A few days later, the capital began to buzz with rumors. Ian Audmonial had a fiancée chosen by the deceased queen, and the fiancée herself was a woman of obscure birth. For n.o.bles, “obscure” was a code word for “vulgar”.
The rumors started at small tea parties and spread to large banquets. Those who attended the Academy with Ian naturally knew that the young woman was Louise Sweeney. They knew she was a good person, but they did not bother to mention or defend her, and the rumors grew increasingly malicious. Louise was accused of dishonesty at the Academy and paying her way to become the top student. It didn't stop there. The n.o.bility whispered their pity that the prince was engaged to a barbarian with dirty hands.
Louise laughed when she heard the rumors, but Ian was quite upset. The rumors' feet walked farther and farther, bearing the story of Louise Sweeney.
The peak of the incident occurred when the Sweeney family received a rare invitation to the New Year's ball.
Louise looked at Mrs. Sweeney sitting opposite of her in the carriage bringing them to the capital.
“Are you worried?”
Her mother's gentle concern returned, but Louise shook her head.
“I just wanted to say something.”
Mrs. Sweeney had been plenty worried lately.
“I think it's alright not to borrow the power of the head family.”
The head family she referred to was the baron family that her mother was disowned from. The head family was also upset after hearing the rumors about Louise, of course, but they were far more interested that she was the fiancée of the Crown Prince. Louise's maternal grandfather wrote to the greenhouse several times and even visited them. He said he would pa.s.s on the n.o.ble t.i.tle to her mother and make her his official successor. He pretended to worry that Louise should have decent ties before becoming part of the royal family, but it wasn't true. His only concern was being connected to the palace without lifting a hand himself.
Mrs. Sweeney could not forgive her father, but for Louise's sake, she couldn't say no.
“I am your daughter foremost, not his granddaughter. Symbolically speaking, of course.”
And so Louise firmly made her decision to her mother.
“Please refuse, alright?”
Mrs. Sweeney nodded reluctantly, and Louise's heart finally settled. However, she was still worried that her grandfather would show up at the New Year's party.
“I'm fine, but I'm worried about you…”
“There's no need to.”
Louise shook her head, and her carefully curled hair brushed against her cheeks.
“I'm perfectly dressed, aren't I? Everyone will be so disappointed that I don't look like a barbarian.”
Louise smiled at her joke about the rumors. She would never shatter under them.
The New Year's party was a long banquet that started on the eve and went into the first day of the new year. At this time, n.o.bles from both the capital and the countryside came up to greet the king. The king could not receive all these guests by himself, and other representatives were delegated to help with the task. There were times when it was the former queen or Duke Hillard that filled in, and this year Ian was qualified to take up the role as well.
When the Sweeney family was greeted, it was done by the king himself. It caused quite a stir, but there was no consensus yet whether Louise would be accepted by the Imperial Court. The king had made no official comment on the rumors since the beginning.
The night drew onwards, and the party was in full swing. Near midnight everyone stopped and waited in breathless antic.i.p.ation for the New Year. The enormous clock struck the twelfth hour, and everyone cheered and lifted their gla.s.ses high as the musicians started playing.
The king stood up from his seat, and some of the crowd looked on in curiousity. He had never danced since he lost his beloved companion. The sorrow and anger cast on his heart still remained, and served as a reminder that he would never take another woman by his side again.
The king made his way through the floor, the n.o.bles in his path stepping back and bowing their heads. He stopped right in front of a young blonde woman.
“It's been awhile, Louise Sweeney.”
He reached out his hand in a friendly gesture, and Louise stared at it. His hand looked cracked and callous, evidence of daily hard work. Her father had similar hands, and so she gladly accepted the king's offer with as much dignity as possible.
There was a surprise, however. The king led her right into the center of the splendid banquet hall. The music had paused momentarily, but then struck up again.
“I have to thank you.”
The emperor spoke in a casual voice as he started to lead, while Louise moved stiffly with tension.
“You're thankful to…me?”
A smile crinkled on the king's face. It was similar to Ian's own playful smile.
“I won a bet against my mother for the first time.”
“You made a bet?!”
With the former queen, no less.
“It's my privilege to have the first dance with young Miss Sweeney.”
“…I'm not sure what you mean.”
The emperor chuckled. The adults had always been invested in the future of their children. In particular, they looked on with keen interest in how these three friends would turn out. The former queen claimed that Simon had the advantage, while the king said, “I don't know, but my son is the best.” The choice was left to Louise Sweeney, and it was the king who won the bet.
“It's just a thing between adults. Anyways, I am happy that your friends.h.i.+p remains strong.”
“I can say that with confidence.”
A smile spread across her face.
“The three of us are always strong.”
“I know. We are proud of you all.”
The king danced flawlessly, despite not having done so for years. Louise's nerves slid away from her like water. Maybe it was because he had a similar atmosphere to Ian.
“I'm not actually thankful that I won my bet.”
The emperor's gaze wandered away for a moment. There was a look of longing in his eyes.
“If it weren't for you, no one else would stand by that child.”
When he spoke of “standing by,” he didn't simply mean marriage—he meant to stand by as an equal, not a subordinate. The king believed that one should follow their true heart, and if a marriage was simply for loyalty or gain, you would eventually find an empty s.p.a.ce by your side.
“No parent wants their child to live alone. And…no parent would want to send their daughter to a barren place.”
Louise smiled awkwardly.
“So, we're trying to prove ourselves as best we can.”
At Louise's question, the king smiled brightly and handed her over to someone else. When Louise turned to see her new dance partner, she came face-to-face with the former queen.
“Hold on tight. I'll show you six decades worth of technique.”
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