. This is the time to test her natural bravery, so she must perform her duties properly.

Ernesta took a deep breath and straightened her chest, looking ahead.

As the heavy ornate door opened, a large hall like something out of a fairy tale appeared before her.

Befitting the most important place in the castle, the ceiling was open, and exotic designs were engraved all over.

Many nobles were waiting below, and they were sitting directly on the carpet according to the country’s culture. When Ernesta appeared, they all fell silent at once, intensifying the tension in the room.

She felt the piercing scrutiny of their eyes all over her body, and her hands were sweating.

Engeberg, who was her only ally, now walks behind her and can’t be relied on if she makes any mistakes.

Ernesta walked calmly. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the luxury of worrying about appearing as elegant as possible, and it was all due to the man sitting in the deepest part of the hall, lounging in a relaxed manner.

The man was wearing a long coat called chokha and leather boots.

The color was black, which was allowed only for heroes, and delicate gold embroidery was applied. Although not flashy, it seemed to amplify his presence. He had an ammunition belt around his chest, and a short sword was hung from his waist, which was suitable for the leader of the werewolf tribe that had prospered as a hunting nation in the past.

Golden hair shone in the sunlight streaming through the window. Under his bangs were deeply blue and determined-looking eyes, firmly fixed on the woman who would become his bride. He was about 28 years old, with a straight nose and lips with just the right thickness, forming a straight line.

It was clear from the moment she saw him that this beautiful man was King Ivan Leopold Urbashek of this country.

While she was engrossed, she had arrived before the king before she realized it. Fortunately, her body moved automatically and she performed the Shenka-style greeting.

“Relax.”

When she heard his voice, she looked up and saw that the king had also stood up and was looking down at her.

He was quite tall and had the sturdy build of a warrior. His majestic stance was intimidating, but Ernesta managed to stand her ground and not retreat.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty. My name is Ermengard Hera Balzen. I humbly ask for your permission to stay by your side in the future.”

“Welcome from afar, Princess. I’m sure I will be putting you through some hardships, but I look forward to working with you in the future.”

The sense of relief Ernesta felt after managing to say what she needed to say was immediately silenced by the king’s formal and expressionless response.

His manly beauty didn’t reveal any emotions and his offered hand was covered in gloves, so she couldn’t feel his temperature. Once they finished the obligatory handshake, applause erupted in the hall, signaling that she had passed the first challenge.

However, the anxiety swirling in her heart only grew stronger.

The guilt of deceiving such a splendid ruler of a nation.

And above all, the difficulty of fulfilling her mission to become close to him.

Those deep-colored beautiful eyes that seemed to see through everything, like the night sky.

——Do they resemble someone?

Without any context, Ernesta found herself thinking that and quickly closed off her thoughts in a panic.

She couldn’t afford to be thinking of meaningless things now. She simply had to leave this place without any mistakes.

Ernesta smiled, but Ivan surprisingly didn’t react at all. It was a cold and dignified attitude that was in line with his reputation as “The Ruthless Werewolf King.”

After a brief audience that ended with only a greeting, Ernesta was able to easily escape from the grand hall.

“Ermengard-sama, you were splendid.”

“…Thank you, Count Engeberg.”

Engeberg offered words of comfort, but Ernesta’s reaction was momentarily delayed by the unfamiliar name he called her.

It was only a short while ago when they arrived at Shenka’s royal castle. Since then, he started calling her “Ermengard”, but she couldn’t get used to it so easily.

It was a small matter that those around them didn’t particularly pay attention to, but it made her worry about the future.

“The wedding ceremony is tomorrow. Please rest well today.”

“Yes, I will. The same to you, Count Engeberg.”

At times like this, what would a real princess say? Something like “You have worked hard. You may step down now,” would be appropriate, right?

If that were the case, it would be a difficult behavior for Ernesta to follow. She couldn’t possibly act so arrogantly towards someone like Engeberg, who was her superior.

Although Engeberg let out a faint wry smile, there was nothing for him to say as expected.

Ernesta was to start living in the queen’s chambers from today. She followed the guidance of the two maids dressed in navy uniforms, and they arrived at a beautifully arranged room.

The interior of the room, unified in vermilion and woodgrain colors, seemed to be designed primarily for a calm atmosphere.

This room also incorporates abundant elements of this culture, with a gorgeous patterned rug near the fireplace, and three cushions placed on it. The curtains are tied with tasseled ropes, an embroidered screen is placed next to the bed, and the delicate and beautiful sculptures on the furniture are all things that tickle a young girl’s heart.

All of them were so impressive that Ernesta forgot about her position and was moved by them.

“What a lovely room…”

This room was ten times larger than her own room back in her family’s residence, and she felt that it was too wasteful. But surely, any princess in the world would instantly fall in love with it without hesitation.

“Ermengard-sama, allow me to introduce myself again. I am the head maid Rougena. From now on, I will be responsible for everything concerning your daily life, so please keep me in mind.”

The woman who introduced herself first was probably in her fifties and had a clear, beautiful face. She tightly tied her white hair and had a stern look, pursing her lips.

“I, I am Dasha!”

The girl who vigorously lowered her head seemed to be about fifteen years old. The maid with copper-colored hair tied up her petite body in tension. As expected, Rougena noticed it and coughed loudly.

“Dasha, why are you so nervous?”

“I, I’m sorry…! Ermengard-sama, I will be taking care of you from today. Please forgive my clumsiness and let me serve you with a generous heart…!”

Ernesta felt sorry as she was bowing her head in fear.

Dasha is to become the queen’s attendant, and she must be a daughter from a historic and distinguished family. She was not someone that a commoner like Ernesta could even look at.

“Dasha, it’s okay. I’m not angry.”

Ernesta said, smiling at the two of them after Dasha lifted her trembling face.

“I am Ermengard Hera Balzen. Nice to meet you both.”

She intended to greet them as planned, but the maidservants’ reaction was somehow dull.

Perhaps they were confused. Ernesta felt that there was a much thicker wall than she expected between them than just the situation of a first meeting, so she, too, felt puzzled.

There might be a deeper rift between the werewolf tribe and humans than she had thought. With a feeling like a conviction, she smiled as elegantly as possible.

Chapter 6: Wedding Night

In conclusion, Ernesta did not remember much from the wedding ceremony.

During the entire ceremony, she was extremely nervous and desperate not to make any mistakes.

Even a simple bow required an extraordinary effort for Ernesta to show the genuine gestures of a princess.

She had to walk gracefully with her back straight, while still being delicate.

She also had to sign the contract with a handwriting similar to “her” own, which was previously practiced.

Despite being nervous, she had to smile happily.

Furthermore, she had to speak politely and quietly, avoiding questions that she couldn’t answer.

Ernesta had been nervous and tense the whole time, but there was only one thing on her mind.

Did the king forget how to smile?

She was finally released from the ceremony when the night was already deep.

Although Ernesta had an urge to jump into the bed still wearing her gorgeous dress, Rougena spoke to her before she could succumb to her desire.

“Your Highness, we will first escort you to the bath. Please follow me.”

The use of “Your Highness” has become so established around her, and Ernesta couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. Regardless of her birth, she is a commoner, and such treatment makes her uneasy.

Upon entering the dressing room, Rougena immediately began to remove her bridal attire.

“I understand that you will bathe alone, are you sure?”

“Yes, it’s fine.”

Finally freed from the tight corset, Ernesta let out a sigh.

Apparently, werewolves don’t have a tradition of having attendants even if they are nobles when taking a bath. This is fortunate for Ernesta who was raised in a commoner’s area.

“Thank you. Well then, I will take my leave.”

Rougena bowed gracefully and left the room without a smile.

Ernesta was finally alone and collapsed weakly in her unreliable underwear.

She was tired. She was just so tired.

To be honest, she didn’t want to do anything anymore. If the dressing room was this spacious, she could just lie down on some random piece of cloth and sleep.

However, she knew that such things were not permitted. After all, there was now a job that was more important than anything else.

She started to feel a stomach ache. No, it’s okay. If she remembers what Engeberg said, she should be able to calm down a bit.

❂❂❂

“Regarding the first night, I would like you to guide him in a way that doesn’t result in consummation.”

It was during the journey in the carriage in Shenka when Engeberg listed various confirmation items. Ernesta blinked both eyes at Engeberg’s instruction.

“Why? Can I really do something like that?”

“Yes. In fact, we would be in trouble if you didn’t do that.”

Unable to hide her shock, Ernesta looked at the competent ambassador, who awkwardly cleared his throat.

“I know you may not like to hear a man say these things, but, in short, “Ermengard-sama” must remain pure. Oh no, that’s not what I mean. I absolutely do not look at women in that way. Absolutely not. This information was obtained from a maid who accompanies Ermengard-sama.”

“Understood, Count. Don’t worry, I won’t have any strange misunderstandings,” Ernesta said with a smile.

Interrupted by his own laughter, Engeberg, who had realized his mistake, blushed and returned to his explanation.

“In other words, if Ermengard-sama returns as a maiden, there is a high chance that His Majesty will notice. If someone who has already been intimate suddenly returns as a maiden, anyone would be suspicious.”

“That’s right. I understand.”

It was a convincing argument. Ernesta shook her reddened face up and down, feeling embarrassed by the candid content.

The truth was that she was relieved to hear it.

She was ready to endure anything. But still, she couldn’t completely shake off her fears of the unknown act.

“Okay, understood. I’ll do my best to avoid it.”

“Please do. It will be better for you, Ernesta-sama.”

Surprisingly, she was given words of sympathy, and Ernesta was surprised.

“Do you worry about me?”

“Of course. You are a kind-hearted young lady who values her parents, and we have asked for an unreasonable request from you. If possible, we would like to let you go back as you are.”

Ernesta’s parents are Bruno and Isolte. He couldn’t have imagined how happy she would be to hear others acknowledging it. Grateful that the ambassador was Engeberg, Ernesta reiterated her appreciation and nodded strongly.

❂❂❂

By the time she got out of the bath, she was even more exhausted. Her head was full of thoughts on how to overcome this difficult situation.

Despite receiving several ideas, she knew she was not skilled, having never had a single lover before.

Rougena quickly arrived and began to polish Ernesta. As powder was tapped onto her face and a light blush brushed on, reality was beginning to overwhelm her and she felt suffocated.

“You look beautiful, Your Majesty.”

“Thank you.”

Ernesta interpreted the flat praise from the head maid as flattery. She thought that it was ridiculous that such a beautiful white nightdress would suit her. However, in reality, Ernesta looked like a perfect princess to anyone who laid their eyes on her. Her three weeks of efforts, combined with her naturally symmetrical features, had created a flawless princess that had nothing to be ashamed of.

“Please smile. This is your duty as the queen of this country, Your Highness.”

Rougena looked at her with emotionless eyes.

Yes, of course, this was her duty. What would this steel-hearted head maid think if she found out that Ernesta intended to abandon this duty?

Ernesta was led not to her own room, but to a bedroom beyond another door. As soon as the door closed, Ernesta tensed up and walked hesitantly towards the room’s occupant.

Ivan was sitting on a fur rug, reviewing some parchment. Perhaps Ernesta had kept him waiting for a long time.

But really, she was feeling more nervous by the second. If she spoke now, her teeth would surely chatter. Although she had always been confident in her own courage, it was of no use in this difficult situation.

In that moment of desperation, a sudden realization hit her.

——Isn’t this the first time I’m facing him alone?

What kind of person is he?

He is the man with the talents to make the feared Werewolf Tribe a force respected by the surrounding countries. He was born into respect, and she should not have been able to meet him in the first place.

“Like a rabbit facing a wolf… No, not like a rabbit before a wolf… but like a rabbit before a wolf.

His smile, which she saw for the first time, was ironically twisted.

She couldn’t understand why he was making such a face or what he was saying, so she unintentionally trembled.

Then Ivan’s face twisted even further.

There was no sign of contempt towards Ernesta, which was why his laughter was so puzzling.

“Lady Queen, there’s no need to be so scared. I’m not going to force you to eat anything.”

Ernesta was stunned. What did he just say?

If taken at face value, the meaning would be:

“Let’s go to sleep today. I’m tired too.”

It was an unexpected turn of events. She never thought he would be the one to refuse.

She felt as though a bright light had opened up before her eyes. Ernesta was so relieved that she felt like she was about to collapse, and she didn’t realize that she had let out a faint sigh.

Ivan, who had already regained his expressionless face, suddenly stood up and began to walk. His feet were clearly heading towards the bed, and Ernesta stepped out to follow him.

However, she froze when she saw him take a short knife out of the chest.

——Why would he have such a thing? For self-defense? No, could it be that he knew all along…?

Her thoughts raced wildly, but it turned out to be nothing but needless worry.

Without any hesitation, he slashed his own palm.

She was speechless at what had just happened. As the drops of red stained the sheets, Ernesta was almost running on autopilot.

“What are you doing?!”

Grabbing his hand with a fierce determination, Ernesta saw a deep gash oozing fresh blood.

After thinking of anything else to do with her head spinning, she pulled out the ribbon from her chest and wound it around his palm. By the way, the ribbon was just a decoration, so it was okay to take it off.

“What a terrible wound…! Why did you suddenly do this?”

“To fulfill our duty to each other.”

It certainly made sense, but she couldn’t understand why he had to go that far.

Ernesta gazed in amazement at Ivan, who also seemed surprised for some reason. It was such a fleeting moment that she thought it might have been an illusion, but he quickly put on a poker face and gently shook off Ernesta’s hand.

“Wait, we need to attend to that wound.”

“It’ll heal on its own. It’s not necessary.”

“But!”

“You’re being annoying. I said I don’t need it.”

His voice was quiet when he rebuked her, but it pierced the darkness with an intimidating force.

Ivan’s eyes were tinted with a frigid, night-like shade. Ernesta was frozen by the clear rejection his blue eyes conveyed.

The previous proposal was not a stroke of luck, but a necessity, because the King despises his own wife.

There was nowhere to run from that situation.

Ivan lay on the bed with a jet black ribbon wrapped around his hand, as if the conversation had already ended. Ernesta gazed in amazement at his back, which began to make a snooze sound, then breathed a small sigh of relief and relaxed her shoulders.

It seemed that her temporary husband was quite difficult to deal with.

Why did he show such rejection? Was the reputation of the cold and cruel Werewolf King really true?

Because she couldn’t understand anything, Ernesta wanted to know. She wanted to know what was inside the heart of this man with cold eyes.

She knew that it was an unnecessary desire for her position, but before she could blame herself for it, she sank into a sea of drowsiness. Her mind, released from tension, refused to think, and her vision became blurred.

She decided to sleep for now. There were things she had to think about, but she hoped she could be forgiven for asking for a break now.

Ernesta slowly slipped under the covers and immediately embarked on a journey to the world of dreams.

Chapter 7: Beginning of substitute life 1

Under a sky full of perfect stars, a golden wolf lay down.

He was now resting his injured body in the shadow of a large tree, and he seemed to have calmed down after receiving treatment.

“Are you hurting so much that you can’t move? If that’s the case, I’ll stay with you!”

Ernesta didn’t want to leave this wolf alone. She wanted to relieve his pain. So she stretched out her small, delicate hand and stroked his smooth fur.

With her eyes narrowed, feeling like she could touch him forever, Ernesta suddenly looked up at the night sky.

“Look. The stars are really beautiful tonight, so you’ll definitely forget about the pain.”

Surprisingly, the wolf lifted his head as she said. His eyes reflected the starry sky, sparkling just like the stars around him.

“Do you know? That brightest star up there is called Vega. It’s the brightest star in the summer night sky and the third brightest star of all.”

Of course, the wolf didn’t react, but Ernesta had a conviction that he was listening to her.

“Vega is part of The Lyra constellation. The Lyra constellation is the lyre of Orpheus. Deneb is right next to it in the Milky Way, and beyond it is Altair. The three together form a summer triangle.”

Ernesta deliberately spoke cheerfully; she knew that talking about stars wouldn’t connect with the wolves, but she thought it would be more soothing than the silence.

“Fufu! I know a lot about stars, you know? My mother used to be an astronomy teacher in the palace. So she taught me too.”

Her foster mother, who was a famous scholar, left the palace due to the secret of Ernesta’s birth. She didn’t think that was something to tell the wolves, so she finished talking about herself and continued talking about the stars.

“I love stars. They’re shiny and beautiful, mysterious, and I can watch them forever. Don’t you think so too?”

Even if she asked, there was still no response. But to Ernesta, seeing his profile looking intently at the night sky was more than enough.

“When I’m feeling down, I count stars. Compared to the countless stars, my worries seem insignificant.”

Compared to this majestic scenery, any hardship was nothing.

The one who told her this was none other than her foster mother, who picked her up when she was about to die. On the day she learned that her foster mother was not her real parent, Ernesta counted the stars.

And so, she spent some time counting stars with a wolf by her side. Suddenly feeling his gaze, she looked beside her and saw the wolf staring at her with his starry eyes. She could tell from the luminance that he had a strong will different from before.

While she was still thinking, he slowly stood up.

“…Are you leaving already?”

The wolf didn’t answer. He stood facing her and rubbed his head against her palm, leading her to pet him. It was as if he was expressing his gratitude.

It was their last moment of contact. The wolf flipped his supple body and began to walk towards the dark forest.

“Goodbye, Wolf-san! Please don’t do anything reckless!”

When she called out to his back, he turned to look at her just once. As their eyes met, his golden body melted into the darkness.

The empty lot, which had become calm and quiet, now looks quite bleak compared to earlier. The space illuminated by the sparkling moon and stars covering the night sky is now just lonely, leaving only feelings of regret in her heart.

❂❂❂

Ernesta had a dream that was quite nostalgic.

She dragged herself up, her head feeling groggy. The aftertaste of the dream has scattered like sand, and nothing but reality kept attacking her.

Ivan, who was supposed to be sleeping next to her, was not there. When she slid her hand on the empty bed, it only stole the warmth from her fingertips.

Despite knowing that this was not her own marriage, Ernesta had a longing for a normal married life, and couldn’t help but let out a deep sigh.

Is this what a political marriage is like, where the couple build up such a cold relationship?

Lost in dark thoughts, she was startled by a reddish-brown stain that was discovered by her palm. Oh right, that was a terrible injury. She gave up pursuing it due to the hard attitude, but now she was getting worried. Since she didn’t treat it properly, it might have already caused inflammation by now.

Ernesta lightly slapped both of her cheeks.

He knows well that his only strength is his guts, which are displayed in the oddest situations. If you were worried about his injury, you could just go and ask.

As she gathered her determination and stepped down from the bed, she heard a knock on the door. When she peeked her face looking somewhat frightened, it was indeed Dasha.

“G-Good morning, Your Majesty. Did you sleep well?”

“Good morning, Dasha. I slept soundly.”

When she responded with a smile, the girl’s face showed a somewhat relieved expression. However, her entrance into the room was short-lived, as she stumbled and fell on the carpet.

“I-I’m sorry! I have caused a commotion…!”

“Calm down. Are you okay?”

She immediately calmed down when Ernesta said that, but then became quiet like a burnt-out firewood.

Where did this timid behavior come from? Perhaps it wasn’t because she was a royal family member, but rather a princess from a foreign country that caused her attitude. It was probably not just her imagination.

“Hey, Dasha.”

“Y-Yes!”

Dasha jumped in surprise and stiffened as if waiting for a reprimand.

She decided to keep her questions to only asking about the location of the king, as she was afraid she might faint if she asked anything unnecessary.

Today was a day off from her duties as the queen, so when she said she wanted to meet Ivan, surprisingly, receive permission.

The guide took her to the king’s office, and Ernesta felt nervous all of a sudden.

What should I do? Maybe I’m disturbing him by coming here, because he could have been working yesterday or today.

Unfortunately, the office was empty, and the king was temporarily out. The guide left her and told her to wait inside, and Ernesta was left alone in an unfamiliar room.

She looked around to distract herself. The room was of moderate size, with a fireplace and carpet set up just like in the queen’s quarters. The writing desk was several times larger than hers, and parchment papers were stacked in a disorganized pile.

Being alone in a silent room can make a person so restless.

Just as Ernesta began to consider going back, she felt a presence behind her and turned around slowly.

To her surprise, an unexpected guest was there. The door in the back was half-open, and a silver wolf appeared through the gap.

Ernesta stood frozen for a full five seconds.

Why is there a wolf here? Its fluffy fur is beautiful… wait, could it be…

“…Your Majesty? Could it be that you are the king?”

As she said it aloud, she couldn’t think of any other explanation. The wolf that leisurely walked up to Ernesta had a beautiful and rugged appearance, especially when seen up close.

“So it’s Your Majesty, Ivan. Why are you in the form of a wolf?”

The wolf didn’t even try to talk. Ernesta didn’t know much about their bodily mechanism, so perhaps he transformed due to injury or weakness.

“Your Majesty, are you okay? Please answer me, Your Majesty…!”

“What are you doing?”

Ernesta, who had completely failed to notice the visitor’s presence, was almost startled. She turned back as if she had been bounced back and saw the figure of a thin man standing there with an exasperated expression.

“Don’t tell me you thought It was His Majesty? That’s impossible. Think rationally about things.”

The man narrowed his aqua-colored eyes in a derogatory manner, then pushed his glasses up with a nervous gesture.

His name was Johan Orzif Slezak. He wore a black chokha, the badge of a hero, and despite his young age of 28, he had risen to the position of Prime Minister and wielded his power as the king’s right-hand man. According to Engeberg, his influence was a driving force in the alliance concluded this time.

For Ernesta, they had only exchanged greetings at yesterday’s wedding, but she remembered his persistent tone well.

“Lord Slezak. Then, who is this child…?”

“Mikolash, His Majesty’s partner. A real wolf, not a werewolf. Besides, we don’t just turn into wolves for no reason.”

If it were usual Ernesta, she would have cried out in relief and sat down. She had truly believed that it was Ivan and had been worried about his condition.

After the relief, intense embarrassment hit her, and she felt an urge to roll around on the carpet. It was too shameful to be caught in such a misunderstanding, and she wanted to disappear if possible.

The Prime Minister laughed through his nose at the Queen, who turned red in the face. He was a rather merciless man.

“Take a good look. Mikola is silver, but His Majesty’s hair is golden. And the color of his eyes is probably hawk-like, right?”

“Oh, right…I see. Even when in the form of a werewolf, the color is inherited. So, Lord Slezak will become a black wolf, then?”

“Of course. What is Your Highness saying at this point?”

This time, she was glared at in earnest. She couldn’t help but feel frightened by his blunt way of speaking, but at the same time, she felt like he was the one who was confronting her head-on more than any other werewolf she had met so far.

“I see, you don’t even know that. It can’t be helped, let me explain it briefly here.”

“But aren’t you busy? Don’t you have something else to do here?”

“Leaving this kind of ignorance unattended would be negligent of me as the Prime Minister. Do you understand? Please listen carefully.”

Johan looked really annoyed, but he dutifully gave her a lecture.

According to his explanation, werewolves have three forms.

The first is their human form. They usually stay in this form unless there is a special reason.

The second is their wolf form. They can take on this form to gain the characteristics of a wolf when appropriate.

The third form is the werewolf appearance. It is exactly the same as the werewolf that appears in stories, where wolves walk on two legs and handle tools. The body’s innate abilities are further enhanced, so it is said that they transform into this appearance for tasks that require strength or combat.

Werewolf visitors to Weisberg always take on their human form, so Ernesta has never seen any other form. Imagining the smooth transformation process, she relaxed at the strange sight.

“You can freely transform at any time. However, clothes get in the way in wolf form, and changing after returning is bothersome, so we only use that form when necessary.”

“Surprisingly practical.”

“That’s how it is. One of the notable features is that werewolves and wolves can communicate, but only when they are in werewolf or wolf form.”

Ernesta’s eyes sparkled with great interest at the story.

“Amazing. How do you talk?”

“It’s hard to put into words, but you could say that the howling is converted in the brain.”

It feels like a dream. The ability to transform and talk with wolves is a sensation completely unknown to Ernesta, which is why she finds it so alluring.

Johan seems to be in a good mood because the students reacted positively. However, he hesitated a little before saying the next words.

“…However, there is an exception to the transformation ability. Only on the night of the full moon, we transform into werewolves. We return to normal by morning.”

Ernesta blinked both eyes. The sight of werewolves walking around on a moonlit night was like a fantastically dreamy scene.

“That’s wonderful. Werewolf tribes must be loved by the moon.”

“Wonderful…?”

She just expressed what she was thinking, but Johan echoed his words back as if he exposed something, surprising her.

As she braced herself, thinking that she may have said something improper, the door opened without a knock, and a waiting person stood on the other side.

Chapter 8: Beginning of substitute life 2

Ivan appeared from the front door, his expressionless face turned into a frown as soon as he met Ernesta’s gaze.

As expected, Mikolash immediately gathered around Ivan’s side, the thing Ernesta couldn’t even touch, leaving her extremely disappointed.

“What is it, Queen?”

She braced herself for scolding, but he asked for her purpose surprisingly normally, which caught her off guard.

However, the matter was about the injury he suffered to protect the secret. She couldn’t talk about it in front of Johan.

“N-No… I just came to check on you. I’m sorry if I interrupted your work. Excuse me.”

Although she couldn’t tell because he’s wearing gloves, she noticed that Ivan was holding a book in his injured left hand, so there shouldn’t have been a problem.

Ernesta gave up on asking and was about to leave the room, but she was stopped just as she was about to step through the door. She turned back to the room once again.

“Yes, Your Majesty. What can I do for you?”

“You don’t have to push yourself too hard. Live as you please.”

Those words could be taken either as sympathy or rejection.

Ernesta really didn’t understand this person.

Judging by his attitude since they met, it is more likely to be the latter, but that is precisely why Ernesta wants to know the reason for his cold responses.

“Thank you for your concern. However, I would like to do my best despite being inexperienced.”

Living as she pleases is easy. However, that would only lead to a breakdown in their relationship as a couple.

Building a good relationship between them may seem like a difficult task, given the current state of rejection, but she will do what she can.

“Starting tomorrow, I will work. I want to learn many things. If there is anything I’m lacking in, please tell me. I look forward to working with you.”

She boldly looked at him and Johan, wanting to tell them what she had in mind. Her heart was pounding with fear of their possible objections, but Ernesta successfully concealed her agitation and ended up showing them a smile.

❂❂❂

After the queen left the room, Ivan remained with a bewildered look on his face as his gaze drifted to the empty air.

All of the things he had just heard and seen were so unexpected that it took some time to process. Johan may have felt the same way, but he swiftly regained composure and turned to his lord, speaking first.

“Your Majesty, did you overhear my conversation with the queen?”

Ivan was caught off guard, but he only narrowed his eyes and nodded in affirmation.

While it was bad of him to do so, he couldn’t move from his spot once he heard their conversation while attempting to open the door.

“Humans fear and avoid the werewolf tribe. Though it may not seem like it.”

Ermengard is, of course, being well reasoned. They need to build a good relationship, or else the alliance may break down and lead to war.

It was truly admirable to see such courage and sense of responsibility worthy of respect.

However, the fear and anxiety that could be glimpsed in her words and actions couldn’t be hidden completely.

“There’s no need to go as far as acting. I have no intention of breaking the alliance by using the princess’s behavior as an excuse in the first place.”

The effort of his vassals, led by Johan, which he himself also undertook, resulted in the alliance being achieved after eight years of hard work. There is no way he could disregard their efforts.

Guiding the country in a positive direction. That alone is enough for Ivan.

❂❂❂

Ernesta was walking back to her room with a dejected expression. It had been three days since she arrived here, but she still couldn’t get along with anyone.

Two maids were chatting at the end of the corridor. They had a very casual exchange between werewolves, but they immediately stiffened up as soon as Ernesta came into view.

As expected, the maids and their strained expressions left promptly once they noticed the queen’s presence.

Why is that? Even though she’s a princess from another country, there should be a limit to being treated like a lump.

Realizing that she had stopped walking for a moment, Ernesta resumed her pace. Before she knew it, she arrived at her room and opened the door with a dark feeling.

There was someone inside when Ernesta arrived.

Dasha had her back turned, seemingly working on something. Following the country’s tradition of having only a writing desk and no other tables, various candies and tea were laid out on the carpet.

“Dasha, did you make tea?”

“Eek! Oh, your majesty!”

Dasha shook visibly, causing the teapot in her hand to slip and make a loud noise.

Ernesta breathed a sigh of relief upon reflexively checking that nothing had broken, but the girl’s face turned paper white at her own mistake.

“I, I’m terribly sorry! How can I apologize for such a rude mistake?”

Ernesta couldn’t hide her confusion in front of the pitifully trembling Dasha. Is making mistakes in front of royalty such a daunting thing?

She didn’t know, but she couldn’t just act composed as the queen while the girl before her turned pale.

“Don’t worry about it, everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Are you hurt?”

“Your Majesty…”

Trying to speak gently to reassure her, Ernesta was surprised when Dasha looked up with a face of disbelief.

Ernesta was curious about her reaction and decided to ask her honestly.

“Why are you so scared? I want to be friends with you, so I wish we could interact more comfortably.”

“Eh…?!”

Dasha seemed to be an honest person, expressing her surprise so clearly. Ernesta didn’t intend to say anything strange.

“Your Majesty, are you not afraid of us…?”

“Afraid?”

Confused by the question that came back at her, Ernesta tilted her head while unable to understand its intention. Dasha seemed resigned to her ineptness as the host and continued hesitantly.

“Humans fear and avoid the werewolf tribe. I…it makes me sad to know that I’m feared.”

Ernesta finally understood.

Apparently, the gap between the werewolf tribe and humans was bigger than she thought.

In Bral, the feeling of awe towards werewolf clans is deeply ingrained, and most people who don’t live near the border like Ernesta have never even met them. Just because they formed an alliance doesn’t mean they can instantly become friends.

Even if you understood the reality, it is sad to be looked at with one-sided fear. Dasha spoke very honestly about this common feeling.

“It’s kind of scary to be nervous and afraid when people are scared of you. Dasha is a kind girl.”

They have power.

Extraordinary physical abilities when in human form.

The flexibility of a beast when in wolf form.

Strength when in werewolf form.

With that fact, they could look down on and persecute humans, but this girl did not do so.

“I’m glad there’s a child like you. Going to an unknown country was still a little scary.”

Until now, Ernesta didn’t really realize that there was a poor relationship between the two countries. Due to her lack of prejudice, she couldn’t understand it, no matter how much Engeberg tried to warn her.

Surely there will be encounters with various ways of thinking even in this short period, not just people like Dasha.

Still, she wanted to do at least what she could to make sure these two countries could get along well.

“I will do my best too. So, please take care of me, Dasha.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Likewise, please take care of me!”

Dasha’s face lit up and she quickly bowed her head. It was a completely different expression from before, and Ernesta was happy to see her relaxed smile.

“Hey Dasha, let’s have tea together.”

“If it’s okay with you, I will gladly accept!”

Dasha nodded happily and resumed preparing the tea.

Feeling comforted by her genuine expression, Ernesta was able to rest for a short while.

Chapter 9: Night Encounter

That night, Ernesta stopped writing with her feather pen and took the opportunity to stretch out in her own room.

Writing while sitting on the floor instead of a chair was surprisingly tiring if you weren’t used to it.

She nodded to herself after confirming the content she had written down. Ernesta had decided to start writing a diary for Ermengard, whom she would eventually replace.

Having something like this or not can make a big difference in how easy it is to spend time. Being suddenly thrown into unfamiliar relationships is an unimaginable struggle.

Ernesta closed her diary and put it in the chest placed next to the writing desk where nobody could see it.

After losing something to do, she became worried about Isolte.

She knew that no matter how much she worried, it wouldn’t add anything. Still, she couldn’t help but pray.

——Oh God, please help us. I will accept any punishment for this sin of lying. Therefore, please help my mother through this difficulty. She is an innocent and kind person.

In preparation for her marriage, Ermengard converted to Shenka’s state religion. Although Ernesta was free to interpret this information for herself, she felt that it was too clumsy to pray to a God that she had not believed in originally, just to deceive someone else.

So she called upon the God she had always believed in deep inside her heart.

She continued to pray earnestly, but the peaceful moment suddenly came to an end.

From the continuation room, a silver body appeared, causing a ripple effect. It was the king’s partner, whom she had met for the first time during the day.

“Oh, you’re Mikolash?! Did you come to play?”

Mikolash approached Ernesta with a gracious gesture, slightly twitching his nose. His attitude made her feel so delighted that she wanted to jump up and down.

They hardly got to touch during the day, so it was a pity. She longed to caress his fluffy fur.

“Mikola, you are such a good boy. There, there.”

Ernesta hesitantly began to pet him, but he did not seem to mind. Instead, he rested his chin on her knee.

This was too much. He was too cute.

Moreover, Mikolash’s fur was more wonderful than she had imagined. It was fluffy and soft, and there was nothing more pleasant than the feeling of it.

“Aww, so cute~! Good boy, good boy.”

Ernesta gave up resisting and buried her face into the beautiful fur. Who could resist this impulse? No one.

She hugged him with her arms and spent some time like that. The scent of the forest was present in Mikolash’s fur, and it took Ernesta to the pinnacle of healing.

She just wanted to fall asleep like this forever.

But this happy time came to an end, even if she held on to a futile desire.

“What are you doing?”

Ernesta quickly lifted her face, and saw Ivan standing by the door to the next room. She realized that his expression was obviously questioning, and was ashamed, her cheeks turning red.

“I, I’m sorry! Mikolash was just too cute, so I…”

“Cute, you say?”

Ivan seemed completely lost as to what she was talking about, and it was actually his reaction that surprised her.

“Isn’t Mikolash cute? Don’t you think so?”

“…I don’t really understand. I’m used to seeing wolves.”

That’s right, that’s how it is. Since these people can turn into wolves themselves, they don’t bother to have opinions like “cute” about them.

“I see. Personally, I think their fluffy fur is wonderful though…”

It’s a shame that this feeling cannot be shared. Isolte or Konrad, animal lovers, would surely be delighted if they were here.

“Aren’t you afraid? Wolves don’t usually become attached to humans. Mikolash is smart and excellent, but he’s still an animal, so he could change his mind at any time.”

The question sounded unusually rigid. This was the first time Ernesta had been spoken to in such a long time, but she couldn’t feel happy at all.

Expressing her partner in such a way must be hurting this person’s heart.

There is no understanding between wolves and humans. Ivan said as he remained expressionless, but it seemed like he was somewhat suffering.

“I see. It would be a lie to say that I don’t have a natural sense of wariness, but…”

Ernesta decided to speak the truth, in her own sincere words, even though it might not be fitting for a princess to say.

“You know how there are strong emotions like love or hate, or desire? In my case, my desire to touch Mikola because he’s so cute was stronger than any sense of wariness.”

Yes, just like how Isolte couldn’t cross a certain line when she rescued a baby, there are lines that can’t be crossed for anyone.

It was the same when she helped the injured wolf sitting under the big tree. She didn’t have the luxury to be concerned about any sense of wariness.

——I wonder if that wolf is doing well now?

“I’m grateful that you allowed me to act the way I wanted. It’s all thanks to Your Majesty.”

Ernesta smiled sweetly, quoting the words Ivan said to her during the day.

Ivan didn’t say anything in response, with a slightly open-mouthed expression. Ernesta began to worry that she had gone too far, but then he whispered to her with an emotionless face.

“You’re different.”

It wasn’t exactly a compliment, in fact, it was more like a criticism.

Despite this, Ernesta was overjoyed by the response he gave her. So, she smiled with a pure heart.

“Well, not really, just normal… oh, Your Highness, may I ask you something?”

Recalling something, Ernesta walked up to Ivan and without any words, grabbed his left hand and pulled it closer.

She was curious about the wound. Luckily, it had been properly treated and there seemed to be no swelling.

“I’m glad to see you received treatment, does it hurt?”

As she asked this, she lifted her head and saw the most handsome face so close to her than ever before.

She was at a loss for words. Then she realized what a ridiculous situation she had put herself in by grabbing the man’s hand. Ernesta blushed uncontrollably at the thought.

——I’m such a fool, acting too familiar like I would to my little brother.

This person was not someone she could casually touch. While he was her husband, he was also not her husband, and was supposed to be an existence above her station.

“Yeah. No problem.”

The king remained calm towards the thoroughly agitated Ernesta.

She didn’t understand at first what he said in response to her question. By the time she realized that he gave her an answer, their hands had already separated, and Ivan had turned his back and left.

“I’ll go to bed first. You should rest too.”

He informed her shortly before the door was immediately closed. Ernesta was so shocked that she sat down on the spot and Mikolash came over to comfort her.

“It’s okay, Mikola. I was just a little startled…”

There was no reproach, but what did he really think of her?

It was probably inappropriate and unpleasant behavior. It was terrible. She couldn’t even realize how foolish her actions were.

While stroking Mikola’s smooth chin, Ernesta vowed not to make the same mistake again.

Even after the door was closed, Ivan couldn’t move from the spot.

“She’s really strange.”

His muttered words dissolved into the silent bedroom and disappeared.

Chapter 10: Werewolf dance

“Huh, dancing, you say?”

Ernesta noticed that her voice had gone up, but she couldn’t bring herself to care right now.

In front of her was the expressionless Rougena. Ernesta carefully chose her words and asked again.

“What kind of dance is it? Can I do it?”

As the first major event, the Founding Festival was to be held in two weeks.

It commemorated the day when, in ancient times, the tribe’s chief received a message from the Moon Goddess and decided to settle in this land.

Although it was mostly a legendary tale, the werewolf tribe attached great importance to this day, and a nationwide festival was held. Dances were offered to the Moon Goddess everywhere, and a banquet was held at the royal castle from evening.

For Ernesta, it would be the only event during her period as a substitute. Although nervousness was mounting ahead of the big day, at the same time, if she could get through this, there would be no more obstacles.

However, the content of the event was something that made her hesitant. It turns out that it was customary for the queen to perform a dance at the banquet.

“It is the sword dance. It is a special dance that has been passed down to offer to the Moon Goddess, and only the queen is allowed to dance it.”

Ernesta felt as though a weight had been placed on her back. To bear such an important dance, it must come with a great deal of responsibility.

“However, his Majesty the king says there is no need to push yourself.”

“…Eh?”

Ernesta couldn’t believe her ears. It was like she had just been granted her freedom.

“This time, the preparation period was too short. You should have started practicing one month ago, ideally.”

“I see, so…?”

“Yes. So I think it’s okay if we don’t do it this year. Everyone will understand.”

Certainly, that must be the case, and it is probably treated as something that is not necessary even among the subjects.

However, is it really okay like this?

His Majesty the king said, “You don’t have to push yourself.” But she understood through their few conversations that these words did not come from compassion, but from rejection.

——I don’t know why I’m so stubborn, but there is one thing for sure. If I give in to those words, nothing will change.

“No, Rougena. I’ll do it. I want to do it.”

It was the first time Rougena’s expression had crumbled.

She didn’t intend to say something so surprising, but the feeling of having stepped onto an even harder path was overwhelming.

Just a moment ago, she had been hesitating, but now she felt like she was saying something stupid. However, Ernesta didn’t want to be the queen with half-hearted determination. She had wished for it so strongly.

“Sword dance isn’t an easy technique. Even for werewolves, it takes a month of practice. Two weeks is not enough.”

She thought Rougena would agree with her, but for some reason, she was stopped. While restraining her burning heart, Ernesta leaned closer to Rougena.

“I want to do everything I can. Please, Rougena, help me out!”

The head maid nodded as if being pushed by the queen who seemed to be bowing her head.

Around the time she finished having lunch, Engeberg came to visit her. He seemed hesitant to say it, but he asked Ernesta to tell him about the events that had happened until that day.

“In other words, nothing has happened so far. That’s all, right?”

“Yes. Thank you for your concern.”

Engeberg let out a clear sigh, showing relief. It seemed that he had been seriously worried about Ernesta’s safety.

“I’m relieved. It seems that you have been handling things well.”

“It’s not like that. I just went with the flow.”

That’s right, she just went with the flow. Ernesta didn’t do anything, in fact, she made a blunder.

“What are you talking about? Ernesta-sama has been doing very well. Please continue to do your best.”

“Haha…Alright. I’ll do my best.”

By the way, the conversation between the two so far has been mostly whispers. Even though no one is around, it’s better to be careful since they don’t know where their voices could be heard from.

“By the way, the National Foundation Day is in two weeks.”

At this point, Engeberg returned to his usual tone of voice. Ernesta understood that the conversation had ended, which was not meant to be overheard. So she started talking to him as usual.

“Yes, that’s right. Actually, I have a report…”

After explaining how she was going to perform a sword dance, Engeberg showed an exaggerated surprise.

“So, you’re going to perform a sword dance…?! That’s incredible.”

Engeberg seemed still surprised and muttered with his eyes wide open. Ernesta realized that she was causing him trouble again and apologized.

“I’m sorry, I just suggested it without thinking… Maybe it was too much.”

She felt down and regretted her actions, but Engeberg shook his head sideways.

“There is nothing to make Ermengard-sama feel depressed. However…”

At that point, Engeberg interrupted his words. As she waited eagerly for his hesitant manner to continue, he eventually smiled in his usual way.

“No. If that is what you wish, it is best to do so.”

Then, Engeberg spoke in a hushed voice. Ernesta also leaned in closer to make sure she could hear properly.

“Maintaining a distance without getting too close is a technique used to prevent the exposure of the substitute, so it is better to build a relationship of trust if there is no risk. Ernesta-sama has been doing well, so the possibility of suspicion is low.”

“Is that so? I don’t feel like a princess at all.”

“It’s okay. To anyone, you look like a genuine princess. I guarantee it.”

Engeberg had a trustworthy smile on his face.

But was that really the case? She didn’t feel like she could completely embody the role of a princess.

“You have much more cooperativeness than Ermengard-sama, so please continue to gain trust.”

Engeberg gave his usual distant smile and told her not to overdo it, then left the queen’s room.

As she walked down the corridor of the royal castle, she couldn’t help but notice the wary glances being cast at her.

Not all of them were coming from malice, but she could sense the feelings of confusion and fear emanating from them, which made her feel depressed.

What kind of feelings do the werewolf nobles have towards humans? She may not know for sure, but she could imagine.

As she continued with a sense of gloom, she finally arrived at her destination, which was a spacious and empty room. Waiting there was an elderly gentleman whom she recognized.

“Good evening, Your Majesty. It’s been since the banquet the other day.”

“Good evening. Nice to see you again, General Kudera.”

Silvestor General Kudera was one of the commanders of the royal army. With his gray hair and mustache that was tinged with white spots, he was a handsome old warrior who looked great in his black chokha. He was famous for his heroic deeds achieved in numerous battles.

At first, Ernesta was reluctant to take up the great person’s time, but he was the head of the Kudera family, who had been responsible for passing down the tradition of dance for generations. The head maid, Rougena, who was also his wife, spoke up for her to arrange for the lesson.

Since they went to such lengths for her, she couldn’t refuse and decided to ask for his guidance.

“I am delighted. To think that the queen herself wants to perform the sword dance.”

Silvestor said, stroking his chin cheerfully. It was the first time Ernesta had received such a friendly response from someone she had just met, so she was also pleased.

“I don’t mind if you’re strict with me. I’ll go through any rigorous training throughout these two weeks if it means I can dance properly!”

Ernesta replied with determination.

“Oh ho. You have quite the fighting spirit.”

Silvestor said, impressed by the queen’s enthusiasm. As a veteran general, he was not taken aback by her eagerness.

“Understood. With my life at stake, I will grant your wishes, My Queen,”

the active old warrior said laughing with narrowed, gray eyes. Feeling the immense power exuding from him, Ernesta realized how tough the upcoming training would be and swallowed hard.

Chapter 11: A quiet story, I am a wolf, Part 1

Hello, all you gentlemen and ladies. My name is Mikolash. I am eleven years old, and I am a full-grown stud wolf.

Today, I am watching the Queen’s study session.

Rougena is relentless and never hesitates to criticize, making the Queen seem to shrink in size.

“No, Your Majesty. As the second most noble person in this kingdom, you don’t have to bow your head to someone like me.”

“I’m sorry… yes, Rougena. I’ll be more careful from now on.”

“Good. Now, I’ll continue explaining about the audience.”

Hmm, somehow it’s a bit pitiful. Although I don’t have a good image of humans, I sympathize a little bit. She has a mischievous side to her, mistaking me for Ivan. She would look good with a smile…

I continued to watch the Queen’s education until it was over.

Rougena left the room with her back straight, and the Queen finally breathed a sigh of relief.

“I didn’t realize I was so slow-witted. I feel discouraged…”

No, you’re doing great. Especially since you’re doing your best under that demon’s guidance.

“Mikola, thank you for being here with me. Can you let me pet you for a moment?”

The queen squatted next to me and lowered her eyebrows in exhaustion, then petted my head.

Please, go ahead. You have good taste to find comfort in my wonderful fur.

“…Well then, shall we take a walk for a bit? Would you like to come too, Mikola?”

I stood up slowly and followed the queen. She then showed a smile that shone brightly.

“Are you really coming with me? You’re so kind.”

She really is a lovely girl.

Though lacking in sex appeal, her features are well-proportioned, and it’s nice that she’s not prone to the typical frivolous behaviors that girls her age tend to have. Plus, her straightforward demeanor and genuine smile are very attractive. Well, she’s not a wolf, so she’s not within my scope of protection.

However, even though such a cute bride had come, Ivan ignored her. I know it’s none of my business, even though we’re partners, but it’s still bothering me.

I followed the queen as she left the room and began to walk.

Then, she suddenly stopped walking as we reached the courtyard, and I almost stumbled forward.

As I looked up to protest, I saw the queen clouding her emerald eyes and hiding behind a pillar. When I wondered what was going on, I overheard the conversation of two maids who were chattering in a corner of the courtyard, and their words could be heard clearly by us.

“So, it seems that His Majesty is not paying attention to the Queen at all.”

“Well, that’s only natural. After all, humans can’t be accepted now, can they?”

“That’s annoying. They should learn their place.”

Oh no, I heard something unpleasant. Women can be so cruel. I don’t think those maids were assigned to the queen, but is the queen alright?

“I haven’t forgotten about the war nine years ago. Humans are all the same. They think of us as useless barbarians.”

“That’s right. I bet even the queen herself doesn’t want to have anything to do with us disgusting werewolves, let alone support His Majesty.”

As I looked up at her with concern, the queen narrowed her eyes sadly and leaned against a pillar. Seeing her tightly clenched hand, she must be enduring the desire to escape.

I know. You’re not thinking anything like that.

That’s why she’s doing her best. Studying, dancing, and even talking to people around her.

“I wonder if becoming a mistress might be a dream come true?”

“That’s impossible. Do you have the courage to approach him? Don’t expect to be called by His Majesty.”

“That’s right, but hey! Can’t I just dream a little?”

As expected, these guys don’t have that much guts.

Ivan is obviously popular with his looks, but he has no interest in women. He has cut off the temptation from numerous beauties and remained single until now.

As a result, now almost no woman is willing to take part in the competition to marry him. But despite this, it seems that the young ladies continue to long for it, creating a troublesome situation.

The maids leave with high-pitched laughter, leaving only the queen and me behind. The queen lets out a bitter smile and squats down to stroke my back.

“…It’s difficult. I guess it’s only natural to be disliked.”

The queen is completely downcast. It’s no surprise after being told such things.

Rougena was hard on her, the maids made fun of her, and her husband who she depended on didn’t even think about her. It must be so lonely in a foreign land where she doesn’t know anything about her surroundings.

“But you can’t just brood over it. If you don’t have any power, you have to do what you can.”

And yet, the queen finally showed a dependable smile.

I was a bit surprised. Even though she was raised without any inconveniences as a princess, why is she so resilient?

“Alright, let’s go back. Thank you for accompanying me.”

The queen gently stroked my head and walked away briskly.

Perhaps a really amazing person has come. With an indescribable feeling, I stood there for a while.

Chapter 12: Show them your guts

“Your Highness, it’s time for today’s review. What do you call the mine where gold mining has recently started?”

“Let me see…was it Koshka Mountain?”

“That is incorrect. The correct answer is Mount Koshka.”

Ernesta snapped her fingers in disappointment, but Rougena didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.

“If I teach you something, I expect you to remember it. You can’t slack off just because you have dance practice. After all, you decided to do this yourself.”

As expected, Rougena was an incredibly strict teacher. Ernesta was already struggling just to keep up with her daily lectures, but she knew that there was no room for complacency. After all, she made the decision to do this herself.

“Okay. I will review it tonight.”

“…That will do. We will continue tomorrow.”

Until the National Foundation Festival, dance practice was mainly in the evening, and the daytime was devoted to studying.

The duties of a queen range from audiences to visits, but it seems that there is always a training period for any job. Rougena said that it would be about a month, but Ernesta was anxious.

Otherwise, Ermengard would have to face her first job without any practice.

Ernesta decided to summarize everything she learned in her diary as much as possible. She studied during the day, danced in the evening, and kept a diary at night, which also served as a review, making her days busy.

As soon as she finishes everything, she falls asleep, so she doesn’t even have a chance to meet Ivan, who should be sleeping in the same bed.

And so, while struggling desperately, a week had passed before she knew it.

“My Queen, please reach a little higher… Okay, that’s enough. Remember that this is not a dance for battle, but a dance for the gods, so always keep in mind to be gentle. Yes, that’s good.”

Silvestor’s special training, as expected, was also a grueling experience.

This general never yells or gets angry, but he imposes an insanely intense training regimen with a smile. Even though Ernesta loves exercise, she still feels dizzy every time.

As she lay on the floor, breathing heavily, Silvestor approached her with water and a cloth.

Expressing her gratitude and accepting them, the refined old gentleman sat cross-legged next to Ernesta with a gentle smile. He was a man of depth to whom even such a posture suited well.

“You are working hard, My Queen. I apologize for being rude, but I didn’t expect you to keep up with us until now.”

“Really? If General Kudera says so, I’m really happy.”

Although her response was hard to hear due to her shortness of breath, Ernesta felt genuine joy at the highest praise from the hero of the country.

She wiped the sweat from her forehead with trembling hands and drank the water from the cup. The water had been squeezed with fruit juice in it, and the faint sweetness was much appreciated.

“However, why do you go that far? The dance this time wasn’t compulsory, was it?”

Silvestor and Ernesta had various conversations over the past week, but this question was the most intrusive one so far.

“Well… I think it’s probably because I’m frustrated.”

Silvestor prompted her to continue with his silence. Ernesta continued talking while staring at the small surface of the cup’s water.

“I think I was being too naive about marrying into another country. There is a much higher wall between humans and werewolves than I thought… Everyone is kind to me, but I feel like they’re hiding their resignation. There’s no need to make me dance when it’s impossible for someone like me, a human princess. It’s okay if we can’t become friends, as long as we don’t become enemies. I’m sure many people think that way.”

The bewildered gazes of the nobles who she usually doesn’t talk to, the maids with a wall between them, Dasha who said that it’s sad to be feared.

And Ivan, who never shows his innermost feelings.

Ernesta was frustrated with it all. Despite the fact that the hearts of both humans and werewolves were the same, it was frustrating that the relationship between the two would never intersect.

“But if I were to share the same mindset, then there would be no hope, would there?”

If she had maintained a distance between them, without taking on any activities like dancing, it might not have been a problem.

However, in that case, the relationship between the two would continue to be cold and they would follow parallel lines endlessly. It was too sad, especially since they had just formed an alliance.

“So I couldn’t just sit and do nothing… I knew I was being meddlesome, though.”

Her final words were a warning to herself.

Yes, Ernesta was just a substitute. She must not take any selfish actions and must always remember that.

“A young queen like yourself, worrying so deeply about the relationship between our countries. I feel ashamed.”

“Ah, no…!”

Silvestor, who did not know the circumstances, lowered his eyes, so Ernesta hastily shook her head.

Ernesta didn’t plan to be arrogant and assume that her actions would have a positive impact on the relationship between the two countries. If that were to happen, it would be thanks to Ermengard’s influence, not Ernesta’s achievement.

“My Queen’s actions are not something that anyone can imitate. I respect you, My Queen. I’m sure your rare efforts will bear fruit.”

“…I see.”

“Yes, of course.”

It was the first time that someone from this country had pushed her forward.

She naturally smiled at the warmth of his encouragement. Ernesta drank the remaining water and stood up, showing no signs of fatigue.

“Now, let’s start practicing! I’ll definitely master it and show you!”

“Oh, that’s the spirit, My Queen! I’ll be your companion as much as you need!”

Silvestor also stood up with a light movement.

The impromptu teacher and student had surprisingly built a good relationship, and they continued their enthusiastic practice today as well.

❂❂❂

“My Queen, welcome back! You must be tired.”

Dasha said, bouncing her auburn hair as she turned around to face Ernesta in her room. She breathed a sigh of relief.

“Dasha, thank you for staying up so late.”

“It’s nothing, My Queen. It’s my pleasure to serve you, and I am happy to do so!”

In contrast to Ernesta’s terrible state, Dasha was in great spirits today. Since Ernesta opened up to her about her inner turmoil, it seems that this maid has been fond of the Queen.

At the same time, her work mistakes have become nonexistent, which shows how much pressure she must have been under to serve a queen from another country.

“Have you been working here for a long time, Dasha?”

“I graduated from school at the age of twelve, so it’s been almost three years now.”

In Shenka, schools are open to all citizens. With the exception of a select few who excel in their studies, it is common for people to graduate by the age of fourteen and start working.

In Bral, common women cannot attend school. Shenka’s policy was introduced during the reign of King Ivan and is a revolutionary system even on a global scale.

“I see. Did you enjoy school?”

“Yes, absolutely! I still keep in touch with my friends, and most importantly, it’s thanks to education that someone like me, who is careless, is able to work now.”

Since only daughters of noble families are allowed to serve as maids of honor, Dasha is naturally a princess of high rank.

Nevertheless, they work earnestly. It may be necessary in a country with a small population, but Ernesta can’t help but feel surprised.

The werewolf clan is diligent and honest. Even in this situation where they still haven’t completely warmed up to each other, Ernesta can feel that Shenka is a very good country.

“I am truly grateful to His Majesty. There aren’t many people who care so much about all of their citizens.”

Dasha’s eyes showed pure reverence with no hesitation or cloudiness.

Ernesta has only spoken to Ivan a few times and still doesn’t really understand him. However, considering what she has seen and heard so far, as well as the current state of the country, it is undoubtedly certain that he is a wise king.

Chapter 13: Commandments of the Champion

Even at night, Ivan was chewing on his pen at his desk in the study.

The pile of parchment paper showed no signs of diminishing, and no matter how many documents he stamped, the tasks didn’t seem to end. Outside the window, darkness had already enveloped everything, and hardly anyone was coming and going within the castle.

However, there was one thing that was different from usual today. The sound of footsteps in the distance stopped in front of his study, and then the door was knocked.

“Good evening, Your Majesty. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

Silvestor Kudera bowed gracefully as usual. Ivan stopped working to greet the hero of the kingdom and gestured for him to take a seat on the opposite rug. Once he sat down, he decided to start the conversation from his side.

“Silvestor, what’s the matter? It’s rare to see you at this time of night.”

“Oh, I see. you must have guessed it.”

It was a familiar wry smile. Even as his mentor, the greatest warrior had a face that calmed a child’s stubbornness.

“I don’t know. I’m not good at sensing things.”

“Is that so? Well then, if I may, my concern is about the Queen.”

As expected, Ivan didn’t even bat an eyelash and just let out a sigh when the expected topic was brought up.

He had heard that the queen was practicing dance on her own volition, and that this man was her instructor.

“Do you have any opportunities to talk with the queen, Your Majesty?”

Once again, it was the anticipated comment. Silvestor was a kind man and had taken care of Ivan since he was a prince.

Moreover, lately he had been hearing good reviews about Ermengard. Even Rougena had praised her resilience, indicating that the queen had a talent for winning people’s hearts.

“I have no intention of taking your advice on this matter.”

However, Ivan’s heart was pricked by a thick and long thorn.

It wasn’t something that could lead to death, but rather a nagging shackle that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

“The queen is human and obviously afraid of me. It can’t be helped.”

“I don’t think so. If you become that stubborn, what will be left in the end?”

“I don’t really care about my relationship with the queen. As long as the alliance becomes strong, that’s enough for me.”

After saying this, heavy silence filled the office.

He knew what his grey eyes were pleading for. Even if the person who had taught and guided him since childhood was in pain, Ivan could not bend his own thoughts.

“You are a splendid king, Your Majesty. However… is being a king really such a harsh duty that it requires one to sacrifice their individuality?”

“Maybe not. But I had to do it. That’s all.”

Only by borrowing the power of his subjects and expending all of himself, piling up the impossible on top of impossible, was he able to make it this far. Perhaps he was not fit to be a king after all.

“Your Majesty. We…”

Silvester closed his mouth with a faint sigh. He couldn’t imagine what would come next, but none of the lines that came to his mind felt appropriate.

It was unusually late by the time he finished his bath and arrived in his bedroom.

Ivan was not someone who would feel tired from this level of activity. Nevertheless, his steps towards the bed were heavy, likely due to his wife already resting.

As expected, the queen showed an unguarded face of fatigue during the day. Although he had no interest in the sleeping form of a beautiful woman, he recently found his heart pounding for some reason.

[Do you have any opportunities to talk with the queen, Your Majesty?]

Suddenly, Silvestor’s words came to mind.

At the same time, his chest began to ache, and he clenched his nightclothes together in intolerable pain.

He was the one who made the decision. So why did he feel any guilt?

It was all for Shenka.

When Bral proposed a political marriage, Ivan accepted it. He knew that the princess had not shown her face during his visit to the palace and that he was feared, but he prioritized the country nevertheless.

Perhaps she did not even want to see her husband’s face. In any case, he made arrangements to make her feel as comfortable as possible. He even postponed their first night together, as she was so nervous that he felt sorry for her.

But what about now that she’s actually become the queen?

She touched Ivan’s wounds without hesitation, and even called transforming into a werewolf on the night of the full moon “lovely.” She befriended even the maidservants and the hero of the country, and enthusiastically studied and practiced sword dance. Now she sleeps peacefully without any suspicion.

Why was she going to such lengths? After all, she should dislike werewolves like him.

He had decided that he didn’t need individuality and prepared himself to spend his entire life disliked by his wife.

And yet, why does his chest hurt now? He has no right to feel guilty or regretful.

❂❂❂

When Ernesta woke up, she was still alone in the room.

The sun illuminated the interior brightly, and the birds’ chirping tickled her eardrums. She didn’t know whether to feel relieved or disappointed with the familiar scenery.

However, after a week had passed without any results, maybe she should start seriously worrying about her lack of appeal.

——Oh, but… maybe he has a mistress. He might not even come back.

When that thought crossed her mind, she felt a slight pang in her chest for some reason.

Thinking such things was strange. Ivan was her temporary husband, and the primary target of this scheme. It seems that she became upset, thinking about her unseen sister’s married life.

“Excuse me. Good morning, My Queen.”

Rougena arrived while Ernesta was lost in thought. The care of the queen was not entrusted to only Dasha, as several people took turns to care for her.

The head maid, dressed flawlessly in navy Arkrig, wasn’t twitching or moving even when lit by the morning sun.

“Good morning, Rougena. It’s a lovely morning, isn’t it?”

“Indeed it is. Now, please change your clothes.”

Small talk being a common practice, Ernesta quietly stood up and headed towards the closet.

However, today, Rougena’s eyebrows furrowed, making Ernesta anxious as to whether she had done something wrong.

“Your Majesty, what happened to your wrist?”

“Huh?… Oh.”

As she followed Rougena’s stern gaze, she saw a fresh bruise around her wrist. She had incorporated sword practice into her training yesterday and apparently hit it without realizing it.

“I accidentally hit myself during my sword dance practice. It’s not a big deal.”

To Ernesta’s values, it was just a bruise, neither a big deal nor a small one.

“What are you talking about?! How can you neglect your injury without treating it? What do you think of your own body?!”

Ernesta shrank her neck, not used to the intensity of Rougena’s wrath. However, Rougena’s anger did not stop and continued on to another matter.

“Your dark circles are quite severe. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“W-Well, I try to get as much sleep as possible, but sometimes studying and other things take longer.”

“If it’s causing you to compromise your health, then it’s not worth it. Please take better care of yourself.”

In other words, it was a reminder to take better care of her own body. The words were harsh, but if she looked at it in a positive light, it was meant to be helpful.

“I appreciate your concern, thank you.”

“My Queen, I am angry, you know.”

She smiled happily, but was immediately brought down by Rougena’s blunt words. However, she couldn’t help but feel that the steel-willed head maid was somehow starting to soften her attitude towards her.

“I will treat your wounds right away. We will change your clothes afterwards.”

“Understood. Thank you, Rougena.”

At first, she thought Rougena was a scary person, but as she was taught by her, she gradually came to understand that she was a woman with a strong sense of responsibility and deep compassion.

Perhaps stopping her challenge towards dancing was meant to prepare her for this kind of situation.

As she had ointment applied to her wrist, Ernesta smiled faintly, as if realizing something she could not quite explain.

Chapter 14: The werewolf tribe and the full moon

A surprising event happened to Ernesta one day, just a few days before the founding festival.

“Well then, My Queen, shall we call it a day?”

Ernesta sheathed her sword after receiving the signal from Silvestor. Lately, she felt that even this movement had become quite graceful.

“Thank you very much, General Kudera. Do you think we’re on track to make it?”

“Absolutely. My Queen is an excellent student. If we keep this up, we’ll make it even a day before the deadline.”

Silvestor nodded with a smile, but he couldn’t shake off her unease. Recently, Ernesta had been practicing even at night, but could she make up for the missing two weeks with just this much?

Ernesta looked troubled and lowered her head, missing the crucial moment.

When she looked up again, Silvestor had transformed into a werewolf in front of her, so suddenly that Ernesta was left gaping in surprise.

Silvestor was dressed in his usual black chokha, but his head was that of a wolf. His fur was the same white and gray as his hair, and his arms, which peeked out from his sleeves, were the same. He had sharp claws at the tips of his fingers, but he seemed to handle tools just like he did when he was human, and he also put his sword back into its sheath.

“Oops. Ah, it was a full moon tonight… My Queen?”

“Cool…!”

Without noticing the concerned General Kudera, Ernesta was overflowing with emotions.

“General Kudera, werewolf form looks cool! Like a seasoned hero. He looks extremely strong and cool!”

The greatest warrior was taken aback by the queen’s shining eyes.

Silvestor laughed loudly for a while after saying comfortably, without realizing that it was indecent:

“What are you saying…! My Queen’s bravery surpasses all the enemy generals we’ve fought so far!”

He opened his wolf-jawed mouth grandly and laughed with genuine amusement from the bottom of his heart. Ernesta blushed as if it was her first time and felt ashamed of showing a childish reaction.

“But it’s the truth. Did I say something weird?”

“No, no, it’s my honor. To be praised by a beautiful lady like My Queen is a great glory for the werewolf warriors.”

The wolf’s face was hard to read, but Ernesta was sure of one thing. Silvestor was clearly smiling mischievously.

“Oh, you’re so good at this.”

“Hahaha! I’m being sincere!”

Once again, Ernesta laughed along with Silvestor, who couldn’t stop laughing.

That’s exactly why she didn’t notice. Silvestor narrowed his eyes as if looking at a distant past and muttered softly.

“If there is anyone who can unravel His Majesty’s heart, it might be someone like you.”

Even on the way back to the room, everyone she passed in the stone corridor had transformed into werewolves.

Looking up at the window in the hallway, a golden full moon cut through the purple-blue night sky. It probably seemed larger than Ernesta was used to, because it was the country of the werewolf tribe.

They said that they transformed into werewolves on the night of the full moon, but seeing it in reality was such a fantastic sight, like wandering into a picture book.

Ernesta couldn’t resist her curiosity and walked down the hallway, looking around everywhere, taking more time than usual to reach her room.

When she opened the door, there was a werewolf in a maid outfit preparing the meal. The outfit was a hint, but she knew who it was at a glance.

“Dasha!”

“Eek! My Queen?!”

Ernesta clasped her hands, which were covered with copper-colored fur. Her small, girlish hand and rounded facial features reminded her of the usual Dasha.

“You know, today was the first time I saw everyone in their werewolf forms. It was so lovely, and I got a little excited.”

“My Queen isn’t really scared, huh…”

A dazed-looking maid muttered as if biting her tongue, and Ernesta tilted her head in confusion.

“Of course not. You’re Dasha, even though your appearance is different from mine.”

“Oh, My Queen~! I’m glad you’re here. I was a little worried.”

“It’s alright, Dasha. I’ve been causing you to worry.”

After patting her head, which was lower than hers, and feeling the smooth fur, Ernesta asked about something that had been on her mind.

“By the way, is His Majesty not joining us for dinner today either?”

Ernesta always ate meals alone. Ivan was probably busy, and anyway, she seemed to be disliked, so there was no way around it.

Despite knowing this, she could not completely give up her small expectations and occasionally asked Dasha like this. At that time, she always responded with a “He seems to be busy…” and her face would darken. But today was different.

“I heard that he wouldn’t come today. I don’t know the reason either, but it seems His Majesty won’t show himself to anyone other non-humans.”

“… Does that mean it’s because of me?”

Dasha gasped at the sharp remark.

What on earth did her temporary husband’s behavior mean? As the full moon night deepened, she couldn’t find the answer no matter how much she thought about it.

Chapter 15: National Foundation

When there is a need to accomplish something by a deadline, time feels faster.

Ernesta spent each day studying and practicing. She even practiced on her own at night, dancing tirelessly. The days, which could be described as stubborn and determined, passed in the blink of an eye, and before she knew it, the day of the founding festival had arrived.

On this day, Ernesta was extremely busy from morning till night. She welcomed the guests who came to the castle one after another, visited the venue, and expressed gratitude to the maids in between. In the meantime, she confirmed the final details of her sword dance, took a little food, and continued to prepare.

And now, Ernesta was finally changing into her sword dance costume. It was an extremely luxurious piece, with many layers of fabric compared to her usual Arkrig, and she couldn’t put it on alone, so she asked for help.

“My Queen, it looks great on you! You really look beautiful!”

Dasha’s eyes were shining brightly as she praised her master even more than usual.

Her hair was braided neatly to not obstruct her during the sword dance for the moon goddess, adorned with a blue flower hair ornament. The costume, made with navy silk and golden threads, was used to bring out the beauty of Ernesta’s slender figure.

“Thank you, Dasha.”

However, the person herself could only smile vaguely. The nervousness and frustration of doing something inappropriate were tormenting her heart.

“It’s alright, My Queen. You have Kudera’s approval. Please have confidence.”

Rougena noticed her master’s tension and quietly spoke to her. Dasha laughed as if it were funny that she was being unusually kind.

“Rougena-sama is so kind lately, isn’t she?”

“Dasha, instead of making useless remarks, please bring me water quickly.”

“Yes, right away!”

Ernesta narrowed her eyes, watching the back of the girl who ran off like a rabbit.

She must do her best. For their supportive sake, she must absolutely finish the job.

The grand hall had completely transformed into the style of the founding festival.

Decorations resembling the moon were hung everywhere, and the light from the lamps illuminated the dim evening.

Shenka cuisine was crowded on the carpet, and in the midst of the fragrant aroma, an enormous number of lords and ladies were chatting together, a spectacular sight.

Ernesta stiffened at the head seat. Although she knew that the more nervous she became, the closer she would get to failure, she couldn’t help it. Her throat was dry and burning, and her cheeks were flushed, leaving her with no escape.

Suddenly, Ernesta felt a gaze coming from nearby and looked to her side.

There was Ivan, sitting in a cross-legged posture. The only difference from earlier was that his blue eyes were looking directly at her.

“Um, Your Majesty? Is there something on my face?”

“No. I just thought you looked terrible.”

His remark struck Ernesta’s heart with a sharpness that was all too real.

It seemed that her nervousness was still evident on her face. Or perhaps, she wondered if he was criticizing her looks. As she put her hand on her face in embarrassment, the next words she heard were beyond belief.

“In Shenka, when you’re nervous, you pinch the finger pads from the little finger in order.”

Ernesta clearly showed her surprise.

Could it be…could it be that this person is now giving her advice?

“Um… like this? From the little finger to the ring finger, middle finger…”

As she pinched her fingers as instructed, Ivan remained cold and expressionless, but he nodded in agreement.

“When you reach the thumb, do the opposite hand. Repeat until you feel relaxed. It might be a small comfort while passing the time.”

True to Ivan’s words, by the fifth repetition, she had calmed down considerably. She felt like it was a simple thing to do, but above all, she was happy about his thoughtfulness.

“I really feel better now…! Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“I see.”

His gaze was already averted, no longer looking at her. The cold expression remained, but for Ernesta, that calm demeanor felt reassuring.

At the timing when everyone gathered, the king signaled for a toast, and the banquet began in earnest.

At the same time, a circle was forming around the king and queen by those who intended to greet them. Although she had experienced it at the wedding ceremony, being surrounded by dignitaries who were more than twice her age was not pleasant.

Ernesta tried her best to be lively. Ivan, on the other hand, was more talkative than when he talked to Ernesta, exchanging witty conversations with the lords.

It was not that this king disliked talking to others. Perhaps he just had no interest in conversing with humans like Ernesta or just had no interest in her.

Although two weeks had passed since she arrived here, the thing she knew the least about was this king. Her usual doubt weighed heavily on her chest, and Ernesta had to forcibly raise her spirits.

It’s no good to be depressed. Right now, it’s best to just focus on the upcoming sword dance.

“We have heard that you will be demonstrating the sword dance, My Queen. My my, how exciting.”

One person within the circle of attendees spoke up in a disgustingly fawning voice. Then, others chimed in and the atmosphere became somewhat insincere.

“The werewolf tribe’s dance is difficult, isn’t it? It’s admirable that you offered to perform it.”

“I heard that General Kudera endorsed your skills. With guidance from that hero, there will be no room for error.”

“That’s wonderful. However, with the beauty of the queen, even a slight mistake wouldn’t be noticed.”

Although it sounded like a normal conversation, those words clearly contained thorns. Engeberg told her that it’s best not to pay attention to these comments during such situations, so she chose to smile and let their words pass.

Ernesta quickly understood that they were nobles of the “anti-alliance.” Many werewolves disagreed with the alliance with humans, and the first to raise their voice in protest was Lord Kautsky.

It was natural that they did not like the human queen, but even though she knew it was inevitable to be the recipient of their malice, she felt as if she had swallowed lead.

“Don’t talk too much. If you all have high expectations, it will only make My Queen more nervous for no reason.”

Ernesta cast a sidelong glance at her side without thinking. Ivan was still calm, and he didn’t even glance her way.

So, she found it even more unbelievable that he taught her a magic spell to ease her tension moments ago.

——I can’t believe he’s the one protecting me.

The moment she realized that, Ernesta felt a warm fire ignite in her chest.

He is really an incomprehensible person. But surely, he is a kind person.

Perhaps there will be no more kindness directed towards her, but that’s fine.

Let’s do everything we can. Let’s change the bad impression that people have of the human queen, even if it’s just a little.

Ernesta left the place after declining and walked towards the stage set up in the center.

Inside the venue, guests were seated in rows, and dishes were placed in between. However, there was an empty space in the center. It was set up for the founding festival and was meant for various performances.

“My Queen, how are you feeling?”

Silvester was waiting by the stage. Ernesta returned his kindness with a smile and nodded vigorously.

“I’m feeling great.”

“Hahaha, that’s the spirit. Now, show us what you got.”

Though her bluff was easily seen through, Ernesta laughed it off and Silvester gave her a daring smile that matched hers.

The sword handed to her had its edge taken off, but it was made of iron and had a substantial weight to it. Ernesta respectfully received it with both arms, and finally took her first step onto the stage.

Chapter 16: Dance under the moonlight

I don’t understand. Why do you go that far?

Ivan did not avert his gaze from the stage. Every time the supposedly frail human girl slashed her sword, the stagnant air in the banquet was cut through. The lords and ladies were completely quiet, their attention drawn to the dance of the new queen.

The silver sword drew a graceful line, and every time the long-sleeved slit fluttered, it let light shine through. The decorated bracelet played a cool melody, and the sound of her foot stomping occasionally echoed sharply.

This was a dance to show gratitude to the moon goddess. She seemed to understand it well, with a gentle smile on her face. Even though just a moment ago, she had a blue face.

This was something that would normally be impossible. To learn the werewolves’ one-month dance in just two weeks would require literally blood-stained effort.

Why go that far?

Doubts occupied his mind, and at the same time, that feeling attacked him once again.

His chest hurt. It was an unbearable pain.

Just earlier, she laughed twice. The first time was when he taught her a charm to alleviate her nervousness. The second time was when he stood up for the opposition nobles.

Why does she laugh at it? She is surrounded by the werewolf tribe that is only a source of fear. Why doesn’t she stop moving forward?

Her toes, once soaring high, silently landed from right to left. After a beat, the hem of her costume fluttered down, announcing the end of the ethereal dance.

Ermengard’s cheeks were so red even from afar, and her rough breathing spoke of the rigor of the dance. The venue was still silent, but at the next moment, explosive applause ensued.

Everyone had speculated on the efforts of this young queen. The nobles praised her one after another, and the venue, which had been in the midst of a sword dance, was now filled with intense heat.

Ermengard was still stunned with her rough breath, but then she hugged the sword to her chest and made a polite bow. Her charming and innocent figure seemed even more attractive, and the cheers grew even louder.

While the queen was leaving the stage, looking embarrassed in the midst of the enthusiastic applause, Ivan couldn’t move at all.

“Your Majesty.”

When he raised his face upon being called, Johan was standing beside him. Maybe he was worried that his lord was not moving too much, but his face had a wry smile.

“Well done.”

“Oh…”

“What are you thinking about?”

“What do you think I’m thinking?”

Despite his line that seemed to dismiss him away, his blue eyes were wavering.

It seemed to be a pleasing thing for Johan that his lord, who was not used to showing hesitation, was showing it now. He narrowed his eyes behind his glasses and spoke mercilessly.

“I don’t know. This is something that you should think about, Your Majesty.”

That’s right, this was something he should decide for himself. The reason why the path he had chosen was wavering was due to his own changes.

❂❂❂

“General Kudera!”

Ernesta stepped off the stage and embraced her teacher amidst thunderous applause. Silvester welcomed his student with a smile full of joy.

“Did I dance well?”

“Absolutely! It was a splendid dance, My Queen.”

Ernesta was finally relieved, having earned her teacher’s approval. Her eyes glazed over with tears, and her throat burned, but she couldn’t afford to lose her composure, so she held it back.

“Rougena!”

This time, Rougena came over and hugged Ernesta.

“You were magnificent, My Queen. You did such a great job.”

No, she was going to cry after all.

Rougena’s warmth reminded Ernesta of Isolte, her kind mother who always supported her daughter despite her illness, lying in bed.

In the distance by the wall, Engeberg had a smile that looked like he was about to cry and was clapping. Dasha was also happy and clapping her hands a little further away. All the familiar maids, courtiers, and nobles were clapping as well.

Is it safe to assume that she did something useful, even if it won’t change much in the relationship between humans and the werewolf tribe, but at least it will make a difference.

“Well well, a big round of applause for My Queen. Do you really want to gain popularity from us that badly?”

At that moment, Rougena quickly sharpened her gaze and glared at the speaker with a voice that contained a hint of thorniness.

Silvestor also gave the man a stern look with a sharp eye.

Sitting in a nearby seat with a smirk on his face was Kautsky, who had just exchanged words with the queen moments ago. He must have expected the human queen to be humiliated, only to be disappointed when his expectations were not met.

“Is that shameless remark just now from you, Kautsky? How dare you say such things in front of me.”

Silvestor wrapped himself in obvious anger and placed his hand on his short sword at his waist, but his wife quickly stopped him, preventing any further incident. Surprised by his teacher’s short temper, Ernesta took a step forward.

It was evident that the entire venue was suddenly fixated on the argument. There was no way she could withdraw now. Even as a substitute, she must show the appropriate attitude.

“Of course, Lord Kautsky. I am married to this country. Naturally, I want to understand everyone and get along with them.”

Not only Kautsky but also Rougena and Silvester, and everyone in the venue, were taken aback by her grand response and were all captivated by her proud bearing.

“You are included in that category. Is there anything wrong with thinking that way?”

It was only then that Kautsky finally regained his composure. His face turned bright red, and he slammed the glass he was holding onto the carpet, causing a heavy dull sound to reverberate throughout the venue, followed by hysterical cries.

“What…! How dare you, a greedy and heartless human, try to understand the werewolf tribe.”

It was a momentary incident.

Ernesta felt something large slip past her on the side, but by the time she recognized what it was, Kautsky’s mouth was blocked by the hand of a warrior.

“Your Majesty Ivan…”

The voice calling his name was drowned out by the noise from the venue.

Ivan had his back turned towards them, so there was no way to know what expression he had. However, Kautsky, who was already facing his lord, had his chin grabbed by a powerful grip and had transformed into a color similar to that of paper.

“Don’t say another word, Kautsky.”

Kautsky nodded his head vertically like a broken puppet. Although he intended to nod, it looked funny to those around him.

The king’s hand tightened, and Kautsky’s face turned from white to red.

Ernesta couldn’t say a word and could only watch the unbelievable scene unfold before her eyes.

“You should know that insulting the queen is an insult to me, so you better know your place.”

It was a voice that could crawl on the ground.

Receiving a response from his subordinates, who nodded frantically, Ivan finally let go of Kautsky.

Kautsky fell to the ground helplessly, coughing, but no one was brave enough to help him.

Almost everyone present there was consumed by the unique intensity possessed by the king, and even for people like Silvestor, who was used to it, it was enough to momentarily render him motionless.

Ivan slowly turned to look their way. Ernesta was completely frozen, but at the moment their eyes met, she realized something.

——Why do you look so sad?

She didn’t know how she could sense such a thing from his usual expressionless face. However, Ernesta thought that she couldn’t leave this lonesome king alone.

She impulsively wished to see him smile from the bottom of his heart, at least once.

“Your Majesty, what happened?”

However, her leg that took one step forward lost strength unexpectedly. Was it because she had concentrated too much on the sword dance? Come to think of it, her whole body was exhausted and hard to move.

“If it’s about me, don’t worry.”

When she tried to take one more step, her knees seemed to abandon their task. Her face became hot, and her mind also stopped working for some reason. She was attacked by a sudden drowsiness and, without even being able to take a defensive posture, she closed her eyes and fell into a doze.

She heard a distant scream. At the same time, she felt a strong arm catching her, and Ernesta was sure about that.

Chapter 17: The one who helped me

“The Queen has caught a cold. It’s not a serious illness, so please don’t worry.”

said Jaromir, the royal pharmacist, causing the three people left in the queen’s room to relax. Ivan, while still frowning, let out a long sigh.

When she collapsed after the sword dance, and even when he held her, he felt his heart freeze.

Ermengard is now sleeping soundly, but her face is still red, and she looks like she’s in pain.

Rougena has a gloomy expression as she changes the cloth on the queen’s forehead, while tears well up in Dasha’s eyes as she wipes away the sweat on the queen’s fevered cheeks.

“It obviously looks like her fever is running high. Isn’t there any other way to treat her?”

This elderly pharmacist has had many years of experience working in the palace, even before Ivan was born, so there is no doubt about his abilities. However, he couldn’t help but persist.

“Since she hasn’t woken up yet, all we can do is burn medicinal incense with detoxifying effects and warm the room. We’ll also need to frequently cool her forehead with a damp cloth.”

Jaromir lowered his eyes in a troubled manner.

Of course, it goes without saying that this kind and skilled physician will do everything in their power to treat her.

“…I see, understood. Thank you.”

“No need for such flattery. I am at your service anytime, so please do not hesitate to call upon me when you need me.”

As Jaromir left with a bow, Ivan headed towards Ermengard’s bedside.

A censer was placed on the nearby chest, emitting a scent reminiscent of the grassy plains along with a faint smoke. However, she slept beside it, breathing with difficulty, showing no signs of her usual cheerfulness.

“I’ll watch over her.”

The two maids raised their heads in surprise, but the king, who gazed at his wife with a shocking glance, did not notice their gazes.

“Are you saying that Your Majesty will nurse the queen yourself?”

The head maid, who had once served as the king’s educator, asked her master in a hoarse voice, as if she had never heard of such a thing.

Ivan knew well where that surprise came from. That’s why he looked directly at her and firmly declared it.

“Yes. Please give me the work, Rougena.”

Rougena’s purple eyes opened wide, and it seemed to have been a long time since he had seen that before.

Come to think of it, he may have been worrying Rougena all this while. Thinking about it, he suddenly felt a sensation of his footing shaking, so he had to clench his fists and endure it.

“As you wish, Your Majesty.”

Rougena quickly regained her composure and nodded. Dasha, on the other hand, seemed to have not yet grasped the situation, and her gaze alternated between the queen and the king, but eventually she was urged by the head maid to take her leave.

“Your Majesty, the queen, was an excellent student.”

In front of her lord, who rarely showed a soft smile, Dasha looked like she had seen a ghost. Rougena breaking her poker face one after another was unusual.

“Her Majesty seems to be someone who puts herself second. Please take good care of her. I humbly ask you, Your Majesty.”

He realized that those words were not just about taking care of her, but also about the future. Rougena curtsies with satisfaction to her lord, who nods awkwardly and leaves the room with her subordinates.

Waiting for the door to close, Ivan sat on the armchair beside the bed.

He touched the forehead cloth and noticed that it had already become warm, so he dipped it in water, wrung it out, and placed it back on the forehead. As he floated in the silent room, his memory returned to the incident from earlier.

[Of course, Lord Kautsky. I am married to this country. Naturally, I want to understand everyone and get along with them.]

Her dignified gaze remained in his mind.

The princess, who was supposed to have come from a different country, had somehow gained the trust and respect of those around her. Even without seeing her face, everyone could hear that the queen was doing her best and always had a smile on her face.

But now she sleeps, her face covered in sweat and her breathing labored.

As a result of her efforts to try and improve the situation between her husband, who wouldn’t compromise, and those around her, she had collapsed.

At first, he couldn’t understand why she would go that far, but now he does. She had a fair mind and was genuinely concerned about the relationship between the two countries. She had the nobility to work hard for that cause.

——When she said she wanted to communicate with everyone, what did I do for her?

He knew that the smile she gave him when he taught her a spell to release her tension was pure and genuine. Yet, he just kept her at bay, not even trying to get to know her as a person.

“I’m a complete coward. Will you still laugh at me?”

❂❂❂

“Ellie, there’s something important I need to tell you.”

From the moment Isolte solemnly declared this on a summer day when Ernesta was seven years old, her world changed completely.

It was after dinner in the living room, and they were about to take a bath. Bruno and Konrad were also present, but while Konrad didn’t seem to understand the meaning of the conversation, he just played with his toy horses.

“Then… I’m not really Dad and Mom’s real child?”

She wished it was a joke. But both parents had serious expressions, and it was clear that they were not lying.

Next, she felt sadness. Whether she was really the emperor’s child or not didn’t matter. The bond of unconditional trust between parent and child didn’t really exist. The cruel truth tore her little chest apart.

“So… well, that’s that. I see.”

For some reason, a smile came naturally. She was so sad that her heart became numb, and she couldn’t react like a child.

“Okay. I won’t be selfish anymore.”

“Ellie! That’s not it.”

Isolte reached out her arms and hugged her young daughter tightly. Young Ellie heard a hoarse, sorrowful voice saying.

“Don’t say that. You’re Mom and Dad’s child. Nothing has changed. Be as spoiled as you want and play as much as you want. When you do something wrong, I will scold you properly.”

Her embrace became even stronger. Although Isolte’s trembling shoulders conveyed her emotions directly, she couldn’t hug her back.

“You needed to know. Someday you’ll know anyway, and if I don’t tell you before that, it will hurt you even more. But… I’m sorry. You’re still so young. I’m sorry for making you sad…”

Although she couldn’t see Isolte’s expression, she could understand from her voice that it was tearful.

I’m sorry, Mom. If I weren’t here, you wouldn’t have to cry, right?

Despite loving Mom, Dad, and Konrad, why was she the only one not related by blood?

Don’t cry. I won’t cry. It’s okay, I understand. All three of you love me and cherish me.

Despite this, Mom and Dad are still sad because of me. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry…

While she kept apologizing in her heart, Bruno suddenly hugged her along with Isolte. Konrad also happily ran over and stuck to Ernesta’s waist.

The blacksmith’s arms were thick and large, and Ernesta loved to hang off them.

However, this was the last time she would get to do that.

With a blink of an eye, the scene changed, and Ernesta was now completely in her current form. She couldn’t remember the sad past she had just witnessed, and was running straight towards her nostalgic home.

Ernesta suppressed her excitement and passed through the gate of North Star. Her father and younger brother were waiting on the other side, and tears welled up at the reunion after a long time.

“Dad! Konrad! I’m home!”

She hugged the two of them together, and their arms embraced her just as tightly. It was truly nostalgic and warm.

“You did well, Ellie. Good job.”

“Nee-san, you can’t push yourself like this anymore. I was worried about you.”

Each of them was comforted, and Ernesta separated from them. However, as soon as she looked into their faces, she felt a sense of discomfort and her breath stopped.

“What’s wrong with both of you…? Did something happen?”

Bruno was the one who trembled and shook his body. Ernesta felt something unpleasant, so she rushed to the back of the shop to deny it.

“Nee-san!”

“Ellie, wait!”

Ignoring their unusually distressed voices, she arrived in front of Isolte’s room.

Ernesta’s heart was making an unpleasant sound. But there was no time to stand still, so she gathered her courage and opened the door.

Sure enough, the worst outcome was waiting there.

Her mother lay on her side while retaining her beautiful appearance, with a emaciated body. Her chest was not rising and falling, and her colorless face did not move even a bit.

“Ah, aah… ah…”

An inhuman groan escaped from Ernesta’s lips, and tears flowed endlessly. She couldn’t even bring herself to wipe them away. Her heart was pounding like crazy and her head was throbbing so badly it was almost unbearable.

“I’m sorry, sorry… Mom, I’m sorry…!”

Despair, regret, and disappointment filled Ernesta’s heart, crushing any other emotion. Her body lost all strength and she fell to her knees, crouching down in a ball.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…! I couldn’t save you… I don’t want to… Mom!”

Meaningless murmurs surfaced and disappeared repeatedly. Suddenly, she felt her shoulder grabbed.

<n… gard!… erm…rd.>

What was being said? She didn’t have the energy to lift her face or understand the words clearly.

<It’s okay, it was just a dream. Wake up!>

This time, the voice was clear. Ernesta slowly raised her head, but before she could confirm who it was, her vision was engulfed in white.

Chapter 18: It’s easy if you approach

As soon as she opened her eyes, she knew that tears were streaming down her cheeks.

In the blurry world, she couldn’t tell who was being reflected, and stared rudely. Eventually, a large hand reached out hesitantly and wiped away the remaining tears on the edge of her eyes.

“Your Majesty…?”

In front of her clear vision was a handsome face that could only belong to Ivan. Ernesta was stunned and unable to understand the situation as she stared at him.

“You were having a nightmare. Are you okay?”

“Yes…I only had a bad dream for a little bit.”

As she said it out loud, she felt the realization that the terrifying future that shook her to the depths of her heart was just a dream. Ernesta took a deep breath and looked around at her surroundings.

It seemed to be the queen’s room. She was lying down on a bed that she had only used once before, and a refreshing summer sky could be seen through the window. Ivan seemed to be sitting on the chair next to her, but she didn’t have the slightest idea of how they ended up like this.

“”This is…why are you…”

She complained of a pain that felt like her throat was twitching, and her head felt like it was being constantly tightened. Her thought process was hazy, and she had difficulty breathing.

“You caught a cold. You had a high fever and collapsed yesterday.”

As soon as she was told, the situation at that time came back to her.

She remembered how she had acted like a big shot with Kautsky, and got him furious. Then, Ivan helped her and noticed her physical fatigue——but from then on, she couldn’t remember anything else.

“I’ll get the pharmacist. Just lie down there.”

“W-Wait a moment…!”

Ernesta realized how much trouble she had caused, and stopped the king who had turned his back on her.

She not only caused a commotion at the festival, but also collapsed.

“I’m sorry… I don’t know how to apologize enough.”

“Calm down and don’t move.”

However, the body that she had managed to wake up was once again put back to bed by Ivan.

“But…!”

“How high do you think your fever was? Just rest for now.”

Ernesta was taken aback by the words that seemed to be expressing genuine concern for her.

Come to think of it, why is the king personally attending to this kind of matter? Isn’t this usually the job of a lady-in-waiting or a maidservant?

As she pondered over this increasingly perplexing situation, she found herself locking eyes with Ivan, who was looking straight at her.

“You have done nothing wrong. Your sword dance and your conduct were both splendid. The one at fault is me. I apologize for my vassal’s insolence and for my previous behavior. I’m sorry.”

In a carefully chosen words, Ivan gave a sincere apology. Even though he still had his usual expressionless face, his demeanor was clearly serious, causing Ernesta to become even more confused.

“That’s not true! There’s nothing to apologize for, your Majesty. Because I…”

——Because I’ve been lying to you all along.

Ernesta wasn’t the kind of person who can get everyone to be nice to her. She was a lump of greed who had decided to keep lying for the sake of her selfish wishes.

Receiving friendship, love, and kindness should be for Ermengard herself. Ernesta will eventually disappear from here. She is a person who will irresponsibly disappear and hand over everything to her still unseen sister.

“…I don’t think you have done anything bad to me at all.”

The absolute wedge of lying tightens Ernesta’s chest as if it were just now.

How presumptuous. She has no right to give someone forgiveness.

Still, she wanted what she said to be truthful. For some reason, she didn’t want to interact with this person with a sad look in her eyes while remaining fake.

“Even if your Majesty thinks so, I don’t. So…there’s no need to apologize.”

“You’re…”

Ivan’s pupil, like the night sky, opened wide and then quickly narrowed. His gaze seemed to contain self-mockery.

“You are too generous.”

“Do you think so? I also have things that anger me.”

“Oh. Then I better be careful not to make you angry.”

As Ivan shrugged his shoulders, Ernesta couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

She didn’t realize that simply having a normal conversation with him would make her so happy. While feeling overwhelmed by her sudden excitement, Ernesta looked into his eyes that sparkled in the distant night sky.

Looking at him like this, she had a feeling of familiarity. However, she couldn’t recall when or where she had met him before, or even if he was really Ivan. In the end, her thoughts were interrupted without any further progress.

“Actually, I have a request.”

“What is it?”

Without realizing it, their eyes had met, and Ernesta quickly averted her gaze. However, Ivan’s gaze didn’t falter and continued to focus directly on her.

“When you were having a nightmare earlier, I wasn’t sure what to call you. Would you mind if I call you by your name from now on?”

“Huh?”

Her unexpected response was quite impolite for someone speaking to the king.

As the highest authority figure in this country, shouldn’t he be able to call whatever he likes without having to confirm it every time?

Ernesta wondered about this and forgot her previous shyness as she looked back at Ivan. His direct gaze showed no signs of joking.

Could it be that he’s a serious, diligent, and incredibly sense of duty?

She didn’t know why he had been avoiding her before, but at least now he’s willing to face her. But is it really okay for her to think that?

“Ellie. Please call me that. That’s what close people call me.”

At that moment, she revealed her nickname, solely because she was feverish. Ernesta would later dwell on her guilt towards Ermengard, but that’s a story for another time.

Because the next suggestion was even more surprising.

“Then would you call me Ivan by name as well?”

Ernesta froze this time.

Call this magnificent king by his first name? That’s far too wasteful.

In addition, Ernesta felt strangely embarrassed. Her cheeks reddened, but Ivan didn’t seem to mind and continued to stare at her.

Ernesta decided to hypnotize herself. She was here as a substitute for Ermengard, so she shouldn’t be calling this beautiful king by his name. Absolutely not.

“Then… Ivan-sama, is it alright?”

“Sama is not necessary. Honorifics are not needed.”

“Eh! But, that’s too——!”

Ernesta raised her voice in response.

That offer was too high of a hurdle, even for her. One must not underestimate a maiden with no immunity to men.

However, as she locked eyes with Ivan’s sincere gaze, all of her objections vanished into thin air. She couldn’t tell if it was due to his demeanor or if it was due to the heat in the air. Ernesta was no longer able to judge.

“‘Shenka’ is a place where, even among nobles, honorifics are not used among families. I hope you can take that into consideration as it makes me uneasy.”

“Uh…! Yes, I understand. So…I-Ivan, is this okay…?”

Her cheeks were heated, and anyone could tell she was blushing. Ernesta pulled the blanket up to her mouth, trying to at least not be scolded for anything.

At that moment, Ivan’s handsome face formed a quiet smile.

“Yeah, that’s fine, Ellie.”

His narrow eyes held gentleness, and his lips curved calmly. His expression was as faint and peaceful as the moon peeking through the clouds.

The smile of the king, who was rumored to be cold-hearted, seemed to have an unimaginable destructive power. Ernesta was so worried that her eyes might pop out.

Ivan seemed to have thought that the queen, who was unable to return any words, was just feeling unwell.

“Well, that was a long conversation. I’ll go inform Rougena and the others that you woke up.”

As soon as Ivan left the room, Ernesta let out a big sigh and collapsed facedown. Even though she knew no one was there to scold her, she still wanted to hide her blushing face.

——It’s not fair that you suddenly smile when you’ve been expressionless all this time.

The reason why her heart was pounding so much was because he was handsome. The strange feeling of warmth she felt was the same as when the dog next door let her pet him for the first time.

That’s all there should be. After all, Ernesta was just a substitute queen.

Chapter 19: Whereabouts of sleep talking

After finishing the prepared food for the sick and taking the medicine, Ernesta’s condition had recovered somewhat.

With Jaromir’s examination finished, the only ones left in the room were Rougena, Kudera, and Engeberg.

“I was very worried. I’m glad to see you’re safe, Ermengard-sama.”

Engeberg seemed very anxious, and he had a worried look on his face when he came into the room. She felt sorry for him because she had caused him so much worry.

“If you’re feeling unwell, please let us know immediately. We can’t have you collapsing.”

Rougena seemed like she wanted to scold her a little more, but she seemed to be holding back since she was a patient.

“Rougena, it’s enough that you’re safe. My Queen, please rest comfortably now.”

Silvestor smiled gracefully, and Ernesta obediently nodded. Since she had caused them so much trouble and worry, it was crucial to cure herself as soon as possible.

“…Yeah, that’s right. I’ll get better soon. I’m sorry for worrying you all. Thank you, everyone.”

When she expressed her gratitude, everyone responded by telling her not to worry about it. There was no deception in their expressions, which made Ernesta even more overwhelmed.

——I’m not the type of person to be worried about by everyone.

Whether Engeberg proposed to leave the place, knowing Ernesta’s feelings or not, everyone began to disperse at his words, and finally, the queen’s room regained its calm.

However, a new visitor arrived there. As expected, a wolf with a shiny silver coat appeared from between the turrets.

“Mikola! You came.”

Mikolash quietly approached the bed and placed his head next to Ernesta’s pillow. Since wolves are intelligent creatures, he might have noticed that the person in front of him was sick.

“Are you worried about me? Thank you. You are such a kind child.”

Ernesta gently stroked the wolf’s head and chin with both hands. She could hear his stomach growling, and realized that he was also a considerate creature.

As she gazed at the chestnut-color fur imbued with soft light, she suddenly remembered her hometown. The nightmares from earlier also contributed to suddenly reminding her of things that she had purposely avoided thinking about.

What happened to Isolte’s condition? Engeberg said he arranged for a doctor, but has he arrived by now? Have Bruno and Konrad been worrying a lot and are they still doing okay?

Her vision suddenly blurred, and Ernesta pressed her cheek against the silver-colored fur.

She shouldn’t think about it. She needs to believe it. Engeberg will surely bring the best doctor. Isolte is trying her best. Bruno and Konrad are also supporting her with great dedication.

While waiting and believing, she can only do her best to fulfill her duties. That’s all Ernesta can do.

❂❂❂

In the evening of that day, Ivan was working in his office when the capable Prime Minister, Johan, entered.

“Your Majesty, I apologize for disturbing you while you’re busy. Here are additional documents.”

Johan spoke in his usual calm tone and stacked the stack of parchment paper he brought on the desk.

Ivan had been with Ernesta until morning, leaving him with a pile of work to do. Although he knew this situation well, his ruthless decision-making was a usual thing.

He was incredibly reliable. He had saved Ivan since childhood, being straightforward and honest with him, regardless of whether he was dealing with the king or not.

“Johan, I have something to ask you.”

Ivan is unusually serious. Johan adjusted his glasses and sat up straight, sensing the gravity of the situation, looked straight into Ivan’s intense light blue eyes.

“What does the noble princess call her own mother?”

Even Johan, the Prime Minister, seemed taken aback by such a sudden and inexplicable question. Ivan continued to ask with even more enthusiasm, looking at his friend and subordinate, who opened his mouth with confusion.

“I want to hear an objective opinion. Just answer without thinking too much about it.”

“Well… I’m not sure, but it’s probably someone like “Mother” or “Okaa-sama”. What’s wrong?”

Johan answered while looking skeptical. However, Ivan felt that a certain suspicion was taking shape.

[..I’m sorry… I can’t help you… I don’t want to… Mom.]

He recalled the sight of Ermengard, curling up and crying out distressed sleep talking.

Of course, a noble princess wouldn’t use the term “Mom”. And what did she mean when she said she couldn’t be helped? The current Empress of the Bral Empire is still alive, and there’s no such thing as hearing her being involved in an accident or falling ill.

Perhaps, she has some kind of situation.

That was a confident answer. He didn’t know what that situation was, but he was sure that there was something inexplicable about it.

“This is an official job. Investigate the Imperial Family of the Bral Empire.”

With just one word, Johan tightened his expression.

“What? Has the queen done anything suspicious?”

His ability to read the conversation from an unnatural context was truly exceptional. When Ivan responded with silence, Johan turned pale in an instant.

“If that’s the case, this is not a good situation. Your safety comes first, so we should keep our distance and not pretend to notice anything. I will come up with a reason if necessary——.”

“No, it’s okay. I want to keep living like this.”

“What are you talking about? That’s insane! You should take better care of yourself!”

Despite his amazing intensity, Johan spoke in a low voice, likely due to the importance of their confidential discussion. Ivan, on the other hand, surprisingly remained calm and stared back at his friend with a face reddened like a calm lake.

“Forgive me. I feel like I have to know that princess,” said Ivan, relying on what could be called intuition.

It was incredibly rare for him to rely on something like that.

Johan, who stared at him as if he couldn’t believe it, eventually sighed, seemingly resigned to the situation.

“…Understood. I’ll look into it and report back. You understand my struggles, don’t you, Ivan?”

Ivan was very happy to see Johan’s attitude, which could be interpreted as rude, and had disappeared lately.

He was aware that it was his fault that they no longer talked as closely as they did in the past. The officials who faced the tense monarch must have been very careful not to shake the delicate balance.

“I’m counting on you.”

“It’s an honor to receive your decree. Honestly, you’re still as reckless as ever. You’re the king, you know? You’re an irreplaceable existence! Everyone respects you and is worried about you! If anything happens to you——”

Johan’s sermon seemed to have gone on for a while, as he was probably very angry. However, Ivan, who was being exposed to the sermon, was only listening half-heartedly as he was preoccupied with his own thoughts.

He wanted to talk to that princess from now on. He still didn’t know much about humans.

What was it that made him want to take down the wall he had built up over the years?

Chapter 20: One’s old home

It was about a week ago when the traveling pharmacist visited the blacksmith, North Star.

Despite being a town along the border road, it was rare for a young woman to travel alone. Isolte reluctantly accepted the medicine that was passed to her, after being introduced by Bruno, though her clever mind as a former scholar has raised concerns.

But as time passed, Isolte’s condition gradually improved.

“…Unbelievable.”

On the morning of the eighth day, Isolte muttered to herself as she looked at her own feet stepping on the floor.

It was truly unbelievable. Despite having studied various fields and excelling in herbal medicine, she was unable to cure the illness despite researching with the town pharmacist. Yet, the pharmacist was able to cure her illness in just one week.

It was almost jealousy-inspiring godlike work. What kind of magic did this pharmacist use to make this possible?

No, that’s not it. This must be a result of the latest technology. That pharmacist is not an ordinary person.

Isolte believed in gods, but not in magic. She knew that there were unknown territories that sometimes cause phenomena beyond imagination.

She has to confirm it. Where did that pharmacist come from? Where did Bruno find such a skilled person?

Isolte started to walk for the first time in a long time, but her muscles had completely atrophied, and she couldn’t muster any strength. As she reached the door of the room, she reached her physical limit and crouched down while still holding onto the doorknob.

A bad feeling crept up on her. If there were such an easy solution to the world’s problems, it should have been a lot more peaceful. What was behind this miraculous reality?

Her daughter’s face came to mind. Her beloved daughter who had left at an unnatural time with such kindness and self-sacrifice. Could it be possible that she had something to do with this?

“… I have to go!”

It was just a hunch, but Isolte pushed the doorknob with her trembling hand and rolled out into the hallway, driven by her impulse.

It was at that moment that a flustered presence emanated from downstairs.

“Isolte?!︎”

Footsteps running up the stairs, and soon Bruno appeared. As soon as he found his collapsed wife in the hallway, he paled and quickly lifted her emaciated body.

“What are you doing? You need to rest…!”

“Bruno! Where did Ellie go…?!”

Isolte, who had lost her composure more than her husband’s anxiety, grabbed the dirty shirt of the blacksmith. Bruno, noticing the amount of force in her trembling hands that was unlike that of a sick person, became even paler.

“She went up north. She said she was going to an apprenticeship.”

He said, avoiding her gaze awkwardly.

As usual, he was bad at lying. Isolte, feeling a surge of anger, turned red and shouted.

“Tell me the truth! Otherwise, I will crawl out of here!”

Ernesta’s stubbornness was inherited from her mother.

It was the first time that the gentle Isolte had ever said that she would leave, and that’s why it was so convincing. Bruno seemed to give in, murmuring for her to get back into bed.

“…Oh my God.”

Isolte, who finished listening to the conversation while lying in bed, let out a heavy sigh.

Her anger and regrets ruled her heart. What kind of parent would let their daughter go through all of this?

“I’m sorry. I should have stopped her.”

Bruno looked grave. Perhaps this husband was also holding similar feelings.

“I can imagine. Ellie never listens once she’s made up her mind, but even more than that, she has a certain kind of presence.”

“A presence?”

“Yes, it’s a strange power that she inherited as a member of the imperial family.”

Isolte had been raising Ernesta since birth. The somewhat reserved daughter had shown her presence when it mattered.

“The current emperor may be mediocre, but Ellie’s grandfather, the former emperor, was an excellent ruler. It seems like Ellie inherited his talents because her words and actions have the power to move people.”

“That’s true. Ellie has always been good at making friends.”

The always cheerful Ernesta was famous as the star of North Star.

There were times when Ernesta managed to persuade bullies who picked on Konrad with words alone. Handling complaints at the shop was a piece of cake, and she never bent her will on what she believed was right, as long as it was for someone’s sake, that is.

“So that’s why I was worried. I was worried that she might take a dangerous path for someone else’s sake.”

She came to this town and escaped from the palace, thinking that she could live a free life. But after revealing her true identity, there was a thin wall that separated herself from her beloved daughter.

Should she not have said anything? She thought she had escaped from the imperial family, but in reality, her whereabouts were known, and that was why the messenger came. How much more would Ernesta have been hurt if she hadn’t told her the truth?

Isolte raised her daughter while considering various things. She taught Ernesta to speak politely and behave in a way that did not feel out of place as a town girl, just in case she was called back by the emperor. She also made sure to build her physical strength and hone her skills in mixing medicines, so that she could overcome any difficulties.

And so, Isolte and Bruno poured all of their affection into their child.

She had hoped that her worries were just unfounded fears, and if that child could lead a happy and peaceful life, that was enough for her.

Ernesta grew up as a lovely and obedient daughter, even as a product of her parents’ favoritism, but Isolte knew that most of it was due to her daughter’s hard work.

She knew how selfless her child was, but now she couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to do anything for her if Ernesta didn’t come home.

Isolte’s heart, exhausted from illness, gave in to her weakness.

“What should we do, Bruno? If she doesn’t come back, I haven’t even been able to do anything for her…!”

The more she thought about Ernesta, the more she worried about her.

Is she going through hardships? The unpleasant thoughts kept multiplying in Isolte’s mind, and she narrowed her eyes to resist the impulse.

Then, Bruno’s hands, hardened by blacksmithing, covered her both eyes, and her vision was plunged into darkness.

“She will come back. If she doesn’t come back even after the deadline, then I will go and bring her home. So now, get some sleep.”

Bruno’s expression was no longer visible, but she could easily imagine him with a stern face.

The regrets and self-loathing that a couple shares are endless. Isolte closed her eyes, following her drowsiness, trying to bring some small comfort for her husband.

Chapter 21: A quiet story, I am a wolf, Part 2

Hey, it’s Mikolash! How’s everyone doing?

Lately, I’ve been in an extremely good mood. Why, you ask? Well…

“Oh, Mikola! Come on in!”

It’s because I’m on good terms with Queen Ermengard.

She’s lying on the bed with her arms open, beckoning me over. I walked towards her without hesitation and leaned my cheek against her flower-like face.

“Oh, that tickles! Mikola, you’re so silly, fufu!”

Ellie (that’s what Ivan calls her, so that’s what I’ve been calling her) smiled happily and messed up my fur. It seems that she likes my fur coat and always happily strokes my head whenever we meet.

She’s a bit unusual, but a good kid nonetheless. I’m glad she’s recovering from her cold. She looked terribly uncomfortable, so I was really worried about her.

“Hey, Mikola. You can communicate with all the werewolves, can’t you?”

Over the nine years, I’ve completely come to understand human language.

However, that doesn’t mean I can speak. My words can be understood by the werewolf tribe, but they don’t reach Ellie. It’s a bit unfortunate that I can’t talk to you.

“I envy them. I wonder what it feels like to be able to talk to you.”

I take back what I said earlier. It’s not just a bit unfortunate, it’s really unfortunate.

As Ellie looks at me with a wistful smile, I lower my tail. She immediately notices and strokes my chin.

“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s not like I’m in pain or anything. Should I ask for an interpreter next time?”

It’s okay, I understand perfectly.

Actually, Ivan asked me to look after Ellie while she was bedridden with a cold.

But, to be honest, I wanted to take care of her from the beginning. She’s Ivan’s wife, so she’s like my little sister, you know?

Get well soon. Then let’s play together.

At that moment, a knock is heard and my partner enters the room, waiting for Ellie’s reply.

[Hey, Ivan. Did you come to visit her?]

Without thinking, I spoke to Ivan, but he couldn’t understand me as he was currently in human form. However, Ivan was a mysterious guy, and I felt that he somehow understood what I was saying. When he patted my back and head, it felt like he was trying to comfort me.

“Ellie, how are you feeling?”

As usual, he had a stone-cold expression. Can’t he be a little more friendly to his own wife?

“Uh, y-yeah. It seems like my fever has gone down a lot. Thank you, Ivan.”

Ellie’s face is bright red. It’s probably because she’s embarrassed to be called by her name without honorifics. She’s so cute.

“Um, I’ve told you before, but you might catch my cold. It’s better if you don’t come too close.”

“If I’m going to catch it, I’ve already caught it. Don’t worry, I have a strong body.”

Saying that, Ivan offered a basket of fruit.

I had been wondering since earlier if it was really a present. He’s unexpectedly thoughtful.

“Feel free to eat as much as you want.”

Hey, watch your words! Can’t you speak a little more politely, you simpleton?! Despite being an exceptionally handsome guy, why are you so clumsy?!

By the way, these are fruits that Ivan personally picked. If you casually mention that, the conversation would be different. He is really a clumsy guy.

Oh, I see. He is blushing… Upon closer inspection, his ears are turning red. This characteristic of Ivan is something you wouldn’t notice until you become somewhat close to him.

“Thank you…!”

In any case, Ellie’s happy face is really something.

She is such a good girl. She can properly receive the thoughts of others. Regardless of whether the gift is of high or low value, she will make the gift giver happy.

Well, maybe she is happy because she likes it. Whether it’s the fruit or Ivan, or both.

“It looks delicious. Such a splendid fruit.”

Ellie takes one apricot and enjoys its scent. She brought it close to my nose, but the smell was too strong for a wolf’s nose, so I turned my face away. She apologized and laughed.

Hey, Ivan. When humans see a wolf, they either scream or try to hunt it. It’s not common for them to approach and talk to us like she does.

You can’t let her go. Do you understand?

“I’ll have Dasha peel it for me later. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Yeah. Make sure to get the nutrients you need and heal quickly.”

At that moment, I was taken aback.

The man who seemed to have forgotten how to smile was smiling faintly.

What the hell? These guys are getting along better than I thought. I was worried because Ivan doesn’t trust humans, but it seems like I was worried for nothing.

Ah, they’re gazing into each other’s eyes.

They say even dogs won’t eat when a couple is quarreling, but a loving wolf couple won’t eat each other either. (?)

Chapter 22: About the King

One week after the founding festival, Ernesta had finally regained her health.

Her role as a substitute was also about halfway through. After writing in her diary to catch up on missed days, Ernesta closed the cover and let out a sigh.

Upon looking back, she realized that she had done something outrageous. It wasn’t just causing trouble or fainting, but revealing her nickname to Ivan.

She didn’t think she was so foolish. She felt like slapping herself.

Ernesta was given her name by Isolte, but fortunately, it was also a nickname that didn’t feel awkward for Ermengard.

However, that didn’t mean her actions were forgivable. What if she was called by an unfamiliar nickname after switching places with Ermengard?

Ernesta drooped in a dark imagination. She spent plenty of time struggling with shame and deep remorse, and somehow managed to regain her composure and lift her head up.

Let’s take a walk to get used to it. I must do everything I can to avoid making such mistakes in the future.

With renewed determination, Ernesta shook her head and left her room, walking fearfully for the first time since she caused a commotion at the National Foundation Festival.

People must think she’s a weak queen who collapsed in front of the public. Did she really succeed in the sword dance? What if she gave the impression that she couldn’t get along with humans because she was insolent or got into fights?

Contrary to Ernesta’s expectations, the passing werewolf people were surprisingly friendly, and the barriers that had been there before seemed like a lie.

“Oh, My Queen, are you feeling better now? I hope so.”

“Yes, I’m much better now. Thank you.”

As soon as she thought she finished talking to someone who was concerned about her physical condition, she was caught by someone else, and regardless of gender, people were talking to her again.

Without expecting a positive response, Ernesta was overwhelmed when it came. She was glad, but also a little embarrassed and confused by the sudden change in attitude.

After completing a walk that had left her feeling exhausted, she reached for the handle of her room when she heard a familiar voice from behind. Turning around, she saw two maids who seemed slightly older than her, and they looked awkwardly at her.

“Oh, it’s you two…”

She remembered them from when she was chatting with Mikolash during a walk in the past.

They were gossiping about the human queen and admiring the beautiful king, which made Ernesta hide away.

She wondered if they had finally come to express their grievances directly to her.

Ernesta was on edge, but the words that were released were far from her expectations.

“U-Um… Your sword dance was amazing!”

“We would love to see it again!”

With faces turned beet red, the two maids quickly ran away like rabbits.

Left behind, Ernesta could only stare blankly. She didn’t understand what was happening, but if they were willing to reach out to her, it would be a relief and make her happy.

As soon as she returned to her room, Rougena came to visit her, causing Ernesta to breathe a sigh of relief.

“I’m glad to see you’re doing well. Will you be resting in the main bedroom starting today?”

However, her words immediately reminded Ernesta of a serious problem.

Her blood ran cold. She had forgotten about this issue, but now she had to think about it. The big problem of how to postpone her wedding night.

Since there had been no problems before, it might be the same tonight, but there was no guarantee. Just the thought of sleeping with Ivan again made her nervous.

“Uh…um…”

Ernesta stumbled over her words, and the perceptive head maid didn’t miss it.

“What’s the matter? Don’t tell me…”

Before Ernesta realized it, Rougena had already hardened her gaze in an unusually intense manner, making her freeze up in anticipation of what her next words would be. However, it turned out to be needless fear.

“Surely, His Majesty didn’t do anything terrible to you, did he?”

Rougena approached with an impatient expression.

Caught off guard by this unexpected reaction, Ernesta quickly realized that this was not good and shook her head in a panic.

“O-Of course not! Especially not His Majesty.

You don’t have to worry about this Rougena.

It’s true! Please believe me!”

Ernesta endured the sharp gaze of the steel-willed head maid. After a few moments of staring at each other, the tense atmosphere finally dissipated with a sigh from Rougena.

“Is that so… in that case, that’s good. By the way, what does the Queen think of His Majesty?”

Ernesta was suddenly hit with a bombshell question from the front without warning, causing her to trip over the carpet.

“W-what? What do you mean by that?”

Ernesta was completely flustered by the serious inquiry.

“I am afraid I must ask if you have developed feelings for his majesty.”

Ernesta didn’t dislike this kind of talk, but this situation was just too bad. It was already hard enough to navigate around Rougena without giving away too much, and she couldn’t speak about Ivan using personal feelings, especially since Ernesta was just a substitute.

“Well, he is a wonderful person.”

She tried to give an objective answer, causing the stern head maid to squint her eyes.

“Is that all? I have noticed that you two have become quite close lately.”

Ernesta’s gaze wandered left and right.

While it was true that Ivan had come to visit her often while he was bedridden, it wasn’t a big deal to her. They went from having a strained relationship to just simply having casual conversations, nothing more than that.

“Yes, he has been very kind to me, and I am grateful for that.”

Thanks to her best effort to smile and use all of her nerves, Rougena seemed to give up on further inquiry for the time being.

“I see. I was glad to hear that His Majesty finally found a place where he could be at peace.”

Ernesta felt a bit confused by Rougena’s choice of words. What kind of emotion was hidden behind the expression “that His Majesty”?

“Hey, Rougena, what do you think of His Majesty?”

She didn’t think she understood everything about the king. But during the three weeks she had spent here, she had come to know that he possessed a clumsy kindness.

“He is truly a wise and admirable ruler. All the peace we have now is thanks to His Majesty. We all respect him.”

Rougena’s response was filled with much more reverence than Ernesta had expected, and she felt her heart warming.

The King of Shenka was rumored to have the strength of a demon and a cold heart. Rougena probably knew about the rumors that reached Ernesta. Nevertheless, she could sense that Rougena didn’t think like that at all.

“I can imagine that there are bad rumors spreading abroad about the country. Some of His Majesty’s policies may have been considered cruel, and many countries suffered from Shenka’s deployment. However, all of His Majesty’s actions are for the sake of the country.”

Rougena spoke gently. Her tone reminded Isolte of how she would talk about her mischievous son.

“I believe that as the queen, you will support His Majesty. Not only with work, but also by supporting his heart.”

“Don’t be too presumptuous. I am not that significant.”

“No, that is not true. I say that because I truly believe it.”

Rougena replied with a stoic expression. Her words were filled with pride, confidence, and kindness towards the young king’s worries. Ernesta was left speechless by her strength and sincerity.

“Until now, His Majesty has gone to war as soon as he reached adulthood, and after the war ended, the previous king passed away immediately. Since then, he has worked tirelessly. The veteran members are particularly worried. I wonder if His Majesty really has a place where he can truly rest.”

Rougena spoke calmly, but bitter thoughts could be felt in every corner of her words.

“I apologize for being impudent. Please understand that it is only an advice from an old woman’s heart.”

Although Rougena bowed her head quietly, Ernesta’s heart was secretly torn apart by her sincere affection.

——I am truly committing a sinful act. There’s no one who would forgive this lie, I’m sure of it.

Chapter 23: Star

As Ernesta entered the main bedroom, she first saw Mikolash lounging on the rug. His eyes were closed as he curled up on top of it, but his ears were perked up. He seems to be asleep, but he is awake because his partner has not yet fallen asleep.

As she glanced over, she noticed the nearby window was wide open, and a large man’s back was visible in the distance.

Ivan stood on the balcony, wearing his usual long gray pajamas and a woolen stole. The lamp inside illuminated his figure, and a white crescent moon overhead cast a gentle light.

Ernesta hesitated for a moment before calling out to him. She didn’t want to disturb the picturesque scene, but more importantly, she felt something strongly.

——Why do you look so sad?

“Is your cold better?”

Ernesta shuddered as he suddenly spoke to her. Ivan turned to face her, but his expression was unchanged as always.

“I’m completely better now. I’m sorry for worrying you.”

“I see. That’s good.”

“Ivan, what were you doing?”

It seemed like Ivan narrowed his eyes as his wife still awkwardly called his name.

“I was stargazing.”

She didn’t expect to hear that word, so she was surprised in her mind.

She went out to the balcony and stood next to Ivan. The surroundings were dyed black as ink, and only the sky was sparkling with countless stars. Although it was summer, the heat dissipated at night, leaving a pleasant wind brushing her cheeks.

“However, I’m just looking. I’m not an expert.”

“Ivan, do you like stars?”

“I guess so. I wouldn’t say I love stars themselves, but I love looking at them.”

——Me too, what a coincidence.

She stopped the words that were about to come out of her throat just in time.

She shouldn’t say things like that. The current Ernesta is Ermengard, so she can’t express her likes and dislikes as she please.

“I see. Why is that?”

“Someone once told me that when you’re suffering, count the stars.”

Ernesta’s eyes widened. She couldn’t believe that there was another person who said something like Isolte.

“And when I looked up, the starry sky was beautiful. At that time, I was in the period of my life when I was trying to give up on my relationship with humanity the most. But that person rescued me from a difficult situation, and my broken heart was also mended.”

Ivan quietly spoke, his profile facing the clear night sky.

He must be thinking about that person now. His determined eyes held even more warmth, and Ernesta focused on his outline, squinting.

“A benefactor, I suppose. Since then, I’ve started looking at the stars, even though I didn’t have any interest in them before. If it weren’t for heer, I might have died, and our alliance would never have been formed.”

For some reason, Ernesta’s chest hurt at the sight of Ivan’s soft smile.

Ivan had someone important in his heart. The emotions he directed toward the person he called his benefactor were warm, and they were surely a much greater existence than someone like Ernesta could compare to.

That’s why there shouldn’t be a need to be sad. It was good that he started to open up and share important stories. What more could she hope for?

She wanted to ask about who that person was and what memories they had, but at the same time, she was scared to ask.

When Ernesta fell silent, he draped his stole over her shoulders and said, “You’ll catch a cold and relapse. Let’s head back.”

See, he’s still kind-hearted after all.

Ernesta couldn’t bear it and lowered her head.

She held onto the hem of the stole he draped over her and shook her head slightly.

“… Why were you looking at the stars today?”

The question she mustered the courage to ask touched upon the core of the matter.

Yes, he said that he was told to count the stars during difficult times.

She was aware that it was impudent to ask someone to reveal their painful experiences, but she still wanted to know.

“I knew you were smart.”

Ivan not only did not get angry but even had a hint of a bitter smile on his face.

“On this day nine years ago, my friend died.”

Ernesta held her breath. She knew just how much sadness was imbued in those words, delivered so casually.

“You probably don’t want to hear this kind of story.”

“No, I want to. If it’s not too much trouble for you to tell.”

“…I see. Then come along with me.”

Ivan narrowed his eyes, reminiscing about the past. Under the starry night sky that seemed to engulf them, he began to recount his past in a low voice.

❂❂❂

Ivan’s first battle was when he was fourteen, around the same time he became an adult.

Werewolf boys are born warriors, taught to be proud and raised to courageously throw themselves into battle for the security of their homeland. Their comrades-in-arms, who were raised with the same values, fought valiantly.

At that time, Shenka was engaged in a conflict with Leutravia, a nation that bordered its southern border. Depending on the strength of individual werewolves and the number of foes they faced, the war was at a standstill.

The people of Shenka had pledged their absolute loyalty to the Urbashek royal family. But those without strength were deemed inadequate, and youths like Ivan had to start by carving out a place for themselves on the battlefield.

His goal was to achieve military success in his first battle. Currently, Ivan was accompanied by “Johan Orzif Slezak”, and her other childhood friend, “Theodor Simon Zavesky”.

The three of them transformed into werewolves, hiding among the withered grass and standing in the wilderness. At this point, they did not have the title of a hero, so they wore brown chokha and armor that blended into the sand.

Behind them were ten werewolf warriors. Although it was a separate unit, they were incredibly powerful beings with the strength of thirty humans each. The immense firepower and the determination with his two childhood friends made them feel invincible when they stood together.

“Hey, Theo, you’re not chickening out now, are you?”

Ivan surveyed the enemy approaching in the distance through the gap in the trees, while Theodor hardened his face of reddish-brown fur. However, he seemed to have risen to the challenge from his childhood friend’s provocation.

“As if! Ivan, you better watch and see, I’ll definitely take down the enemy commander before you do!”

Ivan let out a dismissive laugh at his best friend’s fierce crimson eyes.

“It’s obviously going to be me. Don’t dream too much, it’s not good for you.”

“You say that, Prince, but you’re getting carried away just because you have some skills. Don’t let your pretty face get scratched up, you hear?!”

This young man, who behaved like a thug towards the prince, was also a legitimate nobleman. It was not an exaggeration to say that Ivan had grown up with Johan and Theodor, and this casual conversation was a gift from that bond.

“Oh come on, you two are so noisy! His Highness is a commander, so please stop it!”

Johan’s scolding echoed, putting an end to the quarrel between the two boys. Their gaze wasn’t towards their friend, but towards a distant enemy, already indicating their hearts are headed towards battle.

“Geez, I wish they could focus like that from the beginning.”

While listening to his friend’s sighs, Ivan drew the longsword on his back. Johan wielded his dual rapiers, while Theodor unsheathed his jambiya (dagger).

Cheers could be heard from afar. By now, the king and General Silvestor Kudera, should be breaking through the enemy’s formation from the front.

There was no fear in his heart, for he was a proud werewolf warrior.

Ivan jumped out from the gap in the woods and swung his longsword forward, stopping it parallel to the ground. It was the dignified appearance of a full-fledged warrior with nothing to be ashamed of.

“Advance all troops! Take down the enemy from behind!”

The werewolves all rushed out from their cover, yelling with their mouths open, and attacked the enemy soldiers from behind.

There were two thousand soldiers. Normally, it would be a situation that could make them flee, but when they had trusted friends, they could somehow deal with it.

It was the moment when the battle, too severe for a first battle, was declared.

Chapter 24: War Past 1

Overcoming an incredibly difficult situation, Ivan won his first battle in victory.

Although General Kudera was the one who raised their enemy’s head, news of the prince’s leadership spread throughout the army, the troops under his command played a significant role. Thanks to this, Ivan had become popular within the army.

Once werewolves enter a battle, they continue to stay in werewolf form until they return home. It’s the same at the campsite, where they create circles near their tents and revel in singing and dancing, fully enjoying themselves with their wolf heads still on.

“Oh, Your Highness! I heard you have achieved impressive results. Please keep it up!”

“Wow, you’re such an excellent prince that you surpass my expectations. I’m looking forward to the future.”

These lively conversations seemed to be taking place around the bonfire among a group of soldiers in their early twenties who seem to have been drinking.

The soldiers from the commoners’ area are all friendly and rugged, which makes it easier to talk to and get along with them.

“Wow, your physique is already impressive! Let’s compare heights.”

As one werewolf stood up to stand shoulder to shoulder with him, Ivan raised the corner of his mouth and retorted.

“Are you sure? I’m taller.”

“Well, you won’t know if you don’t try!”

Their eye levels were about the same, making it difficult to judge. As they stood back to back facing opposite directions, the crowd erupted.

“Hey, Yamil, you lost to a 14-year-old!”

“Hahaha! He’s a reliable prince, that’s for sure!”

As the boisterous laughter echoed, Ivan was pulled by the arm and ended up sitting cross-legged on the spot.

While the people of Shenka respect the country’s founding father, the barrier between nobles and commoners is low. After receiving roasted meat, Ivan enjoyed a brief respite with the friendly folks.

“Oh, Ivan! Great to see you!”

As soon as he entered the commander’s tent, Ivan was beckoned by a golden werewolf wearing a black chokha.

His father, King Radoslav, had the same blonde hair and blue eyes, and looks like an older version of Ivan. However, surprisingly, their personalities were quite different, and the man had a love for alcohol and a free-spirited temperament.

As he sat on the carpet after being guided, he was handed a cup.

“To decorate your debut battle with victory, you are truly my son. Well then, drink up.”

“…Thank you, Father.”

The prince, who had just come of age, was not accustomed to drinking much. Radoslav laughed heartily as he watched his son make a bitter face after drinking the generously poured wine.

“You don’t have to force yourself. Do you want some grape juice instead?”

“No, I’ll drink this. I can’t say I don’t like it.”

If he were to drink fruit juice to celebrate his first battle, the names of the werewolf soldiers would be degraded. Ivan opened his ripped mouth and choked down the liquid that was far from delicious.

“You’re serious. Well, you’ll get used to it while drinking… So, how was your first battle?”

“There were too many humans, and they looked down on us and found out the hard way that it is very troublesome.”

Radoslav burst out laughing once again at his son’s concise and to-the-point answer.

“Hahaha! I see, I see. If you’ve realized that, then it’s quite a harvest.”

Simply put, they were humans who invaded the country to destroy it. They naturally had no intention of negotiating and tried to take everything as if it was their right to do so.

“Father, why are you trying to establish diplomatic relations with the human country?”

Ivan stared straight at his father with his clear eyes.

Before the war began, the response was that there was nothing wrong with being on good terms with them. But now, the situation was not so simple that a simple answer could satisfy him.

“Do you think we shouldn’t have any relationship with the human country?”

“That’s not it. It’s just that I don’t think it’s possible.”

Radoslav stroked his chin, looking amused. After narrowing his eyes in thought for a while, he casually asked a question while waving his wine cup.

“Then, let’s change the question. Ivan, what do you think is the greatest sin for a king?”

To the unexpected question, Ivan’s sharp wolf eyes widened.

There were many things that were considered inappropriate for a king, and he had memorized them all. Considering this, if he were to answer…

“To make the people unhappy.”

“…Hmm. It seems Silvestor and Rougena have taught you well.”

Radoslav spoke words of praise, but his eyes had a softness reminiscent of a child. Ivan didn’t like it and inadvertently pouted.

“It’s unfair to act coy. If it’s different, then just say it.”

“No, you’re doing well. There are as many answers to this question as there are kings.”

“Then, what does Father think?”

Radoslav tilted his cup and took a sip before turning his powerful gaze towards Ivan.

“My belief, Ivan, is to choose things according to your ideals.”

Ivan parroted his words understanding the intention of his father only to a limited extent.

“Choose things according to your ideals…”

“That’s right. Ideals are nothing but a person’s emotions. There’s no guarantee that those ideals won’t turn into madness.”

When Ivan finally grasped the point of the conversation, he realized that it was a very heavy concept and held his breath.

“A nation is nothing but an uncertain existence that exists only through the recognition of its citizens, those living in different countries, and their perceptions. Uncertainty is easily changed. Nothing is more vulnerable than ideals that appear just at first glance.”

Radoslav explained quietly, his usual brightness and cheerfulness giving way to a majestic demeanor befitting a wise king. Ivan listened and began to express his own thoughts.

“So, as a king, it means we should assess things based on present circumstances, rather than our ideals. We should seize the best opportunity at that moment and lead the country in the right direction.”

“Ah, exactly. It’s good that you understand it so quickly.”

It was an incredibly idealistic story that denied ideals.

If there were someone who could always do that, they could be considered a transcendent existence.

However, Radoslav is trying to put this into practice. He strives to be ruthless as a king while being a loving father in private. That’s why this king can become a wise ruler.

“Well then, Ivan, it’s true that Leutravia is currently in the midst of war. However, it’s too hasty to give up on diplomatic relations with all countries just because of that. Even if the ethnic groups or even the races are different, we shouldn’t narrow our vision because of that.”

“…Our country is poor in resources. Our small territory and barren land are helpless against the power of nature. Above all, there is no way to survive if we make all humans our enemies.”

“That’s right. Therefore, I aim to understand humans. It’s not a matter of possibility. I have to do it.”

The king spoke strongly, causing Ivan to lower his gaze, ashamed of his shallowness.

No matter how much knowledge and insight he had accumulated, he still couldn’t see his father’s back, far ahead of him.

Could he really be the successor to this king?

“Hey, do you remember when you were still young, we had let the father and son of a minstrel stay in the castle?”

With the sudden memory, an unpleasant memory resurfaced, and Ivan gritted his teeth.

Yes, when he was about six years old or so, he had become friends with the son of a human minstrel.

However, during a time when they were playing in the garden, the child accidentally wandered into a wild boar’s territory and was attacked. Ivan immediately transformed into a werewolf to protect the child, but the child was honest, and sometimes cruel.

He screamed that Ivan was a monster and ran away.

Pointing out such memories now would do no good. Radoslav, who was receiving a disapproving gaze from his son, had a soft smile on his face.

“I didn’t tell you not to associate with humans. If you can think that way even after that experience and in your current situation, it’s proof that you’ve developed a fair view.”

His father nodded confidently.

Is it really so? Is it true that he has grown and matured, as the king says?

“Look at various things, Ivan. It’s okay. You’ll become a better king than I am.”

That night, Ivan had to take the night watch duty. He told his childhood friends about his conversation with the king, gazing at them from the night sky. The werewolf with black fur stared back at him with determined eyes, but the one with copper-red fur had a subtle expression on his face.

“I don’t get it, it’s too complicated. So, is it certain that we’ll get more food if we do it that way?”

The friend showed his usual lack of understanding, causing Johan to visibly frown.

“It’s because you neglect your studies and only focus on swordsmanship and martial arts practice.”

“Well, I hate studying. But hey, winning is what matters first. And then we can make friends by going in every direction, north, south, east and west.”

As Theodor spoke like a child and messed with the edges of his cloak, the spring night in the wilderness was freezing. It was just the right weather to weaken the warriors who were tired from the battle.

However, he smiled without any ulterior motives to affirm his friend.

“I think it’s the best if it comes true. Johan, don’t you think so too?”

“Well, Theo’s simplified it too much… but what the king says makes a lot of sense. Understanding and getting along with others is one of the most difficult things, but it’s worth putting in the effort, even for civilians.”

Johan spoke calmly and it seemed he didn’t intend to deny the young prince’s goal.

He can’t help but think again how lucky he is to have such great friends.

“Alright, we’ll be your sword and shield! I’ll be the sword, and Johan will be the shield.”

said Theodor, but he was being overly loud, which made his squint. Johan also raised his eyebrows, but the anger of the Prime Minister candidate was misplaced.

“Why do I have to be the shield?”

“Because I’m stronger, and the sword is cooler!”

“Okay, you’re an idiot. It’s reckless of me, a basically intellectual worker, to pick a fight with you. You, who rely solely on physical strength, should carry both the sword and the shield.”

“Don’t keep saying I’m an idiot! Johan, you’re still not getting it. You’re such a party pooper!”

The two started a childish argument, but it was a trivial matter that they always bickered about, which was something all three of them had in common.

Although his voice was drowned out by their quarrel, Ivan quietly smiled and murmured his thanks.

That was a springtime story from a far-away past. After five years, the boys had turned into young men, and the war was entering its final stages.

Chapter 25: War Past 2

Five years had passed since his first battle, and Ivan had turned nineteen years old.

In that time, battles ranged from small to large and he had lost count of how many he had participated in. The only thing he could say for certain was that recently, Shenka had been dominant.

Werewolf warriors were strong. They did not fall behind in battles against cavalry or even firearms, their prowess shaking the world and making nations fear them.

“Golden… A golden werewolf! Could it be Prince Ivan?!”

They grimace in fear.

Ivan slaughtered the enemy soldier with a swift sword strike. Despite taking down a handful of soldiers, they kept coming as if infinite.

“You damn demon… Go to hell!”

The man, on the verge of dying, spat out curses and blood simultaneously. Ivan had heard too many curses to have any emotions left.

——Don’t worry, I’m going to hell anyway. I have taken this many lives, after all.

Noticing the booming sound of the drums, Ivan slowly raised his head. Even if the battle at this moment were to end, an endless battlefield was spread out in front of him as if mocking him. For Ivan, who carried many burdens on his shoulders, it was a cruel sight.

Without breaking his cold and indifferent expression, he gave instructions to his subordinates.

Then, after flicking off the red liquid from his sword and putting it back in its sheath, Ivan himself turned back to assess the situation.

As the darkness of night enveloped the encampment, Ivan went alone into the nearby forest.

He liked nature. The capital, Rashtovka, was a mountainous defense city where one could find peaceful places such as forests and fields a short distance away. Ivan had always played in nature since he was a child, and the same was true for the people of Shenka, regardless of their rank.

There was no other reason for his walk than just because. While stepping on the damp soil, he contemplated about the future of his country.

Another warrior had lost their life today. When will this battle end? How can he bring peace to them?

The werewolves are able to establish close relationships with wolves, but not with humans. Is it really so difficult and sinful to be able to transform into both forms…?

At that moment, Ivan thought he heard a groan as if someone was biting down on their back teeth.

He stopped and listened attentively. While his senses were human-like in his human form, he could discern even distant sounds when in his werewolf form.

At the same time, he sensed a faint scent of blood and instinctively kicked the ground without thinking.

He ran towards the source of the sound until he found a silver wolf lying on its side. Ivan first thought it was a werewolf, but it was different. It was a genuine wild wolf.

[Are you a werewolf? What are you doing here?]

[I am a werewolf warrior, Ivan. I have set up camp nearby.]

The injured wolf asked with a pained breath. Ivan replied in the wolf’s language, and the wolf seemed to nod in relief.

[Oh, I see… You guys have been protecting this forest.] Ivan said.

[Anyway, we need to treat your injury first.]

Ivan took out some cartilage inflammation medication from the bag hanging on his waist. He poured water from his water bottle and confirmed that the wound wasn’t life-threatening.

[A sword wound. Who did this to you?]

[It was a human. I happened to come across them and they were armed. I drove them away though.]

[What? There were scouts in this forest?]

Recently, the Leutravia soldiers have learned how to mask their smells to avoid being detected by the werewolves, but considering this situation, it’s best to assume that the enemy has already found out their hidden camp in the forest and the mountains.

Ivan treated the wolf’s wound with antiseptic and bandaged it.

[Thank you, Wolf-dono. Thanks to you, we may be able to avoid being outsmarted by the enemy.]

[That goes for me too, werewolf warrior. I appreciate your help.]

[If you can still walk, you should return to your home and protect your family.]

Ivan thought it was only natural to say that. However, the wolf blinked once and slowly shook his head.

[They’re not there anymore. We got separated during the war. I’ve been living here alone.]

The young wolf declared with a dignified gaze of hawk-like color.

The victim of the conflict between humans and werewolves was now in front of Ivan’s eyes.

[We lost many of our kind in each fire that destroyed our forests. I am still young in the pack, and all I wanted was to let our leaders and the young escape safely.]

This wolf was brave and had a proud heart.

If this wolf was alone and wounded, it was ultimately their fault. They brought the war to their habitat.

[I see.]

Ivan said only that and stood up. He actually wanted to apologize, but he knew that the young wolf didn’t want that.

[Well then, why don’t you come with me? Just for as long as you feel like it, and I’ll share some food with you.]

So at least he spoke words that would not leave this wolf alone.

[Is it alright? Food is valuable during the war.]

[Then we’ll go hunt. We are a hunting tribe by nature.]

[I… I see.]

The wolf stood up elegantly, shining with its silver fur. Even though it must have been in pain, there was neither hesitation nor suffering in its gait.

[Hey, what’s your name, Wolf-dono?]

[Who cares about that?]

[Then I’ll call you Mikolash. It’s a good name, isn’t it?]

[That’s fine, but where did you come up with that name?]

Mikolash looked up at him suspiciously, and Ivan laughed loudly with his split open mouth.

[The other day, my cousin gave birth. It was a name that was prepared for when it was a boy.]

[Hey! You’re picking a rejected name! You’re just too lazy to come up with one!]

[It’s an auspicious name. I thought it was a waste to let it go.]

[That’s not auspicious at all! Hey, Ivan!]

Leaving behind a noisy howl, they left the forest. Then, when they arrived at the campsite, they met Theodor, who seemed to be wandering around as well. It was strange that he was in human form, but that question was quickly answered.

[Hey, Theo. What are you doing here at this time?]

[Visiting “her”. How about you? Are you jealous?]

Theodor had a strangely refreshing smile on his face and showed an obscene hand sign using both hands. Mikolash next to him seems exasperated.

Come to think of it, Johan said something about it. The guy supposedly has a girl he likes in a nearby village lately.

“I see, that’s good for you.”

“Hey, don’t give me that indifferent reaction! Aren’t you going to ask what kind of girl she is or something?!”

Nodding absentmindedly, Theodor insists in an exaggerated manner. Ivan sighs and looks straight at his noisy friend.

“Well, if you’re going to make a move on her, you must be prepared. If that’s the case, there’s nothing for me to say.”

“Ivan…”

Theodor opens his red eyes widely and stares back at the future king.

“You’re a really good guy. I’ll introduce her to you sometime.”

“Yeah, you better keep me in a good mood. When I become king, I’ll stamp the marriage certificate with my seal.”

“When will that be? Haha…!”

Theodor was laughing hysterically, his humor contagious as Ivan also laughed out loud, a rare sight.

“Hey, by the way, I’ve been wondering. What happened to that wolf?”

Several more weeks had passed.

Even amidst the grueling battles, there were breaks. Warriors who had set up camp in the wilderness before the final battle gathered around the fire to take a short rest.

“Your Highness! Are you drinking?! This is our chance to go home! It would be a waste of provisions if we don’t drink! Please drink!”

“Ah, that’s right. Let’s have a drink.”

Ivan, who was surrounded by warriors like Yamil, took a cup and downed it completely.

Instantly, the area erupted, and the party began to get chaotic.

Amid the noisy soldiers, the prince momentarily regretted drinking too much.

——I drank way too much.

He felt Mikolash’s confused gaze from beside him. Although it wasn’t enough to affect him tomorrow, he wanted to go somewhere a little cooler.

Driven by an instinctual desire, Ivan quietly slipped away from the drinking party. The king was sitting at the head of the table, and there would be no problem even if one of the commanders disappeared.

[Hey, Ivan, you okay?]

[I’m fine…]

After walking with the wolf, he arrived at a small pond. The wind passing over the water’s surface was refreshing on his flushed cheeks, and the sound of the grass rubbing against each other was gentle on his ears.

Ivan sat down heavily and directed his unfocused gaze at the full moon reflected on the surface of the water. It was the werewolf’s night, but it was irrelevant to his body, which always took on this form.

[Mikola, did you come all the way here?]

[Yeah, I did. You were acting reckless, even though you’re a prince.]

[That’s rich, coming from you. You were the one crying because you didn’t have a family.]

[I wasn’t crying about that, don’t mess around.]

As they exchanged trivial conversation, two presences were felt behind them. When they turned around, he saw the figures of his two best friends.

“What, did you come here?”

“We’re the semi-protagonists after all. We came to look for you because you disappeared.”

Johan sat down next to them looking grumpy, and Theodor sat cross-legged even further next to him.

“You can’t handle your alcohol, can you? I thought you’d be like this.”

[I brought some meat for Mikola. Here you go.]

Johan was as calm as usual, but everyone noticed that he cared for Mikolash more than anyone else. Proof of that was the gentle gaze he gave to the happy wolf devouring the meat, which was unlike anything else.

“Here, water. Drink plenty of it.”

“Thanks, Theo.”

Ivan received the water, grabbed it with one hand, and drank it all in one go. The bottom of the bowl, which was left with only droplets of water, no longer reflected the full moon.

“I’m sorry for coming out here, but I have nothing to talk to you about.”

Because this wasn’t the end yet.

Tomorrow will be a tough battle, but that’s nothing special, something they already know.

The two of them laughed as if they already knew it. It was a bold and daring, yet friendly smile.

“I don’t have those kinds of feelings either, it’s gross! We just have to win, right?”

“Yes, you’re right.”

Mikola’s voice followed soon after.

As the drifting clouds obscured the full moon, the young people believed in their future.

Chapter 26: War Past 3

Delayed by the deafening roar, the cannonball swept up a mix of stones and sand.

Even with unclear visibility, Theodor’s presence next to him was felt. However, this young man also had a reddish-brown coat soaked in blood, and his arm holding the chipped Jambiya (dagger) was hanging limply.

Ivan was the same. His left arm had been aching unpleasantly since earlier, and his side was also somewhat stinging.

Just recently, news had arrived that they had taken the head of the enemy commander. If they were to retreat from here, it would be over. They could barely make it a victory for Shenka and head towards the end of the war.

Knowing this, their opponents were desperately trying to at least take the prince’s head.

He couldn’t die here. If he did, the situation would even out, and the situation would be back to its original state.

Ivan swung his leaden-like arm and slashed the enemy soldier in front of him. He didn’t even know how many enemies he had massacred up to this point.

“Ivan! You can move, right?! Go ahead!”

Through the dust, he could see the red eyes that did not lose their fighting spirit. Feeling a chill run down his spine from that intense will, Ivan shouted back while flashing his longsword.

“Don’t be ridiculous! You’re really an idiot! How long do you think your body will last? Are you trying to show off?!”

“Don’t keep calling me an idiot! You’re the prince, in times like this, order your men to go back to the front and get the hell out of here!”

He was pushed with such force that he wondered where such strength came from. Then, a bombardment rained down on the location they were just in, covering his friend’s form from sight.

“Theo!”

There was no response to the name called out, and due to the bodies of enemy soldiers and rubble that had piled up, he could not find the familiar reddish-bronze color that he was used to seeing.

Ivan felt all the blood in his body rush down to his legs. Even though he was pale, his arms moved as if out of habit, annihilating the enemy, but it felt as if someone else was controlling him.

“Theo, hey! Are you kidding me?! Come out already! You’re a heir too, right?! Answer me, Theodor!”

At that moment, Mikolash appeared, his silver body trembling.

[Ivan! What are you doing?!]

Ivan was amazed to see the brave warrior who came to meet him. Although there have been times when he has rushed into battle, coming to such a dangerous battlefield is too risky.

[Mikola, why did you come here?!]

[I came to deliver this! Look, it’s a new sword!]

Mikolash carried several swords on his back. The living warriors gathered around and thanked him as they took the brand new sword in their hands.

——That’s right. A king must not choose ideal things.

Ivan gritted his teeth, which seemed like they were about to break, and shouted as loudly as possible to his warriors.

“Come here and take up your swords! Retreat along the fourth road! General Bajant will be the rear guard! If you want to be werewolf warriors, crawl if you have to and follow me!”

It was a rare sight to see his familiar smile. Ivans had reached the frontline before he knew it and was greeted by Silvestor and Johan, who had rushed out with a changed look on their faces.

Ivan’s father fell ill and remained bedridden due to injuries sustained from war, making Ivan the de facto leader. Without time to lament, Ivan dealt with the chaos in the aftermath of the war. He also searched for Theodor’s lover during this time, but to no avail.

King Radoslav passed away a year later, and Ivan ascended the throne to become the new king.

At that time, Ivan’s mother, who had a weak body, fell ill and had to undergo treatment at a separate residence. When he was alone, Ivan began to reorganize the royal army by gathering soldiers scattered throughout the land.

Many of the werewolves made a living from mercenary work, and were often hired by lords within and outside the country. Ivan managed their employment in a centralized way to prevent unfair treatment and payment delays.

Shenka was considered a threat to other countries due to their military power, even though they lacked significant resources. By forming alliances with countries that shared the same interests, and promising to dispatch troops in the agreements, the likelihood of being threatened was greatly reduced.

Following the path that his father spoke of and his friend promised to help was something Ivan couldn’t yield on. However, every step he took was accompanied by thorns that pierced his heart to the point of immobility.

——I am sending my brethren to their deaths.

At the medal ceremony following his ascent to the throne, Yamil, who had shown great prowess on the battlefield, was present. He laughed and said that his life had become easier after becoming a soldier in the king’s army, but Ivan’s heart became heavier with admonishment.

The warriors who had once fought together on the battlefield were decreasing in number. A new war had yet to occur, but too much blood had already been spilled.

——Proud werewolf warriors. I am the one who killed you. And the souls that I slaughtered with my sword.

Even so, I will shoulder all the blame for having survived and continue walking to hell.

Without holding onto any ideals, I only wish for this country’s peace. If I could always make the right decisions, I wouldn’t mind becoming a devil, but I still cannot bring myself to kill my heart.

❂❂❂

“Today is the day I lost Theodor on the battlefield.”

Ivan had made an effort to simplify and soften the expression, but it must have been a shocking story for Ermengard. As he looked into her newly green eyes, which were trembling as expected, regret filled Ivan’s heart.

“I’m sorry. This kind of story must have made you feel bad.”

Even though he didn’t speak of the cruel parts, it was not something to be said to a fragile woman. He knew that well enough.

However, he was happy. He was happy that she had asked to hear his story.

“No, I was happy that you shared it with me.”

Ivan was dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe that these strong words, spoken by her delicate lips, were real.

This princess who was supposed to have no power was always brave and proud, and her vitality was so great that it outshone werewolf warriors.

With her supple hands, would she even forgive such heinous sins?

“Ivan, do you think you don’t deserve happiness?”

Pierced by the serene light in her deep green eyes, Ivan held his breath momentarily.

She realized what the man in front of her was thinking, and how he became such a difficult person until now.

She realized what the man in front of her was thinking, and how he became such a difficult person until now. Although she talked about his past, she didn’t mention anything about his emotions, and that was really clever of her.

She should nod along, but she just couldn’t. Can this kind-hearted wife achieve happiness for herself, even if her husband rejects happiness by his side?

“That’s just sad. You just worked hard to overcome the difficulties in front of you. Knowing that, no one wishes for your unhappiness. Rather, everyone wishes for the peace of this country… No, you probably feel the same way too.”

Ermengard bowed her head unconsciously. Her brown eyelashes covered her eyes, and it was impossible to read the emotions reflected there.

However, she was trembling. Her voice, which should have always been cheerful, was now thin and unreliable, as were her slender and vulnerable shoulders.

“But I… I can’t say anything. That’s what makes me so frustrated.”

Tears spilled from the corner of her downcast eyes.

His chest tightened with the fact that she had made her cry with her transparent beauty.

Was her “inability to say anything” a curse on herself for being human, or because of something she couldn’t disclose?

Impulsive thoughts pushed Ivan to reach out to her, but his movement stopped as if he were pulled by a rope.

Would he be allowed to touch her with these blood-stained hands?

“You are too kind. You are a principled and conscientious person who severely admonishes yourself. It’s no wonder you’re in pain…”

Transparent tears traced several lines down her pale cheeks as she hesitated.

——Too kind? Only you would say that. You are the one who is kind.

Noticing the small sob, he finally abandoned self-control.

He reached out and grabbed her shoulders, pulling her into an embrace. Her body, which had no resistance, was surprisingly thin and fragile.

To what extent did she have to prepare herself to bear the weight of the country with such a small body?

“Don’t cry, Ellie. There is no reason for you to cry.”

He pressed his chest against her small strength, and held her tightly even though she tried to push him away.

Her glossy hair and thin back felt as cold as the night air, as if she was despairing.

“You’re still cold. I’m sorry I didn’t notice.”

Afraid that she might hate it, he pulled up the stole covering her thin shoulders to the base of her neck. He couldn’t see the forest-like eyes of summer anymore, but her faint heartbeat and small clinging hand were the only thing that gave him a glimpse of her inner feelings.

Without realizing it, Mikolash had disappeared. The sorrowful sobs mixed with the silence of the night. The night sky was high and clear, and the figure of the two embracing was minuscule.

Chapter 27: Stillness of night

How much time had passed? When Ermengard’s delicate body became warm to the same temperature as his own, she finally stopped crying.

Ivan stopped patting her back, slightly moved away, and peered gently into her thin face.

Then, he noticed that she was softly snoring.

Ivan was surprised, and he relaxed his tense body in the situation.

“…She’s quite something. She can still sleep standing up in this condition.”

He muttered ironically to himself, but his voice sounded kinder than he thought, causing him to involuntarily shut his mouth in surprise.

Ivan rubbed his forehead and prayed for his heart to calm down.

He felt like he had become a bit too relaxed lately. There’s work waiting for him tomorrow as usual, so he had to go to bed soon.

It would be pitiful to wake her up, so maybe he should carry her.

While grumbling to himself and about to pick her up, Ivan noticed something strange. Ermengard’s delicate hand was grabbing onto Ivan’s chest and wouldn’t let go.

The moment that discomfort grazed the corner of his mind was when he realized it.

——I wonder what it is. That supple feeling, it feels somewhat familiar.

Ivan shook his head at his baseless thoughts. There is no way he could have met her before. He first met her when she came to this castle.

“I’d better go to sleep quickly. I’m getting worked up because of these memories.”

The bedroom is quiet, with not a wolf in sight, and only the flickering of the lamp brings warmth to the room.

Ivan gently laid Ermengard’s body on the bed. But since his hand could not be separated from her, he also sank down next to her.

Her sleeping face, illuminated by the light of the lamp, showed traces of tears, making it painful to look at. He wiped her cheek with the sleeve of his nightgown.

Looking at her again in this way, she had a cute face.

With a sharp, pointed nose and pink lips that still carry the roundness of a young girl, her brunette hair is translucent and lustrous. Even with her vibrant, deep green eyes closed, her cuteness remains and even appears to increase with her unguarded nature.

There shouldn’t be any problem taking this beautiful person away. However, when he recalled the fear in her eyes when she appeared in this room earlier, alarm bells started ringing in his head.

Come to think of it, it’s been like this since the first night. Ermengard was staring at me with a mixture of tension, fear, and an unknown unease in her eyes.

———Who are you exactly?

The princess of Bral should feel repulsed by werewolves.

Their country is feudal and dislikes any race that they consider barbaric. He still remembers what they said during the first negotiation for an alliance.

[It’s disgusting to be unable to return to human form on the night of the full moon. It’s like a curse.]

Even Johan, who is always talkative, had a sinking anger on the way home. Even with Bral, who has never crossed swords with them, humans should have been a distant existence.

And yet, Ermengard is so close like this, crying for Ivan and laughing in front of Ivan.

Is she really the princess of Bral? Even if Ermengard is indeed herself, was she really raised in an appropriate environment?

——I don’t know. What is this feeling? Whenever I look at her, I feel like I want to tear up my chest in frustration.

His gaze shifted to the small hand clutching the nightwear. He had noticed for a while that her delicate fingers were bearing marks of labor that should be impossible for a princess.

But he still can’t ask her about it. The fact that he’s sensed it might endanger her life.

At that moment, Ermengard twisted her body. He panicked, thinking he had woken her up, but she leaned her cheek against Ivan’s chest and started to breathe deeply again.

——Please spare me already.

While complaining in his mind, Ivan resignedly wrapped his arms around her thin back. If she can sleep peacefully, then he can endure anything.

Yes, it should be.

The night had yet to show signs of dawn, and the darkness was filled with the peaceful breathing of the two, without even a single howl from the wolves. Feeling the warmth of her body in his arms, Ivan gently closed his eyes.

Chapter 28: Morning

Oh God, please save this kind Werewolf King.

Punish my cruel falsehood and grant my earnest wish.

I don’t care what happens to me. I don’t mind being burned in eternal flames. Please.

Tears kept flowing one after another, and she couldn’t even consider trying to hold back. She felt so pathetic and wanted the King to be happy more than her own ugly feelings.

Suddenly, her messy face was pressed against the gray nightgown, and Ernesta reflexively propped her arm up to avoid him getting dirty. But the arm behind her back held an irresistible force, and she was hugged even tighter.

[I believe that as the queen, you should support His Majesty. Not just in his work, but also in his heart.]

The strict yet gentle head maid’s words came to mind, and Ernesta could only shake her head without saying anything.

——It’s no use, Rougena. I am not qualified to support him. I have no right to do so, covered in falsehood.

Ivan continued to interact with humans. Yet, it was an incredibly terrible thing for his closest human, Ernesta, to betray him like this. Therefore, there was nothing that Ernesta could do for him. She couldn’t make him happy, save him, or offer him comfort. These were things she should never wish for.

Ernesta closed her eyes and clung to Ivan’s broad chest. She grasped onto the gray fabric so tightly that her hands turned white, and continued to pray fervently.

❂❂❂

When she opened her eyes, an extremely handsome face was right in front of her, causing Ernesta’s heart to almost stop.

“…Ah, good morning, Ellie.”

Ivan said sleepily, his eyes slightly narrowed and filled with more charm than usual.

His beauty, reminiscent of a winter night, had a warmth to it on this summer morning. His golden hair, illuminated by the morning sun, was a little tousled, and the shadows cast by his collarbones peeking out from his nightclothes cast a dark shadow. His voice was husky and low, symbolizing the sluggishness of waking up.

“Good morning…?”

To be honest, she was completely defeated in terms of attractiveness. Despite returning the greeting while tormented by a sense of defeat, she couldn’t keep up with her own thoughts.

That’s right, last night she heard his old stories on the balcony. She couldn’t remember falling asleep after that, but what on earth happened?

Normally, Ivan would wake up earlier and leave quickly. However, the two of them were lying down on the bed together.

Ernesta blushed all at once.

She finally realized the absurd situation of being held while sleeping.

“W-Why?!”

“It’s because you wouldn’t let go of me. Thanks to that, I couldn’t sleep well.”

“Eh?! I’m sorry!”

Although Ivan complained, he was trying to hold back his amusement. However, Ernesta was too panicked to notice his expression.

Just then, a knock sounded as if to add insult to injury. Without realizing what the lively sound meant, the door opened mercilessly.

“Good morning, Queen! It’s nice weather again today, and…”

Dasha’s cheerful voice unnaturally stopped as soon as his face appeared.

Without showing any signs of being shaken, Ivan looked somewhat listless, Ernesta had a half-hearted expression, and Dasha, who had stopped moving with a smile on her face.

After passing through the silence where only birds singing could be heard, the first one to move was the young maid.

“Y-Your Majesty! I’m so sorry, I didn’t expect you to be here. I, I… I’m sorry!”

Dasha, who turned bright red, hurriedly closed the door and left.

“That noisy girl is still the same. She’s just like him.”

As he said something incomprehensible, Ivan yawned and sat up. Ernesta followed suit, sitting up and facing him directly.

“She’s gone now… There was no need for you to be so upset.”

“She probably just misunderstood because it was the first time we were both together.”

“Misunderstood…?”

As she muttered the words, their meaning gradually penetrated her mind.

“Huh…?!”

An unintelligible moan escapes her mouth. She covered her red face and unconsciously placed her palm on her cheek.

——No, no, Dasha. I didn’t do such a thing!

She was so embarrassed that she wanted to disappear.

At the same time, she felt sorry for various things even though it was because of her duty that she absolutely had to avoid it, even though she had never been asked for such a thing before.

“Ellie, I won’t ask you for the reason you refuse.”

Suddenly confronted with the truth, Ernesta turned pale this time. Even without asking, she realized what was meant. She had never spoken about refusing anything before, so how did he know?

“If you turn that pale, anyone can tell. Don’t worry. Werewolf warriors don’t force women.”

As he responded as if he could read her thoughts, Ernesta couldn’t close her open mouth in surprise.

It was a considerate gesture she had never thought possible, but was it really okay? The king needed an heir, and wasn’t that the queen’s greatest duty?

As if a question was written on her face, Ivan quickly gave her an answer.

“Of course, it can’t be forever. I don’t intend to set a deadline… well, I’ll do my best to make it possible. In my own way.”

There seemed to be some strange power in his words, but Ernesta didn’t point it out because she didn’t know the reason behind it.

Ernesta was worried about something. According to their current conversation, it would mean that Ivan has been waiting for her for a long time.

“So, was it just my misunderstanding that you had a mistress?”

When she inadvertently blurted it out, Ivan made an obvious strange face.

“What nonsense. There’s no such thing. It’s too much trouble.”

“Is it a trouble? I thought men like to keep mistresses.”

Her friends, who got married before her, often talked about being worried about their husband’s infidelity or strange behavior recently.

Moreover, in the noble class of Bral, it was said that men having wandering hearts were a common occurrence. According to what Isolte had mentioned before, she couldn’t fit in with the frivolous atmosphere that filled the palace.

“I don’t know about the customs in Bral, but in Shenka, we refrain from getting married just for the sake of it. While royalty may have concubines, it is not something to be praised. The werewolf tribe is mainly based on love marriages.”

“Love marriages…”

Ernesta didn’t know about it. Has that way of thinking already permeated in Shenka?

In Bral, arranged marriages for commoners are common, so it seemed like such a wonderful thing to be able to freely fall in love and marry someone. It was a werewolf way of thinking that loves nature.

Moreover, she could understand Ivan’s resolve through this. Even though love marriage was the norm, he chose a political marriage for the sake of the country.

“I see. In that case, is there anything you want me to do? It’s not like it’s in exchange, but I’ll do anything.”

She wanted to at least return something to him. She couldn’t just keep receiving kindness like this.

Ernesta stood there confidently, waiting for a response. But Ivan scratched his head, causing his hair that fell to his forehead to be pushed back, and then gave a deep sigh, looking down at the ground. His every gesture looked graceful and enviable.

“Anything?”

“Yes, anything!”

Asked with a tilting of his eyes, Ernesta confidently nodded in agreement.

Immediately, his large arm stretched out and wrapped around her cheek, which was likely two sizes bigger than her own hand. Before she could ask anything, she was unable to say anything as she was entranced by the bright blue eyes that shone with intense light.

It was a fleeting moment.

A soft and warm heat touched the corner of her lips. Ernesta felt it before she could understand what it was, and she couldn’t even move.

“Saying you’ll do anything is not something to be taken lightly, especially for a beautiful woman like you.”

The beauty in front of her forced out a bitter smile. Her head was blank, as if all of her functions had shut down and she couldn’t even grasp the meaning of his words.

“Do you understand now, my wife?”

In reality, she didn’t understand anything at all, but her head, interpreting only the fact that he had asked her a question, shook back and forth on its own.

Satisfied with this reaction, Ivan released his hand and finally got up from the bed.

“I have to go now. See you later.”

Her head shook back and forth again. She heard the sound of the room’s door opening and closing, but she still couldn’t move.

She could hear the chirping of birds.

It seemed like another beautiful day today.

Yes, there seemed to be a lot of things she could do, like laundry and cleaning…

“Whaaa!”

Ernesta let out a pathetic scream and buried herself in her blankets.

Her cheeks, which were probably the hottest they had ever been, were so hot that it was unbearable. She didn’t want to leave here again. Until Dasha came to check on her, Ernesta remained curled up in her blankets.

Chapter 29: To the workshop 1

Ernesta was currently having her hair brushed and styled by Dasha. The young maid blushed as she worked hard with her hands.

“Uh, um, My Queen. I apologize deeply for my rudeness earlier. I’ve been opening doors without reservation… His Majesty always woke up early, so I completely let my guard down and didn’t expect to see him. But even His Majesty must want to relax sometimes, and I shouldn’t disturb the morning of a happy couple like you! From now on, I’ll make sure to hear a response before opening the door! So please rest assured. You two can enjoy your intimate morning——My Queen? Um, is something wrong?”

The girl’s explanation was quite embarrassing, but unfortunately, Ernesta didn’t hear a word of it. She was peered at with concern, finally regaining her consciousness.

“… Ah, Dasha. What’s wrong?”

“What about you, My Queen? You seemed to be somewhere else just now.”

“Oh, it’s just… I remembered something for a moment…”

Unable to confess the reason for her absent-mindedness, Ernesta muddled her words.

It was her first time being like this, so she was extremely shaken, but she needed to switch her focus. It wasn’t that she didn’t like it…

——I didn’t dislike it?

Embarrassed by her own thoughts, Ernesta’s cheeks reddened. Then, for some reason, Dasha also turned as red as her and diverted her eyes in the mirror.

“I apologize for being so rude…”

“What happened? Did you say something to apologize for?”

“It was an extremely insensitive question. I’m sorry.”

Dasha, who seemed to have gained some mysterious understanding, worked silently to style Ernesta’s hair. The braided hairstyle with a ribbon was well-suited for Ernesta’s glossy locks.

“Thank you, Dasha. You’re really skilled.”

“Ehehe, only because the queen’s hair is so beautiful.”

As Dasha tidied up her tools, she continued to speak.

“We have plans to inspect the weaving workshop today.”

At the mention of weaving, Ernesta’s eyes sparkled.

Truth be told, she liked dyeing and weaving so much that it was an excuse for leaving home, and she was very interested in the fabric of this country.

“This is my first job outside. I have to do my best.”

It seems that she needs to be careful not to be destroyed by her curiosity.

❂❂❂

After lunch, Ernesta and Ivan were walking down the stairs in the town.

Shenka is a place where fabrics and crafts are actively made. In this land that separates the west and east of the continent, a unique cultural style has been formed, and its design gives off an exotic atmosphere.

Ernesta had become completely fond of all the things in this country, such as costumes, furniture, and food. So, she was in a good mood anticipating to see the scene where those lovely items were made.

“You look like you’re having a lot of fun.”

“Yes! It’s very fun.”

The blue Arkrig reflects the light and fluttered as she walked up the stairs. Ernesta’s elevated mood was accentuated by this, as she let her glittering eyes wander around.

The stone-built townscape gleamed white under the summer sunlight. The hung laundry was colorful, and the expressions of the people passing by were as bright as the sunshine.

Rashtovka, the capital city of Shenka, was a defense city located in the mountains. In this steep mountainous area, there were many slopes and stairs even in the city, and there was no habit of riding vehicles. Moreover, since they were werewolves, it seemed that the reason why they didn’t need vehicles was that they could transform and run, which was the fastest way to travel.

Still, a werewolf ran up the stairs alone and took off his hat when he noticed the king.

“Hello, Your Majesty.”

“Ah.”

It was a very light exchange. Even though she was surprised, Ernesta felt that they exchanged greetings with the king in a carefree manner. The man smiled and ran off.

Admiring the agile movements that did not show any signs of exhaustion, a thick and hard-skinned palm was brought in front of her.

“You’re getting dizzy from looking around too much. Hold on to me.”

Cursing her heart that was beating fast at every little thing, Ernesta thanked him and took his hand.

It’s okay. If you can stay calm, then there won’t be any problems.

She shouldn’t be dragging along this morning’s incident for too long. From Ivan’s point of view, this is just a greeting, and if she keeps worrying about it, it won’t be good for her.

Leading the way, Ivan firmly held Ernesta’s hand, giving her a sense of security that she won’t fall. As she gazed at his back, dressed in a grey chokha, he spoke without looking back.

“Isn’t traveling on foot difficult?”

She quickly realized that his concern was not reflected in his expression.

“It’s fine. Many shops, lifestyles… everything about the city is beautiful and unusual. It’s so enjoyable.”

Her voice, speaking her honest feelings without falsehood, gains momentum, and her eyes reflect the color of summer, shining bright.

Looking at this city, it becomes clear how much effort Ivan has put into his reign. Not a single person looks famished, and the goods displayed in front of shops are abundant, showing a lively atmosphere. There is hardly any garbage on the streets, and there is no foul odor. The reason one does not see children over a certain age is that every citizen attends school, without exception.

“What a lovely city. Above all, everyone’s smile is the most wonderful.”

Ivan twists his body and looks at her from the side with a glance with a smile.

“Is that so? I’m glad you like the city.”

Don’t smile at me like that. My heart can’t take it.

Lowering her blushing face, Ivan also begins to walk forward. Ernesta takes a deep breath to avoid showing any particular attitude and changes the subject, deliberately bringing up a question that has been bothering her.

“Hey, Ivan, don’t you have any bodyguards?”

This has been a question on her mind for some time.

Nobles always have bodyguards. She had heard that even the Bral royal family does not walk alone, even inside the castle.

“Well, even if they are nobles, werewolf men don’t hire bodyguards for every little thing. Having something like that by their side would be like admitting they are inferior in combat skills.”

Ernesta easily understood his reasoning. It was the thought process of a warrior werewolf, and Ivan himself could probably defeat any opponent. She noticed that he had a well-made sword hanging on his waist today, so he must have been fully prepared for any situation.

However, a troubling thought came to Ernesta, and she frowned.

“But, Ivan is the king…hasn’t he been in any danger before?”

“What, are you worrying about me?”

“Of course. It’s only natural for me to worry.”

At that moment, Ivan suddenly stopped walking. When she looked around, they had just reached the end of the stairs, and Ernesta finally noticed that she was breathing heavily.

“…Let’s take a break. You must be tired from climbing all the way up.”

“No, I’m okay.”

“We have time. Let’s sit down.”

In the end, they ended up sitting on a stone bench that was conveniently nearby.

Ernesta was used to mountain climbing, so she had confidence in her physical abilities. However, perhaps the distance was long enough that even a princess would have expressed concern.

As she regretted climbing too fast, Ivan started to talk casually.

“About earlier…”

“Yes?”

“I’m grateful that you were worried about me. Thank you.”

Ernesta was surprised and quickly looked up at him. The profile facing forward didn’t even glance her way, but upon closer inspection, the area around his ears was turning red.

Come to think of it, when he taught her a charm to dispel nervousness during the founding festival, he had a similar stern expression.

“Are you blushing…?”

“I’m not blushing.”

“That’s a lie. You’re definitely blushing!”

“I said I’m not.”

Although Ivan’s tone grew stronger, the profile that didn’t even try to look in her direction no longer frightened her at all.

Feeling sorry but unable to hold back, Ernesta let out a small laugh.

“…What are you laughing at?”

He finally looked at her with his eyes, and his resentful gaze became a source of laughter.

He was such a conscientious person. Despite being so shy, he went out of his way to thank her.

Perhaps in the past, when he seemed indifferent, he was also shy. When she realized that, her heart warmed, and she couldn’t stop laughing.

“I-I’m sorry, it’s just… I’m happy. Fufu.”

“If you’re feeling that energetic, let’s go.”

She smiled with her hands on her mouth, and Ivan, who couldn’t take it anymore, stood up. Ernesta deliberately responded cheerfully and began to walk with him, following his broad back.

Chapter 30: To the workshop 2

The weaving workshop had a much more magnificent appearance than Ernesta had imagined.

The walls, solidly plastered with whitewash, were high and looked great with the gray roof tiles. The wide building was not just one, but several identical ones that stand tall and magnificent.

Ernesta was amazed and couldn’t believe the scale of the place.

“This is a private workshop, but the production of crafts is supported as a national policy. Recently, we have been trying to sell our products to allied countries, gradually increasing our recognition.”

“It’s so big. I thought workshops were supposed to be smaller.”

For Ernesta, the workshop means only North Star’s blacksmith workshop, where Bruno serves as the master. The workshop, which has three apprentices, always felt cramped due to the heat of the metal.

“This is one of the oldest shops in Shenka. It has always been this large, and the Urbashek royal family has deep ties with it.”

Ernesta continued her daily studies, but it seemed that there were still many things she didn’t know. While impressed, she followed Ivan, who walked comfortably, and a old woman was waiting for them in front of the entrance to the building.

“Welcome.”

“Please take care of us today. This is for everyone to share.”

Ernesta had noticed that Ivan was carrying a bag, but it seemed to be a gift for the workshop.

“Oh my, how delicious it looks. Thank you very much, Your Majesty. The fruits harvested at the Royal Castle are all delicious, so everyone is delighted.”

Even though they were of royalty and commoners, they still had a very comfortable relationship. Smiling favorably at the situation, the old woman turned her soft gaze to Ernesta.

“My Queen, it’s an honor to have you visit us. My name is Anita and I’m the owner of this workshop.”

In other words, she is the one in charge and the top manager.

In Bral, it is extremely rare for women to hold positions of authority. Ernesta was quite surprised, but she tried her best to hide it and smiled.

“Nice to meet you, Ermengard. I’m very happy to meet you.”

“Oh my, such a lovely lady. Your Majesty, My Queen, congratulations on your marriage.”

Anita was like a grandmother rejoicing at her grandchild’s wedding.

Receiving their blessings, Ernesta had another pain in her chest, but she was guided inside immediately.

The studio had a vast space, and the sight of looms lined up in a cramped way was magnificent.

Individually, looms do not make much noise, but with this many, they constantly make a clattering sound, and the clamor echoes on the high ceiling. The interior has skylights and is bright, and all the artisans working there are women of all ages.

“It’s still booming as always, master.”

“Thanks to Your Majesty and the Queen. The demand in Bral has been increasing recently.

Anita’s words made Ernesta feel uplifted. The alliance really does have a positive impact on the economy.

“Anita-san, I would like to see the popular fabric in Bral.”

“Oh, then it would be this fabric around here. Please take a look.”

Anita pointed to a loom that was currently in progress, and Ernesta cautiously peered at it. There, delicate arabesque patterns were woven into the fabric, and Ernesta couldn’t help but raise her voice in admiration.

“It’s amazing, truly beautiful! Such craftsmanship.”

The skilled female artisan, who had a good build, turned to look at them with a smile, even though she was busy. Ernesta wanted to applaud her skills, as she did not stop working even while conversing.

“If My Queen praises this fabric, everyone will be happy. This fabric seems to be becoming popular among the common people.”

“I see. It’s so lovely, it’s only natural that everyone would like it.”.

Ernesta was unaware, but it seemed that Shenka’s textiles were starting to become popular in her hometown. Indeed, beautiful things would be considered beautiful by anyone.

“Is that so? Shall we try to increase our export volume?”

“Oh no, don’t take my opinion as a reference.”

Ernesta laughed at the master’s joke. During their laid-back conversation, Ivan circled around the workshop and returned, exchanging a serious gaze with Anita.

“Master, please inform me about recent export trends. I want to consider how to improve our export routes.”

“Understood, Your Majesty.”

The two walked away while discussing difficult matters. However, as Ivan took a few steps forward, he stopped and turned back to Ernesta.

“Ellie, you’re free to observe as you please. I’ll be in the neighboring building, so please call out to me when you’re done.”

“Okay.”

Although it was a public duty, for now, she could only observe and was still just a complement (accessory) to the king.

Fully aware of this, Ernesta nodded clearly and Ivan left the workshop with a small smile.

A beat passed after the door closed.

At that moment, the room was filled with yellow screams, causing Ernesta to almost fall over.

“H-He smiled! His Majesty smiled, kyaaaa! Did you see that, just now?!”

“I saw it! I saw it! Oh my God, that’s not fair!”

“Hold on, this is… this is too much. I can’t handle it.”

“We can’t just leave it like this, let’s have some tea! It’s already two o’clock, so it’s okay to take an early break, right!”

The craftsmen, who had previously been weaving with serious expressions, had now become girlish and were running around in excitement.

Ernesta was stunned by their quick change, but she was soon surrounded by them. She was forced to sit on the central carpet, and before she knew it, she was being invited to a tea party that was already being prepared.

“My Queen, we were moved! We never thought we’d get to see His Majesty’s smile!”

A woman who seemed to be in her mid-thirties, clenched her fists and emphatically declared. Before long, everyone had gathered around, nodding their heads in agreement as if to show their consent.

“Please tell us more! What kind of conversations do you have with His Majesty?”

“Is he always that funny? Or is there more to him?”

“How do you address His Majesty?”

Ernesta was bombarded with a wave of questions and looked around in confusion. Expectant eyes were gazing at her from all sides and she realized that she couldn’t escape, so she forced a smile.

“…We were just talking about the state of the city earlier.”

Even though it was a fairly non-committal answer, the room erupted with another round of excited cheers.

She now felt the reality of it. Ivan was definitely very popular.

“Please tell us more!”

“Well… about his smile, he does it occasionally. As for how to address him…”

As she spoke, various memories came flooding back, making her cheeks feel hot. She was about to remember something from this morning, so eventually, Ernesta covered her face.

“S-Sorry. Please spare me…”

Once again, cheers rose up. They were all excited and having fun while praising her, saying things like, “Aww, My Queen, you’re so cute!”

Although she had a vague suspicion after seeing the women in the royal castle, the werewolf women in general seemed to have a strong presence (pushy).

“You’re really lovely!”

“You’re completely different from what I imagined!”

“Oh, My Queen, please try this.”

On the carpet were yogurt topped with jam and steaming chai, which were the country’s standard snacks. Ernesta gratefully decided to try them.

The yogurt tasted slightly different from what was served in the royal castle, but it was delicious too. According to Dasha, the taste differs depending on the household, and every citizen thinks that their homemade one is the best.

“It’s delicious! This is my first time eating yogurt since I came here, but it’s really good.”

“My Queen is so understanding~.”

The woman who seemed to be the eldest burst into laughter, and the workshop was filled with laughter.

These were lively and strong women. Their existence as laborers must be a great asset for this country.

Chapter 31: When the next season comes

After finishing his meeting with Anita, Ivan left the living quarters where the conference room was located and headed to the workshop where he had left Ermengard behind. While Ivan hadn’t visited her, she probably wasn’t bored, but how was she spending her time?

He opened the door he had closed earlier and peeked into the workshop. There was Ermengard, surrounded by craftswomen, with a smile on her face as she weaved. Even from a distance, it looked glamorous and enjoyable.

Although she was at the back of the workshop, she suddenly noticed him and smiled.

“Your Majesty, welcome back.”

Why is it that when she smiles, my heart feels warm?

“Oh, Your Majesty address? There’s no need to be so formal, you know~?”

“No more! Don’t tease me.”

It was hard to hear from a distance, but Ermengard was talking easily with the craftswomen. Her smile, as she walked towards him, left a lingering feeling of a good time.

Ivan thought he should bring her here again, but he didn’t realize that this thought would have been impossible for the old him.

“Are you done talking?”

“Yes, thanks to you, we had a fruitful discussion. I would like to hear your opinion at the end, would you be willing to come?”

“Okay, I understand.”

Ermengard nodded happily and turned around.

“Thank you, everyone, for taking the time out of your busy schedule. Please work hard on your jobs.”

The queen expressed her thanks in a clear voice, and the craftsmen replied in a relaxed manner, saying things like, “Please come again.” It seems that they had become quite friendly in a short amount of time.

“I thank you for taking care of the queen. Please continue to work hard.”

Ivan also expressed his thanks and went outside with Ermengard, whose cheeks were strangely flushed.

After a moment, the craftswomen who were stunned by the king’s second smile and the lovely couple’s appearance, rolled over in a frenzy, but the couple never found out.

❂❂❂

Ivan led her to a room in the adjacent building.

As soon as she entered the room, she was confronted with a mountain of fabrics wound around a wooden spindle. In the center of the room, a magnificent carpet with arabesque patterns was laid out, and Anita was waiting for her in a seated position.

“Oh, My Queen. I apologize for summoning you.”

“Don’t worry. What can I do for you?”

Ernesta replied with a smile and a nod. Ivan then answered her question.

“We are having trouble deciding on the next export item. We want to hear your opinion.”

“My… opinion?!”

Ernesta couldn’t help but be surprised at this unexpected responsibility.

“Are you really going to use my opinion as a guide?”

“They want to explore the Bral people’s sensibilities through your taste preferences. Please feel free to tell us your honest opinion.”

Even so, Ernesta hesitated to answer.

Her taste preferences were completely those of a commoner. Taking on such a big task as a substitute for Ermengard, who was excellent in art, felt somewhat burdensome.

However, in front of her was Anita, looking at her with hopeful eyes, so she couldn’t refuse her. After all, it was true that it was her subjective opinion, so Ernesta said, “…Alright. But don’t rely on it too much.”

“Yes! Thank you, My Queen.”

Anita promptly led her to the pile of fabrics. Upon closer inspection, all the fabrics were neatly stored in dedicated shelves, making it easy to check their prints.

“Well… ah, this is the one I saw earlier. I really like this young grass green color.”

In fact, while waiting, Ernesta had taken a tour around the building that was in operation. Various fabrics, including felt, silk, and even hemp, were being produced, and each one were unique and beautiful.

“This one is also cute with cool fabric. Ah… this one is perfect for a winter coat, it’s lovely.”

She sorted through them while remembering her earlier observations. Every single one of these beautiful fabrics made her heart leap just by looking at them.

She selected about 20 fabrics and laid them out on the carpet. Anita and Ivan watched her silently, but when they finished, they looked surprised when they met her eyes.

“My Queen, did you visit all the sections?”

“Yes, I did. I was shown some very interesting things.”

“Well… I didn’t know. Well, thank you very much.

Anita widened her eyes in surprise. Ernesta didn’t find it bothersome since it was her duty to do as much as possible, and she really enjoyed it.

“Why did you like this plain red fabric?”

“I thought the color was unique. It’s dyed with something Bral doesn’t have, right?”

“We use a dye extracted from the cochineal insect.”

Ah, I see. In this mountainous area, there are plenty of insects that aren’t found in Bral.

When Ernesta was satisfied with the explanation, Ivan, who had been watching silently until now, spoke.

“The dye made from the Gun-kou-mushi beetle is common here and is generally considered cheap. Do you think this fabric is good?”

“Well, yes. It’s pretty…”

I’m sorry, I’m just a commoner.

Ernesta bowed her head and apologized in her mind before raising her face again to Ivan, who was unusually flustered and said.

“No, I didn’t mean to insult you… So, in the Western cultural sphere of Bral, they don’t use this type of dye.”

“I see. I’m surprised too, Your Majesty.”

The two of them crossed their arms and put their hands on their chins, as if pondering something.

What is this atmosphere of being perplexed by the great discovery of the century?

“It might be a good idea. Ellie, thanks to you.”

Then, Ivan clasped Ernesta’s hands, causing her to flinch and jump.

“To export something, we must select what other countries don’t have. The fabric you chose fits that description.”

“Well, yeah. Something you’ve never seen before always looks wonderful.”

“We’ve only recently started to have exchanges with the Western countries on the continent. It seems we still have a lot to learn.”

Ernesta finally understood what was being talked about.

In other words, the same thing could look completely different when viewed from a foreign perspective. Maybe many of the chosen fabrics were common here.

Ivan released Ernesta’s hand and gave a firm handshake to Anita.

“Master. I’ll come by again soon and we will discuss this.”

“Yes, Your Majesty! We’ll be waiting for you.”

The two exchanged a powerful smile. It wasn’t much, but for some reason, her heart was filled with warmth.

“Ellie. It’s not a thank-you gift, but do you want to buy something?”

“Something like…?”

“Fabric. It’s better to start making winter Arkrig early. It gets cold as soon as summer ends.”

She couldn’t respond immediately to such a kind thoughtfulness.

By the time summer had ended and fall had arrived, Ernesta had long since disappeared. She had vanished without a trace, as if she had never existed in the first place.

“But, I…”

Her mind went blank and she couldn’t think of anything.

Since Ermengard had almost the same body type as her, it wouldn’t be a problem to tailor her dresses. Ernesta only needed to accept their kindness with a smile, but she couldn’t do it.

“When it comes to something for myself, I don’t know what to do…”

She was tired of making excuses.

Until now, she had been crushed by the guilt of lying. However, at this moment, Ernesta had a clear feeling.

She couldn’t bear the reality of having no future in this place.

“What’s wrong? If that’s the case, I’ll choose for you. Master, I’ll borrow it.”

A strong voice that cut through her dark thoughts made Ernesta regain consciousness.

Ivan had picked up one of the fabrics he had gathered, ignoring Anita’s smiling response.

“This is not the time to be shy. As a wife, you should be happy to support your husband.”

The fabric was reasonably heavy, but Ivan handled it as lightly as if handling clouds and presented piece after piece to Ernesta.

“I can’t bear to see you shivering. It’s normal to feel that way, so I’ll be in trouble if you don’t accept it.”

His words were blunt, but they deeply touched Ernesta’s heart, conveying his thoughtfulness.

“Th-Thank you.”

Ernesta finally managed to say just that much. She had to bite her lip to hold back tears that threatened to fall if she relaxed.

After several more pieces of cloth were piled up, Ivan let out a satisfied sigh.

“This one should be good. Look in the mirror.”

It was the young grass-colored fabric that they chose at the very beginning. As she stood in front of the mirror as instructed, it certainly blended well with the color that Ernesta carried, without any discomfort.

“Master, what do you think?”

“Yes, it looks very becoming on you.”

Anita also gave her approval, and Ernesta looked at herself in the mirror again.

“…Yes, it’s really beautiful.”

Thanks to the mirror, Ernesta succeeded in smiling without any discomfort.

Chapter 32: The madder red way home

The stubbornly burning sun has dyed the thin stairs, still warm from the daytime heat, a shade of orange. Ernesta couldn’t bear to see the profile of the person walking next to her contrasting with the color of the setting sun, so she kept her face pointed forward while making small talk.

In the end, Ivan bought lots of other fabrics as well. He plans to send someone to pick them up tomorrow and have a tailor come take measurements the day after.

He showed concern one after another, saying that they needed this and that. Ernesta felt like she was being crushed by her guilty conscience towards him.

She would never wear those clothes made with such thoughtful care.

Of course, that’s the obvious thing, and her heartache must be just her imagination. It would be a mistake to even think about not wanting to go home.

She needs to think again about why she came here. Nothing is more important than curing Isolte. She shouldn’t even joke about wanting to live here.

Ernesta forcibly drove away her cloudy thoughts and smiled as she looked up at the person walking next to her.

“Come to think of it, the palace grows fruit. I didn’t know that.”

“The orchard is a little far from the residential area.”

Ernesta was worried that she may have made an unnatural topic shift, but Ivan did not seem to be questioning her.

“In Shenka, there is not much difference between the daily lives of nobles and commoners. Most households grow vegetables and fruits of some kind, and those with time to spare take care of them.”

“In that case, is Ivan also growing apricots?”

“When there’s time. And I go out hunting a lot.”

Ernesta was amazed by his easygoing demeanor.

It seemed that she had been so focused on accomplishing the task at hand that she hadn’t paid much attention to the way they lived. She never imagined that their customs would be so different from those of the imagined aristocrats.

“The women cook and sew, while the men go out to chop firewood and hunt on their days off. They dry the food they acquire before winter arrives so that they can live without going outside once it starts snowing. That’s how life is in the mountains.”

“I see… I didn’t know anything. I’m sorry.”

Said Ernesta, her shoulders drooping. For the past three weeks, she had been living peacefully without thinking too deeply about what was going on, eating without care and not even bothering to make clothes. Maybe everyone was laughing at her.

“You don’t need to apologize. Everything is fine.”

When she lifted her eyes once again, she saw his blue eyes, which showed a hint of kindness.

“I told you, those who have time can do so. Nobody will blame you for being busy. Besides, most royal and noble families who hold important positions hire servants because they are so busy. I, too, have trouble finding the time for that.”

Before they realized, the two of them stepped into the main street. Those who were out working hurried home, while store owners loudly shouted to sell their goods.

As the bustling city gradually became shrouded in darkness, the passing people did not notice the king and queen.

Ivan’s eyes reflected the lively city, and his expression was calm yet dignified at the same time.

“My father taught me as a child that everything is brought by connections. It is the people who create the means to keep me alive, so I must repay them by governing this country well.”

It was a heavy responsibility for a ruler, even though the concept sounded simple.

Ernesta finally understood it, as the people in this country respected the king because he also respected them.

“You’ve done more than enough in that regard… But, uh… I guess.”

Ivan hesitated, which was rare for him. She tilted her head, waiting for him to continue.

“If you’re interested… we could go to the orchard this weekend. It’s currently apricot harvesting season. We also have blueberries and peaches.”

His voice was low and hesitant, sounding like he invited her for the first time, but maybe it was just her imagination.

“…You’ll take me there?”

“Yes.”

He chose to walk alongside people, carrying various burdens despite being disappointed in them. The road he chose was nothing but a wilderness—a harsh journey where only stones and withered branches were crawling, and just walking on it would make blood ooze out.

Even so, he taught Ernesta, a human, about the werewolf’s way of life.

“I’m not forcing you to go, but…”

Ernesta was unable to believe it and ended up unable to say anything, causing Ivan’s regretful eyes to look away. He understood that he had given her the wrong impression and his mouth moved faster than her own realization.

“It’s not impossible! I want to go. I’ll definitely go!”

As she spoke with enthusiasm, she suddenly realized that wanting to harvest fruit was not a very princess-like way of thinking.

“I see, that’s good. Then let’s go.”

Although hesitation would come later, it would disappear into a corner of her heart when he showed her his smile.

As the sunset melted into her reddening face, Ernesta gently placed her hand on her increasingly beating chest.

That’s why she had never noticed.

Unknown to them, someone was quietly observing the two of them in the city at twilight.

❂❂❂

Upon arriving at the royal castle, Ivan remembered his work and headed to his office.

When Ernesta returned to her room, she found no one there, so she decided to write in her diary while she had the time. Unlocking it and taking out the contents, she wrote down what had happened that day with a feather pen.

She had written about half of it when a knock sounded. After putting her diary back in the drawer and answering, Engeberg stood on the other side of the opened door.

“Ermengard-sama. May I have a moment of your time?”

“Please come in, Count Engeberg.”

Engeberg smiled cheerfully and sat on the rug that Ernesta had gestured to. He seemed unaccustomed to sitting on the ground, so he took the posture of seiza voluntarily.

“I came to ask how you are doing. I was relieved to see that your cold got better.”

“I’m sorry to have caused you any worry. I’m fine now.”

When Ernesta replied with a smile, he let out a sigh of relief and relaxed his expression.

“How was it today? It was your first time doing work outside, right?”

“Yes, it was a bit nerve-wracking, but I was able to take a tour around and learn a lot. I also talked to the craftsmen, so I think it was really meaningful.”

“That’s good to hear. Was there anything unusual?”

Engeberg added “around your majesty” and his expression seemed to tense up a bit.

“Well… let me see, today he bought some woven goods. I was told that we wouldn’t make it in time for winter clothes if we didn’t get them tailored soon.”

“Did His Majesty choose them for you?”

“Yes, that’s right. I heard that he will even call a tailor in the day after tomorrow.”

Ernesta was about to say that she(I) hoped that Ermengard-sama would like them, but she quickly closed her mouth. She shouldn’t mention anything that could reveal her identity as a substitute, even if it was just the two of them with Engeberg.

“Lastly… your majesty said he would take me to the orchard.”

“Oh, is that the fruit garden at the royal palace?”

“In Shenka, even the royal family grows fruit and learns to do daily tasks. I’ll make sure to observe and remember properly.”

If it’s for Ermengard-sama’s sake. Though it was left unsaid, Engeberg lowered his eyebrows with a somewhat sad expression.

“You seem to be enjoying yourself while performing your duties so honorably. You aren’t secretly interested in King Ivan…”

Engeberg unnaturally interrupted his words at that point and shook his head in response to Ernesta’s denial, putting an end to the topic. Though Ernesta was worried about the melancholy expression on his face, Engeberg’s next statement was shocking.

“Let’s get back to the topic. It’s possible that somebody may have caught onto our scheme.”

His whisper clearly reached Ernesta’s ears, causing her to widen her eyes in shock.

“What do you mean…?!”

“It’s still just a suspicion, but I noticed that something in the drawer had moved slightly. It was a small change that might not be noticeable to others, but I have confidence in my memory.”

“Does that mean someone was searching through the drawer?”

Engeberg nodded clearly. Ernesta felt like the ground was shaking and clenched her fists so hard that her nails bit into her skin.

Chapter 33: Harp

“As a servant, you wouldn’t touch a guest’s belongings. In other words, it’s common to assume that someone is conducting an investigation into your personal affairs.”

“…What should I do? I’ve been writing in my diary.”

“What?!”

Engeberg glared sharply. Ernesta trembled as she had never seen such an expression before, but he quickly noticed that the girl was scared and apologized.

“Did you write anything that would expose your identity as a substitute?”

“No, I was careful not to write anything like that. It was just a daily record and something I used for reviewing.”

Engeberg let out a deep sigh and wiped the sweat that had beaded on his forehead with a pocket handkerchief. It seems he had caused quite a bit of stress on his heart.

“I’m glad that you’re smart. Did you write it to inform Ermengard-sama?”

“Yes, but if someone sees it, it’s a little embarrassing…”

Ernesta blushed and looked down, and Engeberg laughed as if he couldn’t help it.

“Don’t worry. You may not like it, but please continue to write as is. If we stop at this stage, we may be suspected of something we didn’t do.”

“Understood. But still, I wonder how much they know about us.”

Even with her imagination, Ernesta couldn’t find an answer. Engeberg also seemed hesitant and crossed his arms with a difficult expression.

“We cannot be certain about the substitute matter. They may want to investigate the situation in Bral or have their own motives… There are countless possibilities. However, since I don’t have any evidence, we haven’t reached the truth.”

“I see. For now, that’s good to know.”

Ernesta breathed a sigh of relief.

It was true. If anyone knew about the substitute, they should have been imprisoned by now.

“The only certain thing is that someone with the authority to control spies is involved.”

“That means…”

Those who have such power are naturally limited. The capable ambassador, Shenka, gave a serious look to the pale Ernesta.

“Please be extremely careful, Ernesta-sama. Returning you without harm is my biggest wish.”

❂❂❂

After finishing dinner alone and taking a bath, Ernesta went out to the balcony of her bedroom to count stars.

Through a gap in the clouds, the constellation Lyra, which is famously known for Orpheus’ lyre in “Orpheus and Eurydice,” could be seen.

Orpheus lost his beloved wife, Eurydice, and went to the underworld to plead with Hades to return her by playing his lyre. Hades was fond of the lyre and agreed to let Eurydice go with the condition that Orpheus could not look back until they reached the surface. However, Orpheus could not help himself and turned around to see Eurydice’s face, so she was taken back to the underworld, and they never met again. Afterward, Orpheus was said to have wandered the earth.

As she recalled her mother’s voice telling her the myth, Ernesta pressed her forehead against the railing and resisted her urge to look back.

I really hate my own foolishness. I got too comfortable with living here and forgot that the most important thing was to make this substitution a success.

This is just like Orpheus. Instead of prioritizing bringing his wife back, he lost everything because he couldn’t suppress his desire to see her beautiful face.

This won’t do. I shouldn’t get too attached to the life here or think of everyone’s warmth as lovely. I shouldn’t be happy every time I learn of Ivan’s kindness either.

Suddenly, the sound of the door closing made Ernesta turn around inside the room.

There was Ivan, standing there and staring at her while wearing a gray chokha he had on during the day.

“Ivan? What’s wrong?”

Feeling the unusual atmosphere emanating from him, Ernesta decided to return inside the room.

Standing in front of Ivan again, she felt insecure in her thin nightwear compared to him, who was in a well-fitted outfit with a sword on. Ernesta adjusted her shawl on her shoulders and looked up at his pair of blue eyes.

Ivan didn’t return any answer and she couldn’t read what was reflected in his eyes.

She remembered her conversation with Engeberg during the day, and a cold shiver ran down her spine.

“Hey, Ivan, are you perhaps sleepy?”

Ernesta behaved unnaturally cheerfully. The fear and regret that he might have found out moved her body involuntarily.

“You had a busy day today. If that’s the case, it’s better to take a bath tomorrow and go to bed kya——”

Her words were replaced by a scream.

Because Ernesta was lifted up by Ivan.

Her heart throbbed violently at the suddenness of it all, and she fell into confusion. Her body, losing its balance, stiffened, and her hands were clenched in front of her chest without any purpose.

“W-What…?!︎ Ivan, what are you doing? Hey…!”

No matter how many times she asked, his outline looking down diagonally remained motionless. While she was doing that, his long legs reached the bed and she was laid down with an unnatural politeness.

Ernesta was completely petrified, her thought processes no longer functioning, when suddenly a robust physique came pouncing on her, and a stunning beauty came into view.

Then, lips tightly knit together, the beauty spoke, and all Ernesta could do was stare dumbstruck.

“——Who are you?”

Chapter 34: Neither drink nor sing

After leaving Ernesta with the guards, Ivan headed to his own office. He immediately summoned Johan, and without much preamble, began to explain about the incident that had just occurred.

“On my way back from the workshop, I was followed by someone.”

Johan blinked his light blue eyes and calmly switched gears without losing his composure.

“Do you have any idea who it might be?”

“There are too many possibilities.”

“I see. It could be the opposition to the alliance, or perhaps a spy from another country… It’s a troublesome matter.”

The Prime Minister’s sigh contained the authority unique to a strong person who isn’t shaken by these kinds of situations.

“I’m glad you’re safe. Where did it happen?”

“—It happened only briefly. I took the main street on the way back, but it happened during that short time.”

‘The sharpness of the gaze I felt at that time, and the way the presence disappeared, were not those of an ordinary citizen who recognized the king and queen. If I were alone, I would have chased after them, but I couldn’t leave Ermengard behind, so I just kept walking. Maybe it was all planned to test my response.’

“I see. It’s too short to understand the intent.”

Johan said with a complicated expression as he pushed his glasses up. Ivan, who was with him, also couldn’t read the situation.

“Have you noticed any changes in the Queen?”

“I don’t think so. We just had a normal conversation.”

Yes, there was no change in her appearance…or so he thought. She had her usual smile and voice, but there was something lonely about her. Was it just his imagination?

Ivan still didn’t know her well, and this fact frustrated him immensely.

“Without any proof, if we interrogate her, it could become an international issue. It’s a troublesome matter.”

Johan said with a sinister smile, causing Ivan to glare at him.

Why did he feel this way? When he thought she might be harmed, he couldn’t allow it.

This was just his own emotions. To make such a serious decision based solely on emotion was the most shameful thing. He knew that, so why?

When they were about to sink into contemplation, Mikolash burst in from the back door. He was pleading something with a biting attitude, so the two of them transformed into werewolves to listen to his story.

[There’s no way Ellie is a bad person, right?! It’s obvious just by looking at her!]

The moment those words entered their ears, they were filled with frustration and impatience.

[Mikolash, I understand what you’re trying to say. However, this is a serious matter for the country. We have to consider all possibilities and check them one by one.]

[You’re a capable guy, Johan. So just take my opinion as one of them. I think Ellie is a good kid. I know there may be some suspicious points, but she must have been involved too. She doesn’t have a single trace of ill intent.]

All of his arguments were the same as what Ivan had been thinking.

Yes, as Mikolash said, it’s clear if you watch her. Ermengard acts for the sake of others and moves their hearts, and even tries to understand and accept the werewolf tribe.

If there was any intention to harm, Ivan would have already been attacked. She’s so carefree even when showing openings, and he hasn’t even considered the possibility that she might hold any malice.

[I understand. Mikola, you’re right.]

[Ivan…!]

Mikolash turned his astonished gaze towards his partner. It’s incredibly rare for Ivan, who has been suppressing his emotions, to express his emotional opinions.

‘I know it’s too naive of me. But even so, I can’t betray what I’ve sensed.’

[That’s why we have to investigate. We can’t afford to fall behind when something is definitely happening.]

Johan reluctantly nodded in agreement with his lord’s strong words.

[Johan, I’m counting on you to investigate the surveillance.]

[I understand.]

[Has there been any progress in investigating the queen?]

[I’m afraid it’s still not enough. I sent a spy to Bral, but I’d like them to keep watching for at least two more months. As for Count Engeberg, I hit a blank. That terrifyingly sharp man wouldn’t just show his tail that easily.]

Receiving the content as expected, there was no particular disappointment. He considered asking Ermengard vaguely, but immediately gave up on the idea.

There was a possibility that he might cause some strange feelings if he was caught, which could lead to a situation where he might regret it.

A gut-wrenching sense of loss filled his heart, as if someone had planted poison in his back teeth.

[Your Majesty, please be careful.]

[I know. Don’t worry, I won’t let my guard down. As for the future response, let’s start by increasing the queen’s guards…]

From there, a long discussion began.

Mikolash got bored midway and started to doze off. Even so, they kept talking until suddenly, the door rattled.

“Your Majesty, may I have a moment of your time?”

The voice undoubtedly belonged to Silvestor. As soon as he replied, the hero entered the room and blinked his eyes upon seeing the two who had become werewolves.

“Oh, Johan too. What happened to your appearance?”

“Talking about the old days, including Mikola.”

Telling lies to the person who owed them a great favor didn’t feel good, but it was better to minimize the number of people who knew about this important secret. However, this man, who had a divine intuition, might have sensed something in spite of that.

“In that case, it’s perfect. I have acquired some good liquor. I thought we could enjoy it together.”

The General, who held up a basket and grinned, made Ivan reflexively check his watch. The hands had already passed half-past nine, and it was a time when even regular people would be asleep.

He had planned to have dinner with Ermengard tonight, but she must have finished eating by now.

“That’s great, master. Being single is comfortable in these situations.”

Even the normally reserved Johan is obedient to his respected teacher, and Mikolash is peering into the contents of the basket.

As it was difficult to bring up the idea of leaving, Ivan thought that he wanted to talk easily with them for the first time in a while.

In the past few years, he had been so single-mindedly focused on the things in front of him that he realized he had not been paying attention to those who supported him.

“Yeah, it’s not bad to do something like this once in a while.”

With Silvestor taking on the form of a werewolf, following Ivan’s lead, a small celebration began.

❂❂❂

Ivan walked through the hallway with a firm step, but his head was spinning and he was in a state where he couldn’t think clearly.

In fact, the king wasn’t particularly good at drinking.

He could drink enough to entertain his guests, but today he had faced the two biggest drinkers in the castle, and he had gone too far.

Fortunately, he didn’t feel sick. The taste of the drink he had taken after a long time was refreshing, and it had helped him to feel exhilarated. He felt like he had been talking about various things, but he was probably just overthinking things.

However, that light-hearted feeling was blown away as soon as he opened the door to his bedroom.

His wife was standing on the balcony. The figure illuminated by the moonlight was terribly ephemeral and seemed to disappear with a blink of an eye.

“Ivan? Is there something wrong?”

Ermengard turned around with her usual smile. She approached while smiling and looked up at him with a deep green color that reflected her uneasy feeling.

——Who are you?

The question repeated in his mind countless times, and stubbornly surfaced again.

Can you tell me about it? I want to know about you, the one who said that she wanted to go to the orchard, not as the princess of Bral, but as yourself.

What do you like? Is there anything you want to do? Why do you seem somewhat sad?

And why were you apologizing repeatedly in your dreams?

I want to help you. I want to protect you.

Because I…

As always, Ivan’s thoughts were interrupted at the same place. Unable to identify the nature of his unfamiliar emotions, he followed his impulses and reached out his hand.

Chapter 35: Flame

“Who are you?”

Once again, the same question was asked slowly as if savoring each word.

Her brain, finally understanding the content, was shaken by shock, but for Ernesta, this situation was just as much of a problem.

She had never experienced being pushed down by a man before. Her heart had been pounding so loudly since earlier that she wondered if something was wrong with it, and her head was so overheated that it even caused her pain.

——What should I do? What on earth should I do?

She had to say something. Yes, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. My name is Ermengard,” and pretend that she knew nothing.

But her mouth wouldn’t move. When she was stared at by those fiery eyes, she wanted to throw everything away and beg for forgiveness.

Ernesta closed her eyes completely, as if cutting off everything. For now, she just had to fulfill this role, that was all she needed to think about.

As she tried to open her mouth, the pain in her eyes began to arise. However, Ivan was quicker to drop the next words than to overcome that fierce battle.

“I don’t know…why do I think these things when I look at you?”

Ernesta was dragged along, not understanding what he was saying. Ivan’s blue eyes shone even at a time like this, and his muttered words fell like stars.

“What exactly are you? It shouldn’t be like this… ever since you arrived, I can’t calm down. It’s enjoyable, I think, but I shouldn’t.”

“…Ivan?”

Enjoyable? Did he just say that it was enjoyable?

As she gradually regained her composure, she took a deep breath, and the flames that his blue eyes depicted seemed to waver more than before.

“I can’t do this. I’m on my own… I have to go. Otherwise, I’m gonna… I’m gonna have to…”

His vague words became intermittent, and in the end, his sturdy arms lost strength. Immediately, his broad and thick chest pressed against Ernesta’s stomach, and his golden hair fell over her shoulders.

“What happened?!”

She panicked and peered into Ivan’s face.

As she watched, he relaxed his sharp features and fell asleep with a peaceful expression.

“He…he’s sleeping…”

Ernesta also relaxed and decided to rest her head on the back of his head. His large body was heavy, but it didn’t feel unpleasant even though she was nervous.

As she calmed down, Ernesta realized that Ivan had a faint smell of alcohol. In other words, he had gotten drunk and had come here unconsciously.

It surprised Ernesta that even a warrior like him could get drunk.

“Fufu…”

She giggled and quickly covered her mouth with her hand.

Due to her anxiety, she hardly remembered what he said earlier, but at any rate, it didn’t seem to be a question about her being a substitute.

If it’s true that he finds this enjoyable, there couldn’t be anything more joyful for Ernesta.

She gently stroked Ivan’s hair. His golden hair was much smoother than it appeared, and it felt slightly different from Mikolash’s touch.

Towards the end, it sounded like Ivan’s murmurs were filled with deep anguish. May at least the King’s sleep be peaceful.

“Good night, Ivan.”

❂❂❂

That night, there was an unusually cold wind blowing in Rashtovka.

However, there was no sense of early autumn’s cool breeze inside the tenement, as it was filled with the heat of the gathered brethren. The flames of the lamp flickered, and their faces illuminated by the light were unified by a dark smile.

But there was one man in the midst of them who remained calm and expressionless. He was a young man in his late twenties, with red eyes and a strong will.

The man looked over at the seated men and spoke with a well-controlled voice.

“That’s all about the plan. Do you have any opinions?”

No one raised their hand or objected, and they all nodded heavily.

“Alright then, it’s decided. Let’s show those lukewarm people in the palace what’s what. I don’t give a damn what they think.

With a short burst of energy, the meeting was adjourned.

As the organizer, the man finds the key member among the members who are gradually dispersing and calls out to him.

“Kautsky, don’t start any more trivial fights. It’ll only make them more cautious.”

Kautsky nodded awkwardly. The incident at the founding festival’s celebration banquet seemed to be a regrettable event for him too.

“I understand, Leight. I am also a member of this group. I swear that I won’t take any more selfish actions.”

“Yeah, please don’t.”

Kautsky nodded one more time and left the tenement quietly.

Leight means “summer”. The man died once nine years ago, on the same day as yesterday. Because it was such a hot day, he decided to use a fitting name, Leight.

Alone in the tenement, Leight uses iron scissors to extinguish the flame of the lamp. As he sinks into the darkness, his hair is illuminated by the last light, revealing a reddish-copper color.

Chapter 36: A quiet story, I am a wolf, Part 3

Hello, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Mikolash. How have you been?

By the way, I am currently having a meal. Thanks to the sudden banquet that started, boss Silvestor bought some meat for me.

The three highest authorities in this country have now transformed into werewolf forms, and they made sure to enable communication with me. They are good guys, despite being important people.

[Boss, this deer meat is really delicious]

[We hunted it today. Enjoy it slowly.]

After thanking the boss’s gentle smile, I resumed my meal.

In my mind, the boss is Silvestor, the older brother figure is me, and the younger brothers are Ivan and Johan. I won’t accept any objections.

[He eats a lot for someone his age.]

[Well, isn’t it a good thing that he’s healthy?]

Ignoring my younger brothers’ slightly astounded faces, I continued eating the raw meat. Werewolves generally prefer processed food regardless of what form they’re in, so this meat is all mine.

[Master, would you like some wine?]

[Oh, sorry, Johan.]

Silvestor looks happy as he gets his disciple to pour him more wine. With his mouth split wide, he drinks the wine skillfully, narrowing his eyes as if looking into the distance.

[You’re a good one, on the other handTheodor was useless in situations like this.]

[Ah, that’s right. He’s always on the receiving end, isn’t he?]

[But man, he was good at livening things up. Parties with Theodor were always fun.]

Ivan, who had been listening to their conversation, also had a faint smile. Thinking of the other person who should have been here, I became nostalgic.

He was a bright guy who always played the fool and made the warriors laugh. Oh, that reminds me, there was also this story.

[That guy Theo, he accidentally stepped into a manure pit while stopping at a village for food supplies. A little girl gave him a pair of shoes. Remember, Ivan?]

[Oh yeah, I remember. He ended up only sinking up to his arches.]

Those were the good old days. That guy, he was the type to make the most impossible mistakes.

Silvestor and Johan also seemed to be reminded of those days and laughed amusingly.

[Yes, that was quite something. He didn’t even try to take them off, saying that he had received them as a gift.]

[He spent the time wearing them until the combat boots arrived. It really didn’t suit him at all.]

Seeing that scene in our minds, we all had expressions of laughter and tears on our faces.

The three childhood friends were always very close. If two of them started arguing, the remaining one would step in to mediate. They were such close friends.

And yet, Theo died in that battle, and all that is left are these two serious people who seem to have a hard time living.

If Teo was here, this would have been a party several times louder and more lively.

[I wonder what Theo would have said if he were here…]

I had finished eating my meat and responded to Johan’s lonely mutter like this.

[He would definitely tease Ivan. I’m sure he’d be thrilled to see you and Ellie getting along so well.]

[Wait, why are we talking about this?]

Ivan’s low voice rang out in an instant, but I decided to ignore it for now. The boss and Johan both nodded happily too.

[Oh hoho? Are the two really on such good terms these days, Mikola?]

[Hell yeah! Just today, he went out and bought a bunch of cloth for Ellie. Can you believe it?]

[It’s unbelievable. I never thought Ivan would take such an interest in women like this.]

Yeah, it’s true. Ivan is popular with women, but he never really showed any interest in them before. Maybe he just needed an outlet for his stress?

But well, he was too busy trying to be a good king to have time for that. So I’m happy that he seems happy.

Ellie is amazing. She gave a real smile to this man who only had a wry smile after the war ended. If he could laugh out loud like he used to, that would make me even happier.

[Stop it. I’m not ‘taking an interest’ in anything. What’s wrong with buying the necessary amount of cloth?]

Ivan always appears expressionless, but he’s tilting his cup a little faster than usual. He’s really shaken.

[Is that right, you’re unaware? That’s too bad, really.]

[If it’s Your Majesty’s temperament, then I think he would just say to buy whatever is suitable for someone unimportant?]

While teasing each other, the two seemed happy. They must be feeling the same thing as me.

[It was just a coincidence. I just want her to live comfortably without inconvenience.]

“Hmm…”

Johan’s agreement contained various things. He is definitely not convinced. Neither do I.

[Ivan, would you like to drink more? Master brought it for us after all.]

[Oh, yes! Your Majesty, please have more. There are also snacks.]

Suddenly, they started to insist on more drinks.

When I was getting excited about something, Johan whispered in my ear.

(Let’s crush him and find out what’s going on. Help us.)

(Leave it to me!)

I also respond in a low voice. In the meantime, the boss poured wine into Ivan’s cup while he was distracted.

We have good coordination. Alright, how should I do this?

[Hey Ivan, Ellie is cute, isn’t she? For me, if Ellie were a wolf, I would definitely propose to her.]

I hadn’t thought about it at all, but I intentionally made the joke to stir things up.

Then, the effect was immediate.

[…What are you looking at my wife like that for?]

Ivan spoke with the lowest voice I’ve heard from him so far. And he practically drank that wine unconsciously just now.

[Anyway, why are you even calling her that? You don’t have permission from Ellie herself, do you?]

He finally brought up the way I addressed her like I thought he would. I guess he didn’t like it when I called him Ellie.

His eyes were serious. It’s a little scary.

[It doesn’t matter what I call her if she can’t hear me, right? Don’t get so upset~! Ahaha~!]

I laughed it off and made eye contact with Boss Silvestor, who smiled at me as if to say leave it to me. He’s so reliable, just as expected of the boss.

[I understand your point, but isn’t it a fact that My Queen is lovely? Your Majesty must also think so, right?]

Well done! The hero really knows how to speak with restraint and nuance!

Ivan stumbled over his words a bit and then raised his cup again. It’s hard to tell from his expression, but he’s probably getting pretty drunk by now.

[Well… I do think she’s cute.]

Yes, that’s it! Keep it up, boss!

[That’s right. She’s a hard worker and a thoughtful person.]

[Ah, and on top of that, she tries to understand us. She’s smart and always active.]

That’s right, Ivan. You really understand her good qualities.

Okay, Johan, it’s your turn now.

[Ivan, what do you think of the Queen?]

[… Lately, she’s been on my mind all the time. She’s a mysterious person.]

I see, he can say that much when he’s drunk. He’s probably not even aware of it.

The boss and Johan both have warm smiles on their wolf faces. I probably have the same expression on my face.

You know, you love her, don’t you? Why don’t you admit it?

Well, I know the cause of the problem, and it has nothing to do with Ellie being under suspicion or anything like that.

This man has made a sad determination. He will govern this country splendidly, even if it means sacrificing himself.

So, he is emotionally distant. He may even be consciously suppressing his feelings. It’s not the time to be happy for those who have passed away.

But Ivan, you should realize it soon.

That’s just cowardice. In order to make the woman you love happy, you have to pull out the thorn stuck in your heart.

Perhaps all three of us were thinking the same thing and fell into silence. Suddenly, Ivan stood up firmly, even though he was drunk, and started walking towards the door with a steady gait. I hurriedly called out to him.

[Hey Ivan, where are you going? To the restroom?]

However, we were completely taken aback by his response, as he didn’t even turn around.

[I’m going back. I want to see Ellie’s face.]

Just before leaving the room, Ivan did not forget to transform back into his human form.

Even though he was so drunk, was he unconsciously paying attention to ensure that Ellie wouldn’t be scared?

In the office where the owner had left, we all chuckled together.

[…I see. He must be really in love.]

Upon my murmur, both Johan and the boss nodded in agreement.

[I feel a little guilty now. We teased him too much.]

[Getting old doesn’t do you any good. Well, let’s keep what we heard today in our hearts.]

Yeah, I agree with the boss’s words.

But still, if only he had that kind of honesty when he’s sober, things would have progressed more…

Chapter 37: Wolf and Ball Throwing 1

The next morning, Ernesta woke up feeling exceptionally refreshed.

Still in the dim light, she awoke to find the handsome face of the man sleeping next to her and smiled softly while gazing at him.

This was the first time she had stared intently at his sleeping face. His refined and elegant features were so unapproachable, but when he slept like this, he looked innocent like a child.

She wanted to wait for him to wake up, but shook her head, knowing it was a presumptuous desire. They had only happened to wake up at the same time yesterday. If Ivan woke up and found her staring at him like this, he would surely dislike it.

Ernesta quietly got up from the bed, not wanting to disturb the king’s sleep as he seemed exhausted.

It was a good morning. Although there were many things on her mind, there was no point in struggling with them. On days like this, she decided to take a walk until breakfast.

She returned to her room to freshen up, then walked confidently out into the hallway. As she walked aimlessly, she soon bumped into Prime Minister Slezak.

“Good morning, Lord Slezak. You’re up early today.”

“Good morning. My Queen, what are you doing up so early?”

Johan is impeccably dressed as usual, and the gleam in his eyes behind his glasses was sharper than usual, although Ernesta couldn’t tell.

“I happened to wake up early. I was thinking of going for a walk, but do you have any recommended places?”

Ernesta casually asked, but Johan’s face immediately stiffened.

“That is not possible. We have been ordered to increase the protection for My Queen, by order of His Majesty.”

“Protection?”

Ernesta had never heard such a thing. She tried to think if something had happened, and came to a single possibility.

Instead of protection, but surveillance.

Ernesta felt a chilling sensation, but surprisingly, the answer to her question came easily.

“There have been some suspicious movements recently. I don’t know who’s behind it, but we should be cautious regardless.”

She had no idea that such a situation had arisen without her knowledge. She thought they had stayed out late drinking the night before, but perhaps the meeting had gone on for longer than expected.

“Understood, then I shouldn’t go for a walk. Thank you for letting me know.”

“Wait a moment, My Queen.”

She was called back just as she was about to turn on her heel.

As she wondered what was going on, Johan gave a fleeting glance toward the courtyard facing the hallway.

“It should be okay to go to the courtyard. His Majesty told us not to restrict your movements too much.”

“His Majesty said that?”

“Yes. It’s okay to take a break once in a while.”

Ernesta felt somewhat guilty for having had plenty of rest the day before. She hesitated, but then noticed a shadow approaching from down the hall.

“Mikola!”

The wolf called by name happily ran on all fours to stand in front of Ernesta. He began pulling on her Arkrig’s hem, but it was Johan who scolded him.

“What are you doing biting a woman’s attire, Mikola?”

In response, Mikolash quickly opened his mouth and released Ernesta.

Johan’s gaze was surprisingly gentle. Perhaps he was fond of this wolf.

“Good morning, Mikola.”

In response to the greeting, Mikolash let out a howl before quietly starting to walk away. As Ernesta watched him take a few steps and turn his head back towards her, something flashed through her mind.

“Could it be that he’s telling us to follow him?”

“That seems to be the case.”

And when Johan readily nodded, an almost unbelievable sense of excitement welled up in Ernesta’s chest.

To have an animal show her the way, it was like a fairy tale.

“Shall we go then? I will accompany you.”

“But, Lord Slezak, you must be busy.”

“Do not worry about me. Come on.”

And so they walked led by the wolf and arrived at the courtyard in question. It seemed that they wouldn’t need to cause Johan any more trouble regarding protection, and Ernesta felt a sense of relief wash over her.

As silver fur crossed the space filled with green and summer flowers, Mikola immediately returned and handed something over.

“What’s going on, Mikola? Oh, is this…”

When she received it, it was a ball made of sheepskin.

“It seems like he’s telling you to throw it.”

“Really…?!”

She felt like she was in a dream already. Even the fact that she had treated a wolf eight years ago felt like a miracle, and now she was playing with one.

Mikolash barked cheerfully. He somehow looked like a dog, but that didn’t matter.

“May I throw it, Lord Slezak?”

“As you wish, My Queen.”

When she asked for confirmation, Johan calmly nodded back. If he allowed it, then in the royal family of Shenka, it wasn’t a strange thing for a woman to throw a ball.

Ernesta felt like snapping her fingers. After all, she had gained five years of experience in taming her neighbor’s dog.

“Alright, let’s do it, Mikola!”

At the moment Ernesta swung, Mikolash ran out with tremendous force.

“Ther…e!”

It was a beautiful throw.

The ball flew in an arc across the sunrise, and Johan stared in amazement. He witnessed the silver wolf catch it brilliantly.

“Wow! Mikola, amazing!”

Mikolash returned without slowing down his pace. Ernesta patted him with her admiration while he proudly held the ball in his mouth.

“Well done, Mikola! Good boy, good boy!”

His fur was still fluffy and cute. She felt like burying her face in it and rolling around together, but she restrained herself as it would not be appropriate.

“Again! Ther-e!”

The wolf caught it gracefully again and came back. Ernesta clearly heard Johan mutter “…a dog.”

It’s not unreasonable to feel that way, but she thought it was forbidden to say such a thing to Mikolash. She had a feeling that he would get really angry. Definitely.

“Mikola~! Good boy, good boy.”

Although it was undeniably cute, Ernesta pushed out her inappropriate thoughts.

As she petted the silver coat, she saw the white belly and couldn’t help but touch it. It was simply the best feeling. Oh, she wanted to hug it without caring about others’ eyes…

“Ellie!”

Fortunately, the sudden call of her name caused her desire to dissipate.

When she turned around, she saw Ivan crossing the courtyard, wearing the same grey chokha as yesterday, and running at an incredible speed. Upon arriving in front of her, he grabbed Ernesta’s shoulder and unusually shouted.

“Are you okay?!”

“Eh? Yes, I’m fine.”

As she nodded repeatedly, Ivan let out a deep sigh, relieved that she was safe.

Having made him run from morning despite being busy was a terrible thing to do. It seemed that the situation was more serious than she had thought.

“I’m sorry…”

“No, it’s fine. I was just getting anxious for no reason.”

Ivan stiffened at that moment. The Prime Minister and a wolf were there before him, watching them closely with wide-eyed anticipation.

“…Johan, were you here?”

“I was here. I am the one who escorted My Queen here.”

Ernesta felt unexpectedly happy when Johan replied coolly. It seemed that their relationship was better than she had imagined.

“I see. Thank you. You can go back to work now.”

“Understood.”

Johan nodded expressionlessly and turned on his heel, but after a moment, Ivan somehow called out to him from behind.

“Johan, did I say anything to you guys yesterday?”

“Nothing in particular. We just talked about old times.”

Johan gave the most heartfelt smile Ernesta had seen so far. While it may have had some ulterior meaning from his acquaintance’s perspective, to Ernesta, it was as refreshing as the morning light.

“Oh, and make sure to change properly later. It would be a disservice to your subjects.”

Johan has finally left this time.

Apparently, the sharp-eyed Prime Minister noticed that he was wearing the same clothes as yesterday. Upon closer inspection, his golden hair was messy, and he seemed to have left his short sword on the chest, so he may have come immediately after waking up.

Ivan awkwardly brought up the subject after waiting for the sound of footsteps to fade away.

“…I’d like to ask Ellie the same thing. Did I do something rude last night?”

Chapter 38: Wolf and Ball Throwing 2

Her heart skipped a beat as she was pierced by Ivan’s serious gaze. Ernesta had to be careful not to show her unease.

“Don’t worry, Ivan came home and went straight to bed.”

She wasn’t lying, but it was a subtle reply that didn’t reveal the whole truth.

Judging from their conversation earlier, it seemed that Ivan was drinking with Johan. He seemed to have forgotten even the contents of their conversation so it was best to just leave it at that.

Ernesta felt guilty, but she tried to change the subject.

“Could it be that you don’t remember?”

“…I don’t even remember how I got home.”

She may have shown relief on her face, deep down.

She was certain she was questioned about her true identity before, so if he had really forgotten, it could be for the best.

Could Ivan have realized the possibility of her being a substitute, or was it just a random muttering?

For some reason, Ernesta didn’t want him to know, even more so than before. Above all, she didn’t want Ivan to know that she was capable of telling such a terrible lie.

“So, Ivan gets drunk too sometimes.”

“Just to explain, this is the first time something like this has happened… Ahh, damn, it’s so pathetic.”

Ivan cursed and scratched the back of his head in frustration. Seeing his childish behavior of getting caught doing pranks, Ernesta couldn’t help but find him a little bit cute.

“You managed to reach the bed on your own and slept there. I fell asleep right after that too.”

“I see. Well, that’s good then.”

It seemed like Ivan was still bothered by it, but they decided to forcefully move on from the topic. Not only was she afraid of revealing her faults, but she also wanted to properly apologize for causing trouble to the king.

“Um, actually, I was playing with Mikola until just now. I’m really sorry for being so carefree.”

However, his eyes were kind and transmitted that he didn’t blame her at all.

“Don’t worry about it. Did you have fun?”

“…Yes, it was really fun!”

He is truly a kind person. Even with a political marriage, the woman loved by him is probably very happy.

She felt a painful throbbing in her chest just imagining it, but Ernesta decided to dismiss it as her imagination as usual.

“Oh, yeah, how about Ivan?”

Even though she thought it would be no good, she asked anyway, and as expected, Ivan stopped motionless with a blank expression. After what felt like a long but very short time, the response that came out was surprisingly forceful.

“I’m not playing around. Let’s go back soon!”

Ivan turned on his heel and walked away, his shoulders tense and with rough, stomping steps.

“I guess I got carried away. Shall we go, Mikola?”

Ernesta smiled wryly and began to walk beside her wolf, who let out a yawn mixed with a whine.

However, what was actually translated was something Ernesta had no knowledge of.

[That guy thought he was a wolf or something. And for a moment, he hesitated. I guess he thought it would be nice if Ellie could pet him, that grump.]

❂❂❂

When she returned to her room, Dasha had already prepared breakfast for one person.

Ernesta had been wanting to have a meal with someone, but she couldn’t hide her disappointment.

“Dasha, have you already eaten?”

“Uh, I’m sorry. Since I’m a commuter from my home, I eat at home.”

Ernesta hastily shook her head, seeing the personal attendant with a disappointed expression.

“It’s okay. It’s natural. Dasha, you’ve been commuting from your home?”

“Yes. There are many girls who are learning manners living in the castle, but fortunately, my family home is in the city.”

Another unfamiliar common sense came up. It’s natural that there are residents and commuters, and now that she thought about it, General Kudera and his wife also said they were commuters.

“What’s Dasha’s family home?”

Ernesta finally realized that she didn’t even know her full name yet. Because in this country, other than the head of the family, people don’t usually introduce their family names.

“Yes! My family name is Zavesky. I am Dasha Lenka Zavesky!”

Ernesta stopped her movement immediately. She recognized that surname. It was the surname of Ivan’s friend——.

“Theodor-san…?”

She thoughtlessly blurted out his name, but Dasha’s face brightened with joy.

“My Queen, do you happen to know my brother?”

“Ah, so it’s true! He’s your brother?”

Ernesta couldn’t forget that sad and memorable story she had heard just the day before yesterday. She was surprised to learn this fact but upon hearing it, it seemed to make sense.

They both shared the same hair color, and according to what Ivan had said, “Dasha looks exactly like that guy.”

“Yes, he’s my proud older brother.”

Dasha narrowed her eyes with a gentle light. She must be reminiscing about memories with her brother.

“My brother went off to war when I was still a baby, so I don’t have any memories of him. When news of his death arrived, I didn’t understand death very well at the time…and his body never came back. It wasn’t until His Majesty personally delivered his belongings that I finally realized what had happened.”

Dasha had a gentle smile on her face. Even though she was young, she must have shed tears. How much time had passed, and how had she managed to overcome it all with such strength?

Ernesta deeply realized how thoroughly kind and fair Dasha was. Despite losing her beloved brother in a war against humans, Dasha still treated Ernesta, who was human, without any discrimination.

“I was only six years old, so I don’t remember too much about that time. But I have heard that His Majesty was deeply saddened, even though he kept up his usual appearance.”

Ivan spoke about the past with a nonchalant tone.

It couldn’t have been easy. Ernesta had friends she could call her own, but if they were to sacrifice themselves to protect her, how much despair would she feel?

“My whole family sincerely thanks His Majesty. I am proud of my brother who fulfilled his duty… I’m sorry, it became a dark conversation, didn’t it?”

“It’s alright. Thank you for telling me something important.”

Dasha smiled shyly but kindly, and Ernesta was very happy she could talk to her like this.

“But, is that so? His Majesty talked about my brother, huh. He must trust My Queen.”

Dasha’s smile was brighter than usual. Ernesta felt guilty for betraying a girl’s joy, but slowly shook her head.

“No, it’s not…”

“No, it is! Werewolf warriors do not show weakness easily. I’m very happy that you two are getting along so well.”

Feeling pure affection from her loyal maid’s straightforward eyes, Ernesta’s chest tightened with emotion.

What Dasha is looking at right now is not a real married couple. In three weeks, she will disappear without a trace, destined to be an illusion that will never return.

“That’s because… His Majesty is just being kind.”

“You don’t have to be so modest. My Queen is bolder and more brazen, just as it should be. It’s very lovely that My Queen admires His Majesty so much.”

At that moment, Ernesta’s mind went blank.

She felt as if she had been shot with a gun from a completely unexpected direction. She had never even thought of such a thing before, and she couldn’t even make a decision on whether to respond or not.

——Me, admires Ivan?

Ernesta was supposed to leave here immediately and be the worst person who lied and deceived him. There was no way she could hold feelings for him, and Ivan was supposed to be someone who was out of reach, a king who was cool, awkward but kind. Someone she wouldn’t even be able to meet under normal circumstances.

It must be so… Or so she thought.

“Dasha, that’s…!”

Ernesta immediately wanted to deny it out loud. However, she couldn’t say that to the girl who believed in the good relationship between the king and queen, so she blushed and remained silent.

Dasha’s smile deepened as she observed Ernesta’s reaction, and she patted her chest.

“Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be concerned about! Also, His Majesty has requested that you have dinner together. I’m sure you’ll be fine, My Queen!”

Ernesta had no idea what was okay, but at least she knew that she wouldn’t be having dinner alone.

Chapter 39: Dinner with me

She were guided to the dining hall, which was an exclusive space only for royalty.

Unlike the grand hall for banquets, the room was small but still unbelievably spacious according to Ernesta’s common sense. The carpet and curtains were of deep colours, creating a calm space to relax in.

However, when she saw the person waiting for her, Ernesta’s heart thumped so hard she thought it might burst.

“You’re here.”

“…I’m sorry for keeping you waiting.”

Ivan shook his head and indicated for her to take a seat facing him. Ernesta tried not to make any awkward movements and managed to sit down on the carpet without incident.

The meal was already prepared, and a variety of dishes were laid out on the carpet. The steam rising from them made them look delicious, and she knew they tasted even better in reality.

However, unfortunately, Ernesta was not in the mood to enjoy the food.

[It’s very lovely that My Queen admires His Majesty so much]

The words that Dasha said earlier are racing through Ernesta’s mind.

It can’t be true. It shouldn’t be allowed. Even though she desperately tries to think otherwise, she can’t think of any evidence to deny it and becomes entangled in her confusion.

“Uh, umm! This is my first time having a meal with Ivan!”

In her rush, she blurts out something that sounds like sarcasm, and the heat in her blood gradually subsides from her flushed head. However, Ivan doesn’t seem offended at all and instead smiles self-deprecatingly.

“Not long ago, I thought you wouldn’t want to eat with me or the werewolf tribe. When I visited Bral, you didn’t even show your face.”

Ernesta’s eyes widened at this new piece of information. Although the princess’s personality that she heard from Engeberg didn’t give the impression that she was someone who would be afraid of anything.

“I’m sorry. I’m…”

“It’s okay, it’s not your fault.”

When she tried to apologize, she was cut off. However, this kind-hearted Werewolf King couldn’t have had no thoughts about the treatment of his future wife. When Ernesta tried to speak up, she received a smile that seemed to say “It can’t be helped.”

“I am not in a position to give you forgiveness regarding this matter. Although the country is taking steps towards reconciliation, as an individual, I backed off in fear. If I were to fulfill my duties as a husband, I should have talked more.”

Isn’t that an inevitable thing? Perhaps Ivan has always sacrificed himself, so he couldn’t look back at his personal life.

“I backed off in fear.” She doesn’t want to hear self-deprecating words like that, even if they come from his concern for his wife.

“In that case, why don’t we call it even? I also apologize for not greeting you. So let’s call it a draw, and end this conversation, okay?”

After saying it impulsively, Ernesta cursed her own audacity.

Who could even say even? One’s own sins cannot be forgiven no matter how much prayer is offered.

“We’re even. That’s a cute thing to say.”

Ernesta turned bright red this time.

Since her conversation with Dasha, her emotional ups and downs have been too much, and she’s been having terrible palpitations. It wouldn’t be strange if her heart jumped out of her mouth right now.

Anyway, she needs to calm down. Ivan probably jokingly teased her for using a childish expression. It’s probably nothing more or less than that.

“Let’s thank my generous wife and start eating before it gets cold.”

“Y-Yes. Let’s eat.”

Anyway, she’s relieved that the conversation is over.

Ernesta took the plate with a firm hand. She let out a sigh of relief that she didn’t drop it, then spoke to Ivan.

“Can I get you anything?”

“You don’t have to worry about that. You can ask me to get something for you when it’s closer to me, so just let me know if you need help.”

“Eh?! I can’t let Ivan do that.”

The style of dining here involved several large plates being prepared, where people could take and eat whatever they liked. Ernesta was used to the practice of having each serving portioned and served individually to each person, and then eating together. So, she was completely unfamiliar with how things worked here. At least in Bral, there is no such thing as ordering a man to take the food for you.

“It doesn’t matter. Unless it’s a banquet, there are no servers here. The best way to enjoy the meal is to eat whatever you like without worrying about it.”

Ernesta began to realize that they were a simple and strong people. All of their actions were reasonable, and nothing was done without purpose. Although it takes time to get used to their ways, she found their way of thinking very appealing.

For now, let’s enjoy the meal they have prepared. Nodding timidly, Ernesta decided to start by serving some dishes on her plate.

First, she took a dish of mixed fragrant vegetables and cheese. The taste of the sharpness of the vegetables and the mellowness of the cheese had become her favorite over the past three weeks.

But as she was enjoying the food, Ivan seemed to have something to say as he gazed at her. Ernesta tilted her head and looked back at him.

“Is something wrong?”

“Well, I did say to eat as you like, but… don’t you want to try putting the khachapuri in there?”

Ivan pushed a plate closer to Ernesta. On it was a flatbread called khachapuri. It was the first time Ernesta had heard of it.

“You mean to put something in it?”

“Yeah, that’s the usual way to eat it.”

“I see! I have to try that.”

The khachapuri was very chewy and had a delicious texture. Ernesta thanked Ivan and took a slice, sandwiching it with a mixture of fragrant vegetables and taking a bite.

“Mmm, this is delicious! It’s perfect!”

Please forgive her for being bad at expressing things. When people encounter delicious food, they lose their ability to use language.

“Anything else? Is there something else you know that I don’t?”

As she asked excitedly, Ivan seemed to be absent-minded for some reason and nodded slowly.

“Well… this tsukemari sauce goes well with everything, be it meat or vegetables. Have you ever tried it?”

Tsukemari is a type of plum and is one of the national foods of the country. Ernesta’s eyes shone with curiosity as she was unaware that the sauce that often appeared on her plate was made from Tsukemari.

“I’ve had it with vegetables before.”

“Then, try putting it on meat. This is hashrama.”

On the large plate held out, boiled meat was steaming. Ernesta thought it was a slightly bland dish, but apparently not.

Like Ivan, Ernesta also took a piece of meat and put tsukemari sauce on it. As soon as it entered her mouth, the flavor spread. The sour sauce blended exquisitely with the oil-drained meat.

“D-Delicious…!”

While savoring the taste and the emotional rush, the air beyond the dish suddenly wavered. Ernesta looked up, and was struck with amazement that made her entire body freeze.

It was because Ivan was smiling so softly, a smile that he had never seen before.

“You really enjoy your food.”

Completely different from his previous smiles and wry smiles. That smile, like the summer breeze, was genuine, and it was clear that it was directed towards Ernesta.

Heat rose to her cheeks. She felt like she was about to say something strange, so she quickly turned away.

“Ivan, have more, please.”

“Oh yeah, let’s do that.”

Ernesta’s heart was suddenly in a flutter, and she couldn’t look Ivan in the eye. Ivan continued to smile and started eating the hachapuri.

“Here, robio, tityla is also recommended. Eat it as much as you can.”

Ernesta was presented with a dish of beans and chicken at the same time, and she put it in her mouth to hide her blushing face. It was not just embarrassment, but some kind of feeling that dominated her whole body, and her heart was beating so loud that it was unbearable.

“Is it delicious?”

“…It’s delicious.”

Unable to stare at his increasing smile, Ernesta spent the rest of the time like this.

Chapter 40: Strain Exposure

Engeberg visited early in the morning, and when Ernesta invited him into her room, he sat in the usual manner on the rug, but with an unusual restlessness, he began to talk without any preamble.

“Please calm down and listen. We have received news that Isolte-sama’s condition has recovered.”

“Ah…”

At the sudden good news, Ernesta let out a sigh-like voice. As she foolishly remained dazed, Engeberg piled on with joy.

“This morning, we received a report via messenger pigeon. According to the latest research, her illness has been diagnosed as curable, and the prescribed medicine is actually having a dramatic effect.”

“It’s really cured… She’s alright now…?”

“Yes. According to the dispatched pharmacist, there is no need to worry.”

Upon seeing the smile from her trusted accomplice’s heart, Ernesta’s eyes welled up with tears. She covered her face with both hands and let out a sob that made her tremble.

“I’m so glad… Thank you, Count. Thank you…!”

Beyond that, no more words were spoken, and she continued to cry, guided only by the feeling of relief. During that time, Engeberg stayed by her side.

After finishing morning lectures and lunch in that state, Ernesta wandered through the hallway with her mind somewhere else.

Something has gone too smoothly, and it scares her. With the biggest concern out of the way, all that was left was to fulfill her role.

There are less than three weeks left. When the deadline comes, even if Ermengard is not found, she will have to leave this place.

——I have to do my best.

She clenched her fist to give herself motivation. Yes, she shouldn’t be distracted by the hesitation she has been feeling recently.

She might have lost her motivation and started to slack off If Engeberg had told Ernesta about Isolte’s situation. And yet, Engeberg immediately informed her about it, so she has to respond to that trust.

She must work harder than ever before. Determined, she proceeded to the next lecture, and was called out from behind.

As she turned around, she saw a familiar face. The maid who was around the same age was named Veronica, and although they didn’t usually have much interaction, Ernesta remembered her working hard during the founding festival.

“What’s wrong, Veronica?”

When Ernesta called her name, Veronica looked momentarily surprised.

“Oh my, it’s an honor that My Queen remembers my name.”

“Well, I still haven’t remembered everyone’s name yet.”

Veronica smiled brightly and continued, “I have a message from Rougena-sama. The tailor has arrived, so she would like you to come and see her.”

It was true that the tailor was supposed to come today, but Ernesta remembered that the appointment was at three o’clock. When she mentioned this to Veronica, she lowered her head apologetically.

“I heard that Lindofski-sama, who was supposed to teach the lecture at one o’clock, fell ill, so they have arranged for the tailor to come earlier. I apologize for informing you late.”

“I see. I’ll go right away,” Ernesta nodded cheerfully.

Ivan had warned her to be careful about her safety. However, Ernesta was not used to conflicts enough to be wary. Veronica’s story seemed consistent, and her natural and confident attitude had also made it difficult for Ernesta to see through the surface.

Guided by Veronica, they arrived in front of a certain room where she then glanced behind Ernesta. There, a werewolf guard was present, and they were staring sharply at the maidservant.

“Warrior, could you please refrain from entering? We have various things to do, such as sizing and so on.”

“Understood. Then, we’ll check the room.”

As the guard opened the door, Ernesta was able to peek inside. There were mannequins and fabrics that she purchased. A kind woman was standing nearby with a smile.

However, he wasn’t satisfied with just that and carefully inspected the shelves that were set up. Finally, he returned outside the room. Ernesta was always impressed by his diligent work.

“There seems to be nothing suspicious. we will be here, so My Queen, please take your time.”

“Thank you. Please take it easy as well.”

“Don’t waste your kind words! Our job is to protect My Queen, so please do not worry!”

He smiled back at the young guard who stood erect and bowed to her, only to have him look away for some reason. Did she act too familiar?

And so, Ernesta finally entered the room. As she walked, a woman who was waiting inside approached her, and Ernesta was about to greet her.

It was at that very moment that something unexpected happened.

At that very moment, the sound of the door closing behind her signaled the woman to reach out her hand. In her palm was a handkerchief, which she cover Ernesta’s mouth instantly.

A sweet scent that she had never smelled before dominated her face. Unconsciously, her arm attempted to resist, and she tried to push the woman in front of her, but she was too slow.

Her thought process was invaded by the sweet scent. Ernesta couldn’t even understand what was happening as she lost consciousness in her hazy vision.

Chapter 41: What do you want?

Ivan was welcomed by the usual silence in the library, which he visited for the first time in a while.

This room, located in a corner on the second floor of the castle, is a public library that can be used by anyone working in the castle.

The massive collection housed in the shelves was illuminated by the midday sun pouring from the skylight, and the dust floating in the air cast impressionable shadows. Although a sufficient number of cushions embroidered with delicate patterns and amber-colored desks were provided, there seemed to be a sense of loneliness in the room with no one to use them at this moment.

Ivan walked with confident steps and stopped at one bookshelf. He picked up every book related to Bral from those written about surrounding countries and piled them up on the nearby desk.

It wasn’t a meaningful task. He had already done everything possible regarding Ermengard.

He came here because he wouldn’t be satisfied until he did something on his own, even though there was no answer he could find in the books.

He flipped through a book that recorded the history of the empire, but it only contained information he already knew, making him want to sigh.

The history of the Bral Empire is a history of learning. It boasts the highest level of knowledge and technology in the world, and as a result, it overwhelms other nations. However, politically, it has been stagnant during the 200-year reign of the current imperial Balzen family.

Unfortunately, the current emperor is not particularly capable. The alliance with Shenka is favorable for Ivan but, on the flip side, it is partly due to the weakness of the emperor’s diplomacy.

——Did that man actually value his daughter?

He can’t help feeling uneasy just thinking about it.

Despite having two imperial princes (sons), it is uncertain whether that selfish man would cherish his daughter.

The identity of Ermengarde is unknown. She is cheerful, intelligent, elegant in deportment, and always diligent. She seems like a princess, but she has too much courage for someone raised as a member of the imperial family.

Is she really Ermengard or just an eccentric princess who rebelled against her parents’ ways?

Ivan suddenly stopped his hand. He had somehow finished reading books about history and was now reading books about customs and traditions.

[In Bral, marriage is regarded as the most important connection between families. Therefore, love marriages are almost non-existent, and the same applies regardless of social status. When getting married, it is important for the woman to provide a lump sum of money to the other family. In other words, marriages with social class differences are difficult to establish.]

What a ridiculous custom.

Ivan’s eyes widened. How could such a thing maintain a couple’s bond? If Shenka proposed something like that, she would probably be soundly rejected.

[When you get married, prepare a wedding ring. The couple should each choose one that is not too flashy. After getting married, wear it on the left ring finger, and unless there’s a reason to take it off, never remove it. Many girls idolize this ring.]

“What?!”

Ivan exclaimed, but he was too struck by the shock brought on by the book to notice it.

He didn’t know there was such a tradition. Werewolves don’t exchange gifts when they get married, so he had never even thought about it.

——Maybe she was also longing for it… No, I didn’t know anything about it…

“Your Majesty! Something terrible has happened!”

His scattered thoughts were interrupted by Rougena, who rushed into the library with a look of panic.

It was unusual for her, a typically calm person, to be so upset. Ivan shoved all pending matters to the back of his mind and stood up with a severe expression.

“What is it?”

“My Queen…! My Queen is… missing!”

As soon as he heard the report, Ivan’s mind went blank for a moment. It was the first time in these past few years that he had been so caught off guard as the king.

“…Give me a status report.”

After a brief moment, he could finally focus again. Ivan and Rougena left the library to walk and talk.

“It seems she disappeared while the guards were looking away.”

“Why would they look away? I didn’t hire any incompetents.”

“She was being measured, Your Majesty. Apparently, the culprit disguised themselves as a tailor, and no one noticed.”

“When did this happen?”

“Just a moment ago. I happened to pass by and found out about it, so I immediately reported it to Your Majesty.”

Ivan walked with a rhythmless gait, his hand on his chin, lost in thought.

What happened? Did someone kidnap the queen? If there was a purpose behind it, could it be a rebellion by those dissatisfied with the alliance with Bral this time?

But the risk was too great. No one in this country was unaware of the strength of the Royal Army. Therefore, the highest possibility was…

“Did she leave on her own…?”

As Ivan muttered the words, he felt bitter, more than he had expected. He bit down on his molar.

It reminded him of an empty incident from his childhood involving human children. Enemy soldiers’ curse words. Contemptuous looks in the country he went to.

Yes, humans do not easily accept the werewolf tribe. Creatures with different appearances are nothing more than barbarians, and the fear of the unknown affects all decisions.

I wondered if she was the same. It was none other than myself who concluded that we could not understand each other from the beginning. That beautiful princess just returned to where she should be.

“Your Majesty thinks so?”

The voice from behind was icy cold. Ivan turned around slowly and found himself face to face with the head maid, who gave him a freezing glare.

“If you say so, it must be so.”

How many years had it been since he last angered Rougena like this? In her youth, she was said to have beauty that could overthrow a nation, and when she was extremely angry, she spoke less and gained a terrifying presence.

Ivan was not afraid, but he still thought about the cause of her anger.

“That will be all for my report.”

“Ah, if Rougena is worried about the queen, she should come to the office.”

Leaving the head maid behind, Ivan ran towards the office and pondered on various things along the way.

If she had been kidnapped, he must rescue her as soon as possible. That was unquestionable.

However, if she left here willingly, what should he do?

As a king, he must find and bring her back. But as an individual, he wondered if he should let her go.

A person whose identity and motives were unknown. Perhaps she was not supposed to be here. If she didn’t like it or was suffering, he should allow her to be free. That would suit her better.

——As a king, one should not make decisions based on ideals alone.

His father’s teaching weighed heavily on his mind, and the years of living in accordance with it made Ivan desperately try to erase his emotions.

But he knew that even his rational sweetness was being denied by something deep in his heart.

What was this? Something like not wanting to be separated from her.

Ivan ran while poking his temples with his wrist to clear his disordered thoughts. Finally, he arrived at his office and opened the door in silence.

Johan and Silvestor were already waiting there. Ivan recognized that the Prime Minister had a bundle of parchment in his hand and realized that this was not a simple matter.

Chapter 42: Remembrance, Lamentation, and 1

It’s raining. The soft rain envelops everything, both sadness and joy.

Guided by the sound of dampness, Ernesta opened her eyes. As soon as she did, a chilly coldness ran through her body, making her tremble.

It was an unfamiliar place. The wooden walls and floor had repair marks here and there, and the gaps allowed the draft to pass through the room. She had been thrown on the cold floor, and the medicine they gave her made her throat feel stinging. Apparently, she was tied up with ropes behind her back, and her right shoulder that had been pressed against the ground for a long time was throbbing with pain.

Through the window, she could see a residential area soaked in rain. The only thing she could judge was that it was near sunset.

“Have you woken up, My Queen?”

Suddenly, a clear voice came from behind, and Ernesta stiffened. It was difficult for her to get up immediately in her tied-up situation, so she rolled over and looked at the speaker.

There were three werewolves there. The two standing next to her were vaguely familiar.

“Veronica, Lord Kautsky …?”

Ernesta coughed loudly, unable to speak as she had anticipated. It was undoubtedly a critical situation, but it was the man in the center who concerned her with his calmness—the red-copper colored hair was all too familiar and made her dizzy.

“Oh, interesting. So, It’s true that you’re not afraid of the werewolf tribe.”

The red-copper werewolf spoke with curiosity, then stood up and approached her. He wore an ordinary, dark green chokha, but he had an extraordinary presence.

“My Queen is Brave. How do you feel about being kidnapped?”

His crimson eyes held a cruel light. The man crouched down, grabbed Ernesta’s shoulder, and forcibly lifted her up.

“What is your name?”

Ignoring his request, Ernesta asked him, and the werewolf narrowed his slanted eyes.

“You’re calm. What good does it do to know the name of a kidnapper?”

“I know a child with fur like yours. So, I just wanted to ask.”

With a hoarse voice, she finally said only that much and closed her eyes, enduring the cough. When it subsided, she heard a cold, brief introduction.

“Leight.”

She didn’t recognize the name meaning “summer.” While erasing the remnants of the girl she had found in his face, Ernesta asked him.

“Leight-san, what is your purpose in doing this?”

Naturally, she had to get out of this situation. To do that, she needed to gather information and loosen the surveillance as much as possible. However, her head, unaccustomed to dealing with rough situations, couldn’t control her restless emotions and spoke out on her own.

“What do you want? Abducting the queen from the royal castle is too risky for money.”

Presumably, Kautsky had recruited the perpetrator, and Veronica was responsible for luring the queen out. One of their comrades had disguised himself as a tailor. At the right time, when the real tailor arrived, the castle would have been thrown into chaos.

If there was one more thing that could be considered, it was probably the identity of the thing that connected them.

“Are you guys activists from the alliance opposing the human reconciliation policy? The only other thing that comes to mind is Lord Kautsky.”

The three werewolves all gasped at the same time. Sensing that she had hit the mark, Ernesta went silent while Veronica’s eyes burned with hatred, and she grabbed Ernesta by the collar.

“Shut up, human…! That mouth of yours that talks too much, do you want me to bite it off?!”

Sharp teeth loomed in front of her, but Ernesta bravely kept her eyes open and glared at the sight.

“Stop it, Veronica!”

At the sound of the sharp voice, Veronica released Ernesta. Her knees that had been floating finally hit the ground, causing her to wince in pain, and her cough, which had finally subsided, started again.

“But, Leight!”

“We may hate humans, but we don’t have any personal grudges against that woman. If we forget that, then we’re just a bunch of filthy criminals. You understand, right?”

Veronica suppressed her anger with a click of her tongue and returned to where she had been before. Leight’s leadership was impressive, and his presence was not just for show.

Trembling with the aftermath of the recent conflict, Ernesta looked straight into the red eyes in front of her.

“Clever My Queen, you are our bargaining chip. We want you to annul the alliance with Bral in exchange for your release. That’s all we want.”

It was the expected answer, but hearing it was a shock that split her body in two.

There were werewolves who hated humans to the extent that they would go to such lengths. Even though she knew it was true, when she faced the reality again, her chest throbbed with pain.

“…You should appeal through proper channels. I don’t think you’ll come out of this unscathed by resorting to something like this. Even Lord Kautsky would lose his hard-earned trust.”

To what righteous cause could they be clinging on to, rejecting human interaction to the point of sacrificing their own lives?

In Shenka, there is a parliament, and members can present their proposals. Kautsky was a member, and if he didn’t reach the process, it was only natural to recognize it as the will of the people.

Why can’t they understand each other? Ivan is suffering and struggling so much, acting only for the sake of the people.

“My Queen, I don’t need such a thing.”

Ernesta’s anger-like question was interrupted by a voice that felt empty. Kautsky stared straight at her with bottomless eyes.

“My son was killed in a country he went to as an envoy during the reign of the previous king. His head was exposed until it rotted, and when he returned home, only a single finger was sent back.”

The sound of someone swallowing thin air echoed in the darkness. Ernesta replayed his treatment, and at the same time, everything faded away. Blood drained from her face and ringing in her ears caused her a headache.

——That’s so cruel. So cruel.

“The people who carried out this plan, all had similar circumstances. Regardless of whether they were commoners or nobles, they moved for a single purpose, and as a result, were willing to lose their own lives… accepting it as an honor. They are a group that is crazy in a sense. Whatever you say, it’s meaningless.”

After saying that, Kautsky went outside. Veronica followed him, leaving only two people in the now-empty room.

“…I am pathetic.”

Leight didn’t say anything in response to her muttered thoughts. Knowing that his reaction wouldn’t prompt the continuation of the conversation, Ernesta continued speaking.

“I have no power or knowledge. I didn’t understand what you all were dealing with. It’s natural that there are different ways of thinking, but it would be good if I could gradually understand.”

Ernesta was helpless. Apart from her unusual birth, she was just an ordinary girl who grew up without losing important people, a commoner.

Nonetheless, ignorance is a sin. No matter how much we regret it now, the fact that we’ve lived without even thinking cannot be changed.

“If that’s true… If that really happened, then it’s only natural to hate. Even if I were Lord Kautsky, I might have done the same.”

There is no way she can do much for this country as mere substitutes. That’s why she never meddled in politics or took unnecessary tasks, as they would only cause trouble after her role was over.

What would Ermengard have done? She would have patiently spoken to those who had complaints and worked hard to gain their understanding.

She wanted to do the same. If possible, she wanted to support Ivan with all that she had.

“I want to understand the suffering that this country is going through. But even if I say that, it’s meaningless. I came here with the determination to do whatever I could do for you, but in reality, I can’t do anything at all. I just ended up causing trouble for you all and being of no use whatsoever…”

Ernesta held her breath and endured the burning pain deep in her eyes for a short while. Leight remained as silent as ever, listening to her expression of desperate thoughts.

“You’re very humble and brave. Is that what “he” likes about you?”

With a sudden, ironic tone, Ernesta lifted her face, which had been downcast until then. Leight’s intense atmosphere remained unchanged, but his eyes seemed to hold flickering flames.

“The day before yesterday, I saw you walking with Ivan. You looked like you were having fun… Both of you had natural smiles on your faces. I was happy, but at the same time, I was sad. If only you were a werewolf, we wouldn’t have to tear these two apart.”

His tone of speech was one reserved only for speaking about close acquaintances. Ernesta listened to his heart-wrenching words, feeling her initial doubts turn into conviction.

“But the paths have already diverged. The me who swore to support him at that time died in the summer nine years ago. No matter how sincerely you plead with me, my determination has not changed. Either I will see this country cut off from all human contact… or my life will end. Until either future comes, I will continue to act.”

Leight stood up without a sound. With a supple body that felt like that of a wild beast, he restrained Ernesta’s neck.

An impact wave that shattered the glass enveloped her entire body, right after that.

Chapter 43: Remembrance, Lamentation, and 2

Ernesta couldn’t immediately recognize the figure that had broken through the window.

Glass shards flew around as a warrior’s figure shone and descended. The rain dripped in, wetting the windowsill while fluttering curtains showed the rough weather.

She recognized the black chokha, but it was adorned by a werewolf with shiny golden fur. The man drew a wide sword and directed his sharper gaze into the room.

“Ivan…”

Her trembling lips involuntarily called out his name as soon as their eyes met.

There was no mistaking him. No matter what form he took, no matter the circumstances, the light in his eyes never waned.

For a moment, Ivan’s composure relaxed at the sight of the wolf’s face, but as soon as he realized the situation, he showed a rage that could blow away the heavy rain.

“It’s been a long time, Theodor.”

His eyes were no longer focused on Ernesta, but rather on the friend he had reunited with after nine years. Leight——or rather, Theodor——stood up with a wry smile, causing Ernesta to be forcibly pulled up as well.

“Hey, Ivan. What about the guards outside? I thought we had a decent number of them.”

“I took care of them. Do you expect any other answer?”

“Hmph, as expected of a monster like you.”

While listening to their tense conversation, Ernesta was struggling with a sense of déjà vu that had nothing to do with the situation.

She recognized him. His golden coat and rugged features. However, this was not the time to question what they indicated.

When she listened carefully, she could hear faint orders being shouted from outside. Apparently, Ivan had come here with a small force and managed to take control of the situation perfectly.

“To think you wouldn’t be surprised by this, man. You didn’t even know I was still alive.”

“Yes. ever since I felt someone’s gaze on me on the main street, I’ve had spies infiltrate the castle town to investigate. That’s how I finally found out you were still alive just now.”

Ivan shot Theodor with burning eyes. Ernesta noticed glimpses of sadness behind them.

“Tell me. Why did you keep your survival a secret? Why are you working as the leader of the anti-alliance faction? Of all people, why…!”

His hoarse voice was a cry of despair.

It was evident that he was experiencing bottomless suffering far beyond what Ernesta felt sad about.

“…Right, do you remember? We promised to introduce each other to our lovers towards the end of the war.”

Theodor narrowed his eyes as if reminiscing. His arms, like logs wrapped around his thin neck, remained tense. Ernesta remained in the same position and listened to his story.

“After I broke up with you, I collapsed with life-threatening injuries and was rescued by a pack of wolves. Two weeks passed before I woke up, and by then, the Shenka army had already returned. I was worried about whether you all were safe, but I was quickly informed of the results of the battle when I went to a nearby village. Then, I became equally concerned about Viola.”

It was needless to ask that the name Viola indicated his lover.

Confirming that Ivan’s sharp gaze showed no signs of easing, Theodor continued his story.

“I ran to her village with my battered body. It was terrible. The place was ravaged by Leutravia’s group, and there were bodies scattered everywhere.”

Ernesta gasped once again, having guessed the outcome of his story.

“There were few men left in the village who could fight in the war. No matter how many werewolves there are, women and children are no match for the overwhelming strength of numbers. I entered Viola’s house and…saw hell. Viola was dead in a sea of blood, piled up with her mother.”

At that moment, how desperate was Theodor? Ernesta tried to imagine it, but realized it was impossible.

“Well, that in itself is a common story. Even with deep hatred, you might not betray your family or lord and choose another path. But Veronica was there. She was cowering beside the rotting corpses of her sister and mother, looking like a dead dog.”

Then, Ernesta remembered Veronica’s expression when she grabbed her and vented her intense hatred.

“She said she heard a voice that she couldn’t forget…what do you think she heard?”

In contrast, Theodor’s expression when he asked the question was emotionless, as if it had covered everything. The deep void in his eyes could be seen to fill him.

“A soldier apparently said this. ‘Too bad it wasn’t a werewolf race, I would have raped her anyway…’”

Ernesta felt her vision go red as she heard it.

Theo seemed to have regained his anger, hatred, and grief at that moment. The arm hanging from her neck became tense, and Ernesta held her breath.

“Which is more savage, werewolves or humans? Those guys are just worthless scum who believe that everything except humans are beasts with no hearts. That’s how it seems to me, but I wonder which one of us is really insane.”

Rather than physical pain, the pain in Ernesta’s heart was much worse after hearing what he said.

That was the devil’s work, not seeing the werewolf race as equal. How could anyone say such a thing? How could anyone do such a cruel act that any sentient being would never do?

“Ellie…”

Ivan’s figure calling his own name became hazy.

Hot tears overflowed from the corner of her eyes, wetting his copper-colored fur.

Why is the divide between humans and werewolves so thick?

Among humans, there are those who are not afraid of werewolves and even recognize them as equals, while there are those who do not even recognize them as equals. Among werewolves, there are those who rebel and those who gradually come to compromise, and this is the disparity born from the actions of humans from the past.

It’s so sad. It’s so sad that it’s unbearable. Why do we have to be so different? Why am I…

“Are you crying, My Queen? You’re so kind.”

Suddenly, a calm voice came down, and Ernesta looked up. There was a refreshing copper-colored smile, and she blinked, unable to read the emotions it conveyed.

“I did a bad thing. You and Ivan are a good match. Get along well, okay?”

At that moment, the door behind her was shattered with a deafening roar. Ernesta was pushed into the hollow beyond the broken door without being able to identify the cause.

“My Queen, are you all right?!”

“General Kudera…?!”

Ernesta was easily caught by Silvestor, who had taken on the form of a werewolf.

As the two werewolves faced each other, they swung the swords in their hands at the same time.

A loud metallic sound rang out, and the pressure from the sword strikes scattered the dust in the dimly lit room. The silhouettes of the men facing each other became clear, and Ernesta tried her best to suppress her scream.

“I see you still haven’t recovered from your stupidity. Where are the kidnappers who would give up the hostages?”

“Hey, we’re wasting our time now that the General’s here. Tell him you know when to back off, stiff!”

This time, the sound of metal scraping against metal was heard, and the two men flew backwards at the same time. It seemed that they had both landed a counterattack on each other; Ivan had blood gushing out of his left shoulder, and Theodor had blood spewing from his abdomen.

Before Ernesta’s eyes turned pale, an otherworldly sword technique was unleashed one after another. Every time the intense sound of collision echoed, the two bodies added to their wounds. As she watched the fight helplessly, she felt warmth on the hands that held her from behind.

“My Queen, I will cut the rough rope, so please don’t move.”

Silvestor pulled out his short sword and skillfully untied her bindings. After feeling the liberation of her freedom for the first time in hours, Ernesta clung to the hero’s shoulder.

“General Kudera, please stop those two! Please…!”

It was evident that even her intervention would not change anything. There was only a future of being torn apart.

Although the grey-furred general seemed moved by the queen’s earnest request, he shook his head and showed a wry smile on his wolf face.

“It’s impossible. If I interfere, someone will die.”

“Oh, no!”

Ernesta’s face turned even paler at the outrageous future predictions, but the general calmly laughed and assured her that everything was okay.

“Don’t worry, we should be finishing soon. In my estimation, probably…”

As a particularly loud sound rang out, the intense battle came to an end.

Chapter 44: Remembrance, Lamentation, and 3

After a fierce battle, the alleyway had become a space only dominated by the sound of rain.

Ivan, who had aimed the tip of his sword at the throat of his former friend, was completely out of breath. But the defeated opponent was in the same state.

Ernesta was on the verge of collapsing in relief, yet she still bravely stood on her two legs, driven forward by a strong will to witness the outcome between the two.

“You never were able to beat me, even in the past.”

Ivan’s golden eyebrows twitched. He narrowed his severe gaze even more and stared at the crimson eyes with his blue flames.

“It’s okay whenever. Letting a political prisoner go doesn’t make any sense. You should kill me for the sake of this country.”

Ivan’s whole body was shrouded in cold air. Ernesta trembled at that coldness, but still forcefully took another step forward.

“Wait…! Ivan, stop!”

She clung to the hand that held the sword, feeling the smoothness of the fur, but this was not the time to be impressed by such things. Ernesta looked straight up at the wolf’s face.

She had an inexplicable conviction that she would regret it if she didn’t stop this. She wasn’t even afraid to intervene in the fight that was happening, filling her heart with confidence of unknown origin.

“Don’t kill him! Don’t do such a sad thing!”

If he killed his friend here, she might never see that beautiful smile again.

Ivan had already carried too much, and she couldn’t stand to see him suffer further. And his friend, turned into a ghost, would disappear again along with the sad memories.

“I haven’t even received a single injury. It’s not a sin that requires death. There’s nothing here that you should bear! So please, stop doing such a thing…!”

Even though she knew as a queen that she shouldn’t say such things, her mouth and body acted on their own.

How pathetic. She acted like a child, causing trouble.

Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes. Ernesta gazed at the fierce face of the wolf, gritting her teeth, but he looked somewhat uncomfortable and averted his eyes.

“…I never intended to kill him from the beginning. At the parliamentary meeting a week ago, it was decided that criminals should be arrested first.”

“What?!”

“Huh?!”

Theodor also cried out with a foolish voice.

It seemed that although he was a political prisoner, he was not well-versed in politics. Ernesta couldn’t say much about others either.

“For now, you will be placed in the custody of the judiciary. Cooperate carefully with the investigation and trial.”

“What are you talking about?! This is ridiculous!”

“It’s not ridiculous. It’s a great step towards an advanced nation. There should be active debate on the right to judge criminals.”

Ivan sheathed his sword on his waist. At that moment, Ernesta’s legs gave way and she had to be supported by Ivan.

“Then, what about the comrades who were outside the tenement? Didn’t you kill them?”

“We took them down and restrained them all. With me, Silvestor, and a couple of warriors to take care of the rest, it shouldn’t be too hard.”

“What the… What the hell is that?

Upon hearing the explanation from the King, Theodor slumped down in despair.

He seemed disappointed, lacking a place for his hatred to go.

“So I’m supposed to go see my family? How am I supposed to face them?”

“I don’t know. Take your time and think about it. There’s no rush.”

“Come on, don’t lie to me…”

Ivan maintained a serious attitude in front of his friend’s deflated murmurs. Standing tall as a golden werewolf, he was proud and majestic as a king.

“From now on, let us make further efforts to gain the understanding of the anti-alliance faction. We will continue to have audiences with them and guide them little by little. I will use everything I have and repay your feelings in full, so cool your head in prison, and when you’re ready, lend us your strength again.”

What kind of power did those words hold?

Listening to them made you want to believe. The werewolf tribe that had just seemed so far away now felt within reach by Ivan’s words.

This was surely because he believed in it himself.

That each action becomes the foundation of the country. That they will move towards a better direction.

His chosen path was still rocky, but Ernesta couldn’t help feeling that as long as she was with this king, they could make it.

Confirming that there was no response from his friend, Ivan hugged Ernesta’s waist with a firm grip. As her heart raced from his gesture alone, the conversation between the long-time reunited friends came to an end.

“Silvestor, I leave the rest to you. I’ll take the queen to the royal castle.”

“As you wish.”

In an instant, Ivan transformed back into a human. His golden fur turned into human skin, and his wolf-like eyes became his usual ones. Ernesta stared in amazement.

Unable to even react, she was lifted up and taken outside without resistance.

As she caught a glimpse of the last moments in the tenement, she saw Silvestor strike his disciple’s head with a fist.

Chapter 45: This thought

The rain had already stopped, and the alley that the sun had set on was damp.

It seemed that this was the outskirts of the city of Rashtovka. Opponents who had been restrained were scattered along the way, including Kautsky and Veronica. They were restrained with their hands tied behind them and had vacant eyes looking at the empty space amidst passing warriors.

Ernesta had no words to say to them, so she just went along being carried. The warriors looked surprised at the sight of the king and queen, but did not speak and only waited for orders. Ivan also only responded to them.

After passing through the chaotic tenements, they walked in silence on an empty road for a while. Ernesta’s head began to spin as she finally grasped the situation, and she yelled out loudly.

“Ivan, are you hurt? You were hurt a lot, weren’t you?!”

“No problem. But more importantly, what about you?”

She couldn’t continue to argue while being carried, with Ivan having suffered such significant injuries. Ernesta tried to ask him to put her down, but Ivan moved more quickly.

Just as she was seated on the bench right there, she found herself being lifted up with both hands pressing against her face.

He kneeled down, and now they were at the same eye level. Under the dim lights of nearby houses, his blue eyes glared sternly. She froze, thinking that she must have angered him so much, but the way he stroked her cheek and touched her neck was remarkably clerical and polite.

“…What are you doing?”

“I’m just making sure you’re not injured. It’s a bit brighter here, so it’s easier to see.”

Ivan gazed at Ernesta with a serious look in his eyes.

It was a situation where she could have instinctively pushed away a man who casually touched her body, but she didn’t feel any disgust at all. Instead, she felt embarrassed and bewildered.

“Is there anywhere that hurts?”

“Well, I don’t think so, but…”

“Right now, your body is still tensed up, so even if there is an injury, you won’t feel any pain. It’s too late to notice it later.”

Ivan should know that she hasn’t been subjected to violence. Still, he must care about her so much because she’s his important political marriage partner.

“Thank you for coming to help me.”

Ernesta smiled a faint smile, knowing she shouldn’t be happy but still glad that he came to her rescue.

However, the person who received her gratitude looked at her with an unsatisfied look.

“You’re so relaxed. You don’t even know how much I was worried.”

“I’m sorry. I must have caused you some concern.”

“Yeah. I thought my heart was going to stop.”

She couldn’t see his rare joking expression because his azure eyes were already averted.

Now, he took her arm and extended her elbow. The sensation of grabbing her upper arm from below tickled Ernesta, making her burst out laughing.

“Ah, that tickles…!”

“Stay still. It’ll be over soon.”

Despite her squirming, the examination continued solemnly.

However, Ivan suddenly stopped moving as he took her palm.

His gaze landed on her wrist that peeked out from her sleeve, with abrasion encircling it like a bracelet. Ernesta let out a faint voice upon seeing them.

She hadn’t noticed them at all. She wasn’t tied up tightly, but it seemed she had moved too much in that position.

“…It’s because I was tied up.”

The man’s hand holding her palm strengthened. His blue eyes staring at the wound held a ferocious gleam, and the voice that spilled out from his shapely lips was as low as crawling on the ground.

“That idiot, I should have cut him deeper. Binding these fragile wrists with rough ropes? It’s insane!”

His voice was now too low to hear what he was saying.

However, she felt it wouldn’t be good to anger him any further. Ernesta instinctively pulled her hand back and vigorously shook it left and right in front of her face.

“I’m fine! It’s not even a real injury and it’s just a scar.”

“Don’t move it so much! What if it gets worse?”

This time, he scolded her head-on.

But she didn’t feel scared at all. Instead, she couldn’t help but feel relieved. Why was that?

“I’m okay. See, it doesn’t hurt at all…”

It happened suddenly, without warning.

Drops overflowed and ran down her cheeks. Confused by the suddenness of it all, Ernesta unintentionally touched her eyelids with her fingers.

As tears flowed, the dignified face in front of her was colored with surprise.

“I’m…sorry…I’ll…stop it soon…!”

Ernesta realized that she was scared, despite acting brave as a queen. After all, she was nothing but a young girl.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…!”

How pathetic. As Ermengard’s substitute, she was supposed to be calm and collected at all times.

Ernesta lowered her head and rubbed her eyes desperately. She didn’t even notice when the hesitant hand that reached out to touch her shoulder stopped and eventually withdrew.

“…Were you scared?”

Unable to admit to the question, Ernesta swallowed her breath while still looking down. But the voice that came after a short pause was tinged with sadness.

“Was it about being kidnapped? Or was it about…me?”

Today, Ernesta saw Ivan’s werewolf form for the first time. Realizing that’s what he was referring to, she turned pale.

He didn’t appear in front of Ernesta during the full moon. Dasha had said so. “Her Majesty will not show any form other than human form.”

“If that’s the case, just tell me directly. I promise not to show any other form in front of you from now on.”

“No, that’s not it! I was scared because…I was kidnapped.”

Ernesta impulsively looked up, imagining a golden werewolf standing alone in a room illuminated by the full moon. She didn’t care if it meant exposing her own weakness, even if her face, swollen from crying, looked unseemly.

“I’m not afraid of Ivan! I know that you are kind. You are sincere, serious, diligent, and you carry a heavy burden and walk with clumsiness more than anyone else.”

Why does this person always care about others?

Even though I am so selfish and self-centered…

“You’re the one with much worse injuries. You’re hurt, yet you’re not taking better care of yourself…”

He must have realized that she wasn’t just talking about physical injuries.

Ivan’s expression was covered with a film on his eyes’ surface, and Ernesta couldn’t read his expression. However, she felt he was in utter shock, and regretted speaking too much.

At the very least, she couldn’t continue to show such a pathetic figure. Ernesta tried to wipe her wet cheeks, but her raised hand was gently pushed down.

“…Yeah. I shouldn’t have been okay with what happened. After what happened, it was impossible for me to be okay.”

Through her blurred vision, Ernesta saw Ivan squinting his blue eyes.

His hard fingers reached out and wiped the edge of her eyes, causing Ernesta to reflexively close her eyes.

“I keep making you cry. Why would I have someone like you by my side? I haven’t done a single good deed.”

His voice, speaking incomprehensible things, sounded distant.

As she tried to ask its meaning, the warm hand that brought comfort to her slowly let go.

“Ellie, when I heard you were gone, I thought you might have run away.”

Ernesta held her breath as she met his gaze, which showed no signs of joking.

“No, ‘run away’ isn’t the right expression. I just thought it was impossible from the beginning, and that you were only trying to go back to where you belonged. Yes, that’s what I thought.”

His words were delivered in a matter-of-fact tone, expressing the young king’s long-held disappointment.

For Ivan, human relationships were necessary only for the country’s benefit, not out of a trusting nature towards people.

Just by facing the fact she already knew, she felt an intense pain in her chest.

But that pain was soon to be overridden by the next words.

“Please forgive foolish me. From now on, I will absolutely trust you.”

Without realizing it, Ernesta opened her eyes wide.

The guilt that she had repeatedly realized attacked her in a different form at that moment, almost crushing her.

No, please don’t believe in me.

When she swallowed the appeal that was about to come out of her throat, it tasted like burnt iron. Because at that moment, Ernesta finally realized it.

——I, I love this person.

How foolish she was. She should have treated it as a mere illusion as usual and erased it. A love that ended as soon as she realized it was not a laughing matter.

This vow was meant to be for her yet unseen sister. This straightforward trust was not something a sinner should receive.

Ernesta was a traitor. She was an existence that had been covered up by lies from the beginning…

“…Now, let’s go home. Your wrist injury needs to be treated as soon as possible.”

Without knowing what Ernesta was thinking, Ivan let out a bitter smile and got up first.

Ernesta was pulled up by Ivan’s outstretched hand, walking slowly with him.

The post-rain air was damp and cold, wrapping the rough skin hindered by tears. The city, now enveloped by night, looked somewhat desolate without the remnants of the sunset.

❂❂❂

Ivan glanced sideways at his wife walking beside him. The darkness of the night allowed him to gaze at her fragile figure, which he was grateful for, even if he stared at her how much he wanted.

He knew why he didn’t feel a great disturbance when he found out about Theodor’s betrayal. In order to move forward for the country, for his friend, for the lost lives, he had made up his mind. But soon, he saw his wife’s figure among them.

She had been the bridge between humans and werewolves, inspiring herself. The many actions his wife took had encouraged both her kind and himself.

Sometimes, she showed a womanly face appropriate for her age. It was inexplicable how much his heart beat faster at her gestures, warm gaze, or even just one expression.

——Yes. Unfamiliar emotions… that’s what this is.

I love you. Why didn’t I realize these feelings earlier, which hurt me so much I could cut myself? I wished I could stop those transparent tears, and this wasn’t the first time.

Who are you? Why did you appear before me? In front of a man like me who only makes painful expressions.

Without realizing it, Ivan clenched his fists. The fact that he didn’t know who she was made him feel restless, now more than ever.

He didn’t know what to do. This was the first time that Ivan couldn’t make a decision even though he had thought about it over and over again.

Chapter 46: Injury and love

Upon returning to the castle, there was a commotion like a disturbed beehive.

This was to be expected since the queen had been kidnapped. As soon as they reached the entrance, Rougena rushed out and hugged the dusty Ernesta. The news had spread, and the subjects gathered one after another, turning the entrance hall of the castle into a chaotic mixing pot.

“Rougena, attend to the queen’s injuries. Her wrist is hurt.”

“My goodness, what happened…! I will attend to her immediately!”

Rougena, who received the king’s instruction, turned pale, and Ernesta looked up at Ivan beside her without being able to nod. She couldn’t calm down until she saw to his injury first, which was more important to her than the minor scratches on herself.

“She’s fine, go and take care of him. It’s pretty bad.”

Her Arkrig was undeniably filthy, and she looked like a queen who was unfit for the position. Even just participating in treating the injuries was not allowed in such an unsanitary condition.

“Rougena, could you please help me?”

“Of course, please come over here.”

With her face turned red and downcast, she walked with the head maid.

When she glanced back a few steps later, Ivan had already turned his back. Ernesta saw the attendants and guards rushing after him in a panic and then walked behind Rougena once more.

After bathing, Ernesta quickly put on her usual clothes and headed to the king’s private room without preparing for bed.

At the door, she passed by a pharmacist, Jaromir. According to his words, Ivan’s condition was not a concern, but he needed to rest for two weeks.

After expressing sincere gratitude, Jaromir smiled and left the room. Inside were Ivan, who was propped up on his bed, and Johan, who stood beside him in a fury.

“Ellie, good to see you’re okay.”

This was Ernesta’s first visit to Ivan’s private chamber, but she let out a sigh of relief without realizing the significance of the fact. The smile on Ivan’s face showed that he was genuinely happy.

Johan seemed to think the same thing, and raised his black eyebrows sarcastically.

“Yeah, yeah. Glad to see you’re okay.”

He continued

“It’s good to hear that both of you are safe. But to go alone into enemy territory is unexpected, even for you.”

Ernesta felt awkward and shrank back, but since she had been allowed to enter the room, she decided to stay and listen.

“I wasn’t alone. Silvestor was with me.”

Ivan said nonchalantly, not meeting the Prime Minister’s gaze.

Johan continued to lecture, his eyes narrowed behind his glasses in response to his lord’s attitude.

“Don’t joke around, reckless king. We’ve already received testimony from the master that you went ahead alone. You charged into that siege, it’s unbelievable recklessness, not bravery, recklessness.”

“Sometimes bravery is necessary. This is as good as it gets when you’re dealing with Theo.”

“Is it your hobby to test my patience? You should have known that you wouldn’t come out of it unscathed if you fought that idiot. We could have captured him unharmed if we followed the plan. Both you and him!”

“Okay, I get it, so please, Johan, be a little quieter. It’s hurting my wounds.”

As Ivan responded with a sigh, Johan’s whole face turned red. Ernesta felt like she could see steam rising from the top of his head.

“That’s what I’m saying! You’ll die someday! Oh, come on… Can’t My Queen say something to him too?”

Ernesta was suddenly addressed, and she panicked because she had tried to disappear completely.

Johan was breathing heavily as if to intimidate, but the king remained expressionless to the point that Ernesta thought that he’s pitiful.

“…Um, I don’t want anyone to get hurt. I’m worried, you know.”

“See, even My Queen says that. How do you feel? Why not take this opportunity to rethink causing so much worry to those around you?”

Ivan finally broke his expressionless demeanor in response to the Prime Minister’s triumphant look. It was like the face of a child caught doing something mischievous.

“What, are you two in cahoots now? I’m saying I’m sorry.”

“Finally got through, huh? Such a hassle. In the end, there is no point in me saying anything. Well then, My Queen, I leave the rest to you. We will hear from you tomorrow, but for today, take a break. Goodbye.”

Johan spat sarcasm as he raised his slipping glasses and quickly left the room like a bullet. He had been working since early in the morning yesterday, and his busy schedule seemed to be no joke.

As soon as they were alone, Ernesta felt awkward and fell into silence. Being in the quiet room brought up the feelings she had realized earlier.

“Um… I heard you have to rest for two weeks. I didn’t realize your injury was that serious.”

Ivan had carried a person on his back, and it was too dark to see his black outfit in the evening, so she assumed the injury wasn’t that bad. But the actual diagnosis was much worse than she imagined.

“I’ll do anything, so just tell me. Do you want anything? I’ll go get it for you!”

“Wait. Sit down for now.”

Indicating the box chair next to the bed with his gaze, Ernesta obediently sat down. Ivan’s voice had a soothing tone.

“I believe I told you not to say you’ll do anything lightly. Did you forget what happened to me as a result?”

“Ah…!”

“Also, I’m glad you’re okay. I’m sorry for getting you involved.”

The words dropped quietly were filled with a sense of relief that could not be concealed.

Watching his expression, which was like the gentle flow of a stream, Ernesta’s chest filled up, and she couldn’t say anything.

Although there was more she wanted to say, such as how he shouldn’t have come to help someone like her or how strange it was for a king to come himself, she didn’t think she was just dragged into this.

As a stand-in queen, she wasn’t someone the king should risk his life to save. Yet he came to that tenement, and as a result, he sustained serious injuries.

“I won’t do something like that again…”

Finally saying that, Ernesta lowered her head.

She didn’t want Ivan to see her face filled with ugly regret and guilt. It was unbearable to be reflected in his pure eyes.

“Ellie.”

As he called her name, a warm palm enveloped her cheek. Ernesta reflexively raised her head and placed her left hand on his outstretched right hand.

“Don’t move too much.”

“You’ve been saying that for a while now.”

Although Ivan showed a wry smile, he didn’t withdraw his hand. Therefore, Ernesta ended up staring into his blue eyes while holding his firm hand.

“This injury is not your fault. It was necessary. If you think it’s stupid and laugh at me, that’s fine… You’re so adorable. Too much.”

His hands suddenly moved, and the situation quickly reversed as Ivan’s large, thick hand caught her delicate one.

Without realizing what was happening, Ernesta was pulled in and found herself trapped in Ivan’s white shirt. The smell of disinfectant and the sensation of the bandages were both palpable, which made her feel even more nervous about putting too much pressure on the wound. However, the more she twisted her body, the stronger Ivan’s grip became.

“S-sto…stop…let me go.”

“You said you’d do anything. If you’re worried about the injury, you should just stay still.”

Although his words were unusually forceful, his stroking hand was gentle to the point of heartbreak. Ivan’s strength was meant solely to comfort Ernesta, and her head was numb with sweet numbness as she understood this.

In short, Ernesta was just a young girl in love.

No matter how much she tried to control herself, being in his arms made her feel like she was being happily crushed. No matter how much she tried to forget, that command would lose its power over trivial things.

But that was only for today.

From tomorrow onwards, she would return to being a mere substitute as always.

She would study with her usual smile and do her best at her duties.

Then, on the day of the deadline, she would quietly slip out of the castle and disappear like a cloud.

Chapter 47: Pharmacist’s Proposal

That day, Ernesta slept in her room. Her waking up was relatively natural and nothing special.

Stretching in the midst of bird chirping, she slapped her cheeks to psyche herself up.

“… Alright!”

First, she headed to the washroom. After washing her face, she returned to her room and put on some suitable clothes from her closet.

Yes, she felt good. Her body was as light as when she used to help out at North Star, and her mind felt clear. With this, she could surely pretend that nothing had happened and play the role of a substitute.

Even if she confirmed “that incident” with Ivan and obtained confirmation, she could certainly remain calm.

As she finished fastening the buttons on her chest, there was a knock at the door.

Spotting the figure of a timid girl, Ernesta whispered her name.

“Dasha, thank God…!”

Running over and taking the small hand, Dasha’s face twisted with leftover immaturity.

“My Queen, I… I have come to request time off today.”

Dasha bowed her head to the point of kneeling while holding Ernesta’s hands tightly.

Looking at her trembling shoulders, it was easy to see how much this girl had suffered.

Too many truths had come crashing down on her overnight. It was a bolt from the blue, and no doubt her family was thrown into chaos.

“I’m truly sorry. My family is to blame. If the law won’t punish my brother, then… We’ll have to kill him ourself.”

“Huh?”

Ernesta let out a stupid voice at Dasha’s unsettling words, still looking down.

“Dasha? Um, did I mishear something? You didn’t say anything dangerous, did you?”

“…”

“Say something, please! Hey, Dasha! I’m not worried about it, so… Let’s just lift up our faces for now?”

Dasha finally lifted her face at Ernesta’s prompting. Although Ernesta breathed a sigh of relief for the time being, Dasha’s eyes were filled with strong determination, and there was no trace of the fragility from earlier.

“I appreciate your kindness. My Queen has shown excessive consideration to someone like me. Let me take responsibility for my brother’s actions and bring him to justice.”

At that moment, Dasha exuded a dignified air that could be compared to that of a female warrior.

Ernesta grimaced as she realized the strength possessed by the werewolf women. She didn’t want to learn about it in such an unusual way.

“Wait a minute?! Please don’t do that! No one wants it, and we’ve already resolved the situation. There’s no need to cause a tragedy on purpose!”

“No, let me do this! To kidnap My Queen of all people…! Only death can compensate for that.”

“Excuse me.”

Just as a troublesome voice interrupted, the corner of a thick book hit the redhead on the head. Ernesta opened her mouth and watched the scene, then shifted her gaze to the owner of the book.

There was Johan, reaching out through the open door. She hastily invited him in, and he bowed with an unruffled attitude.

“I apologize for being rude by coming to My Queen’s room this morning. I heard a loud voice and couldn’t help but investigate.”

“No, it’s fine… Dasha, are you okay?”

She spoke hesitantly, but Dasha was crouching and holding her head. But when she lifted her face, she was definitely staring at the perpetrator of the recent atrocity.

“What are you doing, Prime Minister?!”

“You should calm down. Children shouldn’t be rude.”

Ernesta was surprised. It was the first time she had seen the two of them talk, and they seemed to be on good terms. Perhaps it was because they were childhood friends with a family connection.

“You haven’t even met him yet. Even if you can’t forgive him, just beat him up. If you take a life, you must be prepared to pay with your own.”

“Then I am prepared to do so…!”

“Sigh, siblings being foolish together, huh.”

“What…!”

Dasha was speechless at the sigh mix-ins. Ernesta also thought that it was not appropriate for someone to say that to a young woman, but it seemed like it wasn’t something the Prime Minister was especially concerned about.

“Listen. If you do something like that, your parents will lose both of their children at the same time.”

“Ah…”

Dasha’s eyes were shaking with shock. For a kind-hearted girl, the words just became a fatal blow to her.

“Lord Zavesky too, it’s such a pity. What would he be thinking in front of the two adjacent tombstones?”

“U… Uuuu…!”

“And what about your younger brother left behind? Considering how gentle he is, I’m sure he’ll be worried for the rest of his life.”

“Uuuu…”

Johan’s observations were accurate. Dasha had completely lost her fighting spirit and ended up putting her hands on the floor.

“If you understand, then get to work quickly. What are your duties for today?”

“The preparation for My Queen’s morning, preparation for lunch, laundry, and preparation for bedtime…”

“Very well. If you want to atone for your family’s sins, then work hard and fulfill that.”

With a smirk, Johan bid farewell to the queen and left the room. Confirming that Dasha remained on all fours without moving, Ernesta decided to take the plunge and go outside to find Lord Slezak.

“Lord Slezak!”

She called out to the bureaucrat with broad shoulders, and he immediately turned to her with narrowed eyes behind his glasses.

“What can I do for you, My Queen?”

“Thank you for what you did for Dasha. I want to thank you properly.”

Johan’s face softened as if he had expelled some venom. It was a momentary expression, but the most vulnerable one he had shown.

“…It can be inconvenient if a capable maid quits. That’s all.”

Despite his words being delivered in a dismissive tone, his severe gaze was more relaxed than usual. Apparently, this man had a hard-to-read personality as well.

Ernesta smiled and nodded. Without acknowledging whether he noticed it or not, Johan turned on his heel and left.

The day after the big incident turned out to be a day off for Ernesta.

Feeling completely fine, she felt a bit guilty about it. Engeberg came to check on her in the morning, a young man who had served as her escort during the incident apologized for what happened, and she also carried out interviews related to the incident. However, before noon, she found herself with nothing to do at all.

Deciding to gather her courage, Ernesta visited Ivan’s room. She had been hesitant, thinking it might bother him, but she was still concerned about his injury.

She knocked on the door and opened it to find Ivan sitting up in bed, reading a book. She breathed a sigh of relief at his healthier appearance than she had expected.

“You’re awake. Is it okay if I come in and chat with you while you read?”

“You didn’t hear any objections from me before now, so why not? With work taken away from me, I don’t have much to do.”

“I guess so…”

It seemed that the werewolf tribe all had a similar mindset that injuries would heal just by spitting on them.

As Ernesta hesitated in front of the door, Ivan narrowed his eyes curiously and gestured to the chair next to him.

“Why don’t you sit down?”

“Ah…yes, thank you!”

There is a part of herself that is so delighted with such a simple suggestion.

Ernesta approached the bed quickly and sat on the delicate box chair, chanting in her mind to remain calm.

“How are you feeling?”

“No problems. I feel like I can do more exercise already, though.”

“That’s good to hear. But you still need to take it easy on exercising.”

“I know. I’ll behave myself so you won’t worry.”

Ernesta closed her mouth and lowered her reddened face.

It was annoying that Ivan could so easily say such things, even though she was already trying her best to act normal. She felt embarrassed even when expressing her gratitude.

Just when she was about to fall into silence, the savior arrived.

“Hello, Your Majesty…oh, my apologies for not realizing you were here, My Queen.”

The one who appeared was Jaromir. He had a grandfather-like face with a smile, and as he put his hand on the door, he said he would come back later.

“Please wait, Dr. Jaromir. Don’t worry about me.”

Ernesta jumped off the box stool in a hurry, not noticing that Ivan was frowning discontentedly.

“You’ve come for an examination, haven’t you? Please go ahead.”

“Thank you for your concern…well, I can’t help but notice His Majesty’s expression, but shall I proceed with the examination?”

Jaromir sat down hesitantly on the box stool. He immediately began to unwrap the bandages of the injured person, so Ernesta pretended to casually look away.

The examination was over quickly, and the pharmacist took out replacement bandages and medicine from a leather bag. It seemed to be a prescription for two weeks, with a considerable amount of it.

“Change the bandages morning and evening, take the medicine, and rest as much as possible, you should recover smoothly.”

“Understood. I’ll be careful.”

“Now then, let’s wrap the bandage once more.”

Jaromir said, taking the bandage.

However, he paused and spun around to face Ernesta while sitting.

“Actually, let’s have My Queen do it.”

Ernesta stopped moving, surprised by his sudden request.

Chapter 48: It’s far away now 1

Ivan froze in his tracks at the unreasonable proposal from the pharmacist.

“That’s right, that’s right. It’s customary for the wife to do this kind of thing. I shouldn’t have taken it away from her.”

While it was true that such custom existed in this country, it was not necessary to apply it to the royal couple. It was strange to ask a purebred princess to do such a thing when they had a full staff of servants.

Without waiting for a response, Jaromir began to pack up his tools. The old pharmacist, who slipped past the completely frozen queen, said with a smile.

“Your Majesty will be pleased. Well then, I’ll take my leave.”

——This meddling old man.

Ivan cursed in his mind.

As the door closed with a loud noise, Ivan awkwardly opened his mouth.

“Ellie, he said that, but you don’t have to force yourself. Let’s call someone else——”

“No, I’ll do it. I’ll do my best.”

“…Huh?”

Ivan was surprised and sounded almost dazed.

While he was still stunned, Ermengard walked up to her with a serious expression and took the medicine from him.

“Wait, hold on! I need to check my wound. It’s too much for you.”

“I’m fine with that. I don’t have the cuteness to faint from blood.”

There was no hesitation in her dark green eyes, but Ivan was surprisingly flustered.

The scent of disinfectant that he had become accustomed to throughout the day was mixed with her fruity scent, bringing a refreshing feeling. Her eyes, which never met, were bordered by long eyelashes and her lips looked unnaturally lustrous.

“It’s the wife’s job, right? Let me do it.”

As she deftly opened the lid of the medicine, she spoke softly.

Unable to utter a word due to the indescribable feeling of happiness brought on by her words.

Ermengard only said that out of a sense of duty. She didn’t really care about her husband’s lack of wit, and her actions were always defenseless. It was precisely because she was not aware of it that he wanted to kiss her in return.

That was why he found himself wanting to enjoy this unexpected stroke of luck.

Ivan gave in and decided to let Ermengard do as she pleased. If she wants to do it, there will be no harm in indulging her.

“Okay. Please.”

However, as soon as she nodded and looked at her husband’s body, her expression froze unnaturally.

She quickly understood what it was.

There were countless scars on his body. They were not so simple as to show a young woman, claiming their existence with a hue more red than fresh ones.

“I’m sorry, I knew. It’s too much after all.”

“What happened to those scars…?”

As if she couldn’t hear Ivan’s voice, she asked, perplexed.

It was the expression of someone who had unexpectedly discovered something new, but Ivan couldn’t sense it to that extent. He followed her gaze and arrived at the largest scar on his body, where he understood once again.

“I got this when the former king was still alive. It happened eight years ago.”

Most of them were from the battle that took place nine years ago, but this scar that traced from his right upper arm to his chest was different.

This is a scar from an injury sustained in a certain incident. It was a difficult injury that eventually led to meeting his “benefactor”.

“If it’s okay with you, I want to hear that story.”

Ermengard said fearfully.

If she wanted to hear, there was no hesitation in telling her. It might be a bit bloody, but she was the one who had listened to his war stories. It would be fine.

“In that case, I’ll tell you while we’re at it. It might not be an interesting story though.”

Ivan gently closed his eyes. He still remembered that day vividly.

❂❂❂

Eight years ago, on a summer day, Ivan was on his way back from the Bral Empire.

At the time, Ivan was still a prince, and on his father’s orders to seek an alliance, he visited the emperor of another country for the first time.

The result was a complete failure. They revered and feared the werewolf clan, but also loathed them. The group left the palace, feeling pushed out and crossed the border with a sense of unease.

The town they passed by earlier was called Weisbergk, and even Ivan and his companions, who had taken on a human form until then, were now in their werewolf forms. This form allowed them to carry their luggage during their long journey, and they could run faster than a horse-drawn carriage if they needed to.

The elite group of about ten people quickly made their way through the forest and found themselves on a mountain path before they knew it.

Summer in Bral was hot, and with the cicadas’ chirping, it sapped the werewolves’ energy. The journey was not enjoyable, as everyone carried a faint sense of annoyance.

“Sigh… it’s so frustrating. That idiot has no brains and yet he challenged me to a war of words. Only Engeberg, who was appointed as the unfortunate Shanka ambassador, can communicate properly. Honestly.”

Johan grumbled with annoyance, but his voice lacked its usual sharpness.

Everyone had just lived through how difficult it was to form an alliance with Bral.

“Being unable to return to human form on the night of a full moon is dreadful. It’s like a curse… I beg your pardon? It’s a curse on their sorry heads.”

“Stop it, Johan. There’s nothing we can do about it by talking here.”

“Your Highness, aren’t you angry about it?”

“I would not voice it. I’m in the presence of my subjects.”

As he quietly spoke, Johan fell silent, gobsmacked. This was an exchange that had been repeated many times on their journey.

Since the end of the war with Leutravia, Ivan had become increasingly stubborn.

He was aware that he had to lead Shenka, and he wanted to support his father, who lay prostrate on the floor. The numerous bodies piled up during this battle had become a harsh lesson, bringing him much pain.

But the difficulties they were facing now, in addition to the memories of the gruelling battle, were more than enough to cast a shadow on the young man of only twenty.

His gloomy thoughts were entangled due to the long journey, swirling around and settling in the middle of his head. As he lowered his gaze to banish his oppressive mood, Ivan caught the sound of leaves rubbing against each other with his ear.

His body moved reflexively. The moment he pushed Johan, who was walking beside him, a strong heat ran from his right upper arm to his chest.

“Ivan!”

He heard his friend call his name.

Ignoring the call, Ivan drew his sword from his waist and slashed towards the attacker. He felt it was only a shallow strike, but his arm wouldn’t move again when he tried to swing it once more.

“Your Highness!”

“Damn, who are you?!”

The vassals were all outraged and drew their swords to protect the only prince. It was a male werewolf who had struck Ivan, and he was immediately brought down by the vassals.

——Oh, I’ve done it.

It was not something an heir to the throne should do. He knew that, and there should have been a better way to react than to act impulsively with emotion. Making such a misjudgment in a critical situation, what should he say to his father? This would also cause trouble for Johan.

As he thought about these things vaguely, werewolves clad in armor emerged from the trees. Their numbers were around fifteen, and now that they were without Ivan’s strength, the situation was undoubtedly critical.

“We are warriors of the anti-alliance faction! Your Highnesses Ivan Leopold Urbashek. We will take your life!”

As the rebels jumped forward and shouted in a battle cry, Ivan remained calm and even smiled dryly.

Of course, he knew about the existence of the anti-alliance faction. However, being targeted even to the point of assassination made him understand their seriousness.

King Radoslav once said about relationships with others, “It’s not about whether it’s possible or not, but that we must do it.” But is that really true?

Humans still don’t recognize us as equals. They have no interest in alliances and attack us for unjust reasons, trampling on what should be the most important thing: life.

Being shunned by the werewolf tribe in this way, what lies ahead in this ordeal? What can one do, sitting alone on the throne?

Does anyone in the world truly want to understand and get along with others…?

“Ivan, get a grip!”

Ivan regained his senses after being slapped by his best friend. It seemed that he had lost consciousness for a short period of time while leaning on his sword like a cane.

The surroundings appeared to be in the midst of a fierce battle. His chest wound seemed to be quite serious, as he was experiencing an unprecedented level of pain. His arm was not moving, and the bleeding continued without any signs of stopping.

Chapter 49: It’s far away now 2

“You guys should go, I’ll… I’ll just slow you down.”

His voice was more hoarse than he intended, leaking from the corner of his lips. This was really bad. Pain was pounding through his head, and he couldn’t move the upper half of his body.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Your Highness! Of course we’re not leaving you behind! Come on, let’s go!”

Johan circled around Ivan’s left side and supported his shoulder. The black wolf’s profile was stubborn, leaving no room for argument.

“Hey, no. We can’t just leave them behind.”

“They told you to run, didn’t they? Just shut up for a minute!”

Johan barked, throwing away his usual polite language. It seemed like they were moving as fast as they could, and Ivan was barely keeping up. Unable to undo their intertwined shoulders, they just followed the forest trail, and his thought process began to blur.

“You’ve never had enough awareness as a prince! Even though I’m your shield, what good is it if I can’t protect you?!”

“You were angry about that story before, weren’t you, Theo? Sword and shield, you said it’s your job.”

“I took on that responsibility because he’s dead! Don’t you know that?!”

“Haha… I don’t know. I didn’t hear anything like that.”

Although he had told him to shut up earlier, Johan seemed to be deliberately talking about Theo. As they ran, the moon rose in the sky and the time came for stars to shine.

They arrived at a deserted vacant lot, apparently on the outskirts of town. The noise of people could be heard far away. Johan finally released Ivan’s shoulder and made him sit in the shade of a large tree as if hiding.

“Ivan, turn into a wolf.”

“…Okay.”

Ivan changed into a wolf as instructed. It was not hard to imagine what kind of trouble it would be if he were found in his werewolf form by humans.

“To prevent anyone from knowing our whereabouts, I’ll dispose of our clothes. Please wait here while I go get the medicine.”

Johan spoke quickly as he transformed into human form, then quickly disappeared into the darkness.

A refreshing breeze blows on the vacant lot where his friend used to be, making it feel like the scorching heat of the day was a lie. Ivan closed his eyes and sank into his thoughts.

I wonder if my subordinates are safe. It would be good if they managed to escape successfully, whether by defeating the enemy or scattering away.

Even if I manage to overcome this difficulty and ascend to the throne, what will I feel at that time? Will I still be able to aim for an alliance with the human kingdom as we have been doing so far, without getting sidetracked?

Hey, Theo. Are you still watching over me…?

At that moment, light footsteps sounded in the darkness.

It was clear that it was not Johan. The footsteps, which did not convey even a hint of vigilance, came closer and closer to Ivan. He raised his head and prepared himself for the owner of the footsteps.

Then, a single human girl appeared before him.

The girl seemed surprised when she saw Ivan and stopped in her tracks. His wolf’s eyesight was blurry, but she must have been about ten years old. She had long hair tied in braids and was wearing a dress with a herb basket on her back.

“Wolf-san, are you injured…?”

To everyone’s surprise, the girl took a step forward.

What is this girl thinking? If she really encounters a wild wolf, it won’t end well.

Ivan thought, brimming with caution as he growled from the depths of his belly, intending to chase her away.

“Don’t be scared. I just want to take care of you. Please, I promise I won’t do anything cruel. Look, here’s some water and herbs. I’m glad I had them with me.”

The girl said, approaching the growling wolf and showing him the herbs and leather water bottle.

Is she really planning to treat me? Ivan was caught off guard and couldn’t help but let out a growl.

“Do you know what this is? You’re clever. Good for you.”

Not only did the girl brazenly stroke the golden fur on his head, but she also complimented him, saying he was clever. Prince Ivan was still in the process of growing up and was slightly offended by this, but not overly so.

“Oh, that was rude of me to say ‘good for you.’ Wolf-san is a very brave and intelligent creature.”

This time, she stroked his neck. It was the first time someone other than his parents had petted him, but it felt good.

“How fluffy you are…Wolf-san, you must be the king of the pack.”

He wasn’t yet a king, but he was close enough. As Ivan started to feel scared, the girl opened the cap of her water bottle to show him.

“First, I will wash the wound. It might hurt, though…”

Water was poured onto the wound, causing the pain that had finally subsided to come back. Ivan pretended not to notice, but the girl’s encouragement weirdly gave him strength.

After washing away the redness, the girl took out herbs from her basket and began to apply them one after the other. Ivan was surprised by the quality of the herbs. They were priceless items that could fetch any price on the market.

The girl probably didn’t even know their worth. He wondered how she could possess such exquisite things.

Even though she could be attacked by the wolf in front of her at any moment, she showed no fear in her actions.

Finally, the girl took out a handkerchief, binding the wound and finishing the treatment.

The medicinal herbs had already started to take effect, and the injury had improved greatly.

“Okay, we’re done. You worked hard.”

I don’t understand. Who is this girl? She is completely different from the nobles we’ve seen at the Palace in Bral, risking her life to help a wolf.

“Are you too hurt to move? If so, I’ll stay with you.”

The girl said something irrelevant and sat next to Ivan, stroking his back with a gentle touch.

That’s not it. He was waiting for Johan and didn’t want to move. But he couldn’t say that in front of the girl, let alone reveal that he was a werewolf.

“Look, the stars are beautiful tonight. I’m sure you’ll forget about the pain.”

The girl spoke with a mature tone, looking up at the sky. Ivan was also drawn to look up as he realized the clear sky that spread out on this night.

“Did you know? That brightest star is called Vega. It’s the brightest star in the summer night sky, and the third brightest star overall.”

The girl’s voice was clear and conveyed her love for the stars.

Although Ivan had never cared for stars before, he found himself listening intently to her pleasant voice.

“Vega is part of the Lyra constellation. Lyra is said to be Orpheus’s lyre. Deneb is in the Milky Way next to it, and Altair is beyond that. You can connect them to make a summer triangle… Fufu! I’m quite knowledgeable, aren’t I? My mom used to be an astronomy teacher at the palace, so she taught me too.”

I had heard this story as a piece of knowledge before, but it felt interesting as she recounted it.

The girl proudly puffed out her chest. She must truly admire her mother.

“I love stars. They’re so shiny and beautiful, mysterious, and I can gaze at them forever. Don’t you feel the same?”

I had never even thought about whether I liked or disliked them, but her words about being able to gaze at them endlessly easily slipped into my heart.

“When I’m in pain, I count stars. Compared to the countless stars, my worries seem trivial.”

Her voice had a hint of melancholy. Did this seemingly carefree girl have something to bear as well?

I couldn’t help but wonder what it was. However, since I couldn’t ask her, only her voice disturbed the silence as time slowly flowed by.

In the end, the person who saved Ivan was a human girl who should have had no power at all.

Both humans and werewolves are the same. There are those who pursue only their own interests and those who care for and help others.

Therefore, if you have a heart, you should not speak of your community as one group. Countries and races cannot be the only factors that determine a person’s character.

I should have known that just by looking at my colleagues. It seems that I had forgotten it while immersed in a long war.

Just being able to remember that fact was enough. My clouded mind regained clear intent, and energy flowed throughout my body.

Then someday, we could join hands. No matter how long it takes or how much suffering we endure, I can continue on the path I have chosen.

“…Are you leaving already?”

Ivan stood up without hesitation. He rubbed his head against the soft palm of her hand as a gesture of gratitude. For the sake of the girl who would not return home until the wolf moved, he took a step on his aching foreleg.

——I’m glad to have met you.

“Bye-bye, Wolf-san! Don’t do anything reckless!”

Ivan turned around at the voice from behind and caught a glimpse of the girl.

From that moment on, he would never meet her again.

Chapter 50: It’s far away now 3

Afterward, he succeeded in meeting up with Johan somehow.

Johan was surprised to see Ivan walking on his own, but he just sighed and didn’t ask anything.

Then, when they turned back into werewolves in the next town, he discovered a handkerchief in the luggage that he didn’t recognize.

Ivan took the handkerchief in his hand and looked at it. Although it was stained with blood, it was a beautiful blue color with star embroidery, and it looked like something that girl would make. Apparently, diligent Johan had washed it and put it in the baggage when he had redressed his wounds along the way.

As he looked at it, a strange thing happened, and a smile appeared on Ivan’s face after a long time.

Next time when he visits Bral, he will look for her. If he doesn’t express his gratitude, the name of the werewolf warriors will be tarnished. Although her face was not clear, she might be living in Weisbergk, so he might find her.

Yes, Ivan’s broken heart had been mended by a stranger girl, and he had been bound with a handkerchief.

Upon arriving at the Royal Palace, all the officials had returned safely and were waiting eagerly for the return of the prince. The opposition had been eliminated on the spot, and the pain in their hearts was suppressed and ignored.

Soon after, the king passed away. Ivan succeeded the throne, and he would visit Bral again only once the talks of his marriage had begun.

❂❂❂

As the conversation ended, the treatment was also finishing up.

Ernesta was now carefully tidying up the leftover ointments and bandages, so as not to make any awkward movements.

Is this reality?

She realized the cause of her déjà vu only yesterday. She had received the answer she had swallowed the question for, and the realization slowly formed in her heart.

“I also realized something back then. I actually wanted to understand humans.”

“Wanted to understand…?”

“Yeah. I wanted my comrades to know that humans aren’t monsters. Ever since the day when the child I thought of as a friend pushed me away, I’ve wanted to have a conversation with someone on equal terms. But that was just my personal ideal, and I couldn’t bring it up in politics. It was hard to suppress it even though we coincidentally had the same direction. Before I met you, I had already become accustomed to it and even forgot about it.”

Ernesta could only nod silently at Ivan’s quiet smile.

Yes, this person is gentle and very strong. Despite being betrayed by humans many times, he still desires to communicate with them. And yet, he suppresses his own emotions and thinks only of his country and people.

“In the end, I couldn’t thank that girl. On my visit after eight years, I stopped by Weisbergk looking for her, but I couldn’t find any clues.”

Ivan spoke quietly, but his eyes seemed to tremble with regret. For someone as dutiful as him, not being able to thank her must have become a big burden.

“By the way, I still have the handkerchief from that day. I kept it in case my determination wavered…but I never took it out apart from when I was looking for her.”

“I’d like to see it.”

Ernesta said with great care, trying not to show her impatience. However, Ivan seemed to sense that something was off and tilted his head in confusion.

“I’d like to see that handkerchief. If it’s okay with you, I’ll go look for it.”

Looking straight into his blue eyes, he immediately nodded.

“Yeah, it should be in the bottom drawer of the chest. Will you look for it?”

Ernesta only nodded before getting up, feeling her heartbeat stronger and even hearing a ringing in her ears. She was so nervous that she wouldn’t be surprised if she stumbled with both her right hand and foot at the same time.

The chest was against the wall. Ernesta opened the bottom drawer with shaking hands.

Inside were various small items, and it was not as messy as she had expected. Although the room was tidy, it seemed that he didn’t care too much about the details.

And inside those items, she found a small box with delicate wood carvings. She had no idea what else it could be, so she opened it, almost in disbelief.

Then, Ernesta reunited with her favorite handkerchief after eight long years.

The blue was stained black in places, but the amateurishness of the star embroidery was unmistakably self-made, and the sight of it made her vision blur.

She remembered what Ivan had told her before. That he had someone he could call a benefactor. That when times were tough, he should count stars.

No, don’t cry. She had to quickly take this handkerchief to Ivan and return it to him.

With gritted teeth, Ernesta resisted the urge and handed the wooden box to Ivan. As he took it with a soft smile, he pulled out its contents and spread them out.

“Oh…this brings back memories.”

His warm voice pierced her heart.

Ernesta thought that was enough.

The trivial actions of her childhood had brought her to support this overly kind king. Things that she couldn’t do now, her younger self had done.

Ivan never gave up on interacting with humans, carrying the kindness of a human girl in his heart. He continued to move forward without looking back, even though he walked a difficult path and suffered numerous wounds. At times, he dissolved his anguish by gazing at the starry sky.

——Thank you, God. I am more than happy.

If Ernesta, a sinner, could be of even a little help to Ivan, it would be a stroke of good luck.

“I’m glad you’re safe. It’s a lovely story.”

❂❂❂

The most important thing needed for drawing pictures is concentration, in my opinion.

Feeling the colors of the flowers in front of her, choosing the paint to express it, mixing the colors, and applying them to the canvas as she pleased. Everything was free in the painting, which was why the woman loved it.

When she could concentrate well, she could not hear anything else. The surrounding conversations, distant gazes, the smell of oil, and even her own inner turmoil—everything became like distant memories. That moment was the best condition to be in.

And now was exactly that time. In her mindless state, the woman painted, and her vision was filled with a beautiful rural scenery and her own canvas.

“Ermengarde-sama, right?”

It had been a while since her name was called.

It took some time for her to emerge from the depths of concentration. Finally realizing the situation, Ermengard smiled gracefully at the man with the familiar face.

“So, you found me.”

As she turned around, she saw a man she recognized. He was definitely one of the royal knights, even though he wasn’t wearing armor now.

“What a shame. I was on such a good roll.”

Now that an uninvited guest had arrived, she could never come back to this place again. As she had no intention of recreating it from memory, this painting would remain unfinished.

Despite the gravity of the situation with the runaway princess being caught, Ermengard calmly started to put her paint supplies away. The royal knight looked stunned and bewildered as he gazed at her.

“Well, shall we go? How are His Majesty the Emperor and Her Majesty the Empress doing?”

Ermengard stood up, carrying her luggage. She looked too much like a painter to pass herself off as a true princess from the deepest part of her being.

Chapter 51: A quiet story, I am a wolf, Part 4

Hey, long time no see, it’s Mikolash. Thanks for hanging out with us.

Speaking of which, an audience is an important duty in which the king listens directly to the petitions of the people and reflects them in his reign.

It has been ten days since Ivan has been in bed, and it seems that there are a lot of people who want an audience. Ellie, considering her personality, naturally offered to take care of it when she heard about it.

It was Ellie’s first audience, so she was quite nervous, which was unfortunate. That’s why I’m currently by Ellie’s side, watching her work.

“So, landslides occur frequently in your territory. Is rain really the only cause?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure. It’s true that we’ve had more rain than usual, but I don’t think it’s proportional to the frequency of landslides.”

“It could be a geological problem. It’s also possible that reckless cultivation is at play. I’ll consider sending an investigation team, but first we need to talk to the locals—”

But maybe I was just meddling too much. I sprawled out next to Ellie. She only stiffened up at first. Now she’s bravely facing the nobles as their equal.

Oh, here comes a common woman. There are all kinds of people who come to see us, so we need knowledge to handle them appropriately. How are you doing, Ellie?

“Our livestock’s milk production has been low…what can I do about it?”

“Milk production. Is that on your farm?”

“No, it’s throughout the town. If this continues, our town’s main industry will stagnate.”

“It’s urgent, then. Hmm, milk production is greatly influenced by environment. The quality of air and noise——”

Wow, she’s good. She knows a lot…it’s like she’s lived in a regular town before.

While I was impressed, citizens came in one after another, making various requests before leaving. Of course, some were demanding that Ellie fix things herself, but she remained courteous and polite throughout.

“My Queen, thank you for today. This is freshly caught deer meat. Please accept it.”

“Oh, is it okay? Something as valuable as this.”

There are guys who are thoughtful like this. It’s just meat. Maybe I’ll get some too.

“Of course. Our village’s specialty product as hunters. It would be an honor for My Queen to eat it.”

“Thank you. I’ll gratefully accept it. I’ll cherish it when I eat it.”

When Ellie smiled at him, the young man from deep in the mountains turned red.

Yeah, that cuteness might be too much for the mountain folks. You’re a high flower for him, so don’t fall in love.

The young man bowed repeatedly and left, and the audience finally ended. Rougena came from the corner of the room and showed deep respect.

“My Queen, thank you for your hard work. I’m afraid, but you made remarkable decisions.”

“I was nervous. Thank you, Rougena, for being with me.”

Ellie let out a sigh of relief.

You did well. You really did an excellent job.

“Thank you too, Mikola. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

As Ellie patted my back, I closed my eyes. If that’s true, then being here was worth it.

“Oh, that’s right. Mikola, let’s have you eat this meat too. We need to thank you.”

Meat! Yes! Ellie, you’re such a good person!

“Understood. I’ll cut it up and bring it to your room, so please wait there.”

Rougena left the audience room, holding a lump of meat wrapped in linen. Werewolves, even the females, are strong and reliable.

“I’m looking forward to it, Mikola. Shall we go back to the room?”

Yeah! Let’s go back!

❂❂❂

As soon as they returned to Ellie’s room, they brought in the sliced meat. Ellie said it was for dinner, so it was just for me for now.

Wow, this meat is so delicious! No wonder the deer from the cold region tastes so fatty!

“Fufu, is it good, Mikola?”

I think Ellie was probably smiling broadly, but I couldn’t look away from the meat being too delicious. She seemed to have sensed my impression from my reaction and her voice sounded light from above.

“That’s great. Hey Mikola, you really saved me today. I was so nervous that I was even amazed at myself…I was really grateful that you were there for me. Thank you.”

I see, she was so nervous. I couldn’t tell, but maybe she was trying to hide it.

“Ivan is amazing, isn’t he? Doing something like that three days a week. I wonder how much pressure it is to be a king.”

Ellie’s voice suddenly contained a sense of sadness. I finished eating the meat and raised my face to confirm what her tone meant.

“I wanted to help Ivan, but that wish cannot be granted. It’s so lonely…”

What’s wrong, Ellie? What are you talking about?

You’ve been more than helpful to him. Ivan is laughing these days because of you. Everyone is grateful to you and holds you in high esteem.

You’re doing great work, and above all, you’re supporting his heart. Don’t you realize that?

“Hey, Mikola. I think I like Ivan.”

I felt my heart stop.

What should I do? I’ve heard some crazy shit, but this was the first time I heard it directly from her.

I see, I see, Ellie. Good for you. Ivan must be happy with these mutual feelings——

“I know that Ivan doesn’t feel the same way about me, though.”

…What?!︎

Wait a minute, what did you just say?

Seriously? Ellie couldn’t understand the most obvious behavior that even made me embarrassed?!︎

“But it’s okay like this. It’s more than enough… Haha, sorry. I wonder what I’m saying. You probably don’t understand even if I talk about it.”

Ellie ended the conversation with a sad smile.

Well, sorry, I actually understood pretty well.

Wait, wait, give me a break… are you serious? I’m so shocked I can’t think straight.

I mean, they’re such a thick couple that it’s almost identical. What’s wrong with you guys? Are you toddlers?

As I stood there half-dumbfounded, Ellie came over and leaned on me without saying anything. She snuggled up against my stomach, burying her face in my proud fur.

“Thank you for listening. Mikola is so warm…”

Ellie fell silent after that, and soon after, I could hear her quietly breathing in her sleep. So I closed my eyes gently as well.

That Ivan, making Ellie sad like that. It seems like this child is quite dull, so I’ll have to convey it clearly with words.

Damn it, I’m so frustrated. I want to do something about it, but I can’t just go and say it myself…

With hopeless feelings, I eventually gave up on my thoughts. Ellie looked so comfortable sleeping next to me that I also became sleepy.

❂❂❂

I woke up to the sound of the door opening.

I struggled to open my eyes while still groggy. Finally, my vision became clear, and Ivan, dressed in his pajamas, was standing in a fighting pose.

What’s with this guy? Why does he look so grumpy?

As I looked around suspiciously, I suddenly understood. There was Ellie, who had become a sleeping beauty buried in my fur.

“I came to see her after hearing that she had an audience… You’re a good company, Mikola.”

Ah, damn it, he’s mad at me after all. His low voice feels like he’s really serious.

[Hmph, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Ellie and I are good friends. It’s your fault for not being a wolf in front of your wife.]

“Really? I don’t know what you’re saying, but I know that you’re trying to pick a fight with me.”

Ivan’s gaze became sharper and sharper. Yup, this guy understands what I’m saying pretty well.

As I became more and more irritated, I barked at him. I took advantage of the fact that he wouldn’t understand the nuances and expressed myself freely.

[Seriously, can’t you just stop? You’re so annoying! If you love her so much that you’re jealous of a wolf, then show some manliness and let her have a look! You’d just have to kiss and mate! I’ll bite your face off!]

“Nm… Mikola?”

It was at that moment that Sleeping Beauty rubbed her eyes and woke up.

Oh no, it’s not good to have her calling me in such a cute sleepy voice. If you do that, Ivan will——.

“Good morning, Ellie.”

“…Huh? Ivan?”

Oh, I’m dead now.

Stop making that scary face, please. What’s with that intimidation?

“Why are you here…? You’re hurt?!”

“It’s already healed.”

“Are you kidding me?! Wait, did I… fall asleep?!”

Ellie was all red and flustered, and it seemed like she had misunderstood the cause of Ivan’s anger. Although she seemed to be in a hurry about various things, I think it’s something that doesn’t matter to him.

“I’m sorry…! I know it only makes you angry to hear it from me, but Ivan said he hasn’t slept yet… Ahh?!”

In the middle of her words, expressing concern for his health, Ellie was picked up by Ivan.

“What are you doing?! Anyway, put me down! You’ll hurt yourself!”

“Shut up. Just stay quiet for a while.”

And so, Ellie was taken to the bedroom.

I don’t think he did anything suspicious because of who he is. Don’t worry.

In the end, it seems like Ivan decided to get back to work as it is. I feel like he is pushing himself a bit too much, but he probably couldn’t leave Ellie alone.

Geez, they’re such a hopeless couple. Oh well.

Chapter 52: Let’s go to the parade ground

Ernesta planned to change Ivan’s bandages from the morning as usual. However, when she entered the king’s room, she witnessed an unbelievable sight.

The bed where the owner had been lying until yesterday was now empty.

Ernesta hastily left the room.

Although Ivan had seemed quite well yesterday and even joked that he was already healed, the two weeks designated by Jaromir had not yet passed. He should be resting for a little while longer.

Running aimlessly through the hallway, Ernesta spotted a familiar back and quickened her pace.

“Rougena, something terrible happened! Do you know where His Majesty is?”

Rougena, who turned around to face her, didn’t have her usual expressionless face. She frowned very disappointedly, shaking her head.

“He went to the training ground a while ago. He wouldn’t listen no matter how much I tried to stop him.”

“The training ground…?!”

Ernesta’s complexion paled. What business did an injured person have in a facility whose main purpose was to move their body?

“I-I’ll go check it out!”

Ernesta ran again, not knowing that the steel head maid was smiling kindly behind her.

The training ground had a vast area behind the royal castle. The stationed troops in the capital city of Rashtovka were quite sizeable, and anyone belonging to them could use it. Therefore, people from commoners to aristocrats were training together.

Ernesta had never visited because she had no business there, but she knew that the area was always bustling with activity as she passed by. Today, it seemed like they were doing shooting training, as the sound of gunfire was roaring from behind the long wall.

Despite feeling intimidated by the guards who took his bow, Ernesta stepped into the training ground.

The space was as vast as a sports field, with bundles of wooden swords, logs for striking drills, and various instruments whose use was unclearly displayed. The werewolves were training individually and looking at Ernesta curiously, making her feel a little uncomfortable.

She was guided by one of the guards to a section divided by thick, high walls. When she peeked out from the gap in the wall, she found herself in a shooting range with targets lined up in the distance.

Among the werewolves who stood in a row facing the targets, she spotted Ivan, who stood out with his golden hair. Although she could not see his face from behind, she recognized him immediately.

They held muskets that were unbelievably huge, which the werewolves’ physical strength allowed them to withstand the strong recoil.

She had come to see Ivan, who had been injured, but the tension in the air made it difficult for her to move.

As the man standing at the side gave a signal, the barrels of the muskets simultaneously flared up.

It was a tremendous roar. It was not like when she heard it from behind the walls. The sound was so powerful that even the wind pressure could be felt, and Ernesta shuddered.

It was incredibly impactful. How terrifying must an actual battlefield be?

Ivan remained focused on his target, oblivious to Ernesta’s presence. There were only holes in the center of his crosshair, and gasps of admiration rose from all over the shooting range, causing the air to ripple.

“Every shot is a hit. As expected of His Majesty.”

“He handles guns as well as swords. How dependable he is.”

“But why is His Majesty shooting at us? Normally, he’s the one giving the orders.”

“I don’t know for sure, but it seems that he wants to clear his mind and concentrate.”

Two soldiers who seemed to be high-ranking officials and had been watching the training nearby were gossiping about it. Ernesta was about to approach and address them when they noticed her and gasped.

“My Queen?! Why are you in such a dreary place?”

As soon as she appeared, the commotion in the shooting range spread far beyond what it was before. Even the soldiers in training turned their attention away from their targets and gazed at the queen with surprise.

Oh no, I had disturbed them. I didn’t mean to…!

“Are you here to watch the training? Well, that’s great news.”

“It’s the best encouragement for the soldiers. Please come this way.”

One warrior hurriedly cleaned a wooden chair indicated by the person and the atmosphere inside the venue changed visibly because of the queen’s presence.

“N-No…! I just came to say hi!”

“Don’t say that. Come on, come on.”

Ernesta shook her head in confusion, but the warrior, who had a happy expression, showed no sign of backing down. Meanwhile, the nearby werewolves gathered around, and Ernesta became increasingly anxious.

“Wow, she’s the real deal!”

“She’s so cute.”

“Did she come to see His Majesty?”

“His Majesty in training is cool from our point of view, I recommend it.”

Judging from their language, it seemed that they were warriors of common birth. Just as Ernesta became too flustered to understand what was being said, a sharp command tore through the air.

“Line up!”

It seemed to be directed at all the warriors present. They all ran forward and then quickly formed up with no disorder. Ernesta noticed that Ivan was standing before them and finally realized that he was the one who gave the order a while ago.

“These guys really don’t learn their lesson, do they? Their nerve is something to be admired if they can fool around in front of me like that.”

Ivan’s face was clearly filled with anger. Among the trembling men, a werewolf with a carefree smile on his face spoke up.

“No, but Your Majesty, you know there’s nothing we can do about it——.”

“Silence, Yamil. Do you think excuses work on the battlefield? Do 100 laps around the training grounds, 1000 swings with your weapon, and finish it all before lunchtime. And, if you can’t finish it, it doubles and there will be extra added. Go!”

As soon as the order was given, the warriors rushed out all at once. By the time everyone had disappeared beyond the wall, Ernesta realized the seriousness of what she had just caused and turned pale.

Not only had she disrupted their training, but she had also become the cause of unnecessary punishment for the warriors. Even if she wanted to apologize, her guilt choked her voice.

The shooting range, now only occupied by the two of them, was silent except for the sound of the warriors’ footsteps circling around. Ivan approached Ernesta and, as he turned back into a human, grabbed her shoulders.

“Did they do anything to you?!”

Ernesta blinked repeatedly, unsure of the urgency in Ivan’s questioning.

But as the queen’s confusion grew, Ivan’s impatience only intensified.

“They have no barriers. They’ve probably never had to force themselves into a conversation, been spoken to rudely, or had someone casually lean on their shoulder.”

“Well, that’s true, but…?”

Without thinking, Ernesta nodded in agreement, prompting a very noticeable sigh from Ivan.

Why did he even ask that? It shouldn’t matter to him if it’s only something Ernesta is concerned about.

“Okay, listen, from now on, if you want to come to the training ground, bring Dasha or Rougena with you. This isn’t the kind of place where a girl like you can just drop by on a whim.”

“Yes. I’m sorry for being a bother…”

Ernesta bowed her head in shame for her careless behavior.

She couldn’t hinder the king’s work just because she was worried. It might be fine for a true queen, but she had no such qualification.

However, when Ernesta apologized honestly, Ivan’s expression only grew more restless.

“That’s not it! I’m not talking about being a bother or anything like that. I’m saying that you should be careful because it’s dangerous here.”

He was right. There were even guns around, so it wasn’t a place for amateurs to casually enter.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll be careful from now on.”

“…I have a feeling you don’t really understand.”

Although Ivan gave a strong nod, he seemed troubled for some reason. Ernesta felt sorry for causing him unnecessary trouble.

“I’m sorry for making them do 100 laps around the training ground and swing the sword a thousand times because of me.”

As she said it out loud, she realized what an absurd number it was. However, Ivan remained calm and didn’t seem to think it was anything special.

“If that’s the punishment, it’s not that harsh. Besides, it was their fault for getting distracted during the training, not yours.”

Is that how it is? Ernesta was still unsettled, but the conversation ended there.

Chapter 53: Thunderbolt Solitude

According to what Ivan said, it seems that he has decided to fully return to work from tomorrow since he has almost completely recovered from his injuries.

However, Ernesta, who had been responsible for changing the bandages, knows very well that he has not yet fully recovered. But even when she pointed it out, she wasn’t listened to and the conversation ended ambiguously.

And now, after both of them have finished bathing, Ernesta is performing her customary treatment.

The location is the bedroom of the king and queen, on top of their carpet. After finishing wrapping the last bandage, Ernesta breathed out gently.

“Okay, we’re done.”

Ivan straightened his nightclothes while expressing his gratitude. Ernesta was thankful that the amount of bandages had been reduced recently, as she had become more conscious of his supple muscles, which were now hidden.

“Well, it’s time to sleep. It’s late.”

“Yes, I guess so.”

Ivan stood up first and reached out his hand towards Ernesta. He had been treating her kindly like this lately, but she was still not used to the consideration from a man and found it somewhat ticklish.

Ernesta placed her own hand over Ivan’s firm palm and was able to stand up with a light force. She thanked him, but Ivan just smiled and said it was nothing.

After exchanging greetings, she immediately slipped into her bed. As she gazed at the distant back with a feeling of relief and loneliness, she gently closed her eyes.

❂❂❂

Ernesta was walking with Konrad’s hand. Her brother had reverted to the age of about five years old, and his own soft hand in hers was small.

“Don’t cry, Konrad. Everything is fine now.”

“Uwaaah! B-But——”

Although Konrad was now somewhat cheeky, he used to be obedient and cute like this. Yes, this was a memory of the way back from helping him when he was being bullied.

Ernesta never resorted to violence. After persuading the bullies, they stopped tormenting him, and he was originally a boy with a gentle nature.

“It’s important for you to be strong too. Have confidence and be brave.”

“I-I can’t. I’m scared.”

“You can do it. I’ll protect you, so there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“…Really?”

“Yes, that’s the deal.”

“Yeah, I’ll do it. I won’t cry!”

Ernesta smiled brightly, and Konrad wiped away his tears and returned to his previous cheerful expression.

However, that night, as Ernesta lay down in bed to sleep, she opened her eyes at a faint sound.

It was thunder. It seemed far away, so there was no need to worry.

For young Ernesta, thunder was not a scary thing. It was just a sound and flash that passed by eventually.

Ernesta closed her eyes again, but that day’s thunder was a bit different. Just when she thought it was getting closer, it finally boomed loudly enough to shake the house.

She couldn’t help but stiffen up. This was the first time she had experienced such a loud thunder.

As she lay alone in her room, the lightning illuminated the space and the thunder shattered the silence simultaneously. Ernesta finally shuddered and covered her ears tightly with both hands, closing her eyes tightly.

——I’m scared, I’m scared. What if it hits the house? Should I go to Dad and Mom’s room?

At that moment, a faint crying voice could be heard.

Realizing it was her little brother crying, Ernesta’s froze legs was about to jump off the bed.

That’s right, she couldn’t show a pathetic sight to Konrad after claiming there was nothing to be afraid of during the day. If her frightened brother saw her like that, he would surely be tormented by terrible fear.

Besides, Isolte and Bruno must have also woken up by now, trying to comfort their young son. Ernesta, who was not their real daughter, had no right to interfere.

She covered her ears with both hands, curled up under the covers, trying to hold back her trembling body in the warm darkness, but couldn’t find any relief. Her tears overflowed from tightly closed eyes as she spent a long time waiting for the thundercloud to pass.

From that day on, thunder became a symbol of loneliness, and an unforgettable fear was engraved in the corner of her mind.

❂❂❂

Ernesta couldn’t tell if she was dreaming or if it was reality when she heard that sound.

Fully awake now, Ernesta strained her ears while trying to control her racing heart. She wanted to believe she was mistaken, but she was more certain of the sound now than before and her body was tense.

Was her dream just a reaction to the sound of thunder in reality? Even though the sound was faint and far away, it was still audible and that was enough to make Ernesta tremble. Thunder was the most terrifying thing in the world for her.

Her body began to shake uncontrollably. Her hands automatically covered her ears, but it didn’t ease her fear.

Rain drizzled outside the window, and lightning illuminated the scene. Ernesta tightly closed her eyes at the sight of it.

“Ellie, are you awake?”

Ernesta was so full of fear that she jumped at the sound behind her when Ivan spoke softly.

“I’m sorry I scared you. What’s wrong?”

Her body was completely stiff and wouldn’t obey her. Ivan seemed to feel anxious since Ernesta wouldn’t turn around or open her mouth.

“…Are you shaking?!”

There was a creaking sound from the bed behind her, followed by the sensation of the air shaking. Ernesta opened her eyes fearfully, and saw someone’s refined face leaning over her as if covering her.

“Maybe you’re scared of thunder.”

Ernesta’s body became more and more tense as he was pointed at the right place.

She was an adult, so Ermengard must be able to handle thunder without a problem. There was no way she could nod.

However, at that moment, lightning struck so loudly and intensely that it wiped out all of her thoughts. Ernesta closed her eyes again, curling up into a ball.

“No…!”

Her scream sounded even more husky and feeble than she had thought. Her throat was dry, and even breathing was painful.

—I’m scared. Please, please, pass quickly…!

That was when she prayed fervently. She thought her body had turned 180 degrees, but the next moment, she found herself wrapped in warm arms.

“It’s okay… It’s okay. Keep blocking your ears like that. I’ll take care of your eyes.”

A large palm was placed on the back of her head, pressing her face against his hard chest. The light that should have been shining behind her eyelids disappeared, and only the low voice that resonated directly in her body remained. The arm wrapped around her waist was strong, and the warmth that enveloped her was comforting.

No, you have to deny it. You have to say you were just surprised and smile.

Even though she knew that, her body relaxed on its own. Ernesta was at a loss for her own honest reaction even in a moment like this.

“You don’t have to worry about anything, lightning can’t reach here. After all, werewolves are stronger than lightning.”

Ivan seemed to be serious, but his words were like a joke. The way he combed her hair was so gentle that her chest tightened, and tears began to form in her eyes.

“I’ll stay like this until you fall asleep. Will that give you some peace of mind?”

How much has she taken advantage of this man’s kindness?

Even now, Ernesta was trying to cling to him once again. Despite feeling nauseous at her own pettiness, she found an incomparable relief in this warmth.

“…Yeah. It’s really comforting,” murmured Ernesta finally.

Although thunder continued to roar in the distance, her previous unease had dissipated by then.

Afterward, they spent what felt like both a short and long time together. Eventually, the storm clouds passed and Ernesta was able to fall asleep once again.

❂❂❂

Ivan couldn’t sleep. Even though the woman he loved was in his arms, he couldn’t simply drift off so easily.

He sighed and gazed at her peaceful sleeping face. Her body, which had been trembling just a while ago, now had a steady heartbeat.

The traces of tears were distressing. Her skin was white and delicate. If he were to touch her, she seemed like she would break on the spot.

——I want to protect her, but it just isn’t going well.

He suddenly realized that he didn’t know anything about her.

Her small back shaking in the corner of the bed. Even though she hated thunder this much, she stubbornly refused to rely on her husband.

If she had just said a word to him, he would have noticed much sooner. He could have held her in his arms right away and didn’t have to let her tremble alone.

A person who doesn’t mention likes or dislikes, yet has a mist-like impression about them. There seems to be a reason for hating lightning so much, but is it really allowed to ask about it?

Ivan sighed once again, this time with a wry smile on his face.

If he wished to protect this sleeping face, he should try asking about it soon.

Chapter 44: At the orchard

It was the weekend with less than a week left until the deadline for her impersonation. Ernesta had visited the orchard with Ivan.

Despite the intense sunlight, the dry air made it feel less hot. The orchard was located on a small hill within the grounds of the royal castle, with good ventilation and a panoramic view of the streets of Rashtovka.

The fruit trees and the black glazed roof tiles were shining against the blue summer sky. Ernesta let out a cheer for the beautiful landscape.

“What a beautiful place…! Thank you for bringing me here, Ivan.”

“Yeah. I’m glad you liked it.”

Taking a deep breath of the refreshing air, Ivan gave her a gentle smile.

Looking around, there seemed to be many ripe fruits in sight. While the trees were well maintained, there might still be a need to remove the insects and weed them.

“So, what should we do?”

She couldn’t just sit there in favor forever. Even Ermengard had to learn these kinds of work, and Ernesta had no intention of running away from her responsibilities.

Instead, she wants to work hard as a way of returning the favor. With that determination, Ernesta looked up at Ivan, who blinked in surprise.

“I’m surprised. Are you serious about doing farm work?”

“Of course! It’s not work if you only harvest the blessing.”

Ernesta had Rougena prepare her light equipment for today.

The Arkrig made of light fabric had a short hemline and was worn with pants and boots. Gloves and hand cloths were also prepared, and she was fully equipped.

“I thought you were dressed a little too eagerly… But for me, it’s not about work, it’s just about being with you.”

Although Ivan had a complex expression, he awkwardly held his tongue and eventually gave his usual wry smile.

“Well, if Ellie wishes, let’s do some work.”

“Yes! Thank you, Sensei!”

Ernesta replied seriously, her motivation overflowing.

However, at that moment, her beauty at a high position could not be contained, and surprised, he widened his eyes.

“…Haha! Me, a Sensei? That’s the first time anyone’s said that. It sounds fresh.”

It was a very cheerful laugh.

Seeing that expression for the first time, Ernesta’s heart beat faster without any regrets. Knowing another side of him made her happy. Laughing like this made him more approachable and suited him well, especially with that handsome face.

Ignoring the sweet pain in her chest, Ernesta gave him a mischievous smile.

“Ivan-sensei?”

“…! Stop it, it’s funny.”

Ivan seemed like he might double over with laughter. Seeing him really enjoying himself like that warmed Ernesta’s heart, and she chuckled too.

It would be great if we could keep laughing like this in the future.

Ernesta was contentedly looking at a hill of weeds. Brushing off the soil on her gloves, she walked towards Ivan, who was weeding the potato field.

Ernesta thought the way his large back was rounded seemed cute. Feeling a bit embarrassed by her own thoughts, she shook her head from side to side, then suddenly noticed a caterpillar on the wide shoulder.

“Oh, a caterpillar.”

Her body, accustomed to mountain climbing, moved on its own, and before she knew it, she had picked up the caterpillar and thrown it away. It was only after she noticed Ivan’s eyes widening in surprise that she realized how rough her action had been.

“You’re really different. Many women are afraid of bugs, aren’t they?”

“Um… ah, ha ha! I don’t know why, but I’ve been okay with them since I was little!”

It was her most “un-princess-like” blunder, surpassing all her previous mistakes. Ernesta’s face turned pale and she made up excuses, feeling embarrassed from the heat of the work.

“But, it’s not harmful or anything! Of course, centipedes and caterpillars are a no-no, but if we’re living here, isn’t it sad to take them away?!”

She was starting to lose track of her own words. Although she actually meant it, she felt like it was not the right time to bring it up.

As her thoughts started to swirl and dizziness began to set in, Ivan’s mouth curved into a reassuring smile.

“Well said. Even bugs need homes, don’t they?”

Ernesta was aware of how foolish her statement was, but Ivan readily affirmed it.

He really was kind to the core. Being treated with such kindness made her emotions, which she thought were suppressed, almost come to the surface.

“Let’s call it a day soon. Shall we eat some fruit before we leave?”

Ivan stood up and brushed the dirt off his knees. While his gaze was averted, Ernesta decided to press her cold hands against her cheeks.

They arrived at a gazebo with a scenic view, where they enjoyed the harvested fruits.

The refreshing wind blowing through the surrounding trees and bushes, paired with the fantastic scenery, lifted Ernesta’s spirits.

Sitting on a wooden bench together, they picked up some apricots that they had come across on the way. Ernesta took out a knife from the basket she had brought from the royal garden and started peeling the skin.

Ivan is peeling and biting into the fruit haphazardly. He seems more like a wolf than a royalty in moments like this.

“What’s the deal? You’re fine with bugs but you use a knife to peel the skin.”

“The two are not directly related. You’re being mean.”

Ernesta blushed and argued back as she skillfully peeled the skin. She felt like her dignity as a woman had long since gone out the window, but she still wanted to maintain some semblance of it for herself.

“…This is really good.”

“Really? I think it’s just average.”

Ernesta felt Ivan’s gaze on her, making her nervous. It was hard to work under such scrutiny, and she wondered if she had done something strange.

She nervously divided the fruit into eight pieces and arranged them on the plate. When she forked a piece into her mouth, a refreshing sweetness and light tartness spread throughout her mouth.

“This is delicious!”

She could eat this all day. The nourishing fruit revived her tired body and she felt energized from the bottom of her stomach.

“This is really delicious. After coming to Shenka, everything tastes good.”

“That’s good to hear.”

Ivan said shortly. It was like his usual smile, but there seemed to be a melancholic color floating in his eyes.

“Ellie. Is there anything you want to talk to me about?”

Her heart pounded so hard that she could feel her pulse.

When Ernesta didn’t say anything, his quiet voice began to speak again.

“It can be a worry or a problem. I promise I won’t do anything bad and I won’t make you sad. So if there’s anything, talk to me.”

Ernesta’s breath caught in her throat as the straight navy blue eyes shot through her.

Why did he ask her such a thing? Why was he looking at her with such sincere eyes?

“What’s wrong, Ivan? Did I seem anxious about something?”

Ernesta smiled as energetically as she could. She had to pretend she didn’t know anything precisely because she didn’t understand his intention.

“I don’t have anything like that at all. I’m very happy every day. Everyone is nice to me, and most of all, you care about me from the bottom of your heart.”

Does Ivan have a hunch about something?

If so, where does it lead?

Could I be interrogated here and now?

Ernesta shrunk in despair. However, Ivan’s response was a worn smile that she had not seen in the past month.

“…I see. That’s good, then.”

She quickly realized that she had disappointed him.

Ivan must have sensed something after all.

She hadn’t been imprisoned, which meant that she hadn’t given him an answer. That is to say, he must have felt her suffering and tried to help her.

If so, her earlier response carried a meaning of rejecting him.

She thought she should apologize, but she realized that it would be like admitting to lying and closed her mouth again.

The eternal silence was broken in a shorter time than she had anticipated. An attendant to the king ran up the hill from below.

With a single blink, Ivan immediately sharpened his gaze. His expression already had the dignity of the pinnacle of this country, and Ernesta realized that she had missed her chance to speak.

“Excuse me for interrupting your conversation! Your Majesty and My Queen…”

“Enough with the preamble. Speak.”

Ivan spoke sternly, interrupting the greeting of the gasping attendant.

“Yes! A messenger has arrived from the Bajant territory! Leutravia is assembling troops at the border!”

At that moment, Ernesta watched as Ivan clenched his fist with an expressionless face.

Regret doesn’t come first, time passing is always inevitable.

She should have known that, but foolishly believed that she could fulfill her duty without facing reality.

Chapter 55: War Council

The conference room in the royal palace was filled with a piercing tension.

Military officers and other dignitaries of the royal army were gathered in a circle on the carpet. At the head of the room sat the king, the Prime Minister, and General Kudera.

Ivan suppressed his raging emotions and sat quietly. The situation he had feared had become a reality, and memories of the fierce battle from nine years ago came flooding back.

Breaking the non-aggression pact with this kind of action, there was no longer any need for mercy. This thought was not just that of the king, but was evident on the faces of the men gathered here.

“Now then, let us first confirm the situation.”

The host of the conference was Prime Minister Johan. He spread a large map at the center of the circle and pointed to a specific location with a pointer.

“Leutravia’s invasion this time is targeting the gold mine. Is this correct up until now?”

He was pointing to Mount Koshka. This mountain near the border with Leutravia was a strategic resource center where gold had recently been discovered.

It seems that information has even reached the neighboring country. While it is typical of that country’s greed to begin an invasion targeting this mountain, their true motive is most likely fear itself.

Due to the gold mining in their country, Shenka’s national power is certain to increase from now on. They considered it dangerous for the other side to gain any more strength, especially since they are already afraid of the werewolf tribe.

“They are currently gathering troops at the border wall of Bajant’s territory. That was three days ago, so we can only imagine what has happened to the reinforcements we sent.”

The messenger ran at full speed for three days. To send troops stationed in the royal palace, they need to wait six days.

“With General Bajant’s command and the garrison troops, they should be able to hold out. However, according to the messenger, the enemy has more than ten thousand troops.”

This was the first time the air in the conference room wavered. Silvestor stroked his chin with a serious expression, and the generals exchanged looks of shock.

In general, battles involved clashes between thousands of people at most. The werewolf tribe, who boast the strength of thirty humans in a single individual, are in very small numbers per fortress. The Shenka King’s army, with its low absolute numbers, spreads its military strength that way.

“Prime Minister, this won’t last long! We need reinforcements urgently!”

One of his ministers shouted in anxiety, but Johan was calm.

“Yes, we need to gather nearby forces. However, the forts that respond to this dispatch will become vulnerable, and there is a possibility that they will be attacked.”

The conference room was enveloped in a heavy atmosphere.

In war, the problem is where to allocate limited military strength. If the judgment is even a little wrong, the result is inevitable defeat.

“Isn’t this the place? It’s the easiest for the Leutravia people to attack from here.”

“No, they could be intentionally targeting the mountain path in this area.”

“The riverbank is dangerous. It’s difficult for us to detect them with all the noise.”

With one person’s comment, the room erupted into a heated debate.

However, when Ivan raised his right hand, the noise immediately turned to silence.

“I think they’re planning a direct assault on Mount Koshka.”

In war, he was a demon. When did he earn that unwanted nickname?

The image of the prince using his wit to overcome numerous difficulties in the previous war was burned into the minds of the generals. That’s why everyone respects the king’s words and listens with bated breath.

“They must not have forgotten their failure nine years ago. We must attack with all our strength to win the support of the old soldiers.

Leutravia lost because they underestimated the individual strength of the werewolf clan and launched the war with inadequate forces. As a result, they lost a considerable number of soldiers at the outset and struggled thereafter.

“We’ll hit them head-on. The warriors now can do that.”

On the other hand, Shenka also had a hard time distributing troops to each fortress, as they couldn’t predict how the enemy would attack.

The werewolf tribe can exert more than double their power by concentrating their forces in one place. Additionally, the King’s army has been drilled for military training over the past nine years. Compared to before, individual abilities have improved and the command structure has been honed to a level beyond comparison.

“We are not who we used to be. No matter how many troops Leutravia gathers, we will surely win.”

The voice rang out like an arrow, accompanied by absolute power. The faithful subjects who agreed with the content nodded in agreement. Silvestor, who was trusted by the veterans, raised his hand to seek the right to speak.

“I agree with your idea. In other words, shall we hit the enemy forces that are pushing onto the plain with all our military might?”

The approval of the hero was met with positive voices, and the atmosphere in the conference room became one. However, Ivan shook his head, silencing the subjects with that action alone.

“No, let’s leave behind just enough troops to give the appearance of defense. It’s necessary to limit their options and keep them from making moves after giving up their invasion of Mount Koshka.”

“For now, let’s gather the minimum necessary troops in the Bajant territory. We’ll make up for the shortfall with reinforcements.”

Silvestor read the king’s thoughts with his sharp gaze. Ivan nodded and then addressed everyone.

“I will lead the reinforcements. This time, I will bite off their throat.”

As the king’s declaration triggered the fighting spirit of a warrior, the subordinates all gasped in admiration.

Johan and Silvestor had a premonition that it would turn out like this, so they simply frowned but said nothing.

In war, the lord who supervises it leads the troops. Since Shenka had organized all the soldiers into the king’s army, it was the king’s responsibility to direct them.

“Oh, Your Majesty…! If you lead us, the warriors will be even more determined than usual!”

When one of the generals clenched his fist in excitement, the men’s morale began to rise.

Ivan was still glaring at the enemy nation on the map with his sharp gaze, even as he was receiving hopeful looks from others.

As a result of the meeting, it was decided that they would depart tomorrow. They would start preparing for the expedition now, but it would take at least half a day.

After a long meeting, Ivan settled into his office and began to handle the seemingly endless stream of work. In this emergency situation, the skillful Prime Minister had brought a writing desk to his side.

Sheepskin papers were exchanged back and forth between the two desks as visitors came in to take them. After endless repetition of such tasks, Johan suddenly spoke up.

“What will you do about My Queen?”

Ivan stopped his work and looked at the Prime Minister. After confirming that he wasn’t even glancing in his direction, Ivan let out a wry smile and resumed his work, grateful for a friend who was always looking out for him.

“Well, I must be an untrustworthy man.”

This time it was Johan’s turn to stop his work. While feeling his gaze full of doubt directed at his profile, Ivan did not stop turning the parchment.

“I asked in a way that wouldn’t hit too close to the heart, but I was still evaded. It seems that she has no intention of talking honestly.”

Ivan wanted not only to trust Ermengard but also to gain her trust. Therefore, he had prepared himself for the worst when he decided to ask her. But the result was a complete failure.

The pain he felt at that time remained in his chest, festering.

“I see, and a war at this time. The spies sent to Bral will be back in another two weeks. Under these circumstances, I think we should confront My Queen head-on. Even from my perspective, there are many things that seem unnatural about her.”

Johan said in a harsh tone, but his words had no thorns. He too sensed that the Queen’s actions had no ill intent.

“You know very well why that’s impossible. Without any proof, she will never admit it. She came here with that kind of preparedness. There’s no point in confronting her when we already know that. It will only cause her more pain.”

“So it’s just about making you suffer… Understood. As I am taking care of things in your absence, I will take care of My Queen.”

Before he could even voice his intention to ask for help, it had already been offered.

Ivan stopped his hands and looked back into the blue eyes behind his glasses. Johan seemed to have stopped working and was sitting there as before, ready for whatever may come.

“You’re much more cooperative today.”

“I gave up. I don’t want you to lose focus on the battlefield.”

The Prime Minister spoke with a sigh.

This friend had always been straightforward and rude, but he was the most kind-hearted man of all.

“Please. I can only ask this of you.”

Johan had been looking at him for a while in silence, but then he looked down at the parchment.

“If you’re that concerned, why did you take command of the battle? You should have let the master handle it.”

To be honest, Ivan was not sure until the very last minute.

He was seized with an urgent feeling that something might happen to Ermengard in his absence. This made him want to stay in the castle on impulse.

“I organized the royal army. I can’t deny the responsibility that comes with it.”

But that’s just who Ivan is.

He carries the responsibility for every drop of blood shed to atone for the sacrifices so far.

“You’re really awkward, aren’t you?”

Johan muttered something, but it was too small to hear.

Chapter 56: The previous night

Ernesta didn’t remember how she got back.

When she came to, she was in her own room, and Engeberg was tilting his head with a look of puzzlement.

“Ermengard-sama, may I ask a question?”

“Oh…! Sorry. What is it?”

Ernesta laughed it off, but the competent ambassador seemed to sense the unease of the temporary queen.

“It’s understandable. I didn’t expect the war to break out at this time either.”

“Yes… I see.”

Leutravia was a country that had been in a state of war with Shenka until nine years ago. One of the major powers alongside Bral, its military strength was second to none in neighboring countries.

It was just a moment ago that the report came in that they were being attacked by that country. Ivan went to his office with a stern face, and Ernesta was forced into her room with no place to go.

“Well then, I’ll tell you again. We received a report via carrier pigeon just now. We finally found Ermengard-sama.”

Ernesta was unable to think of anything at this point.

With two enormous pieces of information coming at the same time, her mind seemed to have gone numb.

“It seems that she is inside Shenka’s borders and will arrive soon. It looks like she will make it within the deadline set by Lord Bruno. Thank you very much.”

Engeberg smiled as if relieved, but his words passed through Ernesta’s brain without registering.

She thought she should be happy at this moment, so she forced the corners of her mouth up to smile with a sense of duty.

“Yes… that’s a relief. Really, it is.”

However, that smile seemed to fall flat. Engeberg clearly frowned and sighed.

“Ernesta-sama.”

Her name was called after a long time, and Ernesta looked up suddenly.

“Are you worried about this country and those who are close to it?”

She gasped at how precisely Engeberg had hit the mark. It seems that this Shenka ambassador is truly gifted with insight.

“I believe I understand your kind heart very well. Nevertheless, I will say this deliberately. Consider this event fortunate.”

“Count Engeberg, what are you saying…?!”

Ernesta screamed. Even though he was a person with compassion, why would he say such cruel things?

“This will cause chaos not only within the castle but also in the town. With this, “she” can easily pass through the greatest obstacle… the replacement of Ermengard-sama.”

“Ah…”

It was true. Engeberg was just stating the facts. However, Ernesta couldn’t possibly think that way.

“Listen to me. You have no obligation to worry about the future of this country. Leave everything to Ermengard-sama, return to Weisbergk, forget about what happened here, and live with your kind family. That is what you want and that is what you have to do, and you are very close to doing it. Isn’t that right?”

Engeberg’s unusually harsh tone was clearly due to his kindness.

He probably noticed a long time ago that the woman who stood in as substitute had developed strong feelings for this country.

“I will inform you if there are further developments. Please do not let your guard down.”

“…I understand. Count, please be careful as well.”

Engeberg bowed and left the room. As soon as he did, Ernesta’s legs gave out and she collapsed where she stood.

She couldn’t believe that everything that had just happened was real. Yet, the hustle and bustle outside the door and the passing footsteps confirmed that it was all true.

Ernesta slapped her own cheeks and stood up.

Regardless of whether it was only a few days away, she was the Queen of this country now.

This was the courage she needed at a time like this. This was not the time to be afraid of fighting or be unsure of what to do.

Ernesta burst out into the hallway with enthusiasm and headed straight to the maids’ dressing room. As she attempted to knock on the door, she collided with someone coming out from inside.

“Rougena!”

“My Queen, how can I help you?”

Rougena’s expression, which was more severe than usual, seemed to soften slightly. And while asking about Ernesta’s intentions, her eyes held a confident light.

“Tell me what I should do now. I don’t understand anything, so I want you to lend me your strength.”

“I understand. I was also going to join in for that discussion.”

It was the first time Ernesta had seen the head maid smile.

Although caught off guard, Ernesta quickly smiled back and nodded.

The food storage (pantry) looked like a battlefield.

Everyone passing by was in werewolf form, whether they were maids or servants. They were all mixed up, carrying preserved food out and quickly returning inside. It was soon understood that they were preparing provisions for the army.

Rougena, who took Ernesta through the interior, also transformed into a werewolf and finally stopped at the workshop ahead.

“Everyone, listen.”

With just one call from the head maid, the workshop fell silent. Ernesta straightened her back again, impressed by her leadership, and listened.

“My Queen will work from now on. Please be respectful.”

A glamorous response came all at once, but it was clear that they were all surprised by the sudden appearance of the queen. Ernesta stepped forward and looked around the room with determined eyes.

“I will do my best to work as hard as possible. You don’t need to hold back on me. Please lend me your strength to overcome this crisis.”

Then, she took a Shenka-style bow, and the quiet room burst into excitement. In the workshop filled with warm air, Ernesta raised her face timidly.

“Yes! I’ll do my best to help!”

It was Dasha who cheered with enthusiasm. With her declaration as the starting point, encouraging voices flew from all directions.

“Of course! I’ll work hard!”

“Isn’t this job difficult? As My Queen, you had the right to take it easy.”

“Let’s do our best. This is an important job for women.”

The faces she had become familiar with over the past month all had reassuring smiles on them, even though their families, friends, or perhaps lovers, were headed for battle.

Ernesta nodded firmly. And she jumped into the circle and continued to work until nightfall.

❂❂❂

The maids dragged their tired bodies back to the dressing room, exhaustion visible on their faces despite their attempts to hide their anxiety.

By the time the sun began to sink, the preparations for the expedition were finally complete. It was already late for a long summer day.

“Still, My Queen’s work was amazing.”

One of the maids spoke up, and others quickly agreed.

“I was really surprised. I had no idea a human princess could work so hard.”

“She was very efficient. She even helped mix the medicine in the end.”

“When she first arrived as a bride, it was difficult to talk to her. But now she’s so kind and aware of everyone, treating them equally.”

Despite their fatigue, they chatted merrily, indicating that they still had some energy left. However, the youngest maid Dasha’s words weighed heavily on everyone’s heart.

“I hope My Queen is okay. When we received the news that His Majesty was going to the front, she seemed so sad…”

Even though she quickly put a smile back on her face and resumed her work, the queen’s demeanor commanded respect from them all. Her composure was beyond her years, and she looked dignified.

“I know you’re worried…”

“Starting tomorrow, we will support you even more than before, My Queen.”

“That’s right. Dasha, you are the closest to My Queen, so you cannot have a gloomy face.”

“Yes, of course.”

Dasha nodded with determination in her eyes. She had grown significantly in the past month, but she herself had not realized it.

As she clenched her fists and looked out the window, the sunset had dyed the sky purple.

In a little while, the night of the werewolf would arrive, the first full moon in twenty-eight days.

Chapter 57: Full Moon Promise

Ernesta had taken an early dinner during a break in her work, so she decided to take a bath as soon as she returned to her room. It might be a little early, but there was nothing else she had to do anymore, so it wouldn’t be a problem.

As usual, she handled everything alone, then prepared for bed and headed for the bedroom. Ivan was not there, and the dimly lit room felt chilly even though it was summer.

Was he still working? He seemed to be leaving early tomorrow morning, so it would be bad if he didn’t get some sleep soon.

Ernesta clasped her chest, trying to calm her restless heart.

She just wanted to see Ivan for a moment. On this last night, when she wasn’t even mentally prepared, she wanted to greet him and then go to bed.

As Ernesta was about to light the lamp next to her bed, she suddenly noticed a noise coming from the adjacent room.

She suppressed her excitement and knocked on the connecting door, feeling the air on the other side vibrate. Still, there was no answer, so she called out to the owner of the room in a small voice.

“Ivan… are you there?”

After waiting for a long pause following the call, a voice with a sense of detachment responded as if there were a wall between them.

“You should go to bed first. I still have things to do.”

Ernesta trembled as her hand rested on the door handle.

She knew that it was a burden to wait; perhaps she had upset him with the words they exchanged in the orchard during the daytime.

It seemed that even the slightest prayer for good fortune before going to battle on the eve of deployment was not acceptable.

It was inevitable. Ernesta was a liar to someone who had done so much for her. She was a cold-blooded person who planned to quietly leave the castle while he was away at war, shedding neither blood nor tears.

However…

“I’m coming in, Ivan.”

Without waiting for a reply, Ernesta opened the door wide.

Perhaps she should have given up, but her heart beat strongly and refused to turn back.

Ivan, dressed in a black chokha, was sitting on a carpet, his eyes wide in surprise as he stared at his wife. Several swords and tools were scattered around him, indicating that he had been taking care of them.

“Sorry for bothering you when you’re busy. I just wanted to see your face for a moment.”

As she took a step forward and began to move, she was stopped by a hand. Ernesta flinched at the clear rejection, but the reason was different.

“Don’t come here, it’s dangerous. I’m cleaning up right now.”

Ivan, who handled tools for killing people, looked the most upright he had ever appeared.

He successively inserted blades into the handles and put them back into their sheaths with a smooth and efficient movement. While mesmerized by his graceful movements, Ernesta furrowed her brows.

“Have you not finished? You don’t need to clean them up.”

“No, I’m almost done. I was just polishing them absentmindedly.”

“…Why?”

It was unusual for Ivan to waste time like this for no reason, so Ernesta asked in curiosity. She witnessed his face distort in self-derision as he replied.

“It’s a full moon tonight… I didn’t want to see Ellie.”

Before she could figure out the meaning of his words, the familiar blue color began to ripple.

Without realizing it, the room had become so dark that the lamp’s light stood out. Outside the window at the end, the full moon cut through the purple-blue sky.

Finally, Ernesta realized what day it was tonight.

Ivan, with a brilliant glow behind him, began to ripple suddenly. His golden hair had the texture of an animal’s fur, his blue eyes had the iris of a beast, and his human-shaped hands held the claws and fur of an animal.

The transformation that happened right before her eyes ended while she held her breath.

“Before, you said that I’m not scary.”

He put the sword he had previously sheathed under his arm and stood up. The distance between the two of them represented the invisible wall that separated the temporary couple, as wide as the room itself.

“But, I am scary. These fangs and claws are too sharp to touch you.”

His voice was as calm as the night sky. It was filled with warmth that covered everything, yet it was so far away that it was out of reach.

Ernesta gazed at his golden fur shimmering in the moonlight and remembered when he saved her back at the tenement house.

Yes, Ivan turned back into his human form before carrying his wife in his arms. In retrospect, there was no need to revert to a form with inferior strength.

At the time, she didn’t feel any doubts, but now she finally understands. Ivan didn’t just show his human form to avoid scaring others. It was to protect Ernesta from any potential harm.

“I won’t get hurt. You won’t hurt me…!”

As she shouted, her eyes burned with pain. Ernesta also wanted to protect this person with such kindness and sensitivity.

Her breath trembled. Her vision blurred, and she couldn’t discern his rugged stance. Still, she wiped her eyes with brute force and took a wide step forward.

The wolf’s face showed surprise, defenseless. While Ivan was speechless, Ernesta had arrived in front of him.

The full moon casts a blue-white glow over the room, casting two different shadows with different contours onto the carpet. His blue eyes radiating with the same glow as always, he stares directly back into her deep green eyes.

Ernesta places both hands on his strong shoulders and reaches up and gently places her lips on the golden fur of his beautiful mouth.

———I can’t get hurt. Because I have you.

Unable to put her feelings into words, she expresses her love for the man she adores through touch. She is a cruel woman. No matter how much she confesses her regret, she will never be forgiven for doing this to someone that belongs to another.

In any form or at any time, this overwhelming feeling cannot be controlled. But even if her love is so crazy and intense that it cannot be contained for herself, touching him now is different.

If she doesn’t reciprocate, everything will be lost. Before longing for an insatiably inappropriate desire.

It was only for a short time. Ernesta feels a sense of regret as she quietly separates herself.

“Please be safe.”

Finally, she smiles and says just that. There were more things she wanted to say, but they were things that should not be spoken.

Be well.

Don’t get hurt anymore.

I wish you peace in this country.

Please be happy.

It was hard to read the expression on the wolf’s face, but it was clear that he was bewildered. Ivan, a bit embarrassed, scratched the back of his head vigorously and let out a sigh that seemed to release all the air from his body.

“… It’s a good thing it’s a full moon today. Otherwise, it would be unbearable.”

As Ernesta began to ask what he meant, a pair of arms, which were now noticeably thicker than usual, reached out and pulled her close.

Feeling the softness of his arms, she closed her eyes to hide her tears.

“And you, don’t overdo it. You don’t have to go outside for work. Make sure you don’t catch a cold as it gets colder.”

Each word dropped by Ivan weighed heavily on her chest. Ernesta awkwardly nodded without raising her head. Unable to embrace him, she clung to his chest with weak and powerless arms.

After a while of silence, Ivan gently peered into her face. She was aware of her messy expression, so she instinctively tried to hide it, but then he took her hand, preventing her from doing so.

“Ellie, there’s one promise I want you to make. Wait for me here.”

Her heart pounded painfully.

There was no hint of a joke in the wolf’s eyes. Wrapped up in their straight shine, she felt an impulse to slump to the ground.

“I-I don’t want to, Ivan. You don’t have to confirm it like this…”

“Ellie.”

He suppressed her attempt to create some distance with a quiet voice.

Neither a silly conversation nor a cheerful smile was appropriate for the two of them right now. Ernesta could only look into his eyes, ignoring the pain that was coursing through her body.

“Please just nod your head. That’s all I need to come back here.”

Ernesta couldn’t resist the urgency in his voice.

And she lied. It was the worst lie she had ever told.

“…Yes. I promise. I’ll wait for you here.”

Ernesta heard the sound of her heart breaking. She forced herself to speak in a trembling voice and put on a smile that was halfway between laughter and tears.

What is certain is that she bore the burden of the guilt that she couldn’t redeem with this promise.

The smile with a wolf’s face was the kindest one yet.

Ernesta kept gazing at her temporary husband, to etch that expression in her mind so she could never forget it.

Chapter 58: The Lovely Ones 1

The army of werewolf warriors, escorted by the castle inhabitants, marched out at dawn.

The warriors had already turned into werewolves and would begin running as soon as they left the town. It seemed like a reckless march, but it was a golden rule to move quickly within the range that would be useful on site.

While watching the numerous strong backs leave, Ernesta was only looking at one. The back of a powerful figure with black clothing and golden fur that stood out.

❂❂❂

It was a tall tower. The only one standing beyond the backyard was a prison for catching noble sinners.

Led by surprised guards, she proceeded to the back. At the end of the hallway, there was a special room with a tough iron grille. She saw a man for the first time behind it.

“Hey My Queen. I was surprised you were coming. Ivan couldn’t stop you?”

Theodor was now in human form, sitting on a bed set up in the cell. His crimson eyes did not lose their vigor in this environment, and his powerful smile remained.

Ernesta told the guards to return, then turned back to the prisoner behind the iron bars.

“Yes, they said it was absolutely impossible.”

“Well, that’s no surprise. There are probably several reasons for it.”

“What do you mean?”

In response to her questioning, Theodor furrowed his brows and lowered his crimson eyes.

“I heard you injured your wrist…I’m sorry. I’m the scummiest person for injuring a woman.”

Ernesta was completely taken aback. She never expected him to bring up the injury she had even forgotten about and apologize for it. Ivan’s friend was truly kind and simply went astray.

“Don’t worry about it! It was just a little scar, and it has long since healed and disappeared!”

“You’re too kind. Ivan says that even if you forgive me for abducting you and causing the injury, he won’t forgive me.”

“…He said that?”

“Yeah. Of course, I also opposed the idea of a meeting.”

Ernesta held her breath at his words with a bitter smile.

She didn’t know that Ivan was so angry about it. She was reminded of his kindness and sense of responsibility, and felt a warm feeling in her chest.

“But, I see. So he’s not here anymore.”

She immediately understood that “he” referred to his one and only best friend. Ernesta regained her composure and nodded clearly through the iron bars.

“You can get a sense of the situation to some extent even by being here. Yes, he went out to battle not too long ago.”

There was no response from Theodor. How did he feel after being unable to participate in the battle against Leutravia, who was likely the direct cause of his lover’s death?

“…It’s frustrating.”

Theodor smiled quietly. Choosing the path of revenge for his deceased lover came with an immeasurable amount of conflict. How great would it have been if he could have taken both loyalty and love.

“Listen, everyone in my family punched me once.”

“Eh?! that must have been tough…”

“Johan and my old friends too… And then, we all laughed together. They’re happy I’m alive.”

Ernesta imagined the scene and smiled softly. For those close to him, perhaps they were angry at him for being so reckless, but being alive was probably the greatest stroke of luck.

“So, what did you think about it?”

Asking a tough question on purpose, Theodor shrugged as if to say he was in trouble.

“You don’t hold back, do you? Well, I was happy… but it was also painful. I wonder what I could have done differently.”

Even if he had to sacrifice his own life, Theodor had something he wanted to choose. Whether his desire for a country of solitude had become a thing of the past was unknown.

But now he was shaken. He was thinking about whether his past choices were right or wrong. For Ernesta, that was enough.

“I think what you did was necessary. If you didn’t do it, someone else would have. By being with comrades who share the same goal, some were able to survive.”

Kautsky (Theodor) still seemed to be silent. Their hatred for humans wasn’t something that could easily be dispelled, but it became the reason for some to keep living.

“Theodor-san, I’m grateful for having the opportunity to think because of you. So, I came to return the favor.”

“…You’re really crazy, aren’t you?”

“Not really. The most I can do is bring some food to share.”

Ernesta showed the basket she had been carrying. It contained freshly made khachapuri, boiled meat, aromatic vegetables, cheese, and alcohol. Theodor sighed but looked pleased at the mass of the basket.

“What, are you trying to bribe me? For a princess, you’re surprisingly cool.”

“Fufu, that’s right. I thought you might be hungry. Theodor-san seems to eat a lot.”

Ernesta said as she opened a small window with a key and pushed the basket through the iron bars. Theodor promptly began to rummage through its contents.

“Oh, it’s Hashrama! And it comes with Tsukemari sauce. You have good taste,” he said as he started to eat without any hesitation. Ernesta was a bit surprised by his voracious appetite.

“…Don’t you think it might be poisoned?”

“Hmm? What, this might be poisoned?”

“No, it’s not, but… I just thought you trusted me pretty easily as a human.”

Theodor stopped chewing and thought for a moment.

But he quickly put on a bright smile and grabbed the khachapuri, chomping into it enthusiastically.

“It’s my intuition! Plus, I was really hungry!”

“R-Right…”

“So, what’s the deal? Why did you come here?”

He is a mysterious person. He has a childlike smile, yet seems to be skilled at reading other people’s psychology.

“Theodor-san, what will you do if you get out of here?”

“Are you assuming that I can leave? You wouldn’t want me to come out of prison, would you?”

“No, not at all.”

Ernesta replied easily. Surprised by her straightforward answer, Theodor remained silent for a while, chewing his meat.

“…Well, what is the reason then?”

“Because His Majesty asked for your help.”

Ernesta smiled softly. If Ivan said that this friend’s help was necessary, there was no need for any other reason.

At least, it would be good to have one more person she could count on by her side. If Theodor’s return was recognized by everyone, it would be a happy thing for Ernesta too.

“If I come to see you like this, people will realize that the Queen has forgiven the guilty. If that happens, the trial will be easier to conduct, won’t it?”

This is a gesture of gratitude and atonement. It’s a heartfelt gift to the king, who will continue to walk a difficult path in the future.

“I’m not asking for all your time, but once we leave here, please use your power to help the king.”

Theodor remained silent for a moment, taken aback by the earnest request.

Eventually, he blinked and let out a wry smile, banishing any doubt from his eyes.

“You’re quite the strategist. I owe you a big one for the favor you did me.”

“Theodor-san.”

“I have to take care of my comrades. Once that’s done, I’ll think about it.”

Despite his murky words, Theodor’s smile was refreshing.

In contrast, Ernesta’s guilt was growing. This was as far as she could go as a fake queen. Whether he would be accepted by those around him and whether he himself would want it were both factors in making that decision.

“Thank you. Please, take care.”

Ernesta smiled, feeling the sensation of everything she could do being almost finished, lingering in her chest.

Chapter 59: The Lovely Ones 2

Days passed in a flurry of activity.

Ernesta worked tirelessly, even though Johan scolded her. It was tough work, but it was much easier than being tormented by overwhelming suffering.

Then, a few days after, when Ernesta was writing in her diary in her room one night, Engeberg visited her. It was evident from his serious expression what the purpose of his visit was.

“Ermengard-sama has arrived in Rashtovka. Tomorrow, we will go to meet her to the royal castle to change places.”

Ernesta nodded quietly. She had made up her mind long ago, so there was no need to be surprised now.

“I’m happy that she arrived safely. I’ll wait here, right?”

“Yes. Please change into this outfit after you wake up and wait here.”

He handed her an outfit that was identical to one from the Queen’s wardrobe. Ernesta was amazed by its accuracy and took out the same outfit from her closet to give it to him.

Now there were two identical outfits. The real one was intended for Ermengard to wear.

“We’ll switch in the early morning. I know it’s tough to wake up…”

“It’s okay. I’ll wake up early and wait.”

Engeberg smiles awkwardly at the substitute lady, who smiles softly at him. Ernesta sends the capable ambassador on his way with another heartbreaking expression that shows her labor.

She first put away the outfit that had been given to her, then slowly turned around and looked around the silent room.

She had lived here for a month and a half. There were difficult and painful times, but overwhelmingly more happy memories.

As Ernesta closed her eyes, memories flooded back. But as a knock sounded again, she quickly headed to the door.

It was Dasha. Even though she should be worried about her family and heading home soon, could something have happened?

“Um…there’s something I need to talk to My Queen about.

“A talk? Come in, let’s sit.”

Seeing Dasha looking hesitant and avoiding eye contact, Ernesta took her hand and invited her into the room. She sat her on the warm rug and peered into her round eyes.

“I’ll bring you some tea. Please wait for a moment.”

“Eh…! I, I can’t let My Queen do such a thing.”

“I’m just pouring the tea from the pot you left here. Just wait, okay?”

She patted Dasha’s slender shoulders to calm her down and poured the tea from the pot on the chest into the glass. This tea, which tasted good even when it got cold, was Dasha’s specialty.

Handing the glass to the apologetic maid, Ernesta prepared the same for herself and took a sip after moistening her throat. Then she smiled at the maid who was still looking down.

“So, what kind of talk is it?”

“…Actually, I was asked by Rougena-sama to check on your condition.”

Ernesta widened her eyes in deep green. She urged Dasha to continue with her story without saying a word, gripping her glass almost unconsciously.

“Rougena-sama said that it wouldn’t be fun if she said it herself… Since Your Majesty’s departure for war, everyone has been worried about how much you have been pushing yourself.”

Ernesta felt an urge to pour out everything she was feeling at the warmth of the hesitant words.

Please, stop. Even though she wished it from the bottom of her heart, the maid’s eyes filled with genuine concern remained unwavering.

“I’m sorry, it might be disrespectful but… Everyone loves My Queen, myself included! That’s why we can’t bear to see you pushing yourself so hard. If it’s tough for you, then please show it more openly——.”

“Dasha, I’m fine.”

Ernesta halted her personal maid’s suggestion with a soft but clear voice.

As her maid’s eyes closed sadly, they quickly opened again in surprise. The vulnerable expression was painful to watch, but Ernesta put on a brave face with a smile.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that I was causing everyone to worry while I was acting as I usually do. But I’m okay now.”

“My Queen…?”

“Starting tomorrow, I’ve decided to turn into a completely different person and be full of energy. I’m sure I’ll overdo it, but…if you can just treat me as normal, that’s what would make me happiest.”

——I’m sorry, Dasha.

I sincerely appreciate you. You were the first girl of my age to become close to me in this country. Without you, I might have given up a long time ago.

Ernesta hugged the girl closest to her with both hands.

“My Queen?! What’s wrong?”

“Thank you for worrying about me. I love you too.”

Not just Dasha. Everyone she had met in this country was dear to her.

She felt like she had already passed the point of unfeelingness, leaving without even saying goodbye, despite all the kindness they had shown her. She knew no amount of apology would be enough, but she couldn’t help but whisper it in her heart.

I’m sorry, everyone. Thank you for helping me up until now.

“Really?! Is that true? What should I do, I’m so happy! Ehehe…”

Dasha seemed happy about something, which only added to Ernesta’s suffering.

Feeling plagued by guilt, Ernesta watched her leave and then lay down on her bed. Tonight, she was only concerned about the pain in her chest, and she had a feeling she wouldn’t be able to sleep.

❂❂❂

Ernesta got up before dawn.

There were many things racing through her head, and she couldn’t sleep at all, but that was okay. After all, she was going to be on a long journey, so she could sleep in the carriage.

She washed her face and put on the Arkrig she was handed yesterday. Then she realized how pale she looked, so she used a lamp to put some rouge on her cheeks, and she looked somewhat better.

She stood there for a while, as the sky gradually began to brighten, and the room was bathed in the light of dawn. Just as she thought it was about time, the door finally made a faint noise.

As soon as she saw the person who entered the room, Ernesta opened her eyes wide. She put her hand over her trembling mouth. If she hadn’t done that, she would have cried out in shock.

She stood there with a very dignified appearance. Wearing the exact same Arkrig outfit, her face was almost indistinguishable from Ernesta’s.

“Hello, I wanted to see you. My dear sister.”

Ermengard smiled in a nonchalant tone and had a much more composed demeanor than her stand-in sister.

Ernesta was at a loss for words, her head reeling with more shock than she had imagined, and for a while, she found herself staring at a face that was exactly like hers.

Chapter 60: Fateful twins

Following the princess, Engeberg slipped into the room. He seemed thoroughly exhausted, with a pale face and sweat on his forehead.

“I finally made it…more like barely, though.”

It seemed he had worn his nerves thin on the way here. However, Ermengard was unfazed, as if she had taken a stroll in a familiar place.

“It’s okay, Count. You’re the one who said that even if I walked, it would only seem like the Queen woke up early.”

“Even so, normally one would be nervous. If the number of guards on watch hadn’t decreased in this battle, things could have been dangerous.”

Engeberg wiped his forehead and turned to the stunned Ernesta. The hard-working ambassador seemed to have accumulated more stress than usual and was completely hunched over.

“Ernesta-sama, as you may know, this is Ermengard-sama.”

“Nice to meet you. Well, it’s been a long time since we were born, so maybe ‘long time no see’ is more appropriate… I was really surprised at how much we look alike.”

Ernesta’s face had a calm smile, even as she expressed her surprise. Although she reflexively grabbed the offered hand, she still couldn’t believe it was real.

No matter how much she had heard the rumors, actually seeing it with her own eyes left her speechless. Her mind was finally starting to produce thoughts that could comprehend her being a twin.

“…I’m glad you’re all right. It’s an honor to meet you, Ermengard-sama.”

“You’re being very formal. Well, I can’t blame you.”

Ermengard’s eyes were filled with regret. It was strange and fresh to see the same face with different expressions.

“I’m sorry, Ernesta. I don’t think anything I say can make up for what I did…I grew up without knowing about my sister’s existence. So when I ran away, I never imagined you carrying out such a reckless plan.”

Her gaze was honest, and her words were something that could be easily understood. It was strange to know about the existence of a sister who had been erased.

“In the first place, I was against this marriage, and the reason was my personality. I mean, I’m a selfish free spirit, and there’s no way I’m suited to be a queen. I thought that not getting married would spare the alliance from shaking.”

Engeberg nodded silently behind the princess. Ernesta thought it was quite a rude response, but she couldn’t interrupt the story, so she waited silently for it to continue.

“So, when King Ivan came to visit, I stayed locked in my room to avoid him. But despite that, the engagement was decided. Apparently, His Majesty the Emperor intended to lay the foundation of the alliance and get rid of me at the same time. As you can see, I’m a bit of a rebel.”

Ermengard said with interest. Ernesta felt like she had glimpsed the suffering that Ermengard carried in her too-easy-to-talk-about clash with her own parents.

“So, I thought I’d surprise those people for once.”

But the next words made her open her mouth in surprise.

Engeberg was holding his head in frustration. It was probably a story he had already heard, but he didn’t want to hear it again.

“The plan was to leave the palace and travel while painting. Then, return a few days after the departure date for the wedding. I thought I could make up for the delay and enjoy seeing their crying faces.”

“But she was having so much fun painting that she forgot all about it… Honestly, I don’t have the words.”

“I wonder if you were impressed by my concentration?”

“No, I am just amazed. What if something happened during your outdoor adventure?”

Engeberg let out a sigh, unable to say anything. Ernesta was beyond stunned by the absurd truth and was feeling refreshed.

It was certainly in line with Engeberg’s impression of the absent-minded genius who always remained calm. It seemed that Ernesta’s real sister was much more interesting than she had imagined.

“Um, may I ask you one thing? Is that okay?”

“Sure. What is it?”

“Does Ermengard-sama think werewolves are scary?”

Ernesta asked, looking into the same deep green eyes as her own.

After blinking twice, Ermengard’s twin sister smiled crisply.

“Not at all. We’ve met them on the road, and they’re no different from us.”

At that moment, the anxiety that had been brewing in Ernesta’s heart dissolved.

This person is not someone who would harm Shenka. If she could know that, it would be more than enough for her own sins.

Ernesta smiled and handed her diary, which she had been carrying, to Ermengard.

“Please use this if you find it helpful.”

“What is this?”

“It’s a diary I’ve written in the past month and a half. I thought it might come in handy.”

Ermengard looked somewhat surprised. She flipped through the diary in her hand, her eyes widened even more.

“I’m surprised. You wrote quite a lot of details. From what you studied, to the events of the day, and even the characteristics of people around you… You’re also quite good at drawing, aren’t you?”

“P-Please stop! It’s embarrassing to be directly told about it! Please read it later!”

As Ermengard held her hands up in front of her and shook them to the side, she showed Ernesta the biggest smile she had seen since they met. The expression was very attractive, and Ernesta thought to herself that she could probably never make such a face.

“It’s strange, I don’t feel like we’re just meeting for the first time… Hey, Ernesta, I wish we had grown up together. I wonder what fate would have awaited us. Or if we were born in reverse order, what kind of lives would we have lived.”

Ernesta was amazed as she considered the possibility of growing up as a princess.

If there had been no custom of twins, could Ermengard have become a close sister? If she had been born as an older sister, would she have grown up as a princess without any inconvenience?

Having received advanced education from the beginning and acquiring all the necessary qualities… could she have confidently married Ivan?

As she thought about it, the pain in her chest that she had been suppressing began to make itself heard.

“If I could have lived with you, I’m sure it would have been fun. But that’s something we can’t do anything about now.”

Ernesta smiled quietly.

Her life had certainly been happy until now. She loved her family from the bottom of her heart. She didn’t even want to think about the possibility of not meeting them.

Was this person happy? This princess, who grew up in an environment where she could obtain anything in the world yet had eyes that concealed a sense of emptiness.

“You’re right. I said something unnecessary.”

Ermengard, who had a quiet smile on her face, extended her supple arms.

Ernesta was in the arms of someone who was related to her by blood for the first time in her life. The warmth that seeped into her vision was both cursed and precious.

“Thank you for everything. For your sake, I’ll do my best, too.”

“Yes, it was nice to meet you. Take care of yourself.”

“Yeah, you too. I don’t think we’ll ever meet again, but I’ll always think of you.”

Those were the last words. As they separated from each other, Engeberg finally panicked and said:

“We should be going now. Let’s take advantage of the guards’ change of shift.”

“Okay. Let’s go.”

Just before the door closed, Ernesta turned around. There was her reflection gazing back at her, sending her off with a lonely smile.

Chapter 61: I wish you all the best

Ernesta walked down the hallway with the ambassador. They deliberately moved at a normal speed, since running would attract attention and cause them trouble even if they passed someone. Finally, they arrived at a shabby, isolated cottage in a corner of the palace.

“Please change into the maid costume and stole here.”

Inside the cottage, there were maid costumes and stoles prepared. Following Engeberg’s instructions, Ernesta changed into them and went outside, where Engeberg showed an impressed expression.

“With this, no one will notice. Ernesta-sama, you are good at disguising yourself.”

“I am a commoner. This is more suitable for me.”

Ernesta smiled brightly. Engeberg seemed relieved by her poised attitude, and he also smiled.

“Ernesta-sama, thank you so much. I will never forget this favor.”

“Oh, no. I am also deeply grateful for curing my mother’s illness.”

“No, we were originally in a position where we had to treat Isolte-sama as gratitude for raising you. We were, in fact, taking her hostage.”

Those were words that exposed his own guilt. Even though he didn’t have to say it, he was one of those who carried out his work while being tormented by his conscience.

“It’s nothing for you to worry about. The fact that you helped me is sufficient.”

Ernesta had caused this kind and serious ambassador a lot of trouble and always relied on his help. As she parted ways with the person with whom she had shared secrets for over two months, her tear ducts loosened once again.

“I couldn’t do anything… I caused you a lot of worry too.”

“Indeed, I was always concerned. Miss, you always handle everything according to your own judgment.”

“Uh… I’m sorry.”

Ernesta lowered her at the last minute. But the light in Engeberg’s eyes was kind and he immediately smiled and shook his head.

“You have done your best, and you have even won everyone’s trust. Please stop belittling yourself. You have done everything in your power to behave as a queen, and you have only responded to our selfish demands. There is no fault in that.”

“Count Engeberg…”

“Thank you again, Ernesta-sama. I pray for your happiness from now on.”

Realizing that he was encouraging her to bear the suffering of a substitute, Ernesta had nothing more to say.

The last smile on her face must have been distorted. After giving a deep bow, Ernesta finally turned on her heel and began to walk away.

Finally, she went out through the back door and got into the carriage that was waiting in the distance. There were the imperial guards who had taken care of her on the way, and they made a deep bow to her.

The wheels creaked as the carriage began to move. Ernesta gazed absent-mindedly at the gradually flowing cityscape at dawn.

While she had been so anxious when she first arrived, the journey back was filled with a sense of loss.

Ernesta had no idea it would be this difficult. She hadn’t even imagined how hard it would be when she accepted the mission.

When Engeberg first explained the plan to her and said, “Keep a distance of neither too close nor too far.” She had argued back then, wondering why he would say such a thing, but now she understood.

Those were words to save Ernesta. It was his kindness to prevent her from experiencing such hardship.

Her eyes throbbing with pain, everything she had endured so far surged into her, breaking through the dam easily. Without even wiping away the overflowing tears, Ernesta closed her eyes, unable to fight the misty view.

In the darkness, all she could think of were the faces of the people who had taken care of her, particularly the man she had loved most in her life, whose memory burned her chest like a fever.

Ivan would touch Ermengard, gazing at her with kind eyes and giving her awkward words. Maybe one day he will love and be loved by his real wife who has an unfathomable charm.

Ernesta finally broke down, burying her face in her knees. Earlier, she had pretended to be obedient and listened, but in truth, she was in so much pain and wanted to scream out how much she hated every inch of her body.

Her chest hurt. It hurt so much that it was unbearable.

She would carry this guilt for the rest of her life. So at least she wished to offer her love for the country, who she knew would never return her feelings.

Please forgive me. She would pray for “his” military exploits from afar and wish for his happiness.

Ernesta continued to hold back tears. She could tell that the guard sitting across from her had a solemn look, but she couldn’t stop crying.

The carriage, carrying the end of one chapter, quietly made its way through the town in the early morning. No one knew who was inside.

❂❂❂

“…Yes. I promise. I’ll wait for you here.”

Bathed in the blue-white light of the full moon, his delicate and beautiful wife smiled.

Everything about her had become an irreplaceable treasure to Ivan. Even though he knew she only touched him to prove that he would not be hurt, the joy he felt for her kindness and the warmth he faintly felt on his lips was just as great.

“Ah, I promise.”

The softest voice he’s ever heard.

He couldn’t indulge in this warmth. And yet, the thorn that had pierced his heart fell away without his permission.

In the end, his pride and duty as a king meant nothing in front of her.

Suppressing his emotions and distancing himself from gentle days was much easier than feeling guilty for enjoying them. But if it meant making her happy, he felt he could even accept the things he had refused to see until now.

How arrogant he was to force her to make such a promise to wait for him. But no matter how much self-loathing he felt, He couldn’t leave her side without keeping that promise. He felt like she would vanish like an illusion if he took his eyes off her, not knowing what kind of life she had lived, what she liked, or what she desired.

Nevertheless, Ivan swore to believe in her. So he had to depart with that promise in his heart, trusting her.

Her deep green eyes stared straight at him. Their color was crystal clear, reflecting the sad face of the wolf.

“Ivan. I would like you to have this.”

She suddenly goes through the pockets of her gown and hands him something.

Ivan gently took the wrap from her slender fingers, covered in wolf fur.

When he opened it, he found many candy balls inside. Each one was wrapped in thin cloth, giving a rustic appearance. Ivan raised his head in surprise.

“I thought it would be nice to have something sweet that would last a while, so I made it. After finishing helping with the expedition, I borrowed the kitchen… in the end, everyone helped me, and we made a lot of it, so I put it in the provisions.”

She smiled shyly, and he felt a little disappointed.

It wasn’t just made for me? Ivan was shocked at the selfishness of his thought.

What was I thinking? She had taken care of the preparations for the expedition. Moreover, she had shown such consideration even for a husband she did not love.

“You like apricots, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Good. I actually made apricot-flavored candy only for Ivan. It’s just that I couldn’t couldn’t make many, so keep it a secret.”

He couldn’t help but be shaken by her words.

The disappointment he felt earlier turned into excitement, and a crazy feeling began to build up.

“If you’re tired, eat something sweet. Take it easy. And… I’m sure you’ll come back safely.”

As he looked at her poignant smile, he felt like he wanted to scream for no reason, and he tightened his grip on the package.

If these claws and fangs hadn’t been present tonight, I might have hurt you terribly.

You say I’m kind and sincere, but that’s far from the truth.

I’m a rogue who almost forgets even the promise to wait for you every time I sleep with you. I think I can’t bear to be hated by you. I’m nothing but a beast.

“Thank you, Ellie.”

Surely, she’s worried. Even though she doesn’t say anything, her kind heart is not aching for the war, being the kind person that she is.

So Ivan made a vow in his heart.

I don’t know who you are.

But for now, I would simply protect you. For this country, and for the person waiting for me.

When he opened his eyes, Ivan’s field of vision was filled with a tasteless tent.

He closed his blurry vision, trying to chase the remnants of his dream. But the delicate figure melted like mist, and even the content of the dream became obscure.

“… I hope you are well.”

His passionate murmur was thrown out into the dim tent and fell.

After taking a candy from his luggage and putting it in his mouth, Ivan headed outside to start his work.

Chapter 62: At the battlefield

It happened just as he was about to give the command for artillery fire. The Leutravia military commander saw something strange within his field of vision while on horseback.

A werewolf appeared from within the walls of the castle built in the Bajant territory of Shenka.

The fur visible through the gaps in the armor was gray, perhaps. While dozens of werewolves had come out in the past, why was only one standing on the battlefield now?

He felt cold sweat streaming down his temple. That was why he had opposed invading Shenka. Had his lord forgotten how much damage they had caused nine years ago?

The man told himself that he would be all right. Reflecting on the failure nine years ago, he had gathered all his forces in front of this castle wall. With such a massive military force to use, they would surely be unbeatable this time.

He swung his command sword with determination and gave the order with a cry of fierce determination. The cannons fired, closing in on the werewolf standing alone without any weapons.

They would make him realize the folly of standing on the battlefield without even pulling out his prey, facing the Leutravia military.

However, the man’s intentions were betrayed by an unbelievable sight.

For some reason, a shell was split in two right before the werewolf’s eyes and struck the ground, raising a cloud of dust. Amid the warriors quickly being obscured from view, he felt his right hand, which held the command sword, start to tremble.

That’s right, that werewolf had sliced the shell out of the air. He couldn’t keep up with the distance and speed, but he remembered the otherworldly technique as if by an act of God.

Nine years ago, there was a certain werewolf called a monster among monsters. A warrior who fought on the battlefield with only one swing of his sword.

“General Kudera…!”

The object of his fear leaped out of the cloud of dust with sharp movements. Kudera continued to flash his large sword at an inconceivable speed, striking down every single shell that should have been smashed.

Before this ghostly spectacle, unease spread among the soldiers. This was bad. It was clear from the scene in front of them that, even with their numbers, they had to be prepared to face that terrifying man.

According to the prior report, Kudera was supposed to be assigned to the royal castle, so his arrival was too early. It seemed that they had underestimated the werewolves’ mobility, and the realization chilled them even more.

“On the walls!”

Someone shouted loudly, and all the soldiers turned their attention to the top of the walls. There were werewolves there, wielding huge guns that humans couldn’t handle, telling them that reinforcements had finally arrived.

In the middle of the line of werewolves stood a figure recognizable to them all. He was a man who had caused Leutravia bitter defeat when he was still inexperienced. With his golden fur and extraordinary strength, he was now the king and warrior.

It was King Ivan who had come with the reinforcements, and waves of fear began to spread among the soldiers. They knew it was already too late, and the range and power of those muskets were——.

“Retreat! Retreat!”

The commander let out a loud voice. As his subordinates started to retreat without understanding what was happening, he pulled the reins of his horse.

Bullets rained down in the chaos of the battlefield, not long after that.

❂❂❂

Lately, Ivan’s daily routine was to contemplate while eating apricot candy in the evening. It’s a shame that he finally ran out of candy today.

Standing alone on the castle wall dyed in the sunset, he gazed at the war-torn plain. First, he thought about the battle. And then, he spent most of his time thinking about the person who made the candy.

How is she doing now? Although the weather was getting increasingly autumn-like, he hoped she wasn’t caught with a cold or anything. Nevertheless, with her cuteness, Ivan couldn’t help but wonder if she had any men confessing their love to her. Even though she was a human and the queen’s presence was somewhat restraining, fearlessness was a characteristic of the werewolf tribe.

[Hey, Ivan. What are you eating there?]

Suddenly, Mikolash appeared beside him, flicking his silver fur in the evening breeze. Ivan hadn’t noticed his partner approaching, too absorbed in his thoughts.

[It was the last one, so you don’t need to know.]

[Oh? What’s up with that? You’re such a cheapskate.]

While he had shared some candy with a farmer’s child on the way, Ivan had no intention of giving any to the wolves that were well-fed. Even if it was his partner who had fulfilled the role of delivering messages during battles.

Ivan crushed the now much smaller piece of candy with his sharp teeth and looked out at the ravaged plain after days of fighting.

[Listen, Mikola. We’re going to end this war as quickly as possible.]

[I know. I’ll make sure to send you back to Ellie as soon as possible, so look forward to that.]

Ivan was visibly shaken by Mikolash’s words, despite his attempt to convey his serious determination. Why was he bringing up something like that?

[What are you talking about? You’re not making any sense.]

“Really? The reason you showed incredible strength like a demon is because you’re worried about Ellie.]

——How did he find out? Did I say anything? No, I shouldn’t have.

Mikolash glanced behind the king as if mocking the turmoil in Ivan’s heart. Feeling the presence of someone, Ivan turned around as well.

There was the figure of a hero who had shown great feats even during the day. The werewolf with gray fur had a calm demeanor, and his eyes held a color of compassion as usual.

[Your Majesty, Mikola too. I see you’re here.]

[Yo, boss! You came too!]

Silvestor also stands next to Mikolash, who wags his tail happily and strokes his head.

Although he had surpassed the hero in height in time, there was little difference in the fact that his existence was significant. However, the fact that Ivan was forcing his senior, who was of an age where retiring wouldn’t be odd, to push himself to the limit created waves of unrest in Ivan’s heart.

“Silvestor, I’m sorry for always burdening you with such unreasonable things.”

“Not at all. If this old body can be of use to you, it would be an unexpected joy.”

Silvestor had a soft smile on his face. With shining eyes filled with courage, he gazed out at the plain and began to mutter to himself.

“My lord has always been someone who enjoys taking in the good with the bad, and has suffered for it. That’s why all of us, his vassals, want everyone to be happy.”

Ivan was reminded of a conversation he had with him one night. Yes, this was a continuation of the words he had almost said last.

Did Silvestor come to suggest that he should talk with the queen at that time? He now feels embarrassed about having easily turned him away.

“… I think about it again, ruling this country has been a blessing for me.”

Because he loved this country, it wasn’t much trouble to kill. He swore to himself that he would work hard every time he saw the people becoming more prosperous.

Ivan thought while licking his candy. Who was responsible for him realizing that? When he arrived at the answer, he wanted to quit his job as king for the first time.

A little bit of longing and guilt. Even so, he couldn’t help but want to see that smile again.

“You have changed in a desirable direction… Now, Your Majesty, let me ask again. Have you been speaking properly with My Queen?”

“I guess not. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time talking with her.”

Although he thought they had increased their conversation time from before, it seemed it wasn’t enough. After all, she hadn’t even confided in him about any of her worries.

However, these thoughts were quickly denied by the wise old man.

“Talking is important, but it’s not just about speaking. What I’m asking is if you’re properly conveying your feelings with your words.”

“Conveying my feelings with words?”

At that moment, the King’s expression became extremely vulnerable in the eyes of one man and one animal.

Unaware of this, Ivan was stunned and couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the huge shock.

“I see. Conveying my feelings… Yes, that’s right. I never thought about it.”

For Ivan, that act was nothing less than the pursuit of happiness.

He had never been able to express his feelings to his loved ones before, so he had never even had the idea of wanting to convey his emotions or have them returned. The natural actions that all living creatures perform had completely slipped his mind.

It was too pathetic of a dullness to think that he had not pursued such things until now…

[What should we do, Mikola? I have an inexplicable pain in my heart.]

[I feel the same way, boss. It’s like, no matter how stoic we have lived, we end up like this.]

The teacher and his partner exchanged conversation with helpless looks, but Ivan’s pointed ears did not pick up on the content.

It seemed that there were heaps of things they had to do. When faced with that fact, his desire to see her grew even stronger.

It was a situation that his former self could never have imagined. He was only thinking about one woman in the midst of a war that would determine the fate of his country.

Chapter 63: Fox and Raccoon 1

Engeberg stood in front of a door.

The thought of facing the owner of this room made his heart cold, but since he had been called, he couldn’t ignore it.

After taking a deep breath and knocking, he received an immediate response. Engeberg wiped the tension from his expression and entered the room.

There, Shenka’s Prime Minister, Johan Orzif Slezak, was waiting. As soon as he saw Engeberg, he smiled and gestured for her to sit on the fur rug.

“Welcome, Count Engeberg. I apologize for summoning you.”

“It’s no problem, Your Excellency. If you’ll excuse me.”

Engeberg felt uncomfortable sitting directly on the floor, realizing that he had come to a country with a completely different cultural background. He knelt as usual, while Johan sat cross-legged in a relaxed manner, exchanging glances with him.

The Prime Minister has called his secretary to make tea. There was nothing particularly unusual about his demeanor; he was covered in courtesy towards guests from foreign countries.

However, Engeberg is convinced that someone who previously snuck into the room and searched around is a lackey of the Prime Minister.

“It’s been two months since you arrived. Is there anything troubling you?”

Engeberg’s heart rate increased even more at the neat smile that spoke of social niceties. That’s right, it’s been almost two months since he came to this country. In other words, this summons is happening two weeks after the “Queen’s replacement.”

“Oh no, Your Excellency. Thanks to you, it has been very easy to spend the time here.”

“That’s good. Since you are our first guest from the western continent, I was worried that you might have some trouble with things here.”

“Oh no, no, I have no problems at all. The food here is delicious. I always end up overeating.”

“Oh, Count, you’re knowledgeable about spices, too. Then please come to my house next time. I’ll prepare homemade liquor for you.”

“Wow! I’m honored to be invited. I’m looking forward to it.”

The conversation continued smoothly on the surface. However, the intense tension between the two made the secretary who brought the tea shrivel up.

Engeberg had been an ambassador since the time when the majority opposed the alliance and had battled with this talented young man ever since. It was clear from the scenes of this shrewd young man cutting down cunning politicians that if he handed over the initiative, it would be the end of the story.

“It’s good to hear that you enjoyed the meal. I hope that My Queen did not find it too much to her taste.

The conversation naturally turned to the queen, and Engeberg felt his heart pounding. However, he didn’t show any sign of agitation and casually took a sip of the tea that was served to him.

“She didn’t ask about it specifically.”

“Oh, is that so? Actually, I’ve heard from the cooks that My Queen has been having a small appetite lately.”

It was completely news to him. Apparently, Ermengard was having trouble getting used to the taste of this country. Engeberg knew very well that the substitute queen was less demanding than the real queen.

“I can only imagine, but it’s probably because His Majesty the King went to battle and she’s worried about him.”

“I suppose that’s a fair point. They are a very affectionate couple.”

“Yes, it’s really wonderful. That’s why, personally, I hope King Ivan returns safely. The situation seems to be in their favor, which is great.”

Engeberg wanted to change the topic now. He wondered if he could somehow divert the conversation to the topic of the war and avoid talking about the queen.

“Count Engeberg, actually, the reason I called for you today was because I wanted to hear your thoughts on My Queen.”

Engeberg had to desperately hold himself back from clutching his chest as his heart raced uncontrollably.

He carefully chose a roundabout topic and skillfully pulled the conversation in their direction at just the right moment. Thanks to this conversational skill of controlling the rhythm, countless Bral nobles had been subdued.

There was no doubt that Johan was aware of something. He could not reveal his hand yet and needed to confirm how much information Johan had obtained.

“Is this about My Queen? What would you like to ask me?”

“As I mentioned earlier, My Queen has been acting strangely these days.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Johan brazenly crossed his arms. There was no need for him to ponder about things at this point.

“Well, she seems more confident than before. I suppose you could say her atmosphere has changed. And, recently, she’s been seen drawing pictures.”

Despite having asked her repeatedly to refrain from drawing for a while, Engeberg couldn’t get Ermengard to stop.

However, Johan remained unfazed with a carefree smile on his face.

Engeberg wondered how much the man could have guessed. Perhaps he knew everything and was just waiting for the other person’s self-destruction.

If that were the case, it would be terrible, but if the truth were to reveal itself, it would be the end if he showed any signs of distress.

“Ermengard-sama has always loved drawing. She has become accustomed to living here and has regained some composure, which is why she decided to start again.”

“Well, that’s new to me. I’d love to see her work.”

Johan’s smiling face shows no sign of irritation at the ambassador’s reluctance to reveal the truth.

Engeberg’s heart was pounding and he lowered his eyebrows, putting on a sad expression.

“I’m also concerned about the change in atmosphere. I’m sure she must miss His Majesty’s departure.”

And with that, he dropped a line that implied he knew nothing. If he went so far as to express his worries, it would be difficult for anyone to refute him.

Behind his seemingly composed behavior, his heart was pounding so hard it felt like it would burst. The silence that fell between the two strong individuals was broken in an instant, and Johan also let out a sigh with a troubled expression.

“So Count Engeberg thinks the same way. Yes, I understand. It would be best to inform the ladies-in-waiting to support My Queen as much as possible.”

“I would be grateful if you could do that.”

He somehow managed to get through it. Engeberg breathed a sigh of relief in silence.

“Count Engeberg, do you like birds?”

“Birds? I think they are beautiful creatures.”

As soon as he reflexively answered, Johan’s mouth turned up at the corners, causing Engeberg’s blood to run cold. His eyes were covered by the reflections in his glasses at that moment, and it was impossible to discern what emotions they held.

What’s wrong? What did I do wrong?

“It seems like Count is fond of birds. However, you won’t see many around here, unfortunately. They hardly come to the city. Wolves and birds don’t mix well.”

The sharp Prime Minister, Johan, tilting his head with interest. Engeberg, who had never heard of this fact before, lost color in his face, but Johan showed no mercy.

“However, strange things have been happening recently. It seems that a subordinate was attacked by a pigeon while on duty. It’s strange where it could have come from… If it’s a brave pigeon like that, wouldn’t you want to tame it, given your love for birds?”

The presence of a mysterious spy sticking around the queen had been noticed by Engeberg for some time now.

That’s why, during the queen’s replacement, he had sent messenger pigeons to attack, for the purpose of blinding the spy. It was a risky move, but it was the only way to keep them from knowing that they knew.

It was clear that the subordinate referred to by Johan was the spy. The reason behind choosing this topic was unclear.

“Well, well. What happened to the subordinate? Are they alright?”

“Well, thanks to you. You went easy on him, didn’t you?”

“A mere pigeon cannot do such a thing. You have a surprisingly good sense of humor.”

“Oh my, that’s a terrible thing to say. Even I can make a joke or two.”

Between the two of them, there was an intense game of cat and mouse, accompanied by a smile.

It was as if they were carrying a fierce beast behind them, and the secretary who came to refill their tea was frozen to the point of being unable to move.

“Well then, Prime Minister, I’ll be taking my leave. I have a meeting with a private entrepreneur about trade today.”

“Yes, thank you for your time. Please assist us with the trade as well.”

After shaking hands one last time, Engeberg crawled out of the devil’s den.

Suddenly, all the strength drained from him, and he felt the urge to sit down, but he managed to resist and started walking slowly.

There was no doubt. Johan suspected the Queen with great confidence.

Seeing that they weren’t caught on the spot, they couldn’t be sure of the truth. The twin princesses were so identical, even Engeberg couldn’t tell them apart, and with the ridiculous truth of a doppelganger, it was only natural.

However, this peace may only last for a matter of time. After such a blockade, Johan will have been looking into the situation in Bral. If the spy found out the truth and returned, no excuse would be acceptable.

Should he give instructions to eliminate the spy through a carrier pigeon? However, if the existence of the pigeon was discovered, there was a high probability of being exposed as soon as it was used. Besides, taking action here might be what the Prime Minister is after.

“…He wasn’t a wolf, but a fox. Truly, he is a frightening person.”

If he had this much talent, couldn’t they spare at least one person?

Engeberg muttered quietly and decided to return to his natural destination, his own room.

Chapter 64: Fox and Raccoon 2

Johan clicked his tongue sharply. He crossed his arms and pondered about the future, but the situation was such that there was nothing left to be done.

“Damn that raccoon. He didn’t show any weakness at all. As expected, he’s good.”

It would have made it difficult for anyone to move, regardless of how capable an ambassador they were. However, it was frustrating that he could only consider that move as his sole harvest.

It was evident to Johan that there was something wrong with the queen, as the discomfort felt by those closest to her was like a cloud, and time kept passing without them being able to grasp the situation.

As he contemplated while looking at the surface of the chai, a knock on the door sounded. The one who entered the room after receiving a response was a nervous young girl.

“Did you call for me, Prime Minister?”

Dasha bowed nervously. Johan knew that this girl was intimidated by him, so he urged her to sit down without particular emotion.

“I called you today because I have something to ask you.”

“Yes. It’s about My Queen, right?”

As expected of her to have figured it out. However, since this was the first time he had summoned this maid, the reason for it must be obvious.

Dasha, who was restless even sitting on the rug, seemed to be truly worried about her master.

“That’s right. It doesn’t matter as long as you remember the range. I want to know about My Queen’s condition when she became different. When was that?”

Previously, they had conducted an investigation by interviewing Dasha. Rather, it was this maid who was the first to point out that the condition of the Queen seemed strange.

At that time, he merely heard Dasha’s direct appeal, but this time he decided to focus on specific points to uncover.

“When was the time when she became different…I don’t remember the exact date, but it was about half a month ago.”

The timing coincided with the time when the spy who was monitoring the queen’s room was attacked by a pigeon.

It was not just a coincidence. Years of serving as Prime Minister are sounding the alarm bells to think about this.

“Actually, I had a conversation with My Queen the night before.”

“Oh, really? What was it about?”

He fixed his gaze sharply as some highly valuable information came out. However, Dasha didn’t flinch, furrowing her eyebrows as she bit back.

“I-It’s a personal conversation about His Majesty! No matter how much you may be the Prime Minister…”

“Realize that this is a matter of state. The stage where we discuss whether or not to talk to you has long passed.”

He calmly but forcefully conveyed his words, and the young girl shrank her shoulders in surprise.

He knew that this kind of attitude was the reason why people disliked him, but when it came to politics, he could not afford to hold back. Johan also had the same sense of pride as he served his lord.

“… I came to check on My Queen because she looked very sad after His Majesty’s deployment. Although Rougena-sama asked me to do it, I myself was very worried.”

Dasha bravely stared straight at Johan. Even though she squinted as if about to cry and was tormented by guilt for having to speak, she did not lower her face.

This girl has also become quite strong. That was since she began serving the queen.

“She was so kind and welcomed me into her room when I did. And when I expressed my concerns to her, she said there was no need to worry. She said, “I will be fine as if I am a different person from tomorrow. So you don’t have to worry about me, but I hope you don’t mind that I might be a little too energetic… and…”

It was a phrase that the queen would definitely say.

However, something about it felt off. As he carefully considered what he had heard, something flashed through his mind after a short pause.

Yes, when expressing concern to someone, the words used can come off as overly formal and impersonal. Although the words may be soft on the surface, they convey a rejection of wanting to be left alone.

“So, how do you feel about My Queen now?”

“I’m trying not to intrude too much. She’s really changed and is doing so well. I think it’s probably easiest for her if I behave that way.”

“Did you tell Rougena about this?”

“Yes. I think Rougena-sama and all the maids are doing the same thing.”

In other words, the environment has been created exactly as the Queen wanted, where she is not pursued further.

An alarm rang in his head. What is the Queen hiding? What’s the benefit of not being pursued?

——It’s like a real change of person.

Suddenly, Dasha’s testimony from earlier flashed into his mind.

Yes, the Queen has changed. Although she has acquired elegance and is now conducting herself like a royal, it seems that she has lost consideration for those around her. It’s hard to describe, but it seems like she only thinks about herself.

If the difference is due to the fact that she has been replaced by someone else…

“Dasha, is there anything else you want to say?”

“No, just that she told me she loves me.”

“I see. You may leave now.”

Driving away the seemingly boastful Dasha, Johan immersed himself in his rapidly moving thought process. The conclusion was so unrealistic that the more he thought about it, the more terrifying it became that it fit.

Should he tell Ivan? No, if he found out, it would only cause unnecessary suffering to that man.

Ivan would undoubtedly not be able to abandon the war, or perhaps, due to his infatuation, he might abandon it and come back, but he would surely bear the burden of guilt.

It would be better not to know. At this point when there is no certainty, he cannot say anything yet. He must wait until there is evidence or until the end of the war is announced without it.

Johan is prepared to become a devil. Since the moment his friend saved his life, that resolve has become even stronger.

Even if a friend on the brink of death asked him to take care of a woman he was in love with, if it were to obstruct the path the king should take, he would make a ruthless judgment.

The job of the Prime Minister is the shadow of the king. This was taught to him by his grandfather who was the previous Prime Minister when he was still young.

Actually working in this position makes it feel real. To support a king who walks an extremely harsh path to domination, you sometimes need to cut something off with a heartlessness that surpasses that of your lord.

It doesn’t matter how much of a villain you become. If the king kills his heart, you must do the same.

Johan wished for his friend, who was also his savior, to follow the path he desired.

“… My Queen. I thought you would be Ivan’s medicine.”

But if the inference he just obtained is correct, it would mean that Ivan’s so-called medicine is actually a deadly poison.

Even though he didn’t say it, it was clear that Ivan found solace in his wife. If he found out he had been betrayed by her, it would be a huge shock.

Johan let out the deepest sigh he had ever experienced. Really, this was such a troublesome thing.

Chapter 65: Real princesses face to face.

The bright crescent moon peeks through the window of Ermengard’s unfamiliar room.

She stops flipping through the pages of her diary and looks up.

The diary is really well-written, detailing the contents of her daily studies, conversations with others, and their physical characteristics. However, the accompanying sketches are so poorly executed that they are hardly helpful, which is amusing.

Even without the sketches, Ermengard would have made numerous mistakes if it weren’t for this diary. She can never thank the diary enough.

“…I wonder if she’s doing well. I hope she’s not agonizing over anything.”

Ermengard doesn’t know much about her sister’s personality. However, from the brief encounter they had, she could sense her sister’s kindness.

That is why she can’t help but feel guilty for involving her in such an awful scheme. If possible, she hopes her sister can forget about everything that happened here and live a peaceful life.

Ermengard pondered her thoughts, but she knew she couldn’t worry about others too much. According to Engeberg, suspicions from those around her were starting to rise. It would be especially difficult to hide things from those close to her, and it could be a problem if the king returned.

As she let out a heavy sigh, there was a knock at the door.

Appearing before her was Rougena. This head maid had been suspicious of the queen’s behavior, but she now appeared more agitated than her usual composed self.

“What’s wrong, Rougena?”

“My Queen! His Majesty…!”

No way.

Ermengard held her breath, imagining what would come next. However, she soon learned that her imagination was wrong.

The unfamiliar blond man pushed past Rougena with gentle force and entered the room.

She could tell his true identity with just one glance. His frozen beauty reminded her of a winter night, and his blue eyes, described in “her” diary as resembling the night sky, shone with a deep radiance. Although his black chokha was slightly worn, his presence could not be ignored.

This man is King Ivan of Shenka. Even if his features didn’t match, his dignified presence tells her so.

Why did you…?

Ermengard showed the most agitation she had in a while.

She hasn’t heard anything. No news of his return or the end of the war had reached her.

“Rougena, step back.”

“Y-Yes, Your Majesty.”

Unusually flustered, the head maid did not defy her lord. Alone in the room with him, Ermengard found herself directly under his blue gaze.

These eyes seemed to see everything. His authority was unparalleled, far beyond that of his father. It was reckless to try to scheme against such a man.

——However, this is troublesome.

After all, Ermengard is not much of an actress. With her sudden return, she couldn’t prepare herself emotionally, and it would be unreasonable to ask her to express both the excitement and surprise of the reunion at the same time.

Perhaps it would be best to pretend to be dumbfounded. As she sat there, resignedly, Ivan suddenly made a move.

He strode confidently toward her, with his blue eyes lit up with a clear intention.

It happened in an instant.

As soon as Ivan reached her side, he knelt down to meet his wife’s eyes level. Just as she thought his long arms were going to reach out to her, his palm seemed to have passed through Ermengard and grabbed the desk behind her.

The desk, hit by a man’s slap, made a loud noise, presenting an imposing figure right in front of her. Even in this sudden crisis, Ermengard remained calm.

——Um. This has really become a problem.

Chapter 66: Whatever you want

Ivan was a man of his word. He really did end the battle in no time at all upon the arrival of reinforcements.

And in a truly rare occurrence, he decided to rely on his subordinates this time around. Swallowing his pride, he asked Silvestor if he could go back first with a cheerful smile, to which he obviously agreed.

“Who are you?”

It took Ivan a little time to realize that it was his own voice. He was consumed by rage that burnt all his thoughts and stared ferociously at the woman in front of him with a fierce blue glow.

“…Have you forgotten? I’m Ermengard.”

Even faced with the imposing spirit that could make even battle-hardened warriors cower in fear, the woman remained expressionless.

This only fueled Ivan’s rage even more. He couldn’t forgive the fact that she could lie so blithely with the same face as the only woman he had ever loved in the world.

“Do you think you can fool me with such a bad act? When did you switch places? … Where did you take my wife?”

The desk he grabbed let out a scream and cracked under his grip. Despite the ominous sound, the woman returned his stare with her deep green eyes without flinching.

Their opposing passions clashed, filling the room with an oppressive silence. The woman was the first to sigh and averted her gaze, shrugging her shoulders.

“…I didn’t expect to be seen through at a glance. Yes, I’m not your Ellie.”

For a woman who had been caught in a deadly lie, her demeanor remained as aloof as ever. Ivan, frustrated by her calm demeanor, silently takes his hands off the desk and adjusts his composure.

“My name is Ermengard. I am the real Ermengard, born and raised as the first princess of the Bral Empire.”

As soon as her confession registered in his mind, there was a loud knock on the door. Ivan thought it was opening without permission, but someone stumbled in, gasping for breath.

“Wait a minute! Ivan, don’t you dare touch that person. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life…”

Johan, his glasses slipped down his nose, but even in his frenzy, he seemed to sense the icy chill between the two.

“Oh… you have noticed. Here, then. I have summarized the report that the spy brought back just yesterday.”

Ivan took the parchment handed to him and scanned through it from beginning to end. The record was a series of outrageous acts that were hard to believe.

In the imperial family of Bral, twins are considered taboo.

Princess Ermengard was actually born as the older twin, but her younger sister, Ernesta, was thought to have been killed. In reality, she was taken in by a scholar and raised as a commoner.

This marriage led to Princess Ermengard running away and Ernesta taking her place as a substitute. In return, Ernesta promised to provide medical treatment for her adoptive mother.

The fact that his wife’s many actions were unlike those of a princess made sense once he learned who she really was.

The fact that she never showed any fear of werewolf tribes, farm work or insects, and her ability to skillfully peel fruits, make candy and perform other commoner-like tasks was also remarkable.

And above all, the reason why she always seemed sad became clear.

Ivan said he believed in her. He said it not to reassure himself, but because he truly believed in her.

Suppressing the urge to crumple the parchment, he raised his face with a deeply angry expression. They had gathered enough information to come this far, but now he had no time to spare for his friend.

“…I feel nauseous. You’re no better than the animals. How could you commit such atrocities against your own family?”

“Yes, that’s right. I have no words to reply.”

For the first time, Ermengard lowered her gaze in regret. The fact that they were twins began to sink in, and Ivan stared at the woman in front of him as if glaring.

“Still, how did you figure it out? We look exactly alike. We didn’t intend to give you any opening to question us with confidence.”

“Don’t underestimate me. Everything is different, that’s all.”

Ivan knew at a glance. There was an inexplicable difference that could not be expressed in words, but it was clear that they were different people.

Above all, his wife never smiled like that. She is more honest, more flustered, more caring. If her husband returned unannounced from war, those lovely eyes would widen, and she would be immediately overjoyed that he was safe.

“I ask you again, where is Ellie?”

The voice was low and filled with absolute power.

He didn’t care about the conspiracy. He just wanted to see her face again and convey what he had to say.

“Well, I don’t know. Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”

“What did you say?”

“She’s just an innocent person who came all this way for her foster mother. I take full responsibility, so punish me alone. I won’t let you touch her.”

Ermengard’s attitude, which had been like a cloud until now, was replaced by the dignity of a princess emanating from her entire body.

It seems that this woman, being the daughter of the Bral Emperor, possesses a consciousness of being a leader. However it only increases his frustration.

“Don’t make it an annoying game of cat and mouse. I just want to see her.”

Johan was completely out of the picture, but this time he took a breath.

The pressure emitted by the Werewolf King was so intense that even sweat came out on Ermengard’s temples.

“…I see. But what about her? Even if you want to see her, does she wish to live as the queen of this country?”

Ivan felt a sharp pain in his chest from that remark.

She was just one of the kind people in the country. No matter how much Ivan wanted to be with her, she might choose to live back home.

But still.

“Then I’ll beg her to come back.”

He couldn’t do anything. He knew she was suffering, but he couldn’t help it.

He didn’t know when it started, but ever since this feeling had taken hold in his heart, there had always been a warm sensation that was both itchy and comforting.

It was dear to him. He didn’t want to lose it. That’s why he was scared and couldn’t take a step forward.

He mocked himself as a coward. He might have been undeserving in her eyes, but such a pathetic man still cared for her deeply.

“I may be rejected, but I’ll still go see her… She’s someone important.”

With heartfelt determination, Ermengard’s eyes shone with a quiet light. The princess, whose eyes were somewhat similar to those of her sister, whom she had missed, averted her gaze, displaying a soft bitter smile.

“Really, I’m at my wits’ end. I tried to protect that her, but I ended up becoming a villain. It seems like I was being too meddlesome.”

Ermengard’s words, muttered as if chewing, were vague, and while she was perplexed, a book was thrown at her. Ivan received it smoothly and carefully looked back at the person who threw it to him.

“What book is this?”

“I am not qualified to keep it, so I offer it to you. Please read it.”

Ivan opened the book as instructed. On the first page, the following words were written in easy-to-read letters.

[Month, Date

I started writing a diary today. There are several reasons for this: to remember what I’ve seen and learned, to study by myself… those are the only two. Anyway, I will do my best to write it.]

As soon as Ivan finished reading that sentence, he was amazed. It was easy to tell who wrote it without even thinking about it.

Chapter 67: Ernesta’s Diary

On X month and X day,

Today I met with Mikolash and the Prime Minister.

Mikolash is the Majesty’s companion wolf, and he is fluffy and very lovely. Lord Slezak is hard to read, but a kind person.

I spoke with His Majesty for a little bit, but I don’t really understand what kind of person he is yet. His blue eyes are like the night sky, and they are truly beautiful.

The thing that made me the happiest today was becoming friends with Dasha, I think.

◇ Month △ Day

I have been chosen to perform a dance at the National Foundation Festival. I may have been too forward, but I hope everything will be alright.

General Silvestor Kudera, who is teaching me is wonderful person and have been very helpful.

× Month ◻︎ Day

Practice is quite challenging. Will I really be able to dance?

I haven’t even had the opportunity to meet His Majesty.

◎ Month ◇ Day

General Kudera asked me why I am doing this, but I said some selfish things. In the end, he encouraged me. He is a really kind and considerate person.

Oh yes, even Rougena asked me if I was worried today. They are such a kind couple.

◎ Month ◇ Day

I collapsed right after the National Founding Festival and ended up bedridden with a cold for a week. It seems like I pushed myself too hard. I’m so useless.

During that time, many people were kind to me. Even His Majesty came to nurse me, and though I was sorry, I was also happy. Lately, everyone’s been so kind, and I feel like the walls between us are coming down.

When His Majesty asked me what to call me, I foolishly answered “Ellie,” even calling him by his name without proper honorifics. I’m so sorry for being so presumptuous.

Xx Month ◇ Day

While looking at the stars with His Majesty, I heard various things from him. And I learned how much His Majesty was disciplined about his own conduct.

He’s a serious and sad person. He does his best, but still blames himself. I was so sad and frustrated that I ended up crying… and when I woke up, it was morning. It’s childish of me, so embarrassing.

Come to think of it, His Majesty counts stars when he’s in pain.

◻︎ Month ◎ Day

Today, I went to the textile workshop with His Majesty and was shown various things. Shenka’s textiles are truly beautiful, and the craftsmen are kind-hearted. It was a fun time even though it was work. Moreover, I was humbled because His Majesty purchased a lot of textiles. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished products.

△ Month ◻︎ Day

A major incident occurred today. I was kidnapped by the alliance opposition. To make matters worse, Theodor-san, a close friend of His Majesty who was thought to have passed away, turned out to be the leader of the opposition. I was truly surprised.

Knowing the gap between humans and Werewolf clans, I could only be sad. But I was relieved when His Majesty came to rescue me. I feel that if I walk with His Majesty, we can eventually understand each other. It may be too optimistic, but I can believe in it for some reason.

Oh, and I saw a Werewolf for the first time, and they were dignified and cool-looking.

◯ Month △ Day

I see. There were humans who supported His Majesty when he connected hope to them.

Despite being betrayed and hurt by humans and even turned against by his own people, he chose to live alongside humans.

It’s such a joyous thing. Every time His Majesty opens up to me about his innermost thoughts, I become afraid of my own shallowness.

◎Month◇Day

A war has broken out.

Since coming here, I have been constantly despairing at my own incompetence.

Still, I wanted to do everything I could. Was my action the right thing to do?

Please be safe, Your Majesty. May everyone return safely. Oh God, please.

❂❂❂

Ivan chased after the orderly string of characters again and again.

In between the diary entries were notes from lectures and work, as well as ages and sketches of people he met. Although the drawings were a bit rough, the quantity alone showed how much time was spent writing. Without hinting that she was a substitute, the content occasionally included words directed towards Ermengard, revealing her intelligence.

However, what was most noticeable was the excruciating pain that a woman had endured and how much that gentle person had cared for this country. It also highlighted how much she had worried about her temporary husband.

“Perhaps the person writing this isn’t even conscious of it, but it made me a little emotional. That’s why I thought it would have been better if that girl had become the queen. But of course, this is the job that has been assigned to me, so I can’t just abandon it now… I’m just glad you noticed. Really.”

As various emotions swirled and her head became restless, Ermengard had a refreshing smile on her face.

“Well then, Your Majesty, please work a little harder. I will be ashamed to say this, but I am giving up on my duty, so please use any means necessary to bring her back. Engeberg knows her whereabouts——.”

She did not listen to the seemingly shameless lines until the end. When Ivan left the queen’s room, the force was so great that the door made a loud noise, and the wind was stirred up.

❂❂❂

“Fufufu, love, marriage, and romance…they would make interesting painting themes.”

In the room, where the atmosphere of intimidation had dissipated, Ermengard nodded with satisfaction. However, Johan’s face showed resignation, and it seemed that it was not a desirable situation for him.

“I’m sorry, Prime Minister. It’s not good for His Majesty to be away from the castle at this time of the year.”

“…It’s okay, I’ve given up. It’s fine to do something like this once in a while.”

That wry smile was unlike Johan, who rarely showed his emotions.

The two of them looked at the still-open door with a similar smile.

——There is a lot of work to be done, but it is worth it for the sake of my sweet sister.

“Well then, shall we get to work? Ermengard-sama, I’d like you to help me.”

“Sure thing.”

They now had to think about how they would protest to Emperor Bral.

They must hold Engeberg who was probably interrogated by the King by now to participate in the deliberations.

——It’s the least I can do for her. No one will complain if I act like a sister for once.

Chapter 68: The Emperor’s Daughter

Emperor Karl Heinz read over the letter he had just received and grinned.

The substitution operation had been successfully completed. Ermengard had been found, and Ernesta had returned home.

However, the fact that a war had broken out between Shenka and Leutravia was unacceptable. Due to the alliance, they had to send troops and supplies to the werewolves, if only as an apology.

He was such a fool not to have realized that his wife had been replaced. It was still frustrating to think that he had to form an alliance with those savages on equal terms.

The emperor lit his cigar and took a deep drag to calm himself down.

Nevertheless, it was a happy accident that his daughter, who had been thought to be useless, proved to be useful now.

That scholar – he had forgotten her name – seemed to have been a good parent to raise a daughter who could accomplish such a task.

Perhaps he could continue to use her in the future. It was Ermengard’s unpredictability that worried him; no one knew when she might try to escape again.

“Just to make sure we can replace her anytime.”

As he spoke his mind, Empress Constanze narrowed her eyes beside him.

“What do you mean?”

“That girl. If she can do this much, let’s have her keep working for us in the future.”

He called in the Knight Commander and gave instructions to secure the girl who was said to be in Weisbergk, and have her waiting somewhere where she could be replaced at any time without being noticed by the werewolves.

“Of course, with surveillance. Now go.”

However, the Knight Commander, with eyes wide open as if he couldn’t believe it, did not move. Karl Heinz felt a sense of irritation and rubbed his cigar on the ashtray.

“With all due respect, Your Majesty, involving outsiders any further…”

“Outsiders? Who’s an outsider? That’s my daughter.”

He called the child he had once abandoned his daughter again if it was necessary. Karl Heinz did not realize how selfish this act was.

“If you keep pushing too hard, the likelihood of it being exposed will increase! Please reconsider…!”

“Silence, you incompetent who spent a tremendous amount of time looking for just one clueless princess! I don’t need to take advice from the likes of you!”

Knight Commander, why won’t you listen to orders?

Constanze spoke as Karl Heinz seemed to be repeatedly shouting impetuously.

“Well, Your Majesty. I will go.”

With an unexpected proposal, the two men looked at Constanze with confused expressions.

The Empress remained expressionless as she silently sat there.

“If she becomes a substitute for that girl… no, I will make her an eternal shadow. If it is your proposal, Isolte will surely agree.”

The Empress, who had hardly ever left the castle and never interfered with politics, headed to the border to capture her own daughter. It was an unimaginable situation, as if a bolt from the blue.

“Very well, Your Majesty. Please give me your orders.”

Constanze showed a beautiful smile. It was a smile that closely resembled the smile of her eldest daughter, who had become the source of turmoil.

Chapter 69: Nostalgic Homeland 1

After three weeks, Ernesta returned to Weisbergk.

As soon as she arrived at North Star, she was swarmed by her family, and at the same time, she was able to confirm Isolte’s safety, causing her to burst into tears she had been holding back on the way.

Isolte had already found out about their plan, and she scolded her severely. However, in the latter half, her mother hugged her in silence.

Soon after, a welcome home party started. Ernesta’s mother’s home cooking was as delicious as ever, and Ernesta couldn’t help but smile.

The time spent with her family flew by quickly. Before they realized it, the men had fallen asleep in the living room, leaving only the mother and daughter in the quiet room.

Isolte pulled out a blanket and covered the men who were rolling around on the sofa. The wooden interior of their house had the same warmth, and the scene of their family was very nostalgic.

Ernesta poured wine from her souvenir into two wooden mugs, and Isolte approached the dining table with interest.

“Oh, what’s that?”

“It’s red wine, a specialty of Shenka. I was surprised too, but Count Engeberg had it loaded in the carriage for us.”

At the party, she didn’t offer it because Bruno and Konrad couldn’t drink. It was understandable for the still-child Konrad, but since Bruno just slept with ale, it was the right decision.

Meanwhile, Isolte was eagerly pulling her favorite mug cup towards her.

“Oh, Count Engeberg sure knows how to please me?”

“Do you know him, Mom?”

“I do. We’re fellow educators.”

Isolte haphazardly arranged the remaining dishes and placed them on the dining table. They sat down at the table again and raised their glasses for a toast.

The alcohol that Ernesta hardly touched as a substitute burned her throat mercilessly. She couldn’t even taste the expensive wine, and quickly returned to her mug cup on the table.

“I didn’t know that. I had no idea.”

Count Engeberg is a history teacher and currently assigned to His Majesty the Emperor. I am a geology teacher and responsible for the princess… Her Majesty the Empress. I was indebted to him back then, but I can’t forgive him for what he did this time.

Isolte carried something ominous with her. It seemed she was angry about taking her daughter away without even saying hello.

“Mom! Count Engeberg always helped me. Besides, I’m the one who decided not to tell you anything!”

“I know he means no harm. That’s why I had nowhere to direct my anger.”

Anger. Ernesta can understand Isolte’s state of mind when she uttered that word, but it’s not a feeling that fits well with Ernesta.

From the period when she was the substitute, until this moment, it has been a continuous struggle. However, it was a limitless darkness, unrelated to the feeling of anger.

No, to put it simply, she was always angry with herself. She was foolish enough to become involved in the scheme without thinking.

“You look terrible.”

Suddenly, Isolte laughed bitterly, catching Ernesta off guard.

“You’re always able to handle everything, but this time you couldn’t hide it. Since you came back, your face has shown emotions that I’ve never seen before. And, you didn’t eat much either, even though you said it was delicious.”

“…you notice?”

“Yes. If you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t ask. Now, drink this and take a bath and go to sleep.”

Isolte takes a bite of sauerkraut, then casually tilts her wine glass. Although she had been drinking ale since the party, there was no sign of drunkenness. This is quite a feat for such a heavy drinker, but Ernesta, who is not related by blood, did not inherit this trait from her mother.

That’s why a sip of wine makes her head feel light and fluffy. As she makes excuses in her mind, assuming her emotions are heightened, Ernesta starts to reveal her feelings in a hushed tone.

“Mom, I did…a terrible betrayal. Everyone was so kind and welcoming to me, free from the historical conflicts between us. And yet…”

Although her storytelling was disjointed, Isolte listened attentively with quiet eyes. The oil lamp was the only source of light in the room, and it flickered along with the trembling voice and heavy snores.

“I lied. I left without saying thank you or anything. It’s terrible, isn’t it? This can’t be solved with just an apology… But I can’t even apologize anymore. He trusted me. I promised to wait for him. But I left him behind when he went to war.”

Ernesta had nowhere to vent her regret.

Even though it was so painful, she couldn’t regret meeting them.

Through this short yet long adventure, Ernesta learned of the sadness that lay between humans and werewolf tribes. She saw the great divide that could not be easily overcome and experienced the efforts of those who strove to bridge it, and learned of their hearts and wonderful culture.

And for the first time in her life, she fell in love.

“I know Mom will think it’s my fault if I say something like this. But I’m in pain. I don’t know what to do…!”

The face reflected in the red water was twisted, grotesque. Yes, it was definitely a terrible face. This would surely cause worries.

But she couldn’t stop. It was embarrassing. To be so dependent…

“It’s been so long since you depended on me.”

Prompted by the very gentle voice, she lifted her face. Isolte’s smile only grew, and her expression was that of a mother filled with loving kindness.

“You did a great job, Ellie. You don’t have to remember, and it’s okay to forget. Those feelings are yours, so do what you like with them. If it hurts, talk to me like this. You can talk to Dad, Konrad, your friends, anyone. Rely more on those around you.”

“…Mom.”

“Hm?”

“Can I hug you?”

It was an almost unconscious request. To this sudden wish, Isolte responded with a cheerful smile, spreading her arms wide.

“Come here!”

Ernesta jumped into her mother’s embrace without hesitation. The arms that hugged her back were incomparably stronger and more powerful than they had been when she had been lying on bed.

“You grew up to be a kind, good child. You never made me any trouble, and in fact, you’ve helped me a lot since you were young. I’m sorry. Thank you…”

Isolte’s voice was gentle, and it seemed to seep quietly into the dimly lit room.

She didn’t think that these feelings would ever be lost. But she wondered if someday she would be able to pray for them with a calm heart.

“Nee-san, Nee-san. I’ve been calling you.”

Ernesta heard someone calling her name.

There’s only one person who calls her that. But why is her younger brother so irritated?

“Hey, wake up already. It’s already noon.”

Noon? Is it noon in the morning or in the afternoon?

“Twelve noon?!”

“You’ve been asleep all morning. That’s what I’m saying.”

Ernesta sat up like a pendulum and found herself facing her brother with a bewildered look.

Behind her was a familiar view of her room, and memories of yesterday soon flooded back to her.

She had talked to Isolte, cried, and got drunk, and then she had no memory of anything.

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine, I guess.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

Turning his back to her, Konrad was indifferent as usual. While smiling inwardly at his adolescent cuteness, Ernesta received her brother’s kindness.

“Thank you, Konrad.”

“I didn’t do anything, though.”

“That’s not true. I should thank you, really.”

The usual attitude, the usual expression. Ernesta was happy that her parents cried tears of joy, but she felt at ease watching her brother’s usual behavior.

He had supported their mother well. He had really grown up without her realizing it. She wondered whether he had grown taller again in these three months.

“Did Konrad carry me, by any chance?”

But to that question, he frowned, looking genuinely annoyed.

“Huh? Give me a break. Dad carried you like any normal person would. I’m not built to carry a grown-up like you. Are you still half asleep?”

“Y-Yeah…! I know!”

Ernesta turned red and avoided eye contact. He sounded as if her weight was so heavy. There couldn’t be many people who could carry a human alone unlike a certain werewolf.

Oh, right. Ivan used to carry her a lot, so that’s what made her think of that weird idea.

Ernesta, who had thought it through that far, erased her expression and concealed her blushing face.

It comes to mind at random times. Without any warning, it stirs up her defenseless heart and then leaves her there, with nothing else to do.

“…Well, anything’s fine, but I hate that grim face of yours.”

“Uh, sorry…”

“I get even more irritated when you apologize. Hey, who’s making Nee-san have such a face?”

Konrad had anger welling up in eyes that closely resembled Isolte’s.

As always, his strong sense of justice and compassion for those in trouble or those who are sad are his admirable traits inherited from his parents.

“I’ll go knock some sense into them. So, who is it?”

“I’ll just take your goodwill. It’s no one’s fault that I have a gloomy face.”

“Hmph…whatever. Do as you please.”

Konrad stood up in frustration, grabbed the doorknob, and without turning back, said in a voice that did not hide his anger.

“I don’t really care, but it pisses me off to see you force a smile. You should just be down if you feel down.”

With a loud noise, he closed the door. Then the sound of his footsteps echoed down the hallway, followed by a message that sounded like a fit of anger, saying, “It’s time for lunch!” Upon hearing that, Ernesta couldn’t help but burst into a smile.

Chapter 70: Nostalgic Homeland 2

For Ernesta, the days spent with her family afterwards were pure happiness. After all, their daily routine had returned to how it was before Isolte fell ill.

However, there were times when she would suddenly remember Shenka and her anxiety would grow about what had happened in the war. She couldn’t sleep well at night, pondering various thoughts.

Even so, Ernesta only prayed and tried to keep up a smiling facade, so as not to worry everyone.

In no time at all, several days had passed and Ernesta had seemingly returned to her usual self on the surface.

As usual, she got up early and put on her familiar blouse and skirt, with an apron on top. With her hair in pigtails, she felt like she could fit into her past life.

The whole family had breakfast together. She didn’t have much of an appetite, but she forced herself to eat so as not to worry anyone.

Working helped to distract her, so she was grateful for the time spent doing housework with Isolte before heading out to pick herbs. First, Ernesta headed to Bruno’s workshop adjacent to the store.

“Dad.”

“Oh, Ellie. What’s up?”

Bruno walked towards her with a smile while wiping his soot-covered face. The workshop was bustling with a few disciples and the heat of the flames, and the familiar smell of melting iron filled the air.

“I’m going to pick some herbs. Are there any medicines missing?”

“I see. Thank you. Wait a moment.”

Bruno disappeared into the back break room to check the medicine inventory, then quickly returned.

“We’re running out of anti-inflammatory. We have a lot of burns here.”

“I understand. I’ll also pick some nuts, so look forward to it.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard. Don’t be late.”

Although he had a smile on his face, Bruno seemed slightly concerned. Come to think of it, she recalled when she treated Ivan in his wolf form, and how she had been scolded for being too late.

She tried to erase the image of the golden color floating in her mind before it was too late.

“Well then, I’m off.”

“Yeah, be careful.”

Ernesta, who left the workshop with a smile, didn’t notice that Bruno had been watching his daughter’s back with concern.

Today’s mountain hike was planned to be with her best friend and neighbor Zahra. Under a clear blue sky, she appeared with her beloved dog Hans and greeted Ernesta with a hearty laugh, as always.

“Long time no see, Ellie! Look, Hans wants to say hello too!”

“Hello Zahra, Hans. Nice to see you.”

Ernesta stroked the lively, burnt-brown hunting dog without hesitation. She had spent so much time to make Hans become attached to her.

While walking, the two young ladies engaged in lively conversation. Zahra had decided to marry in the past three months, and the topic dominated their discussion.

“I knew it, but I’m still anxious about marrying someone I don’t even know well.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. We don’t even know what kind of person he is.”

In Bral, it was common for someone other than the person themselves to choose their fiancé. Reasons varied from houses being in the same business or from neighborhood agreements, but in most cases, parents arranged the marriage.

“But Ellie might be able to do it. Being with someone you love.”

“Eh…”

Her heart made a loud noise at Zahra’s unexpected words. Why would Zahra say something like that? It was as if she had seen through her feelings.

“Well, Ellie has always been cute, but she’s even more polished since coming back. Sexy, I’d say? She’s being pursued by a lot of men, so she should just choose one and fall in love.”

Ernesta let out a quiet sigh.

Oh, that’s what this is about. If she’s more polished, it’s probably due to the care and prepared oils provided by Dasha and the others. According to gossip Zahra, she has been getting a lot of attention.

“I… can’t imagine that right now.”

“What? Why not? That’s a shame.”

“I enjoy working like this. I think I’ll get married eventually, but if it’s someone my Dad and Mom find, I won’t complain.”

Zahra tilted her head in disappointment, but Ernesta remained firm.

Despite Isolte telling her to rely on those around her, she couldn’t confess her true feelings here. If she uttered lines like “I can’t love because there’s someone I can’t forget,” everything would spill out.

They descended the mountain shortly before the sun set, with a large haul of herbs in their basket, making their steps light.

“We caught a lot! We even found some wild berries and edible vines. Lucky us!”

“That’s great. Now we won’t have to worry for a while.”

Even in this town, where summer was still hanging on, there was a pleasant breeze blowing at night. As they strolled happily on the outskirts of the town, Ernesta spontaneously stopped in her tracks.

As always, the area around the familiar large tree was littered with debris. She couldn’t help but reflect on her encounter there and felt regret.

Why do I keep remembering it like this? It’s been almost a month since she left the royal castle, but there’s still no sign of her suffering easing up.

“What’s wrong, Ellie?”

Zahra looked at her curiously, but suddenly clapped her hands and smiled brightly.

“Oh, I have an idea! Want to play with Hans? Let’s throw a ball or something. I’ll go get it.”

Even her thoughtful words brought back memories of playing with the silver wolf, and Ernesta had to try hard not to distort her face.

“No, Zahra, sorry. I have to stop by somewhere, so you go ahead.”

“Okay, I see. I don’t really understand what’s going on, but cheer up. I’ll bring you something sweet next time.”

Receiving such heartfelt kindness, Ernesta couldn’t help but smile wryly. She was truly blessed with the people around her.

Watching her friend and her dog leave, she stepped into the vacant lot. It looked almost the same as in her memory, with only the large trees growing taller.

Ernesta gently touched the trunk of a tree. The rough bark held a pleasant warmth from the setting sun, and the cicadas’ cries filling the empty lot contained a sense of loneliness.

Although she felt scared to come here, now that she’s actually here, only happy memories surface, causing her vision to blur.

Let’s pray here. That’s what Ernesta decided, as she put down her basket of herbs and sat down.

Her hands clasped in front of her chest, she lowered her face and closed her eyes. She chased away all distracting thoughts from her head and earnestly prayed. Time became ambiguous as she prayed.

When she opened her eyes again, the sun that had been shining through the gaps in the mountains had disappeared, and the sky showed a vague twilight.

She had to go back soon, or her family would worry. Even considering this, Ernesta couldn’t move, and buried her face in her knees, curling up.

——What an idiot. Even though I knew I could never meet Ivan again.

It was foolish to wish to see Ivan, even if it was just once. She wasn’t even allowed to think about such things.

What have I done? What do those kind people think of me, for what I’ve done?

If they knew the truth, they’d surely hate me. Maybe even hate humanity altogether.

Ernesta gritted her teeth in her closed-off field of vision. She knew from experience since childhood that she had to endure until the waves of emotions subsided.

She couldn’t even go home with such a terribly sullen face. She had to wait until the stars came out, take a little look at the sky, and that was it.

It was then that footsteps of someone far away could be heard.

It seemed that someone was running down the street at full speed. As she thought that the sound of their shoes hitting the ground with tremendous speed resonated, it abruptly stopped around the vacant lot.

With her face down, Ernesta convinced herself that this had nothing to do with her at this point. However, the owner of the footsteps now walked slowly into the vacant lot.

Could someone have come to look for her? But, they were taking quite some time to say somethi——.

“Ernesta.”

It was a voice that had been yearning.

Her heart pulsated so hard it felt like it was about to burst. No, he wasn’t here, and he shouldn’t even know her name.

She needed to stop hearing such hallucinations. She had to quickly confirm their true identity and realize her own foolishness.

Ernesta slowly lifted her face. The cool breeze brushed against her cheeks and made her two braids sway. Someone with brown hair passed through her field of vision, but she could still recognize who spoke to her.

At that moment, it felt like all sound had been muted from the world.

The sound of cicadas signaling the end of summer, the rustling of leaves, even her own heartbeat, all seemed to be hiding in silence.

Ivan stood there with his golden hair swaying in the night breeze. His usual chokha looked worn out, and his silhouette illuminated by the moonlight looked thinner, but the sparkle in his blue eyes showed no difference.

Chapter 71: Late at night

Even though Ernesta had turned pale, she was staring at the man who was standing five steps away from her.

Had she started to see hallucinations after the auditory hallucinations? No, this was reality. The wind blowing on her cheeks, the sound of insects in the distance–everything felt vivid.

——So he’s alright. Thank goodness.

Although there were many other things to worry about, that was the only thought that came to Ernesta’s mind. But soon, confusion filled her head, and Ernesta muttered in a barely audible voice.

“How did you…”

In response to the almost self-addressed question mark, Ivan seemed to heave a sigh. It wasn’t a heavy one, but a light one that conveyed resignation.

“You all underestimated me too much. I can tell at first glance it was a different person.”

Her parched throat made no answer, producing a pitiful sound.

Why? Even if it was true, why did he come to this place?

Her mind muddied by fear generated one question after another, but for Ernesta, the reality in front of her was more important than the answers.

Finally, Ivan found out. What did he think? Did he feel deeply disappointed, thinking that humans are not trustworthy after all?

Just the thought of his night-sky eyes clouding over with contempt and him accusing her of wrongdoing in a clear voice made Ernesta feel weak, but she stood up unsteadily.

“I see…so you know everything now.”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry. I-I don’t care what happens to me anymore, so…please.”

Her words of contrition trailed off. That was because she saw Ivan’s face up close for the first time, and it reflected a degree of sadness she had never seen before.

“Can’t we talk like we used to?”

“…I can’t. I am not your wife.”

She remembered when Ivan had told her that families don’t use honorific language with each other. Maybe that was the moment they had finally learned to compromise with each other.

There was certainly something warm that had accumulated between them, and she knew that.

“Yes, you’re right. You weren’t my wife from the beginning.”

Therefore, it’s ridiculous to be hurt to the point of wanting to cry just because you were told the truth.

“That’s why I came here, to make you my true wife.”

The words sounded distant, and Ernesta slowly raised her pale face.

“I love you. I will protect you for a lifetime. Please marry me.”

A hoarse breath escaped his lips.

Before she knew it, the night sky was filled with the glitter of stars, and the thin sliver of the moon was illuminating the area. In the darkness of twilight, Ivan’s eyes showed no sign of wavering.

“W-What are you saying…?”

On the contrary, Ernesta’s voice was trembling completely. She was already struggling to accept his presence here, and now he was saying unexpected things, causing her thoughts to scatter.

Almost unconsciously, Ernesta shook her head. Ivan’s pained expression at that gesture was beyond her comprehension.

“I don’t know why. I can’t help it because it’s my true feelings.”

Ernesta knew well that there was not a single lie in his eyes or in his heart.

As usual, her mind was not working. It took her a long time to understand the meaning of Ivan’s words, and her face turned even paler.

There’s no way that could be true. She had deceived this person, and now that she was exposed, she should only face condemnation.

“That’s not right…!”

Her cry echoed with anguish. Even though she should have received the words she wanted most, her heart felt shattered.

If that’s the case, then this sin is even more grave.

Ernesta threw away everything Ivan had given her. She was the worst traitor.

“Who won’t allow it?”

“Everyone! The people of Shenka, Ambassador Engeberg, and even Princess Ermengard…!”

“Everyone admired you as their queen. Count Engeberg and Princess Ermengard have asked me to bring you back.”

“But, His Majesty, the Emperor of Bral…”

“We’ll overcome it. We’ve prepared for that.”

As her argument was systematically dismantled, Ernesta felt her breath catch.

Then she finally noticed it. His eyes were blazing with blue flames.

“But it’s still not enough! I can’t forgive myself. I deceived you and the country you protect, for my selfish reasons. I have no right to stand by your side…!”

“If you can’t forgive yourself, then I’ll forgive you. The only qualification you need to stand by my side is that I choose you.”

As his feet clad in black leather boots took a step forward, Ernesta took a step back. Ivan furrowed his brow at the distance that didn’t shrink, but he never averted his gaze.

“I said I love you. I only want to hear your answer.”

Ernesta felt scared again, but this time it wasn’t the fear of being hated. It was because she was staring at the most passionate blue eyes she had ever seen.

How many prayers would it take to make amends? How many apologies would it take to see this person’s smile again?

Ernesta had told a terrible lie and there was no way she could accept these feelings.

Nevertheless…

“I… couldn’t keep my promise…”

Before she knew it, the makeshift honorifics disappeared, leaving only a feeble voice that dissolved into the darkness.

Finally, as her true feelings overflowed, tears as clear as glass trickled down her cheeks. Ernesta was torn between overwhelming joy and a sense of guilt, and even felt as if blood was flowing from her chest.

“I said I would wait… but I betrayed you all. You were all so kind to me, and I lied to all of you.”

She couldn’t understand anything. She didn’t know what to do or what she wanted.

Still, her mouth moved on its own, spinning out her secrets.

“I took on the role of a substitute, but it was because there was a reward. So, even though I knew I shouldn’t think it’s painful, I kept thinking I didn’t want to go back.”

Her confession, punctuated by sobs, was awkward and difficult to hear, but Ivan listened silently.

What a selfish thing to say. Ernesta felt like she wanted to disappear and tightly closed her eyes, unable to look at his blue eyes.

“I really am sorry…! Yet, I love Ivan. I’m sorry.”

Before she finished speaking, he forcefully took her lips with haste and an almost rough demeanor.

Ivan’s lips were hot and rough, bearing the long journey he had taken to get here.

As they kissed repeatedly at different angles, tears streamed down Ernesta’s tightly closed eyes. She couldn’t feel the reality of what had happened to her, but she couldn’t help but cherish this warmth.

“Don’t apologize. No one blames Ellie. If it would make you cry like this, I shouldn’t have made that promise in the first place.”

Suddenly, the heat left her lips and a hoarse voice came down from above. As she gently opened her eyes, she saw a face filled with sorrowful regret, but tears blurred her vision. His large hands cupped her cheeks, wiping away the tear stains around her eyes, as if cherishing her.

“I have always been saved by you. Eight years ago and now.”

Understanding the meaning of the word “eight years ago”, Ernesta narrowed her misty eyes.

“When did you realize it?”

“Just now. When I heard the name Weisbergk, I never thought it would be you. But when I tried to pass through this vacant lot, you were here… and that’s when I became convinced.”

If she could meet that wolf once again, Ernesta wanted to hug it tightly and celebrate its safety. The two of them sat here, looking up at the night sky in silence, and she wanted to talk about the stars while stroking his golden back.

Ernesta reached out with a trembling hand and touched his broad back. Her expression, including a lot of longing, seemed to be smiling with happiness.

“I…just wanted you to be safe, eight years ago and now.”

“Yes, I was safe because of you. Then and now.”

The tears kept flowing endlessly, no matter how much she wiped them away.

Because his kind hand was real. Because she realized how much happiness being in his arms brought her.

“I won’t let you go anymore. Even if you cry and say how much you don’t want to be separated from your family, I can’t grant that wish.”

Through the membrane covering her vision, she saw the smile she had longed for.

Yes, Ernesta loved Ivan’s smiling face. His loud laughing smile, his quiet wry smile, and this gentle smile.

“…Is it okay for me to stay by your side?”

“Yeah, I want you to stay by my side.”

The words they exchanged were short but more than enough.

Ernesta knew painfully well how difficult it was for the king to make a wish.

This awkward and precious person. How much she had wanted to see him. How much she had worried about him.

On top of the tangled golden thread, the stars that had just begun to show themselves were shining just as brightly. The twilight sky with a hint of pale blue was most like the color of Ivan’s eyes.

——Thank you, God.

Thank you for protecting this person. And I hope you will continue to protect His Majesty the King, who is the kindest of all.

Let’s talk about stars. Next time, let’s talk about our favorite things honestly. I wonder what kind of face he would make if I said I wanted to count the billions of twinkles together.

From now on, I want to have courage and gaze at what the blue eyes reflect together.

If he wishes for it, forever.

Chapter 72: Not a dream 1

The morning came as usual.

Ernesta sat up on the bed and looked around her room with an unsteady gaze, letting out a sigh.

It seemed that she had just had a ridiculous dream. The content was filled with nothing but wishful thinking, making her feel embarrassed and wanting to go back to sleep.

She had dreamt of that person many times before, but today’s dream had an odd sense of reality.

She really needed to stop this soon. This was just foolishness. Stupid, presumptuous, and…happiness.

As she combed her messy hair with her hand, she let out a second sigh. Ernesta dragged her heavy body out of bed and left her room as she was.

The time was before 6 am. Isolte would be waking up soon, so she needed to help prepare breakfast.

She felt a bit dazed, as if her thought process wasn’t functioning properly. With a strange feeling of discomfort, Ernesta opened the door leading to the living room.

“Good morn—”

“Good morning, Ellie.”

The clear voice that returned the groggy greeting was something that shouldn’t have been possible.

She raised her face almost as a reflex. Isolte was in the nearby kitchen, returning her greeting with a wry smile. And the person keeping watch over the fire in front of the stove was Ivan.

——Why was Ivan here?

Ernesta froze, eyes wide open. Her stagnant mind began to work actively, replaying the content she had deemed a dream just now.

Impossible, impossible, no way. But…!

A silent scream leaked out of her trembling lips.

She was wearing stretched-out pajamas, with unkempt hair full of bedhead. The king had started a fire in a regular household. Last night’s events. Various factors intertwined and finally caused her mind to explode.

Her body, swept into confusion, moved on its own, and Ernesta silently closed the door.

Determined to abandon everything, she ran back to her room at full speed.

Going back in time to last night, the Gentner family living room was surrounded by a strange tension.

At present, four people are sitting at the dining table. One of them, Ernesta, secretly observed the appearance of her father sitting in front of her.

Bruno was clearly disgruntled, and he was casting a stern gaze diagonally ahead. Isolte, next to him, is the opposite, looking in the same direction as her husband with a hearty smile on her face.

Ivan, who had attracted the attention of both of them, had his usual calm demeanor. His aura and beauty that inevitably seeped through were too much for the small space, making Ernesta feel inexplicably uncomfortable.

“Once again, I am Ivan Leopold Urbashek. It is an honor to meet you.”

——What kind of way of speaking is that?!

Ernesta opened her mouth widely in her mind.

By the way, Konrad was sitting on the sofa against the wall, one hand holding a book, looking over here. That guy definitely hasn’t read a single page.

“I am Isolte Gentner. It is also an honor to meet you, King Ivan.”

As expected of Isolte, who once served in the palace, she remained composed and had perfect manners. However, Bruno’s expression became even more stern, and he muttered, “…I’m Bruno,” then fell silent.

“I have come to ask for permission to marry Lady Ernesta. I should have come much earlier, but… I apologize deeply for this matter.”

——Apologize deeply?!

He wasn’t someone who would just bow his head so easily, yet he offered such a sincere response.

Ernesta was at a loss for what to do with her face, which had turned completely red with both happiness and apology, but Isolte was merciless.

“How wonderful! You chased after our daughter, didn’t you?”

“That’s right. There was no one else I could think of except for Lady Ernesta.”

Ernesta really opened her mouth for real this time. Where had the shy Ivan gone?

“Oh my gosh! I can’t believe this is happening, it’s so wonderful! You know, Your Majesty, this child has been depressed since she came back.”

“Come on, Mom, stop it! It’s embarrassing!”

Ernesta stood up and tried to stop them. But Bruno took over the conversation.

“That’s right. It was painful to watch.”

Ernesta, who thought she had gone unnoticed by her father, was surprised enough to drown out her embarrassment. Upon seeing her, Konrad also sighed.

It seemed that she had caused quite a bit of worry to her family even after returning home. Ernesta felt like crying and slumped her shoulders in silence.

“I know you’re not to blame. It was this country that caused a great deal of trouble and behaved rudely… However, Your Majesty, how do you plan to resolve this turmoil? If we let these thugs get away with this kind of outrage, we don’t know what kind of unreasonable demands they will make next. If you plan to be ambiguous about it, then this child cannot marry into your country.”

Konrad muttered, “Well, Dad has a good point.” but Ernesta could no longer pick up his voice.

She understood that Bruno cared about her daughter, but Ivan was just caught up in this scheme. She couldn’t burden him with anything more.

However, before she could say anything, Ivan gently stopped her. Looking up at him with exhausted eyes, she saw a soft smile with a firm will behind it.

Then Ivan turned back forward and completely wiped the smile off his face.

“As for that, I am not going to retreat for free either. I’ll make sure that they will be marked with deep regret and will not be tempted again.”

Ernesta looked up at his profile overflowing with anger.

Although she had expected it, Ivan was quite angry about this incident. It was almost like the country had been overturned, so it was natural for him to feel that way.

As she was speechless with the anger emanating from his entire body, Konrad found it interesting and chimed in.

“I love that kind of thing. What do you mean by that, ‘brother-in-law’?”

“I see, Konrad-dono is also a man with great courage.”

“Don’t call me ‘dono’. So, what are you planning to do?”

Ernesta wished she could interject, but there was no timing to do so.

“Right now, I’m having my subjects prepare a letter to the Emperor of Bral. Once it arrives, I’m going to crush the Emperor.”

Chapter 73: Not a dream 2

After the family meeting, Ernesta was able to get an update from Ivan on various situations. That they ended the war before it intensified, that Mikolash and Silvestor were both safe, and that they didn’t blame Engeberg and Ermengard for the crime. Ernesta felt all the energy draining from her body upon hearing this.

Then, after the family members retired to their respective rooms, Ernesta hesitated but turned around to see Ivan standing there, just out of the bath. His wet golden hair still exuded a rugged sex appeal that left Ernesta overwhelmed, and it was all that she could do to look him in the eyes.

Bruno’s hemp shirt and cotton trousers were neither particularly high-end nor perfectly sized, but somehow on him, they exuded a sense of class.

In contrast, Ernesta had yet to finish her bath and had only changed into a plaid dress after lightly wiping her body. She had tied up her braids into one because they were already frayed, but she felt that it made her look shabby.

Suppressing her shyness in front of the person she admires, Ernesta tried to smile as usual.

“I served a little extra so you don’t get cold.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. Thank you.”

Yes, he ended up staying in the guest room of the Gentner family due to Isolte’s forceful recommendation.

Ernesta had tried to stop her mother’s outrageous proposal, but Ivan had easily accepted it, surprising her.

“Um…there were better accommodations in this town, I’m sorry for making you stay in this small room. I hope the length of the bed is enough.”

Ernesta shrunk and looked down.

She didn’t want to burden Ivan any further by making him come to such a place. She never expected this turn of events.

As she sank into a net of guilt, a faint sigh fell from above her head. When she timidly looked up, she saw a familiar beautiful smile.

“I want to be by Ellie’s side. If I can stay here, there will be no greater accommodation.”

——What really happened?

Ernesta’s cheeks flushed red as she heard these words spoken so casually. Before she could respond, she felt his hand wrap around her waist, pulling her closer with strength.

“You’re not…”

“Huh…?”

The hand on her cheek was heated enough to follow its thickness. Ernesta, who was shot by the sadly narrowed blue eyes, felt frustrated by the closeness of the distance.

“I was dying to see Ellie. Every time a battle ended, I thought, ‘I’ll be able to see her again soon.’ I dreamed of you smiling at me countless times.”

His hand tracing the curve of her cheek drifted away, then he caught and held her right hand. Their palms touched, fingers interlocking, and Ernesta was surprised at the warmth. Before she knew it, he pressed his lips to her hand.

“Don’t say that you don’t want this. Holding you like this, I don’t ever want to let go.”

By the time Ernesta felt the low vibration in her defenseless hand, she had already teared up at what was happening.

She couldn’t even hear the sound of her heart pounding loudly. Her cheeks were so hot that she felt they must be as red as the heat, making her feel unbearably embarrassed.

She didn’t know what to do. Just the fact that he was here was unbelievable, let alone this.

“I, I also… wanted to see you.”

Ernesta lowered her eyes, unable to meet his gaze that was filled with warmth. If she didn’t do that, she wouldn’t even be able to talk anymore.

“I thought we would never be able to meet again just a little while ago. I’m so glad… I don’t know what to do.”

The moment she managed to convey her feelings with a trembling voice, she was embraced with a painful force.

Although her right hand was released, she was now stitched all over her body. Her body, fresh out of the bath, was burning hot, and the arms that were wrapped around her shoulders and waist were as strong as steel.

“Why are you so cute? You’re so endearing and brave… It makes me feel so overwhelmed.”

Ernesta didn’t understand what was being said and couldn’t hug back. It was not because of consideration for the fact that she was a replacement, but because the sudden physical contact caused confusion.

Her whole body tensed up, and she didn’t even know how to breathe properly. Was it dizziness or tears that made her vision blur?

Is it really okay to be this happy? It felt like being in a dream, and a sense of restlessness weighed on her mind like being stuck in the sand.

“Ellie.”

She timidly looked up when her name was called. Their eyes met for a moment, and Ernesta closed her eyes just before they kissed.

The soft warmth moved from her lips to her nose, cheeks, and eventually her neck. When the man’s lips touched her white and delicate skin, she shuddered visibly.

——What should I do? It’s embarrassing, even though this is my house. But I’m happy. I love him. So, so… what should I do?

Her normal thought process had long since ceased to function, and Ernesta trembled with her eyes tightly shut.

Eventually, Ernesta felt the lips that had touched hers drift away and a wry smile that shook the air after a brief pause. Wondering what was going on, she opened her eyes and at almost the same time, a kiss was planted on her forehead.

While his smile was gentle, she couldn’t help but feel a hint of sadness in it. His large hand wrapped around her shoulder as he slowly pulled away from her.

Lonely. Ernesta covered her cheek, suddenly feeling this way. It was contradictory to her earlier agitation.

“Come to think of it… that candy was delicious.”

Although it was a sudden change of topic, she immediately understood its meaning.

“Oh…! The apricot flavor, was it okay?”

“Yeah. It helped me a lot.”

Ivan had eaten the candy that he gave her before deploying. Ernesta blushed and smiled, thinking that it might have been a burden and caused some trouble.

“That’s good…”

At that moment, Ivan momentarily stared, then quickly looked away. Did I say something strange?

Ernesta was sitting seiza in Konrad’s room. The room’s owner stood before her, glaring and not even trying to hide his bad mood.

“It’s been noisy since this morning.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yesterday’s emergency family meeting left me sleepless, and here you are disturbing a student’s sleep. Aren’t you an adult?”

“Yes, you’re right…”

Perhaps tired of his sister’s sincere apologies, Konrad sniffed and picked up one of the scattered equipment on the floor.

As a matter of fact, Konrad’s room was a real astronomical observatory. Taking advantage of his family’s blacksmith business, he and Bruno made their own measuring instruments which they invented themselves.

Unlike his sister, this younger brother has chosen to face the stars as an academic pursuit — a prodigy renowned even in the local area.

“I see. There are new things that I don’t know every time I visit. What kind of research are you doing now?”

“Proving the heliocentric theory. Mom and I have been working on it, and we just completed it yesterday.”

“Helio-what? Well, that’s something.”

“I’ll tell you once the presentation is over. Whether you believe it or not is up to Nee-san.”

“Hmm…?”

Just as she was twisting her neck at his affected turn of phrase, Isolte’s voice called from downstairs with a request for help with breakfast.

“I have to go. Konrad is still sleeping.”

“Oh, by the way, congratulations on your marriage, Nee-san. Do your best so that your beautiful husband won’t get tired of you.”

Konrad flashed a teasing smile. It was a rare, straightforward smile from her little brother.

Chapter 74: The King gets nailed

Ernesta was lining up the herbs she had gathered yesterday in the backyard of her house. She would dry them in the sun and then use them to make medicine by boiling or kneading them, depending on the herb.

After being satisfied with the neatly arranged herbs, she turned around and saw the ruler of the country working hard at splitting firewood.

Ernesta stopped moving for a while, smiling at the unbelievable reality she was witnessing.

Ivan was dressed in the clothes that Bruno had worn in his younger years today. He might just look like an ordinary citizen of Bral without wearing a chokha, but his outstanding beauty and presence denied that.

“Hey Ivan, that’s enough.”

He had already taken care of the stove in the morning, and it was beyond embarrassing. Isn’t their family too frank with His Majesty the King?

“No, I haven’t done enough yet.”

“I think it’s enough…”

A stack of firewood had already been made beside them. Even though he had undertaken an ultra-march on the journey until yesterday, what kind of physical strength was this?

“I’m staying here, so it’s only natural to do this much.”

Ivan turned around with movements that showed no sign of fatigue, wiping sweat from his neck with the cloth hanging around it.

Ernesta squinted her eyes at his smile, but her worry prevailed, and she immediately furrowed her eyebrows.

“You’ll leave as soon as the letter arrives, won’t you? At least take some time off while you still can.”

It must be a very dangerous trip to go boarding in the palace.

Ernesta really wanted to go with him, but she understood that voicing such selfishness was not appropriate. He needed to finish his business before the mountain roads were closed by snow and return to Shenka. Ernesta was slow and, moreover, it would be of no use to her if she went with him.

“Dad said so, but … if I speak only with my emotions, it doesn’t matter what the Emperor did.”

However, this was a problem involving Shenka’s position, which Ivan had risked his life to protect. Ernesta had no right to interfere.

“Just know that. I don’t expect you to worry about me, but just know that much.”

“Ellie, you’re misunderstanding.”

However, as she mustered all her courage to make a suggestion, she was interrupted by a gentle voice.

No, that’s not it. Ivan seems to be smiling, but his eyes are not at all.

“To be honest, I feel so angry at Emperor Bral that I would not be satisfied until I tear him apart. It’s not just because of Shenka’s rotten behavior, but also because of the atrocities committed against you.”

“What…?!”

Ernesta was dumbfounded. Ivan, who believed in prioritizing work and not bringing emotions into politics, was angry about this matter.

“I have only a rudimentary understanding of Shenka’s position. No, it’s more accurate to say that we’ll use him as a stepping stone. After all he’s done, we have no obligation to enter into an alliance with him.”

“Um, Ivan?”

“It’s clear that he’s a scum who looks down on others. He must realize what will happen if he turns against me and the werewolf tribe. It must be imprinted on his bones.”

Ivan had a cheeky grin on his face. While Ernesta felt happy that he had gotten angry on her behalf, she couldn’t help but grimace at the pressure she felt on her skin.

Indeed, he was scary, and he didn’t seem likely to forgive the Emperor anytime soon. She could easily imagine why he was feared on the battlefield.

“A-Alright! I’ll be waiting, so be careful! And don’t overdo it!”

Ernesta cut off the conversation forcefully.

She realized her worry had been foolish. If anything, she should be worried about the people involved in this plan.

“Shall we have lunch soon? Wash your hands after a while and come to the dining room.”

Anyway, she wanted Ivan to relax and enjoy some delicious food. With that conclusion in mind, Ernesta left the scene with a smile in response to Ivan’s answer.

❂❂❂

Ivan wonders if this is real.

Ernesta’s smile is always within reach, and she’s waiting for him too. If they weren’t outside, he would have hugged her by now.

“So cute…”

His sigh blends into a genuine impression.

Last night was really dangerous. Ivan was about to do something incredibly improper to Ernesta, who was so nervous and shaking. And even though this was her family home, he was just a lodger.

As Ivan let out another sigh and split the firewood, he realized late that someone was behind him.

“My daughter is beautiful, isn’t she?”

He was on the verge of throwing his axe, but he tightly gripped it and looked back.

Bruno was standing there with his arms crossed and an annoyed expression. When did he start monitoring their conversation?

“Do you know that my daughter is the most beautiful woman in town? She doesn’t seem to be aware of it herself, though.”

“Well, yes… that’s certainly true.”

It’s only natural for her to be so cute. Considering her age of eighteen, it can be said that it’s miraculous that she’s still unmarried.

“Since the year before last, when she reached marriageable age, there were no shortage of marriage proposals, but I carefully screened all of them and rejected them all so far. My wife was exasperated, but they were all worthless men.”

“I see.”

Ivan nodded with a straight face on the surface, but inside he thanked his father-in-law.

——Thank you so much, Father-in-law. Thanks to you, I was able to meet Ellie.

“She is a good girl, bright and obedient. After she returned from Shenka, she became quite depressed… but ever since you came, her expressions have become more lively than before.”

He couldn’t nod to those words right away.

He felt guilty for hurting her and his chest tightened as he remembered the various expressions she had shown him.

“…I cannot promise that I will never make her sad like that again, because I am the king of a country.”

There will be more wars to come. Difficulties will be waiting with open arms on the road ahead.

He cannot avoid making her sad each time.

“But I will definitely protect her until the end. Please believe in that.”

For a while, Bruno squinted his eyes and gazed at Ivan. Eventually, he let out a deep sigh and scratched the back of his head while averting his gaze.

“Well, it seems that you’re not a worthless man.”

“It’s an honor.”

“But you know, don’t you?”

However, just when Ivan felt relieved to be acknowledged, Bruno approached him with a piercing gaze.

“You’re not yet officially married to my daughter. You’re not allowed to touch her until you return to the country and make a pledge.”

“That’s…”

Ivan uttered an unusual bewildered voice.

Could such a cruel thing happen? He tried to refute, but he was unable to speak due to what he saw in Bruno’s eyes.

“I know our country is entirely to blame for this. You’re legally married to another woman. I just want you to make a pledge before the werewolf god at least… It’s okay to give her that much.”

Bruno’s argument, strained and spun out, was convincing enough.

It also caused Ivan to consider offering his marriage vows again.

Above all, Ernesta has given him more than he can count. In order to repay her even a little bit, he should at least grant her family’s wish.

“…I understand. You are certainly right.”

To be honest, in the moment he nodded, he was hit with regret.

Chapter 75: Who is the messenger 1

Ernesta stopped crushing the medicinal herbs and let out a deep sigh.

By now, Ivan had been here for three days, and according to his words, Engeberg was confined as soon as the substitute was revealed. As for Ermengard, she was busy with her duties as queen to avoid confusion.

Although he told her they did not do anything violent and obeyed solemnly, Ernesta couldn’t help but worry about them. She understood that it was the expected response, and she could even say that they were lucky not to lose their lives.

But what about herself? She hadn’t received any punishment. On the contrary, she was trying to return to Shenka as if nothing had happened.

After bottling the powdered herbs and placing them on the shelf, Ernesta went outside with a troubled expression.

——I have to get it together.

If she wished to be by Ivan’s side, she had to be prepared to shoulder her own sins. She even wanted to help him carry his burden. She hoped that thinking like this wasn’t just self-importance.

Looking up at the sky with renewed determination, she saw the deep blue sky surrounding the border town.

Ivan had gone hunting in the mountains. He happily grabbed the rifle handed to him by Bruno, truly a hunter at heart.

Right now, Ernesta focused on what was in front of her. Mumbling to herself, she started gathering the laundry.

“If you don’t mind.”

As she grabbed the fluttering sheets, someone called out from behind her.

Turning around carefully as not to drop the white fabric, she saw a woman she didn’t recognize.

The woman appeared to be in her mid-thirties and was very beautiful.

Her brunette hair was well-groomed, and her simple dress was elegantly tailored. Behind her stood two men who seemed to be her guards, suggesting a high social status.

“Welcome!”

Ernesta smiled as she pushed the sheets into the basket. But the woman didn’t even crack a smile and gazed at her emotionlessly with her eyes.

“Are you looking for our shop? The entrance is on the opposite side.”

The blacksmith North Star had a good reputation, and even the local aristocrats favored them. Ernesta assumed that the person in front of her was related to the shop and began to guide them.

“Please come this way. It’s a small shop, but we have a good selection——”

“I came to see you, Ernesta.”

Completely caught off guard by the unexpected words, Ernesta stopped in surprise.

What did this woman just say? No, first of all, how did she know her name?

“You must leave this town. From now on, you will follow me.”

“What are you talking about…? Who are you?”

“I am Constanze, the Empress of the Bral Empire.”

Upon hearing the matter-of-fact introduction, Ernesta was shocked and couldn’t move.

——What a joke. There’s no way the Empress could be here.

Wait a minute. If she really is the Empress, then this person is…!

In her confusion, Ernesta stumbled. However, perhaps they saw this as an attempt to escape, the men behind her moved instantly and restrained her defenseless body from both sides.

“What are you doing?! Let go of me!”

She reflexively twisted her body to escape, but the men seemed accustomed to rough work and didn’t budge. Even though she didn’t know what was going on, a feeling of despair engulfed her.

But that time did not last long. One moment she heard men screaming in agony above her, and the next she was being pulled by the arms and sheltered by a familiar back.

“Don’t lay a finger on my wife.”

Ivan’s short, spat-out words were so low they seemed to crawl along the ground.

Ernesta looked up in shock at the rugged figure in front of her. The two men who had restrained her were crouching, clutching their throats and stomachs, but as soon as they saw the dignified figure of the king, their faces turned pale.

“Do you think I wont crush the likes of you in the blink of an eye? Empress…!”

It was a fiery anger that could flatten the surroundings just with his voice.

Ernesta even felt the illusion that the clothes hangers or store window frames were shaking, and her shoulders trembled while being shielded backwards.

It was always like this. When in trouble, when in despair, Ivan always came to help.

Ernesta was so relieved that she almost kneeled, but she held onto the shirt on Ivan’s broad back and managed to endure it. When Ivan noticed the touch, he faintly turned his head back and firmly nodded.

In the meantime, the men who had been struck by anger from the front seemed to be frozen and completely unable to move. However, the woman stood there resolutely, despite her face turning pale.

Ernesta finally realized it now.

This unwavering posture, the sharp nose, and the brunette hair. She looked just like Ermengard from any angle.

“…King Ivan. Why are you here?”

“That’s our line, Empress Constanze.”

Upon receiving proof that the woman’s name was not a lie, Ernesta looked at her dignified posture again. The sudden encounter with her birth mother made it hard for her emotions to catch up.

Realizing that it was futile to ask, Constanze let out a sigh and lowered her gaze.

“I have come at the behest of His Majesty, the Emperor.”

“The emperor’s orders?”

“Yes. To ensure that Ernesta is kept under surveillance and used as a substitute for Ermengard in the future.”

Ivan’s anger erupted upon hearing the quiet declaration of fact. His expression could not be seen, but the anger was transmitted unmistakably.

“…What a lowlife. And incredibly foolish as well. Is that how you treat your own daughter?”

Despite being verbally abused, Constanze showed no reaction other than narrowing her eyes.

However, just as she was about to say something in response, a third unexpected visitor arrived with a brisk pace.

The person who appeared was completely unexpected.

“Long time no see, you two! Wait, is that…?”

“Theodor-san…?!”

Theodor, in human form, moved his face from side to side, scratching his cheeks in the tense air. He didn’t seem to understand the situation, and eventually turned to Ivan with a questioning look.

“Did I come during your private time, by any chance?”

“No, it’s perfect timing, Theo. Hand me the letter.”

Not seeming to be offended by Ivan’s lack of joy at seeing him again, Theodor pulled a rolled up piece of parchment out of the baggage he was carrying.

Ernesta was so surprised that she couldn’t close her mouth. Theodor’s task was to deliver the letter.

“Here. The jailer was rough with me, man.”

Ivan effortlessly caught the tube that Theodor threw and passed it directly to Constanze.

“Read it here now.”

The guard, who finally regained his composure, staggered to his feet and received the letter. After receiving a nod from Constanze, the man spread out the parchment and began to read its contents.

“…This is a formal protest against your recent plot. Your country is no longer respected as an ally. You must express sincere repentance and apologize while accepting the following conditions:

First, all contact between Ermengard, Ernesta, and their families is prohibited. Second, do not dismiss Ambassador Count Engeberg. Third, do not terminate the alliance. Fourth, repeal the troop deployment clause in the text. These are the conditions. Furthermore, if any of these conditions are violated, be aware that we will publicize this plot to the world along with Princess Ermengard’s testimony.”

Ernesta couldn’t help but lift her face. Ivan, who faced forward, didn’t even glance at her, but his strong arm supported her shoulder.

The man read the letter aloud and slowly lifted his pale face.

Even without thinking, it was clear what would happen if this matter were to become known to the world.

Bral would lose diplomatic credibility. It was certain that the future of a country that turned its back on other countries would not be bright.

Ivan stared straight at Constanze with his sharp blue eyes, like a drawn sword.

“Let me add one more thing. If you can’t accept this condition, I’ll go alone to the palace and tear the Emperor’s head apart. Don’t think it’s impossible.”

Theodor casually said, “Then I’ll help too,” but it seemed to have a full effect, causing the two guards to further tense their already strained faces.

“You have chosen the wrong enemy to plot against. If you understand, take this and return to your husband.”

With those words, the conversation ended. Constanze remained silent for a while in response to Ivan’s tone of finality.

Eventually, the empress showed a faint smile. It was a gentle expression containing a sense of relief.

Chapter 76: Who is the messenger 2

Why do you have that expression?

Ernesta felt a strange tightening in her chest and couldn’t put her question into words.

“Understood, Your Majesty. I will take care of this letter. Now, Knight Commander, Vice-Captain, let’s go.”

Constanze gave a refined lady-like bow and spoke to the men.

“We deeply apologize for causing you so much trouble. Please forgive us with your generous spirit.”

“It depends on the Emperor’s reply…Ernesta, what do you think?”

“Eh…!”

She was surprised at the abrupt question. The development was too fast for her to keep up, but she desperately tried to think with her slow mind.

“First of all… I would like to thank you for healing my mother.”

Ivan widened his eyes in surprise, then immediately smiled wryly. Theodor had the same expression, realizing that she had said something out of place, but there were still some things she needed to convey.

“I am not in a position to forgive or not forgive, so I will not say anything further… On an unrelated note, I just want to say one more thing. I am glad to have met you for once. Please also send my regards to His Majesty the Emperor and wish him well.”

Ernesta slowly bowed her head.

She and her birth parents had already become too distant. Expressing her gratitude directly was complicated due to the complexity of her life so far, and there were two people she regarded as her true parents.

But still, she hoped for their well-being, even if they never met again.

“You…”

Constanze murmured absentmindedly. Seeing her vulnerable expression, Ernesta felt a pain in her chest, but Constanze nodded before she could say anything.

“Yes… You too, take care.”

❂❂❂

“Don’t I even get a greeting? How unfeeling of you.”

As Isolte was leaving the store, she called out to the person who was about to pass by. With a wry smile in her plea, Constanze stopped in her tracks and told her two guards to hang back before finally turning around.

“Because I have no face to show for it.”

Isolte shook her head and deepened her wry smile at the embarrassed expression she had seen before when they worked together as student and teacher.

“That’s not true. After all, you came to help Ernesta, Princess.”

“… How long have you been watching?”

“Since I could understand your intentions.”

Constanze was probably pretending to be under the emperor’s orders and came to help Ernesta escape. She must have been prepared to even help her family flee the country if she wished.

“I know well how difficult that palace is for women to live in. I’m glad that you have the courage to come.”

“Finally. Unlike you, it took me eighteen years to find mine.”

Constanze did not bother hiding her self-deprecation. Although it was unclear what she was feeling inside, there was one thing that was certain: this Empress has not fundamentally changed since her days as a princess. She was expressionless, yet crying inside that day, and she still is.

“That child will be fine. I’m sure Ivan will protect her well.”

“Yes. I think so too.”

Isolte knew exactly who she was referring to without having to ask. So she nodded clearly.

“Thank you, Isolte. I’ve always thought that I had ruined your life, but that wasn’t the case.”

“Of course not, Constanze-sama. I chose to be here myself.”

Isolte laughed heartily.

It was a good decision to raise Ernesta back then, and she was genuinely happy about it.

Perhaps her straightforward feelings had been conveyed, as Constanze also smiled nostalgically.

“I really loved your lessons, Isolte.”

“Oh, that’s an honor! As an instructor, those are the best words to hear.”

The past cannot be erased. It is an absolute fact that all people share.

That’s why there are rare things. If one has a heart, they must each carry something that should not be erased and live even if it is painful.

“Goodbye, Isolte. Be happy.”

“Yes, and you too, Constanze-sama.”

After the greeting, Constanze elegantly turned on her heel. The guards who had been waiting by the wall joined her, and they quickly boarded the carriage beside them.

Isolte never stopped waving goodbye until the carriage slowly disappeared down the main street.

❂❂❂

“Hmm, I didn’t know that happened. Too bad, I would have liked to see them frustrated,” said Konrad as he tore off a piece of bread during dinner, prompting Ernesta to give a vague smile.

“I don’t think they were really feeling frustrated or anything…”

“Is that so? Well, it doesn’t matter. For now, I’m just disappointed to know that our country’s leader is a moron.”

Despite his impudent comment, Konrad seemed somewhat relieved. He was probably still angry about the incident, but this might have brought them to a compromise.

“Hahaha! You talk too much, little brother. Well, just don’t get too caught up in things.”

Theodor gave a hearty laugh. Yes, he had also been invited today, making it a lively dinner.

Ivan seemed to still have not forgotten about the previous incident, and he had initially opposed Ernesta and himself sitting together. Theodor had also declined the invitation at one point, but when she told him that she really did not care anymore and that he was welcome to come, they both reluctantly agreed with a wry smile.

“Hey, kids gotta eat meat. Ivan brought a wild boar for us!”

Theodor piled some grilled herb-covered boar onto Konrad’s plate without permission. The dining table, where chairs had been brought up from the second floor, was like a festive occasion, with dishes crammed together.

Ernesta quietly laughed, watching Ivan react with a sour face to the usual antics of his friend, as she enjoyed such a fun meal for the first time in a while. What a kind scene this was—a man who had once been the leader of the anti-alliance faction and humans sitting around the same table.

“Hey, I’m not a kid! Next year, I’ll be working at a nearby observatory as a researcher!”

Konrad responded, unaware of the circumstances, and like usual, he voiced his displeasure and threatened others. It was unusual for his prickly nature to not be aimed at Ivan so far.

“Oh really? Then you better eat meat, boy. You won’t get any girls looking all skinny like that.”

“I’m grateful for the food, but what’s up with this guy?! I can’t stand someone who seems to lack even a shred of intelligence like him!”

“What did you say?! I also suck with smart brats like you!”

Finally, a fight broke out. Like water and oil, they might be more similar than expected.

It seems like the parents have the same feeling, as everyone had a lukewarm smile on their face.

“Theo, calm down. It’s unbecoming to get so worked up.”

With a wry smile, Ivan tried to stop them, but Isolte poured some alcohol into Theodor’s mug.

“I can tell you’re quite a drinker. Shall we have a drinking contest?”

“Oh, this should be interesting. I am strong, ma’am.”

It started on that end too. Bruno had already hit his limit, and it was already a mess.

“Oi…Konrad, get me some water.”

“Dad is the worst! Hang on a sec!”

As Konrad stood up in a fit of anger, Ernesta added water to her father’s mug from the pot next to her.

“Here you go, Dad. Drink as much as you can.”

“Ah…”

Bruno tilted the mug while feeling drowsy. But after he drank it all, he couldn’t hold up and fell down on the floor.

“Oh no, Dad, are you okay? If you’re going to sleep, at least go to the sofa.”

“It’s fine… It doesn’t matter for the last time.”

Ernesta tried to wake him up by tapping his shoulder, but unfortunately, there was no response from her father who had fallen face down. Then, Ivan quietly stood up. Konrad, who had been stuffing his mouth with food while being astonished at his father’s behavior, also lifted his head.

“Well then, shall we take him to his room?”

“Huh? Just leave him. It’s no use. Fine, I’ll help.”

“It’s okay, Konrad. There’s no problem.”

When Ivan turned into a werewolf, he easily picked up the large man as he said he would.

Ernesta was momentarily pale at the ridiculous situation of having a king take care of a drunkard.

“I-I’m sorry! I can’t believe I’m making you do this…!”

“Don’t worry, it’s light.”

To call the muscular man light while carrying him. The strength of the werewolf tribe is definitely not to be underestimated.

“Wow, you’re amazing. So cool.”

Even Konrad, who was not easily impressed, expressed his admiration as he stood up with a bottle of water and a mug.

“I’ll bring Dad some water and then go to sleep. Good night, Nee-san.”

“Good night, Konrad.”

In the living room with the three of them, the two heavy drinkers were quietly comparing drinks beyond common sense. The sound of wine bottles and mugs being placed on the desk was unnaturally loud, and the living room was filled with tension like some kind of game.

“Fufu… You’re good, aren’t you?”

“It’s been a long time since I had alcohol. I feel like I can drink as much as I want.”

The two of them, with an unfathomable smile, also had a tolerance for alcohol like a swamp.

Ernesta decides to leave them alone and leaves the living room. Then, she ran into Ivan still in his werewolf form in the hallway.

“Ivan, thank you so much. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, he’s fast asleep. I’m a little worried about the hangover, but it’s the last night, so he decided to let loose.”

Upon receiving Ivan’s serious gaze, Ernesta gave a lonely smile.

Yes, this would be the last time they would spend together as a family.

It was Ernesta who suggested that they return to Shenka tomorrow, as everyone was waiting for the king’s return.

Ivan suggested that they take it easy for a while longer, but there were too many reasons to leave quickly, such as Engeberg being under house arrest.

The family was surprised by the sudden departure, but they soon understood.

“You have a great family. Just by watching, I can tell you were well-raised and care deeply for them.”

“Yeah, that’s right. I love them so much.”

As she nodded with narrowed eyes, his golden-haired hand was petting her head. Blushing at the gesture that had never happened before, Ernesta turned to him with a questioning look.

“… Well, this much can be forgiven.”

Ivan looks somewhat disgruntled.

As she tilted her head at his mysterious muttering, he petted her head more strongly.

“You can come see them again. This is not a farewell for life.”

“…But, I’m being selfish.”

“It’s not selfishness. It’s actually me being selfish. That’s why I’ll definitely bring you back here.”

Perhaps he was gentle because he knew more sadness than anyone else.

Ernesta smiled and thanked him in a small voice.

Chapter 77: Because it’s not the last

While finishing breakfast and packing up for the last time, Ivan offered to help.

Ernesta gratefully accepted his kindness and packed not only daily necessities but also seasonings for enjoying nostalgic flavors into a burlap bag. After they had finished carrying everything outside, the two of them decided to take a break.

They sat face-to-face at the dining table, sipping tea. Ivan drank his tea in silence for some reason and finally spoke after it was emptied.

“Ernesta, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Ernesta became nervous for a moment and sat up straight, waiting for him to continue.

“Your coming to Shenka as Ermengard has been used to force Emperor Bral to accept the terms. You will have to live under a false name from now on.”

Ernesta had not considered this at all and blinked awkwardly.

It was true. From the moment she returned to Shenka, she would have to live as Ermengard.

“Certainly, it’s disrespectful to receive Ermengard-sama’s name like this.”

But that’s all there is to it. She couldn’t shake the guilt she felt towards the princess, but other than that, she had no other thoughts.

It was obvious to even an amateur eye that that letter was a finely crafted document, even though it was short.

Ivan must have thoroughly discussed it with Johan, Engeberg, and Ermengard. The main goal was to convince the Emperor, and that all led to protecting Ernesta.

The name Ernesta was a treasure bestowed upon her by Isolte. But even if her name changes, the person Ernesta will not disappear.

“That’s enough. Call me by name sometimes, like you did before. So I don’t forget.”

Ernesta said in jest and smiled brightly.

As Ivan was stopped in his tracks by her dazzling smile, a visitor arrived at the dining room. It was Theodor, who had finished preparing for his trip.

“Well, you two, I’m heading back first. You guys are gonna take the carriage, right? I’ll be faster on foot.”

Theodor said, laughing easily without any grudges from the past.

Ernesta breathed a sigh of relief, but Ivan, who regained consciousness, surprisingly had a sharp gaze.

“What are you talking about? You’re a prisoner, you can’t just walk freely. You’ll have to ride in the same carriage as us.”

“Huh…?!”

Theodor’s eyes widened at the heartless statement. But Ernesta was just as surprised.

“Wait, hold on. A prisoner…?! I thought his trial was over and he was released!”

“No. This guy is currently in a position you could call a top-secret prison break.”

The shocking fact was casually revealed, leaving them speechless.

——Wait, seriously. I don’t understand at all.

And Theodor scratched the back of his head, looking embarrassed.

“Oh, did I not mention it? Well, basically, I agreed to take on this job as a special exception, with all the guards under a gag order. Anyway, they just wanted someone fast, and I’m wicked fast, you know.”

“Johan was a real hard man to get a hold of, though.”

“…I can’t believe it.”

The two men who had done something outrageous were laughing bitterly, with no tension at all.

However, upon closer examination, if Ivan had waited for the completion of the letter, it would have been enough. In other words, His Majesty the King had broken various common sense rules just to meet Ernesta as soon as possible.

Ernesta’s cheeks flushed lightly. This person doesn’t say things like that, making it hard to know what he’s thinking.

“I’m sorry I put Theodor-san’s position in jeopardy.”

“Haha, it’s okay. My position is as good as nonexistent, and it was quite fun… Oh yeah, we got sidetracked. Hey, Ivan, why do I have to ride in the carriage?!”

Theodor didn’t seem to care at all and quickly shifted his interest to something else. Ivan, who was challenged, remained calm.

“That’s why I’m saying we can’t let the prisoner wander alone.”

“How untrustworthy do you think I am?! My comrades are captured, and I’m not the kind of person who would run away alone! Besides, if I were going to run away, I would have done it already!”

“It’s no use. I appreciate you completing the job, but that’s all. There are no more exceptions.”

“What a stubborn, stingy, and hard-headed man! I’m saying that I don’t want to be kicked to death by a horse!”

The words spoken were unfamiliar to Ernesta, like a child’s quarrel. Perhaps it was a Shenka idiom.

“Kicked to death by a horse…?”

Ignoring the confused Ernesta, Ivan looked up with anger, his cheeks flushing slightly as if he was so angry.

Anyway, what can’t be done, can’t be done! Give up!”

In a rough tone, Ivan picked up his belongings and left. Left in the living room, Ernesta smiled wryly and spoke to “Theodor-san, the prisoner.”

“I’m sorry, Theodor-san. It’s unfair to ask you to accompany me when I’m slow, but we have to give up. Shall we go home together?”

“…I meant to suggest it for your sake, but oh well.”

Theodor thought with eyes that looked at Ivan’s closed door like he was dealing with an unruly child.

Despite that event, it was finally time to depart.

Ernesta didn’t tell her friends that she was going to Shenka, and instead told them that she was going on a training trip, including Ivan. She couldn’t explain who Ivan was or who she was going to marry.

The family, who had mourned the departure from the morning, came to see them off at the carriage outside the town.

Beyond the town, there was a grassy plain across a straight road, with a pleasant wind rustling through the green carpet. The autumn sky was clear and high, and the sun shone warmly on the world.

Ernesta looked back at the horse. Theodor was already inside the carriage, and Ivan was the only one standing beside her.

Ernesta was wearing her usual dress and had tied her hair into pigtails. She planned to buy and wear Arkrig to blend in once they arrived in the next town.

Ivan was also wearing Bruno’s secondhand clothes, and even his worn-out shirts looked great.

“Well then, be careful on the way.”

“Yeah, really. Don’t get into any more trouble.”

Isolte and Konrad smiled, but Bruno’s face turned blue as he hunched over. He seemed to have a bad hangover and was being supported by his son.

“It’s so heavy! Pull yourself together, it’s pathetic, oldman!”

“Yeah, really. If you’re weak, you shouldn’t drink.”

Isolte made a face of disbelief, but her voice was still cheerful.

“Well then, that’s enough of Dad. Goodbyes are still goodbyes. Ellie, do your best. Your work requires more than just half-hearted determination.”

“Yes. I’ll do my best, Mom.”

Konrad made a face as he felt the weight of his father, and sighed with a grown-up gesture.

“Well, I’m not really worried about it. If you just keep smiling mindlessly like usual, everything will probably work out fine, won’t it?”

“Ahaha… I hope so.”

As she chuckled at her usual little brother, Bruno slowly lifted his head. He showed a loving smile while holding his head, complaining of severe pain.

“Don’t get lonely. Live well.”

“…Yeah.”

Ernesta deliberately kept her response short because she felt like she was about to burst into tears.

Throughout her life, she had never been given loneliness. Despite feeling lonely on her own and sometimes being stubborn, she did not think of herself as a very affectionate girl.

However, they always stayed by her side. They smiled without any reservations, as if they had forgotten about her origin.

“I’ll do my best, so don’t worry. Stay healthy, everyone.”

She had expressed her gratitude yesterday, and their parting was too much for her to bear.

Therefore, she was sure that she was now smiling in her most natural way.

Isolte let out a wry smile and bowed to the king.

“Your Majesty, my daughter may be like this, but please take care of her.”

“Yes, definitely.”

Ivan shook hands with every member of the family. Ernesta bowed deeply and made that her final farewell.

As they got on the carriage, Theodor was there and Ernesta thanked him for his thoughtfulness, receiving a dry smile in return. Ivan called out to the coachman and sat down as the carriage began to move slowly.

Outside the window, the people she had spent the longest time with waved their hands.

Even though it was lonely, she could move forward.

Because Ernesta had been raised by those two.

Because she had tried to be strong to protect her dear little brother.

They had given her unwavering love and a compassionate heart.

❂❂❂

“…She’s gone. It all happened so fast.

Her husband seemed to understand that those words didn’t refer to just the past ten days.

Bruno tried to stand up on his own, but his face looked pale with melancholy. Isolte patted his thick shoulders.

“…Yeah, I guess so. Time sure flies.”

“What’s that? These old people.”

Despite saying such unpleasant things as usual, the son was smiling with satisfaction.

Since Ernesta left on a journey like being kidnapped, it felt like the fire in the house had gone out for three months. But this time was different. They could send off the gentle girl with a smile because they believed in her happiness.

“Well, let’s go home. It’s almost lunchtime.”

“Yeah, that’s right. We shouldn’t stand here and invite unwarranted attention.”

“I’m going to school now. Ugh, the classes are too easy and boring.”

Following the men who started walking, Isolte took a slow step forward again. When she looked back once more, of course, the carriage was no longer there, and only the gentle breeze was swaying the grass and trees.

Chapter 78: The End of the Plot

Emperor Karl Heinz was reading the letter just arrived when he saw the last stamped seal of the Urbashek Royal Family, and an overwhelming anger surged through him. He clenched his fist holding the letter and slammed it on the table.

The ashtray and pen on the table made a loud noise, and a moment later, he felt a numb pain in his right hand, but that didn’t matter. What the hell was going on? How dare those barbarians send such a disrespectful letter?

“Constanze! I left it to you, but what is this situation?!”

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I’ve already told you what happened, so there’s nothing more to say.

Even with the Emperor’s anger, Empress Constanze did not try to break her calm expression. That only added to his anger, but he couldn’t come up with a way out of this predicament.

The displeasure of being tripped up by those considered beneath him was indescribable. He couldn’t tolerate such unequal conditions.

“Your Majesty, I understand it well now. Looking down on them and plotting against them was a mistake from the beginning.”

“…What?”

“If we had apologized from the beginning, nothing would have happened.”

Constanze remained expressionless as usual. However, Karl Heinz felt pity in her eyes and was at a loss for words.

Why was she looking at him like that now? She had never spoken out about anything and had quietly followed him all along, as if she had no interest in her husband’s actions.

Desperately trying to keep up appearances, even if it means being called incompetent by his subjects. Karl Heinz’s armor was about to crumble.

“Shut up…! An ignorant woman who knows nothing about politics should not speak out of line!”

His shouting voice was mixed with a somewhat sorrowful tone. But he didn’t realize that fact himself.

“You were wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

“It can’t be! It can’t be like that…!”

“We lost the biggest advantage in the alliance, but we were lucky that it didn’t lead to war. Please consider that.”

Karl Heinz had no counter-arguments. Even though he refused to acknowledge his boiling anger, he understood in his mind that what she said was true.

“This is ridiculous. Our country will become a laughingstock…”

“Yes, that’s true. However, there is another way to look at it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Certainly, Shenka’s greatest value is its military, so it could be viewed as inequality now that its lending has stopped. However, if we assume that Shenka is now an ordinary country without either of our deployments, it could be seen as simply changing into a trade alliance.”

As if scales had fallen from his eyes, Karl Heinz let out an inaudible groan in shock.

Indeed, that was true. He had become so fixated on their military power that he couldn’t even see such a simple thing.

“King Ivan is a wise person. He understands very well that concluding an unequal treaty would only leave a legacy of trouble. Perhaps he intends to break the situation where Shenka’s resources are only focused on military power, using this opportunity. Yes, he might have completely taken advantage of this incident.”

“You…why did you suddenly start studying something like that?”

Constanze smiled at the Emperor, who muttered in astonishment. It was the first time he had seen his wife’s smile in a while.

“From the beginning, Your Majesty. Thanks to my education supervisor, I began to enjoy studying… and, one last thing. Ernesta asked me to pass on her well wishes to you.”

Karl Heinz was stunned. After all that he had done, how could she say something like that?

The other daughter he had never met since she was born.

Yes, he had certainly felt despair when he heard they were twins. To forget the guilt of abandoning his daughter, he had been ruthless and eventually utilized her.

As various memories flooded back, Karl Heinz felt as though the ground beneath his feet was shaking.

“…I don’t understand.”

“I suppose not.”

“…How is Ermengard doing?”

“Considering the circumstances, she must be doing fine. It’s true that we’ll never see her again, though.”

It was a common sin that the couple had to bear. As a result of not facing their children, they turned their backs on them. That is all there is to it.

Now, Constanze’s eyes were sad but kind to her husband who was just crushed and looking down. Karl Heinz was yet to know that this would be his first consolation.

Chapter 79: Unusual road trip and unknown suffering 1

The carriage journey had become very enjoyable. It seems that Theodor can talk endlessly, and topics never run out.

Above all, Ernesta was happy to see Ivan’s natural smile.

They have many obstacles ahead of them, but when they are done, they will be able to talk like this again. Time passes softly when they can believe that.

They talked about the past, read books and newspapers, and watched the scenery as they passed the time. And as the day ended, the group arrived at the post town on schedule.

“Why are you so damn serious! I said I won’t run away, didn’t I?!”

“No way. Ellie gets a private room, and you and I will share a room. That’s a done deal.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me if you’re going to share a room with a guy for three weeks! You married couples should be sleeping together in the same room!”

As the men began to argue in front of the room door, Ernesta let out a big sigh.

Since they can fight like this, it is clear that they have a good relationship. If Johan were here, things would have been even more lively.

Although both of them stubborn, Ernesta felt that Ivan’s argument was more correct. With a wry smile, she decided to provide covering fire.

“Theodor-san, it will be a nuisance if you make too much noise. It’s okay, isn’t it? Isn’t there something you and Ivan can talk about?”

“That’s not the point! Hey, are you sure you want to do this?”

“Eh? It doesn’t matter to me.”

Ernesta readily agreed since she had never thought about the good or bad aspects of the situation. After all, it was necessary in the context of “escorting a prisoner.”

“…Is that so? Okay, then.”

Theodore visibly slumped his shoulders. He muttered to himself with a befuddled expression, “What the hell is wrong with these guys?” However, since Ivan pushed his friend into their room, Ernesta couldn’t ask what he meant.

“Ellie, goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Ivan.”

After exchanging greetings and parting ways with them, Ernesta entered the adjacent room.

She finally felt at ease when she entered the room. She immediately collapsed onto the bed and stared aimlessly at the wooden ceiling.

This is already the land of Shenka, and soon they will be returning home. She began to feel restless as the reality of it sank in.

“…Maybe this was the right decision after all.”

If she had suddenly ended up sharing a room with Ivan, she would have been so nervous that she might have died. Since that night, they had hardly been alone together, and she wasn’t even mentally prepared for it.

Ernesta slowly sat up and looked at the wall separating her from the adjacent room.

Even though she felt relieved, she still felt a little lonely.

The selfish emotions overwhelmed the exhausted girl, and she began to prepare for a bath.

❂❂❂

“Sigh, I never thought you would be so uptight. Come on, shouldn’t you show a more lovey-dovey attitude?”

As soon as he entered the room, Ivan glared at Theodor’s crimson eyes, which were mixed with sighs of advice. Theodor didn’t seem to be intimidated by Ivan’s icy stare at all.

Although this man didn’t know the details of what happened between the king and queen, he seemed to have noticed that they had finally expressed their love for each other.

“She hardly seems aware of it at all. You don’t mind?”

“…It’s good for now.”

Ivan decided to sit on the carpet and start unpacking his luggage.

When he saw the black chokha that was stored inside, he let out a bitter smile. Ernesta had washed it clean, but he wouldn’t wear it on this trip because black was the color of heroes and it stood out too much. It was an unusual faux pas for him to leave the castle without changing clothes.

“What do you mean?”

Unfortunately, it seems that Theodor hasn’t given up on his pursuit. He squats down and takes out his change of clothes, his mouth still running.

“There’s nothing to it.”

“That’s not true. You just said that.”

“… You’ve always been stupid but sharp at the same time.”

“You said one word too many!”

With a sigh, Ivan resigned himself and turned to face his friend. Theodor looked puzzled in a formal manner, but sat cross-legged and assumed a listening posture.

“The truth is, Sir Bruno restricted me. He told me not to touch each other until we make a proper pledge to marry.”

“I see. And then?”

“But I don’t know what I’ll do if we’re alone together. I need your help.”

“…Huh?!”

Theodor screamed in a mad voice. But then he burst out laughing as if he had heard the funniest story in the world.

“You? You can’t control yourself?! You, who only wants a no-strings-attached relationship? You, who has tossed aside countless misunderstandings of women?!”

Ivan immediately regretted saying anything. He furrowed his eyebrows and shouted back, not losing to Theodor’s explosive laughter.

“Don’t bring up that topic again! Can’t you at least respond with a nod when someone is requesting something from you? How much of a bastard are you?!”

“Hey hey, you have a foul mouth, Your Majesty! Ahahahahaha!”

While his friend held his stomach and rolled on the carpet, Ivan gritted his teeth and endured the humiliation. Maybe this guy should just get life imprisonment. No, better yet…!

After laughing for a while, Theodor wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes and finally seemed to calm down when he got up.

“You should just be honest and say it. She might tell you [You don’t have to worry about what Dad said♡.] It’s surprisingly easy.”

“Stop acting like a creep. I’ll kill you.”

“It’s not funny when you say it…”

In front of the king who was filled with a serious killing intent, Theodor seemed to blatantly recoil. However, Ivan, who shut himself off from his friend’s reaction, imagined the figure of his dear person stiffening in his arms.

It’s no good. He definitely didn’t want to do something that would hurt her in a hurry.

“… If I’m going to take her away to a place where she’ll rarely see her family, I should at least give them what they want. And the least I can give Ellie is a promise.”

He will protect Ernesta and cherish everything about her. It’s the clumsy feelings of a man who carries nothing but his burdens.

Even if it produces immense suffering, he is willing to endure it to make it happen. He has been patient since his time in Shenka, and he can handle a little more waiting. Yes, there’s no doubt about that.

That’s why he has been careful not to be alone with her during their stay in Weisbergk, and to not touch her even with a finger. He had accidentally touched her at the end, but he wants to chalk that up to an innocent mistake.

“You’re also a hopeless case.”

Theodore muttered to himself, with no hint of sarcasm on his face, just a pure smile.

Chapter 80: Unusual road trip and unknown suffering 1

Continuing on their journey for several days, the group arrived at a post town and left the stable after paying the coachman.

Ernesta stretched her body, feeling stiff from sitting for so long. The clear air entered her lungs, making her feel rejuvenated.

“The air is delicious here.”

“Yes, it’s cooler as we go further…”

It happened suddenly. Ivan, who was about to reply calmly, suddenly held his breath and stared down a dark street. Theodor also looked sharply in the same direction.

Feeling tense about what might happen, Ernesta finally heard footsteps from someone approaching.

“Your Majesty!”

Running towards them from the darkness was none other than Dasha.

The two warriors were about to draw their swords, but stopped just in time when they realized who it was. In that brief moment, Ernesta was already being embraced by her closest maid.

“Dasha…?!”

“Ah! *sobbing* I’m finally meeting you! I was wondering what to do if we had missed each other…!”

Dasha was crying hysterically. Ernesta was also on the verge of tears at their reunion, but her surprise and confusion overwhelmed her.

“Dasha, what happened to you?”

“Well, My Queen, even I think it’s strange! Ermengard-sama is always just drawing pictures, and she’s been so focused lately that she’s been forgetting everything! Even meals and baths, you know?!”

Learning about Ermengard’s lifestyle, Ernesta felt as if her mind had gone blank.

She had admitted that it wasn’t suitable for her, but she never thought she was such a free spirit. It seemed that Engeberg’s worries were completely transparent, even to her maid.

“I didn’t realize at first because you look so alike. But Rougena-sama and I started to feel that something was off, so I asked her about it half-heartedly. And she told me without hesitation.”

Ernesta couldn’t bear it and held her head. What would she do if she couldn’t hold on for a little longer, being a princess?

“I came to pick you up under Rougena-sama’s orders. We will need a caretaker when you switch with Ermengard-sama.”

“You’re not mad at me…?”

She was the kind-hearted girl who quickly became close to Ernesta. Ernesta had betrayed her goodwill, so it was understandable if she was disappointed.

“I’m not angry. I would be happiest if My Queen came back!”

“Dasha…! I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Thank you…!”

The two of them, who had formed a friendship before they knew it, hugged each other tightly.

Why is everyone so kind?

Johan also unconditionally sent Ivan away, and Theodor lent his strength. According to Dasha, Rougena also knew about the substitute incident, so she must be furious. Ernesta had to prepare for a scolding when she returned.

“We have to go back soon. I want to apologize and thank everyone.”

“Yes! Everyone is looking forward to seeing you again!”

As they both separated from each other, they shared tears and laughter. After spending some time together, Dasha regained her composure and hurriedly thanked the king.

“I-I’m sorry, Your Majesty! Please allow me to come with you!”

“Oh, you’re welcome. Sorry for the commotion this time.”

“No, no, it’s not a problem. It was really great to have My Queen back.”

Dasha hesitantly lifted her head and noticed the man standing next to the king, causing her to freeze in her tracks.

“Why is Nii-sama here?!”

The trembling girl pointed at her brother, her face turning completely pale. She was a sight to behold.

Theodor, on the other hand, is tight-lipped, as if to say, “This is a mess.”

“N-Nii-sama! Shouldn’t you be in jail right now?!”

“Wait, calm down, Dasha…listen to me first.”

“How dare you show your face in front of My Queen?! I don’t know what your intentions are, but don’t come any closer to her!”

“I admit that you’re right, so listen to what I have to say! Jeez, this is why I wanted to go back alone…”

As Theodor weakly spoke, the two watching them exchange glances and laughed. The siblings, who had separated before their younger sister was old enough to remember, had apparently become close enough to argue by the time they reunited.

And so, the journey to Shenka became even more lively.

❂❂❂

Ivan was at a loss. That was because the presence of a maid had taken away his “righteous” duty to monitor the criminal.

Dasha eagerly volunteered to monitor her brother, much to Ivan’s dismay. Unable to find an excuse to refuse, Ivan was now frowning while taking a bath.

After washing off all of the bubbles from his body, he left the bathroom. He wiped away the water and put on his pajamas, thinking about how to get through this night.

Then he remembered Ernesta’s vulnerable sleeping figure from earlier.

——This is bad. This might be really bad.

He wasn’t sure he could control himself if he saw such a lovely figure again.

But no, he had already taken precautions. He had told Ernesta to go to bed first, and he was not a scumbag who would attack a sleeping woman.

Ivan wrapped a towel around his neck and carefully pushed open the door to the bedroom.

Ernesta was asleep, curled up on a fur rug with a cushion. It was unexpected, but a relief.

Nearby lay the popular novel she had bought on the way. Clad only in a thin stole over her white pajamas, her alluring hair crossed over her defenseless sleeping face.

It was easy to imagine that she had fallen asleep while waiting for her husband.

The innocence of her sleeping figure and her loyalty made his chest tighten with pain.

Ivan approached Ernesta with a dazed gait. He kneeled beside her silently and allowed himself a few seconds of happiness to gaze at her sleeping face.

He had never imagined loving someone so dearly. How could he ever quench this insane thirst?

Unintentionally, a bitter smile escaped him. He must take her to bed quickly and keep her warm to prevent her from catching a cold. Surely, he could make an exception to touch her for that reason.

As he reached out his hand, an unexpected thing happened.

Her brunette eyelashes trembled, and deep green appeared from between them. After blinking a few times, Ernesta woke up with a dazed look.

“…Ivan?”

Ernesta called out his name with a voice clouded by drowsiness. By the time he realized how adorable she sounded, she was completely awake.

“I’m sorry for falling asleep. I was going to wait for you…”

Her cheeks turned a rosy red as she lowered her head in embarrassment. What a charming sight it was to Ivan.

Once again, Ivan had to cut off the impure thoughts that surfaced in his mind.

“I said you could sleep first. Don’t worry about it so much.”

“No, I wanted to wait. I couldn’t sleep when you were awake.”

Why did this person have to be so cute all the time? Was he being tested for his self-control?

“…Um, Ivan, can you do me a favor?”

Without knowing Ivan’s inner turmoil, Ernesta slowly extended her delicate hand.

Before he could ask what it was for, he felt the sensation of the fabric around his neck. The cloth then moved up to gently wipe hIS hair with a tender touch.

“You have to dry yourself properly or you’ll catch a cold.”

Beyond Ivan’s vision, the pretty smile behind the towel dazzled him.

He felt so happy that he thought he would die. It was silly, but he was serious.

Looking back, Ernesta sometimes showed her Elder Sister tendencies. She took care of others without any pretense, worked hard without hesitation, and worried about Dasha like a younger sister. Her responsible and yet occasionally playful character made her even more lovable.

If he could enjoy her gentle touch, maybe it would be better to get out of the bath with water still dripping. Lost in his thoughts, Ivan was suddenly called in a stern voice. When he looked up, he saw deep green eyes filled with tension.

“Actually, I have a favor to ask.”

“A favor?”

“Yes. Um, if it’s bad, you don’t have to accept it.”

As Ernesta avoided his gaze with difficulty, Ivan’s eyes suddenly shone. This modest wife speaking her own desires was probably the first time he had ever witnessed it.

“You know what! If it’s not a bother, I’d like to see you in wolf form!”

The wish uttered with a desperate look was completely unexpected.

Ivan was prepared to grant whatever wish she had, but his expression showed bewilderment at the unexpected request.

“…I guess it’s impossible after all.”

Ernesta seemed to perceive her husband’s reaction as a refusal, and she became completely depressed and hung her head.

Realizing his mistake, Ivan hastily gathered his scattered consciousness, and nodded immediately.

“It’s no problem at all. I will show you even now.”

“…Really? You don’t have to push yourself.”

“I’m just surprised, but transforming isn’t anything special.”

Smiling to put her at ease, Ernesta also gave a soft smile.

Ah, transforming is really nothing. As long as I can see this smile, I don’t mind any struggle.

Ivan immediately transformed into a wolf. Suddenly, his vision flowed down, and his furry front paws touched the ground.

Ernesta hugged him as soon as he transformed, escaping from the clinging nightgown.

It took time to understand what happened. Her thin arm was around the wolf’s neck, and the scent of soap tickled his nose. Despite the sudden turn of events, his confused mind was still receiving the sense of happiness she brought.

[…Ellie?]

His voice calling her name was replaced by the wolf’s howling.

It was the first time she had asked him for anything, and it was the first time she had ever hugged him. The soft touch pierced his chest, and he couldn’t return a proper response.

“…Really. It was really you, Wolf-san.”

Her whispering, hoarse voice shook the air, and he finally realized that she was holding back tears.

Ernesta slowly released his body while her eyes welled up, but her expression was incredibly gentle.

“I finally realized it. Wolf-san…Ivan, is safe. Thank God he’s well.”

As he looked at her delicate smile, the sweet pain of happiness, joy, and regret for not being able to express his gratitude for so long blended together and spread through him.

When he talked about memories of the girl eight years ago, he wondered what she was feeling at the time.

[That’s my line. Thank you, Ellie.]

The words he replied with his emotions were still nothing more than the cry of a wolf.

Still, it seemed that Ernesta had accurately received the meaning of those words, and she smiled like a flower.

Chapter 81: A Silent Tale I am a Wolf Part 5

Good day, everyone. It’s Mikolash. I have just returned from a battle and arrived at the royal castle.

Now, what kind of reaction would you have when faced with an unbelievable sight? In my case, I seem to have lost my usual tone.

——No, pull yourself together!

Now, let me explain the situation. As soon as I returned, I was resting in the courtyard when Ellie came to comfort me.

Then, I was struck by the shocking situation that the woman wasn’t Ellie. For a moment, I almost fell for it, but I have a good nose. Even though she looked exactly like Ellie, this woman was definitely a different person!

“Wow, Mikola, long time no see. Let me stroke your head a bit.”

The woman reached out her hand with a shameless line and stroked my head.

Ugh! Ughghghgh! This woman…her power is ten times her appearance! Stop it, my hair hurts!

“It’s really fluffy. I could keep stroking it forever.”

As I was being stroked without resistance, I sent boss Silvestor, who had come to see this woman, a pleading glance for help.

Boss, please help me! I know it might be hard to believe, but this woman isn’t Ellie! But she looks exactly the same, and I can’t just bite her, right…?!︎

“Hmm…”

The boss was now in human form and seemed unable to understand what I was saying. But just when I thought he might be stroking his chin with interest, he said this:

“Well then, could you tell me your name soon? The young lady who looks identical to My Queen.”

B-Boss! I’ll follow you forever!

“…Eh? Did you figure it out?”

“Well, I sort of did. And Mikolash’s behavior was the final piece of evidence.”

The boss remained calm and collected, showing no signs of disturbance. Ah, I’m so glad I have him.

The woman looked puzzled for a moment, but soon grinned.

“Haha, I give up. It’s frustrating how easily I was caught. It makes me hate the recklessness of this plan.”

The woman smiled, but if it wasn’t Ellie, there was no need for mercy. I distanced myself from her and growled lowly towards the woman.

“Maybe Mikola is aware of it too?”

“Wolves have a good sense of smell.”

“Oh, I see. We were really caught sooner or later…”

The woman who smiled as if she had realized something was still strikingly similar to Ellie, even if her expression was different.

What is going on here? Where is Ellie? And what is Ivan doing?

“Well, shall I explain? It’ll be a little long.”

The woman stood up and deliberately led us to the center of the courtyard where there were no obstacles. If we kept our voices low, there seemed to be no need to worry about eavesdroppers.

[What kind of story is this…?]

I was at a loss for words. Everything I had just heard was so unbelievable that it didn’t seem real.

The Bral Emperor really is selfish and overbearing. It’s a terrible story.

Various expressions that Ellie had shown in the past came to mind. Among them, the sad smile she showed while confessing her feelings for Ivan was deeply etched in my heart.

It must have been really tough for her. She did her best. When she gets back, I’ll have her stroke my fur.

“So, King Ivan has gone on a long-term inspection trip. Oh, your wife knows too. And Dasha went after Ellie, so I hope they can reunite safely.”

“Hmm, I’m surprised. I’ve been had.”

The boss laughed carefreely, showing what a big shot he was.

“Aren’t you angry?”

“I’m not angry. While I have my thoughts about the tyranny of Emperor Karl Heinz, it’s not my place as an elder to interfere with the emotions of young people.”

Ermengard looked surprised by the smile of the old warrior, who seemed to be full of kindness.

But that was only for a moment, and the princess soon smiled, although her eyes hinted at regret.

“…You guys are really kind. Maybe it’s because that child is also kind.”

Even though she had been a selfish woman who had triggered an outrageous plan, she wasn’t a bad person after all.

She must be here because she understood her sister’s personality. If, by any chance, Emperor Karl Heinz did not accept the conditions, she would try to become an ally.

“What will happen to you?”

“I’m supposed to be released innocent as soon as a reply to the letter from my parents arrives. His Majesty the King is also lenient, isn’t he? But I guess he doesn’t want Ellie to hate him.”

I nodded without hesitation at those words. Yeah, Ivan would do that.

I know that Ellie is special to him. She is the only one who makes his emotions overpower his reason. It’s a given that we should avoid making her cry.

“I’m worried. I hope she’ll come back safely.”

Ermengard sighed with a wry smile.

Hmm, I want to believe that it will be fine. If Ivan screws up here, I’ll abandon him.

Chapter 82: Fragment

Seasons come and go. As they continued their journey towards the long winter of Shenka, autumn deepened rapidly.

The sky was always high, and in the empty town devoid of birds, only the sound of insects signaled the farewell to summer. However, even as the wind grew colder, the lively journey pushed back the loneliness of early autumn.

And so it was that, when the mornings and evenings became chilly enough to require lightweight jackets, Ernesta and her companions arrived in Rashtovka after three weeks of traveling.

Ernesta was in the corner of the royal castle, in the same old hut.

Everyone had left the castle on some false pretense, and the situation was abnormal. They had agreed to return to the castle after dispersing, and now Ernesta was waiting for Dasha to bring Ermengard to her.

Time passed strangely slowly, and then the door to the hut was knocked. When she replied, the most familiar yet unfamiliar face peered through the door.

“Oh, I’m glad you’re back. You saved me.”

“Ermengard-sama!”

Ermengard appeared completely unchanged from when they had last seen each other. With a calm tone and a composed smile, she seemed strangely familiar despite having only met once before.

“I assume you came here because you wanted to, right?”

“…Yes, that’s correct.”

“Okay, then that’s good. Everything has fallen into place.”

Ermengard chuckled lightly. It was the most sincere smile Ernesta had ever seen.

But even so, she didn’t know what to say. She had been thinking about this journey the whole time, yet still couldn’t find the right words.

She was given Ermengard’s name and position to live with. The thought of what she really felt about this fact scared her.

“Ermengard-sama, I…I’ve been really worried about whether it was okay for me to come here as your replacement.”

“Shh. Don’t say another word.”

But her desperate plea was cut off by a mischievous grin.

“I told you, everything has settled where it should be. This was your role from the beginning, and I was born only to paint. But that doesn’t mean we were born in the wrong order. We’ve each lived our own lives; we have no regrets, right? After all, if things were different, we wouldn’t be here. You’ve chosen your path, and I’ve chosen mine. That’s all there is to it.”

Chosen. The word resonated within her heart, filling her with strength.

Yes, Ernesta had chosen to live here. To stand on her own two feet.

And so had Ermengard; there was no inequality in that fact.

With eyes shining with light, Ernesta nodded, and Ermengard smiled back at her. They then suggested changing clothes, and began to dress at the same time.

“Oh, and before I forget, I’m still terrible at my job. I have a lot of work piled up, so keep up the good work.”

“Yes. Of course.”

“And also, I had a room where I used to paint, but I couldn’t bring everything with me. So can you dispose of whatever’s left there?”

“Oh no, I wouldn’t throw it away. I’ll cherish it.”

“Haha, if you like it, that’s alright with me. I’ll leave it to you.”

As they chatted, they began to take off their clothes. Just as they handed each other their clothes, Ermengard suddenly remembered something.

“Oh, that’s right! We received a lot of costumes some time ago. I haven’t even tried them on, so feel free.”

“Ah…”

With so many things going on, and since she didn’t think it was hers to begin with, Ernesta had completely forgotten. Come to think of it, she had been making clothes for autumn and winter.

“I heard it was a gift from King Ivan. I’m glad to hear he’s taking good care of you.”

As she blushed while putting on the cream-colored Arkrig that had been handed to her, Ernesta decided to change the subject before she could be teased any further.

“Um, Ermengard-sama, what are your plans from here on?”

“Me? Yeah, for now, I’ll wait in the castle town until I get a response from the letter. His Majesty has no choice but to accept the conditions, so I don’t think I’ll have much of a role. Once that happens, I’ll be free and leave the country immediately. Your husband has already banned me from entering Shenka ever again.”

Ernesta turned to her sister as if she had been struck. She was already seamlessly dressed in her lightweight Arkrig for the trip, and she was smiling.

“Did that really happen?!”

“Yes, it did. That person really likes you if he is willing to settle this peacefully.”

The conversation had returned to the starting point, so Ernesta pleaded desperately.

“We shouldn’t even be talking about something like that! …Because you seemed to enjoy painting this country.”

“It’s okay. It’s only natural that the likelihood of encountering someone who knows you will increase in the future. We should appreciate King Ivan’s kindness.”

After confirming that Ernesta had finished changing, Ermengard picked up her own belongings. It was apparently a bag filled with paint that had been pre-placed in the cabin.

“You have given me freedom. I cannot express in words how happy I am to have escaped from that suffocating palace. I sincerely thank you and the people of this country.”

Ermengard extended her hand in farewell. Ernesta couldn’t help but smile at her surprisingly clear attitude, despite this being their parting in this life.

This was an inevitable separation. It was not a farewell to hold mutual regret and walk an unwanted path like before.

The hand that shook back was softer and more supple than her own. This person, who was supposed to live as a princess, was highly adaptable, bold, and natural. So surely, she would do well in the future.

“I am also grateful to you, Ermengard-sama. Let’s meet again somewhere.”

“Yes, let’s meet again somewhere, Ernesta.”

Ermengard raised her hand last and then left the hut. She left behind a strange approachability that made one wonder if she would return again.

“My Queen, are you okay?”

As soon as they left the hut, Dasha, who had been worried, ran up to her.

“Thank you, Dasha. I’m sorry for all the trouble.”

“Please don’t say that. I’m really happy to help.”

The two of them walked together through the castle. Just before they reached the Queen’s room, Dasha suddenly stopped.

“Um, this is the room where she was painting.”

Dasha didn’t say who, but of course, but of course the identity of the blank space was immediately known.

The room was filled with the smell of oil. It wasn’t a strange or unpleasant smell, but rather a nostalgic one.

There was nothing left but a few paintings in gentle colors hanging on the wall. Not even a trace of her person.

“She was holed up in here most of the time. Um…my nose is good, so it’s a bit pungent.”

Dasha handed over a picture while making a sour face. In the image, a familiar face was smiling, taking up about one-third of the panel.

“Is this… Ermengard-sama’s self-portrait?”

“No, this is My Queen. It’s obvious to anyone who looks.”

Prompted by Dasha’s clear smile, Ernesta gazed intently at the picture. The image was not photorealistic, like the ceiling paintings in a church, but rather drawn in soft brushstrokes, with pale hues that seemed to catch the light. Above all, that smile was very gentle.

“Do I really look like this?”

Not quite understanding, Ernesta blinked with rounded eyes. It seemed like the image was too beautifully painted.

“I think it’s a great picture! If you think I’m lying, take a look at the back.”

At her urging, she turned the picture over. It was written in the roughcloth in the bottom-right corner.

[Title: “From Me to You.”]

Later, Ermengard became a famous painter and left behind a vast collection for the Urbashek royal family. But that is still a story of a distant future.

Chapter 83: Dearly beloved

“I really can’t believe it. As a woman, doing such reckless things… If Your Majesty were not a gentleman, I shudder to think what might have happened to you. Do you understand that?”

“Yes… I’m sorry, Rougena.”

“You don’t need to apologize. All I want to hear is that you won’t do anything rash from now on.”

Ernesta had shrunk and was hanging her head low. Upon returning to the queen’s quarters after a long absence, she received a scolding from the waiting Rougena.

“Yes, I will try not to cause any more worries.”

Upon hearing the overly honest answer, Rougena’s aura plummeted to below freezing.

“What do you mean by ‘try’? Are you planning to do something else stupid?”

“N-No, that’s not what I mean…! But if it’s really necessary, I think I might end up doing something reckless.”

In other words, it was Ernesta’s personality.

She wants to be helpful to Ivan. If she becomes a burden or feels unnecessary in the future, Ernesta will not hesitate to sacrifice herself. Her values shaped by her upbringing cannot be easily changed now.

However, if she is going to live here, perhaps this is not such a bad attitude to have. Rougena openly sighed, apparently understanding what Ernesta was thinking.

“I understand that you have that kind of thinking based on what has happened up until now. Since we can’t do anything about it, I will also do my best to ensure that nothing happens in the future.”

It was the first time that Rougena had said anything to encourage Ernesta.

Perhaps she too had come to accept Ernesta. If so, Ernesta could not be happier.

“However, you must also be careful on your own. After all, planning something like this is just too reckless…”

The lecture continued while Ernesta was still moved. However, since she knew that Rougena’s lecture was just out of concern for her, she only felt warmth.

Finally, Silvestor arrived to assess the situation and resolved everything on the spot. By the way, she was surprised to learn that he already understood the situation.

Ernesta smiled and thanked the hero who smiled and said that he was glad she was okay.

She was grateful for the opportunity to apologize. She had to gradually repay the favor now that she had met them again.

With renewed determination, Ernesta straightened her back and headed to the entrance of the royal castle.

She and the subjects went to greet Ivan, who had returned at a different time, but their natural interaction caused them to tense up and their faces to twitch.

As they smiled wryly at each other, they heard a cough from behind. When they turned around, they saw the man who had probably suffered the most in this incident.

“Welcome back, Your Majesty. I’m glad to see that you’re doing well.”

“I’m back, Johan.”

For Ernesta, it had been a long time since she had seen the Prime Minister, but she couldn’t say that aloud in this situation. She remained silent for the time being, but her silence was met with a stern gaze from his light blue eyes.

“…There are many things I want to say, but I’ll leave it for another time. For now, please take this.”

He handed her an unfamiliar key. When she looked back at Johan in disbelief, his usual expression with narrowed eyes and a look of annoyance was there.

“This is the key to the Ambassador’s room. He hasn’t been feeling well lately, so he needs to rest with the door locked. How about visiting him and giving him your regards?”

It seemed that this was his reasoning for covering up the house arrest.

He had taken care of so many things for her, and no amount of gratitude could ever suffice.

“Thank you very much, Lord Slezak. I’ll do my best from now on.”

Ernesta grasped the weight of the key and nodded firmly. Johan seemed to be satisfied to some extent with his expression, showing her a faint smile.

“I’d appreciate it if you did, since he’s been so terrible lately… Well then, Your Majesty. May I ask about your travels?”

“Oh, you’ve been very good in my absence. I must not let you go without a special allowance.”

“In that case, what I want is a day off. Please consider it, Your Majesty.”

The lord and his subject walked as usual. After seeing off their reliable figures, Ernesta took another step forward.

She restrained her impatience and opened the door as she heard a surprisingly lively response from the other side.

Engeberg was there unchanged from before. The only difference was his stubbly beard.

“Count Engeberg! Thank goodness you’re safe…!”

“Ernesta-sama! It really is you!”

The only accomplices held hands and rejoiced at their reunion.

I’m glad you’re safe. I was worried about what might have happened, but this is probably Ivan’s doing.

Though the door was locked, the room was warm and comfortable. The meals seemed to have been properly served, and there didn’t seem to be any change in body shape.

“…I couldn’t do anything for you, milady. I knew you wished to stay in this country, but I lacked the courage to suggest that it might not be necessary for you to switch places with Ermengard-sama.”

Engeberg bowed his head with a somber expression and spoke honestly, just as he did during their farewell.

As always, he was a kind-hearted person with empathy. Being in the political world, he must have experienced many hardships, despite his abilities.

“I apologize to you, Count Engeberg. I’m sorry that you are going through this because my stand-in was exposed. It’s my fault for not following your advice.”

“No, that’s not the case. It seems we’ve underestimated the werewolf tribe. They must have noticed us and our numbers long ago, so it was only a matter of time before we were exposed.”

“…Fufu, that’s really true. I was surprised.”

The two of them chuckled at the same time. Looking back now, the recklessness of the plan was refreshing.

According to what Ivan later found out, the suspicion began with the nonsense muttered by the queen when she collapsed during the National Foundation Festival. Ernesta was shocked to learn that they had been suspected since that time, but in other words, they had received considerable kindness.

They were much more willing to get to know Ernesta than Ernesta had expected. They trusted her enough to easily forgive her.

“It’s funny. We were desperately hiding our lies, but in the end…I think it’s all for the best.”

“For the best?”

“Yes. Ermengard-sama who came to greet me earlier, as well as you now, all look very happy.”

As his gentle gazes met her, she was dumbfounded.

He had always thought of her, just like her parents did.

“But…I’m worried about what will happen to Count Engeberg from now on.”

She had really caused him a lot of trouble. Ivan had said he was okay, but his position should have become precarious because he had pushed conditions onto Emperor Karl Heinz.

Ambassadors who fail in their duty will be treated badly in their home countries.

“It’ll be alright. His Majesty Ivan put in a condition in his personal letter that he would not dismiss me, and executing the diplomat would be like exposing our failure to other nations.”

Thinking about it, that was true. Since the incident was about just renewing the trade alliance, there was no way the diplomat would be executed.

“I wonder how much His Majesty had thought of ahead.”

“I couldn’t say. Both His Excellency the Prime Minister and His Majesty are truly terrifyingly smart people. ”

Engeberg smiled as if giving up. It was a refreshing smile, rare for him who usually had a difficult expression.

Chapter 84: Happiness at the end is in your shape

The autumn air was clear, and countless stars were twinkling in the sky. The sounds of insects and the whispers of owls echoing from the mountains signaled the arrival of night, and the world illuminated only by the waning moon was filled with soft colors.

It has been a whole day since Ernesta returned to the royal castle. During that time, Ivan seemed to be busy with something, and they hardly had a chance to meet each other, welcoming the second night without having the opportunity to show off her outfit of Arkrig made from the young grass-colored fabric that Ivan had chosen for her at the weaving workshop. She had no time to express her gratitude either. She had to take a bath soon, but she didn’t feel like it, so she went to her room’s balcony.

Under the starry sky, a silver wolf was resting there. Mikolash seemed to be staying close to Ernesta since her return.

“Hey, Mikola, why are you so good to me?”

[Well, that’s because I like Ellie.]

A yawn mixed with his response. She didn’t understand what he said, but she felt like he conveyed something happy.

Ernesta squatted on the balcony, letting the silver fur brush through her fingers.

“You’re such a gentle boy. I don’t know how much you’ve saved me.”

[I’m glad Ellie came back too. The way “she” stroked me was terrible.]

“I wonder if Mikola noticed the substitution? He has a good nose, so he might have realized.”

[I knew right away. I was really surprised at that time.]

Their one-way conversation continued, but neither felt uncomfortable, and peaceful time passed.

“Hey Mikola, am I right? What do you think?”

Ernesta looked up at the stars twinkling in the distance. The night sky was universal and unchanged, always there.

“Everyone was kind enough not to be angry at me for deceiving them. But I’m still not a real princess. I have no education, no dignity, no status. Can I repay everyone’s kindness with such a flawed me? I wonder if I can ever repay them…”

It was an endless train of thought.

Whenever she was alone, she continued to think about it. No matter how much she tried to convince herself that it was not about whether she could repay them or not, but that she would definitely repay them, it never worked out.

“Ivan seems really busy. Do you know what’s going on during the day?”

Asking in a deliberately cheerful tone, Mikolash’s ear twitched slightly.

Come to think of it, Ernesta had once confided in this silver wolf about something she couldn’t tell anyone else. Even though she knew he couldn’t understand human language, it was such a relief.

“I went to the office because I thought I could help with something, but I was turned down. Ivan has been working all the time, and I feel like he hasn’t rested at all.”

Is Ivan okay? Was a human queen like her really unreliable after all?

She knew that she was not very useful to the king. She should have known that.

[…Is Ellie worried?]

She still couldn’t understand the meaning of the wolf’s howl, but Ernesta smiled faintly and answered the question by chance.

“Just a little bit, I am worried. That’s pathetic, isn’t it?”

Mikolash’s warm coat comforted Ernesta’s restless mind. She shifted her gaze from the starry sky to his amber eyes and spent some time lost in thought, until her eyelids started feeling heavy.

Come to think of it, she had stayed up late waiting for Ivan yesterday but eventually couldn’t meet him. Even during her journey, she slept poorly since sharing a room with him made her nervous. Maybe she was sleep-deprived.

Just as Ernesta was about to succumb to drowsiness and fall into Mikolash’s silver coat, a knock echoed in the darkness. The wolf gracefully stood up and ran to the man who entered the room as she answered the knock.

It was Ivan. He was wearing his usual black chokha and stood tall with no sign of fatigue.

He seemed to want to say something, but his partner kept hitting him with his tail, making him raise an eyebrow in puzzlement.

“Mikola, what are you doing?”

[Shut up! I’m leaving now, so comfort her properly! Got it!]

Growling with some irritation, Mikolash swept out of the queen’s room in a swashbuckling manner.

As expected, wolves are capricious creatures. They live their lives freely, sometimes snuggling up to people and sometimes not.

“.. Ivan, what’s wrong? It’s so late.”

Ernesta suddenly woke up from her drowsiness and stood up. Facing each other like this felt like a reunion after a long time.

“I came to see you.”

“Is there anything wrong?”

“No. I just wanted to see you, for a while now.”

The words spoken from the darkness brought both surprise and joy to Ernesta, and she broke into a smile with blushed cheeks.

“…I’m happy. I, too, wanted to see you.”

Ivan, who stood on the boundary between the balcony and the room, with half of his face covered in darkness, was hard to see. But it was clear that he covered his mouth and turned his face away.

She wondered if she had said something strange, but Ivan collected himself and turned back to her.

“That Arkrig….”

“Y-Yes! I don’t know if you remember, but I had it tailored from a fabric that you picked out for me. Thank you so much.”

Ernesta twirled under the starry sky. The light green fabric fluttered, and her hair, styled in a half-updo, danced in the night sky.

“How could I forget? It suits you well, and it’s beautiful. I thought the spirit of summer had lingered.”

Ernesta was beyond blushing.

What had happened to him tonight? She thought he was someone who never praised women like this.

“What were you doing?”

“Uh, well… I was looking at the stars while petting Mikola.”

“You’re not having a bad day, are you?”

Not understanding the meaning of his low inquiry, Ernesta looked dazed.

But soon she remembered something and murmured in a faint voice. Yes, that was eight years ago. When she helped the golden wolf, didn’t she teach him to count the stars in difficult times?

“No, that’s not it! I said that at that time, but it’s okay to look at the stars anytime.”

To be honest, she was feeling a little lonely as she gazed out, but decided to keep it to herself. Ernesta took Ivan’s hand and lightly pulled him toward the balcony.

In the moonlight, his figure was revealed. Looking up at the sky together, Ernesta naturally smiled.

“Look, it’s really beautiful. When you’re sad, you can forget about it, and when you’re happy, it can multiply. When your heart is restless, you can calm down, and when you’re sinking, you can rise up. I like stars because they can share all sorts of emotions with the night sky. It makes you happy, doesn’t it?”

For the past few months, it felt like she had only been looking at the stars when she was suffering, but that was a shame to do so.

Because no matter what, the starry sky on a clear day is always so gentle and embracing.

Glancing to the side, she saw a profile gazing at the night sky just like her. The blue eyes that reflected the starry sky were beautiful, and Ernesta narrowed her eyes to gaze at their radiance.

“Ellie is amazing.”

Ivan eventually spoke softly.

Ernesta tilted her head, unsure of the sudden praise.

“You always teach me about my foolishness, about how much I’ve narrowed my vision and turned away from what should have been helping me, about what needs to be cherished, and about how to face what we want to protect.”

Ivan’s eyes seemed to reflect something far away, but his heart was closer to Ernesta than ever before.

Despite thinking that she was not someone who could teach him such things, Ernesta didn’t want to deny the sincerity of what he had told her.

——Ivan. You’ve taught me a lot too. About the importance of having people to help you, the beauty of living strong with nature, the happiness I feel when you smile at me, and so much more.

Their eyes met as she tried to convey her feelings, but her words wouldn’t come out because her chest felt tight.

Because the stars were too beautiful. Because the smile illuminated by moonlight was so endearing.

“…Um, Ellie. The moon is really beautiful tonight.”

“Yes, it is. It looks bigger than usual.”

Ernesta exerted all her energy to keep her voice from trembling.

The crescent moon rising just above the shadow of the mountain was like a ship hovering randomly on a sea of stars. It shone in a golden light, much like Ivan’s hair color, clearly cutting through the night sky.

“The moon is where the goddess resides. The one god who announced the founding of Shenka will come to pick up the people when they die and lead them to the paradise on the moon.”

“She is always watching over us, isn’t she?”

“Ah, yes.”

For some reason, Ivan’s voice began to stiffen. Why did deciphering Shenka’s god bring him tension?

“In other words…in other words, the witness is still up in the moon.”

Before she could ask for the meaning of the words, the air began to tremble. That was because the most esteemed person in this country had taken Ernesta’s left hand and knelt down.

It was so overwhelming that her vision blurred. Memories from the back of her mind resurfaced, and she widened her emerald eyes.

It was at her wedding, where she was so nervous that she barely remembered anything. Ivan maintained his cold gaze and formal attitude throughout the ceremony. Ernesta was surprised to see even the werewolf king kneel when vowing his love.

“In the name of the goddess who gave a mission to my ancestors, I vow to love, support and protect you, Ernesta Urbashek, for the rest of my life.”

When he called out her name, which was unlikely to appear on any written page, Ernesta forgot even how to breathe. Without blinking, she gazed back at his brilliant blue eyes.

“I love you with all my heart. Please accept this.”

From the pocket of his chokha, Ivan took out a small wooden box. Ernesta could hardly believe what was inside.

It was her own left ring finger, which was scarred and not at all attractive due to the years of hard labor. And yet, the symbol of their vow was slowly being slid onto it.

It was a gold ring, delicate in construction, and contained a brilliant white jewel in the center of intricate design.

“This is…”

“A wedding ring. I had it commissioned by a skilled craftsman in Bajant territory, and it finally arrived today. This is mine——.”

Ivan seemed to be at a loss for words.

Her expression was completely obscured by overflowing tears.

What could be happier?

If happiness could be turned into stars, the night sky would have shone as bright as day.

Even the anxiety that had undoubtedly been lurking moments ago disappeared like a lie.

I’m so happy I could stop breathing. I’m so heartbroken I could scream.

As I tried to convey my feelings, my tears got in the way and stuck in my throat.

“Ellie?!”

She was called by a raised voice. Even though she knew it had shaken Ivan, she couldn’t say anything with her broken tear ducts.

“I’m sorry…! Is it that you don’t like the ring, or did I do something wrong? I referenced some literature… Ellie, please don’t cry.”

A warm, large hand reached out with weak words and began wiping the tears off her wet cheeks. The touch was so gentle that it stimulated her tear ducts, and Ernesta started to cry softly.

“I-I’m…happy. Really happy.”

His blue eyes reflected surprise followed by joy. Ivan breathed a sigh of relief and gently traced her rosy cheeks with his thumb.

“That’s good. Then, smile for me. I want to see Ellie’s smile.”

And he said something that was similar to what she was thinking.

“Yes…thank you, Ivan.”

For the first time, Ernesta smiled from the bottom of her heart in front of Ivan. She felt self-conscious at first, but her anxiety disappeared before she knew it. It was strange, but she was happy and smiling from the bottom of her heart.

Her smiled looked like a star. Ivan couldn’t help but feel dazzled and fond when he saw her smile.

“Do you have one, Ivan?”

“Yeah…sort of.”

“If so, I’d like to put it on for you. Is that okay?”

Ivan smiled, feeling both respectful and mischievous at his wife’s words.

He stood up and took out a ring that looked two sizes larger than the small box from Ernesta.

It was so gentle that it made his sword calluses and small wounds on his left hand stand out, making it all the more beautiful—the hand that had worked so hard to pick up so many things, a hand that was fragile but belonged to a strong king.

“I also vow to the goddess. To love, support, and protect you for the rest of my life.

The vow dissolved into the transparent night sky. As the ring slipped through his ring finger, Ernesta’s hand was slowly pulled back and her lips locked with the one she loved.

She closed her eyes softly, and it was just a gentle kiss to exchange their feelings.

They parted and touched each other again. Although the sound of their heartbeat was loud, the heat they felt in their lips filled their chests.

Time passed at a speed that seemed fast, yet slow, and the two of them unconsciously parted ways. When she lowered her head so that he wouldn’t see her apple-like face, she was soon embraced by his sturdy arms.

“I can finally touch you. I can’t count how many times I almost forgot my promise.”

“Promise?”

“This is about us… Hey, Ellie, will you protect me?”

As if to say that it’s impossible to compare with a werewolf, she chuckled and tickled the back of his head.

Knowing that she had firmly heard his vow earlier, Ernesta gently wrapped her arms around his broad back.

“That’s right. I’ll protect your path.”

No matter how much hardship may lie ahead.

She would tear through the thorns, kick away the pebbles, and throw away the withered branches.

Ernesta loved everything about this Werewolf King. If he were to move forward, she would follow him even to hell.

Ivan’s breath caught in his throat. It was such a faint tremble in the air that it could have been imagined.

“…I give up. I can’t win against you.”

The embrace grew stronger. The crisp air of the mountain felt distant, but not enough to feel the cold.

Even as autumn ends and winter arrives, and countless seasons pass, she will remain by his side.

They will support and laugh with each other, sometimes clashing, but always coming back to this place.

If they hold hands, there is nothing to be afraid of.

Amidst the serene starry sky watching them.

With a firm grip on his back, Ernesta whispered her feelings that she couldn’t return before.

The stars flickered.

❂❂❂

Ivan gently peered into the small face in his arms. As expected, Ernesta was peacefully sleeping with her deep green eyes closed.

This had happened before. She was indeed quite capable, to be able to sleep in this situation. Ivan spent some time with a twitch on his lips, holding back tears of admiration for his own incredible patience and this outcome.

How terrible. She doesn’t understand the nature of men, a life or death situation.

“You sleep so well…”

Still, the overflowing bitter resentment had melted away.

She must be quite tired after travelling back and forth between the two countries within a short period of time and being busy during the daytime.

Her sleeping face looked lovely no matter how many times he looked at it. He could gaze at it for hours without getting bored. This

Ivan covered the unmoving body on the bed with a blanket and brushed the brunette hair off the forehead before leaving a kiss.

Lips illuminated by the light of the oil lamp seemed to deepen in a smile, causing Ivan to give a quiet bitter smile.

The moon shone brightly in gold from the slightly open balcony.

Although it continued to rise higher and higher in the starry sky, the figure sitting on the bed did not move at all.

~The end~

2 more chapters left ^_^

Chapter 85: Small Talk Picnic 1

In reality, after returning to the royal castle, the intense work continued. Just as Ermengard had mentioned, there was really too much work that had piled up.

After desperately finishing the work in front of her, Ernesta finally had a night off with tomorrow’s break approaching. After bathing, she read a book on the rug in her bedroom when she heard the sound of the door opening.

There stood Ivan in his werewolf form, wearing his nightclothes. Today was a full moon, so he was also inevitably transformed.

“Ivan, welcome back.”

“Ah, Ellie too.”

Ernesta could tell from the wolf’s face that he was smiling gently. Ivan used to avoid turning into a werewolf in front of Ernesta, but now he shows a calm expression like this.

Ernesta felt happy and smiled from the bottom of her heart.

“Hey, tomorrow we have a day off, right? The weather looks nice, so if you’re up for it, Ivan, why don’t we go on a picnic?”

This proposal came to her mind the moment she confirmed tomorrow’s day off.

Perhaps because he also gave Johan a vacation, Ivan appeared even busier than Ernesta.

Lately, they hadn’t had many chances to have a leisurely conversation, so she thought that at least on this long-awaited holiday, she wanted to give Ivan a change of pace.

“A picnic?”

As Ivan tilted his head curiously, it seemed that it was a word that didn’t exist for Shenka. Perhaps they were used to dining outside on the battlefield, so they didn’t have the sense of going out to eat.

“It means going out somewhere and having a meal while enjoying the scenery. How about it…?”

She was planning to make food to bring, so she decided not to mention it to surprise him. Ivan seemed to imagine the refreshing feeling of dining outside and nodded with narrowed eyes like a wolf.

“That sounds great. Let’s definitely do it.”

“Really? That’s wonderful!”

Not only did he not refuse, but he was looking forward to it. She didn’t expect that.

Ernesta smiled happily and closed her book, standing up.

“Well then, let’s go to bed early for tomorrow.”

“Ah, yeah, that’s a good idea.”

It may have been since their journey that they slept in the same bed together.

Ernesta, lying on the bunk bed, gazed at Ivan’s handsome nose and couldn’t help but give in to her desire.

“Hey, Ivan. Can I touch your nose?”

“Huh…?!”

Judging from his rare and truly surprised voice, it seemed like she really said something completely random.

However, Ernesta didn’t back down. She already said it out loud, so it didn’t matter what happened next.

“What’s so interesting about touching my nose?!”

“Well, it’s just such a remarkable nose. I can’t help but want to touch it.”

“I don’t really understand your reasoning…but well, it’s no big deal.”

As he turned to the side to make it easier to touch, it was clear that he was kind-hearted after all.

Ernesta reached out and gently touched his straight profile. His nose had short, firm hair on it, and she quickly became absorbed in the feel of it.

“Wow…!”

Ivan closed his eyes and seemed to be enduring something in silence. Taking advantage of his lack of reaction, Ernesta became more emboldened.

She even touched the soft fur on his cheek. Losing track of time due to the exquisite sensation, she was suddenly interrupted by Ivan’s large opening mouth.

“Which do you prefer, werewolf form or human form?”

“Eh? I like both?”

In fact, she also loved his wolf form. She wanted to embrace him to her heart’s content the next time she saw it.

Ernesta was so caught up in the sensation in her hand and her lovely fantasy that she didn’t notice Ivan’s muffled chuckle.

“…Really. You won’t touch me when I’m in human form.”

The next day, Ernesta woke up early and asked the chef for permission to stand in the kitchen. She wore a simple outfit over her Arkrig clothing and had Dasha by her side in the same attire.

“Thank you for being here early in the morning, Dasha.”

“No,no, don’t mention it! I’m interested in Bral cuisine too, so I’m excited!”

When Dasha came to prepare for breakfast, she offered to help with a smile and said she would like to make the meal.

Ernesta thought she had imposed too much, but it seemed that Dasha was genuinely interested in cooking. It had been a long time since two women cooked together, and Ernesta felt nostalgic, reminding her of Isolte.

“Now, let’s start by boiling some eggs. Dasha, can you do that for me?”

“Sure thing!”

Dasha lifted a cast-iron pot onto the stove as if it were a paper box and began pouring water into it with a ladle. As expected, she was also from the werewolf tribe and seemed to be strong.

“Can you leave two eggs aside for me?”

“Understood! Fufu, I wonder what a boiled egg sandwich is like. I can’t wait!”

Dasha laughed energetically, making Ernesta feel happy just watching her.

While observing the maid starting the fire in the stove cheerfully, Ernesta began preparing the main dish.

This menu normally requires beef, but she decided to use the only available venison. She prepared thinly sliced meat, beaten egg, and flour in separate containers, and since she had made the breadcrumbs and let them dry the day before, everything was ready.

“Wow! My Queen, what are you making?”

Dasha came back, her eyes shining with curiosity, after putting the eggs in the pot. Ernesta smiled and replied, lining up the meat on the cutting board.

“Schnitzel. It’s a dish where you coat thinly sliced meat with breadcrumbs and fry it.”

“Fried meat…?! It looks too delicious!”

Dasha’s eyes seemed to take on an animal gleam, but Ernesta decided to ignore it on purpose.

Originally, this dish uses veal, but Ernesta, who grew up as a commoner, does not have any particular attachment to it, and besides, there is no beef here in the kitchen today. With this cooking method, most meats can be prepared deliciously, so even venison with a unique taste is not a problem.

“First, let’s stretch the meat. Pierce it with a fork, and then hit it with a rolling pin.”

“Got it! Let’s keep stretching it then!”

The sound of hitting the meat echoed in the kitchen. Dasha, who seemed to be having fun with the task, was definitely strong, as she could handle one more sheet of meat than Ernesta.

“Well, it looks good. Now, let’s season it with spices and salt…”

As the meat had expanded to about twice its original size, they decided to cut it for easier consumption outside. Ernesta rubbed salt and spices into the meat while receiving curious glances. Of course, the spices were intended to eliminate any unpleasant smell.

“Now we coat it with breading. First, flour, then beaten egg, and finally breadcrumbs.”

“Do we really need to use three types of coating?”

“Flour and beaten eggs are basically the base for coating with breadcrumbs. Without either of them, the breadcrumbs won’t stick properly.”

“Oh wow! My Queen, you’re so knowledgeable, it’s amazing! I’m learning so much!”

Dasha’s completely sincere eyes reflected the word ‘respect.’

Being praised so openly made Ernesta feel more charmed by her opponent’s loveliness than embarrassed, and she couldn’t help but smile.

“Shall we try putting on the coating, Dasha?”

“Yes, please let me do it!”

The two of them diligently applied the coating. Ernesta went to the stove because the boiled eggs were done in the meantime. But when she came back, Dasha was sitting with her finger covered in the coating mixture, looking troubled.

“It sticks so much…I shouldn’t have used both hands. My face itches now.”

“Fufu, you’ll end up unable to touch anything. I should have warned you.”

This time, she put a copper frying pan on the heat. With the abundance of dairy products in the country, there was no shortage of butter, so she took a chunk out of the stock and boldly put it in.

Dasha, who returned after washing her hands, exclaimed with excitement, “Wow! It smells so good!”

“Butter really does have a nice aroma, doesn’t it?”

The rich fragrance of butter filled the kitchen, and the two young women closed their eyes in bliss.

This time they were making fried dishes using butter. With careful preparation and luxury ingredients, they were sure that this dish would be undeniably delicious.

——I wonder if Ivan will be pleased…

As they put the meat coated in batter into the butter, they felt their spirits rise along with the pleasant sound.

Yes, he would surely be delighted with the food, no matter where they were eating. If Ivan could smile, that was enough.

After frying all the meat, they made boiled egg sandwiches.

This dish was made by sandwiching leafy vegetables, ham, and cheese between khachapuri and pouring on special sauce.

“Mmm! So delicious!”

Dasha, who tasted the sandwich, screamed in delight. Earlier, she had tasted the freshly fried schnitzel and was in ecstasy, but it seemed like she liked this one too.

“Really? That’s great.”

“My Queen, this is incredibly delicious! It’s good enough to start a war!”

“T-That much…?”

Ernesta laughed at Dasha, who clenched her fist and insisted passionately. The soldiers of Shenka would surely like this too.

“Thank you for helping me. You really saved me. Let’s pack some in a basket for Dasha, too.”

“What?! To have dinner with His Majesty and My Queen…?!”

“Well, it was originally intended to be enough for Dasha as well. If it’s not a bother, I would appreciate it if you accept it.”

“Oh…My Queen , umm…!”

Dasha clasped both hands as if she had met a god, so Ernesta gently calmed her down.

They took out two baskets with lids, arranging them beautifully. Finally, after stuffing in the cut apples into the corners, the two of them applauded each other for their efforts.

“Finally finished! Good work, Dasha!”

“Yes, My Queen, you too!”

Looking at the clock, it had already been over two hours. Although it included cleaning up, it took a while in an unfamiliar environment.

Would Ivan wake up soon? They were supposed to have a light breakfast together and leave soon.

Ernesta, holding the basket, left the kitchen with Dasha. While walking and chatting in the hallway, they noticed that something seemed to be causing a commotion at their destination, causing them to stop in their tracks.

Coming towards them were Ivan and Johan, who had returned to their human forms after the full moon night and were wearing their usual black chokha.

Dasha hurriedly greeted them. Even though there was no need for Ernesta to do the same, she stood frozen, gazing at the King and Prime Minister walking towards her.

Ivan noticed the queen and his eyes widened in surprise, then quickly became awkward. Ernesta, who had realized everything, had nothing to say and could only drift there.

“I am sorry, Ellie. An urgent matter has come up.”

Chapter 86: Small story picnic 2 – The End

Upon realizing that the words she had imagined had become a reality, Ernesta smiled briefly before stopping herself.

However, she quickly scolded herself inwardly and gripped the handle of the basket tightly enough to remain unnoticed.

She couldn’t show a shocked face. She had to smile to allow Ivan to work with peace of mind.

“Is, is that so? What happened? Are you okay?”

“They found an iron vein in the mountains near Mount Koshka. It’s not a big deal, but we need to consider our response.”

That was certainly a difficult situation. The authorities needed to issue a gag order, confirm the situation, and form an investigation team as quickly as possible. Johan also appeared anxious, and it was likely an unexpected circumstance for him as the Prime Minister.

However, Ernesta was worried about the menacing presence beside her. When she glanced over, Dasha was glaring at the two men, writing “Are you breaking your promise?” on her face.

“… Um, is there anything I can do?”

“Thank you, I can handle this matter alone. I’ll try to finish it as soon as possible.”

Ivan said apologetically, furrowing his brows. He repeatedly apologized and kissed Ernesta on the forehead, then quickly left with Johan.

In the busy hallway where his vassals were passing by, Dasha’s concerned look pierced Ernesta’s heart.

Ernesta gave her youngest handmaid a smile as if to hold back tears.

“My Queen…”

“Oh, don’t look like that, Dasha. Ivan is busy, so it can’t be helped.”

Yes, this was unavoidable.

Ivan was the king of this country and thought more about Shenka than anyone else.

“He said he would finish it as soon as possible. It’s more than enough.”

In that case, Ernesta will just have to wait in anticipation. Even the dishes waiting to be eaten in the basket must not have been made in vain.

“Oh no… My Queen is too kind.”

“Fufu, that’s not true. Hey, Dasha, since you’ve been standing for so long and must be tired, shall we have some tea?”

Encouraging her with a cheerful voice, Dasha smiled despite seeming hesitant.

Afterwards, they returned to their own room and enjoyed tea with the maid, which doubled as breakfast. Ernesta studied during her free time, and eventually noon arrived, but Ivan still hadn’t returned.

Looking up at the clock for what felt like the umpteenth time, Ernesta let out a small sigh and stood meaninglessly in front of the window where the afternoon sun shone in.

The weather outside was nice. She could sense the gentle breeze blowing, but now that it had already passed 2pm, it was probably impossible to go outside anymore.

Ernesta had hoped to change her mood during her rare time off. But with such a busy schedule, and it may have been better to rest in her room instead of going outside.

Ernesta noticed the basket on the table and smiled softly.

It had cooled down quite a bit, so hopefully the vegetables hadn’t gone bad, but they were probably wilted and dried out.

It was sad, but Ivan was busy, so there was nothing to be done. She had missed lunch, so she decided to eat by herself.

Ernesta removed the lid from the basket. She couldn’t help but laugh at the neatly arranged dishes, as they always were.

Sharp footsteps could be heard in the distance. The sound of someone coming at an incredible speed grew louder and the door was knocked down.

Ernesta ran with excited anticipation and opened the door.

“Ivan…!”

“I’m sorry, Ellie. I kept you waiting for so long…!”

Ivan was so out of breath as if he had really sprinted all the way here.

Despite being tired, he hurried to keep his promise. Ernesta felt bad for being happy, but she was overjoyed that he had returned and couldn’t find the right words to say.

“Ah, sorry for rushing you. I’m sorry, you didn’t have to run this much…”

Avoiding eye contact, she invited her husband, who had finished work, into the room. As the door closed, the afternoon silence enveloped the two of them.

Perhaps it was stamina, Ivan quickly caught his breath.

“… Are you mad at me?”

Surprised by the unexpected question, she lifted her face and saw Ivan frown with his blond eyebrows, as if enduring pain.

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t keep my promise even though you invited me. But I really was looking forward to it. If Ellie is okay with it… Do you want to go out now?”

His blue eyes pleaded with an earnest color. Ernesta was so surprised that she blurted out what she thought.

“…Were you really looking forward to it that much?”

“I thought I said I was looking forward to it last night.”

He answered dubiously, and Ernesta was more and more outspoken.

“I thought it was just a polite thing to say. Besides, when we met in the hallway, you didn’t seem that disappointed.”

When she found out he couldn’t go, Ernesta was really disappointed and forced a smile. However, Ivan seemed to be acting as usual.

“…I have to show off a little too. Can’t just act like a child, whining about how I wanted to go, especially with Johan there.”

Ivan covered his mouth with his hand and looked away. His slightly reddened ears were a sign that he was blushing.

So, if Johan wasn’t there, Ivan would have whined. If that was the case, he missed out on something important——No, that’s not it. Ernesta realized her thoughts were getting off track and shook her head in a panic.

“I’m not angry. I’m just happy you came over quickly. It’s just embarrassing, you know?”

She truly felt fortunate.

She felt like she was reminded every day of how much he cherished her as his wife.

“You know, I want to go to the orchard. What do you think?”

“…Is that a good idea?”

“Of course. Do you want to go outside of the castle, Ivan?”

“No, anywhere is fine as long as I’m with Ellie.”

Ernesta blushed uncontrollably at the unexpected killer line.

Although Ivan was still shy, he had become more casual about saying things like this. Ernesta’s recent dilemma was that she couldn’t prepare herself for when he might say things like this.

Without a response, Ernesta looked to the side and suddenly noticed a basket on the table.

“Ah…”

She couldn’t help but exclaim.

What should she do? The food was old and she didn’t plan on having Ivan eat it, but if they went on a picnic, there would be nowhere to put the dish.

Should she keep it for herself and get a new one for Ivan? But if she ate something different in front of him, he would definitely be suspicious.

While she was lost in thought, Ivan began walking resolutely.

It was too late to stop him. When he peered into the open basket, Ernesta gave up and chuckled as Ivan turned his wide-eyed gaze towards her.

“I’ve never seen this dish before. Did you make it?”

“Well, actually, I did. But it’s already gone bad, so I was going to eat it myself.”

Ernesta tried to continue, but she couldn’t find the words as Ivan hugged her tightly.

“Thank you. I’m really sorry for keeping you waiting.”

Those words were filled with all the regret he had.

Despite the black chokha blocking her view and not being able to see anything, Ernesta knew what kind of face Ivan was making because of his low, rough voice.

“I wasn’t upset at all. If Ivan can rest, that’s all that matters.”

As she said this and shook her small head, Ivan’s arm strength increased. Ernesta smiled slightly, trying not to let him notice.

In the end, Ivan would not listen to her, saying he would eat the contents of the basket, and Ernesta was forced to raise the white flag.

The orchard, untouched by time, was still refreshing, and the soft autumn sun felt pleasant. Just like before, sitting on the gazebo, Ernesta nervously watched her trembling fingers pick up the sandwich and bring it to his mouth from the basket.

“What is this?! It’s too delicious!”

Ivan’s eyes widened as he exclaimed, and Ernesta let out a sigh of relief.

“That’s good. Just to confirm, it hasn’t gone bad, right?”

“No, it’s too delicious!”

It seemed that Ivan’s vocabulary had been reduced to a single word. Surprisingly, he devoured the sandwich in just a few bites and then stabbed the schnitzel with his fork.

As he took a bite, his eyes widened again. “What is this! It’s too delicious…!” And with the same line coming out again, Ernesta couldn’t help but laugh.

According to what she had heard earlier, Ivan hadn’t eaten lunch for the picnic. While hunger might be the best spice, she didn’t expect him to be so impressed.

“Ellie, you should eat too. Otherwise, I’ll eat everything.”

As he spoke, Ivan picked up another sandwich. There were originally five sandwiches and eight schnitzels.

“I’ll just have one sandwich and a little schnitzel. Ivan can eat the rest. Of course, there’s no need to force yourself.”

As she slowly chewed her sandwich, Ivan opened his mouth in disbelief.

“What are you talking about? This is so delicious! Won’t you regret it?”

“Well, it’s homemade so it’s not that special. I’m fine with it.”

While she was someone who ate an average amount of food, she was already full today. She was just happy that Ivan was enjoying himself, and her heart was full.

“Is that so…? In that case, I’ll gladly eat it all.”

“Sure, go ahead and help yourself.”.

As she did, Ivan started eating silently. They say people become quiet when they eat something delicious, but it might be the same for werewolves.

A pleasant breeze swayed through the quiet space. The fruit orchard, illuminated by the setting sun, had grapes reaching the peak of their season, with plump, black fruit hanging as far as the eye could see. The fragrance emitted from the single planted pear tree tickled Ernesta’s nose, as she gazed at his perfect profile.

“…I wonder how long it’s been since we’ve had such a peaceful time.”

The low voice that dropped out struck Ernesta’s heart deeply.

The orchard held unforgettable memories with Ivan, but it was also the place where they realized they had to part ways. However, those memories that had fallen to the bottom of the earth at that time were warm and slowly being coated over.

“I was thinking the same thing.”

Even without words, enveloping happiness was there.

The evening sun was soft, casting the shadows of the two cuddled up figures long. They continued talking about nothing in particular, enjoying everyday life until nightfall.

〈The End〉

Advanced Chapters

KOFI-PATREON

𝐇𝐎𝐌𝐄


Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You cannot copy content of this page