As he gently swept my fingers, he interlocked his pinky with mine.
A sign of promise made by children.
However, the sign showed sincerity, Damian’s sincerity.
“I promise, Lize.”
His voice gradually grew stronger.
“I’ll definitely come back alive and well.”
“….really You promise”
To see you again, I’ll make sure of that.”
Whispering so, Damian bowed his head.
His tone seemed heavy.
He pretended to be calm so far but Damian also had it difficult.
Taking a deep breath, I opened my mouth in the most carefree tone possible to cheer him up.
“Actually, I have one more gift for you.”
“….another gift Anything besides a handkerchief”
“What’s the gift”
“It’s a secret.”
I gave a big smile.
Damian who was staring at me ended up smirking that night after I smiled.
Even a smirk was more than enough for the situation we were in.
I hope the gift I prepared will give Damian some comfort before he sets off.
I really hope so.
The stars were scintillating all night.
I trodden across the dark imperial palace.
In the distance, a scarlet lantern could be seen swaying.
The person holding the lamp was a maid from the Empress dowager’s palace.
Not long after, the Empress dowager and her handmaiden appeared.
Both of their faces were covered with veils worn from the head in accordance with shrine traditions to show politeness.
“Your Majesty, the Empress dowager, I’ve come to see you.”
I bowed my head.
The handmaiden of the Empress dowager gave an apologetic smile.
“Yes, sorry for calling you so early.”
“It’s not a problem, it’s what I’m supposed to do.”
The Empress dowager was going to the shrine at dawn to pray for Damian’s safe return.
However, unless there are special occasions such as the harvest festival, access to the shrine is usually restricted.
Of course, by principle, the Empress dowager should not be under any restrictions whatsoever from entering but….
‘The Emperor regards the Empress dowager as a thorn in his backside, so how could she come and go freely’
Hence at the Empress’s behest, the Empress dowager was then allowed to enter for the Empress dowager’s sake and his Highness’s.
And to prove the Empress’s approval, a maid of the Empress’s palace had to come with, which is where I came in.
After a while.
I entered the shrine with the Empress dowager.
The shrine was quiet.
The Empress dowager bowed before the statue of Aurelia with her wings spread out.
I slowly glanced around, observing my surroundings.
Perhaps, the fact that the Empress dowager can be here in the shrine right now…
‘Everything must have reached the Emperor’s ears.
We are likely being watched.’
I and the handmaiden of the Empress dowager were deliberately attached to the Empress dowager, offering prayers alongside her.
It was to avoid the Emperor’s suspicions.
The Empress dowager who in a hushed tone called me, stretched out her hand to me.
I carefully handed her the incense.
Her Majesty lit the incense, placing it in her hands as she bowed her head.
The smoke from the smoldering incense permeated throughout.
Breathing in the incense, I was quickly lost in thought.
‘I’m really glad I could give a hand in changing all the maids of the Empress dowager’s palace last time.’
Five years ago, there was a tea time hosted by the Empress dowager.
Under the pretext of a problem between me and the Empress dowager’s maids, the Empress dowager was able to do her best in filtering out the Emperor’s spies.
Those five years have passed since then.
During that time, the Empress dowager was somewhat freed from the Emperor’s influence.
That’s why we could make this meeting happen.
‘Did Damian safely meet the Empress dowager’
I glanced at the Empress dowager’s face from the side.
Behind the long veil, glimpses of her Majesty’s face could be seen.
The Empress dowager was actually the handmaiden from the Empress dowager’s palace disguised as her.
Damian rode his horse to the front gates of the imperial palace.
The appearance of the crown prince was staggeringly shabby.
The gates were void of people.
A far cry from the outpour of cheers and farewells a prince should receive, there wasn’t even the shadow of a person in sight.
Nevertheless, Damian’s face remained steadfast.
He had never held such expectations from the start.
But the sad thing is….
Damian still thought of Charlize last night who didn’t cry and kept her lips closed.
She seemed all right when they parted.
He let out a brief sigh.
At least Charlize could see his face yesterday, he didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to his grandmother.
She looked so old when he saw her at the harvest festival.
“If I leave like this now, when will we ever get to see each other again…”
Then, someone who disregarded her surroundings called out to Damian.
It was a nickname he hadn’t heard in ages.
Startled, Damian looked back in a whirlwind of emotions.
From afar, a woman with a veil covering her face staggered as she ran towards Damian.
“Dian, my dear Damian!”
In an instant, his scarlet eyes widened.
Damian jumped off his horse.
The woman removed her veil.
The face of the Empress dowager with tears streaking down her face was revealed.
….could it really be
Damian looked up at the Empress dowager with a stunned expression.
“I-I, is it….are you grandma mama”
“Yes Dian, it’s me,” cried the Empress dowager with tears of joy.