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It might have been an illusion. Actually, Nocton thought it was indeed an illusion, but at some point he felt Valrose trying to distance herself.

While they laughed and chatted, Valrose occasionally had a cold expression and uttered cold words. It wasn’t something that happened often, but whenever Valrose, who was so sweet and playful, did it occasionally, Nocton felt as if he had been stabbed with an awl in the chest.

As a result, when Valrose’s words and actions changed, Nocton stopped testing her and became more careful due to his cowardice. He tried to hide his black magic, his immoral deeds, and even his impure birth.

Those who were brainwashed were told to not reveal themselves in front of Valrose by keeping their heads bowed and acting in a hurry to avoid suspicions.

It was easy for Nocton to keep Valrose in the dark while Nocton’s position solidified and the servants seemed to be more wary of him.

Possibly not, but just in case she doubted Nocton, he even put Patricia and Geranium Edgar into play by making them say they were giving up their seats as head of the duchy before leaving for Faust.

Fortunately, Valrose seemed to believe it.

‘Valrose, Valrose.’

As he gradually fell deep in thoughts, Nocton began tapping his fingers against his desk.

There was one more factor that made Valrose feel uneasy about Nocton.

Compared to the cold words and actions that have emerged in recent years, Valrose had much older secrets.

On the surface, they were insignificant.

There was a rumour that Valrose had a friend outside of the capital, and that friend, who Nocton didn’t know the gender, name or appearance of, had a longer relationship with Valrose than him.

However, knowing nothing stimulated infinite imagination. So that was what Nocton thought: Valrose’s friend from outside the capital might have become her lover at some point.

It would’ve been easy to find out by doing a background check, but Nocton couldn’t do that.

Nocton was confident that nobody would find out, but he couldn’t act immoral in regards with Valrose since she had been brainwashed.

“It’s funny, even if it was deception from the start, anyway.”

Mumbling to himself, Nocton closed his eyes.

***

Duroa Valrose arrived at the Duke’s mansion. It was a very common routine, but for Nocton it was something precious. Duroa smiled brightly as she held a bouquet of flowers that she had brought with the intention of teasing Nocton.

It was a bouquet of purple tulips.

“You’ve finally become the Duke, congratulations!”

“You must really like mauve. Everytime you bring me something, it has this color.”

Feeling criticised, Duroa handed the bouquet of flowers to Nocton. A sweet scent filling his nostrils.

Although Duroa was disappointed with Nocton’s dull reaction, she shrugged her shoulders as if she wasn’t expecting much from the beginning.

“Should I call you Duke now?”

“You should do that in public places.”

“It doesn’t roll off my tongue that well. Nocton, Duke of Edgar, it’s too long.”

“‘Nocton’ and ‘Your Grace’ have a difference of two letters.”

tl/n: doesn’t make sense in english, does it?

“If it’s the first time I call you that, it will have to be honest and sincere.”

Saying that, Valrose buried herself in the sofa in Nocton’s study.

She looked comfortable, as if it was her home even though they both knew it wasn’t.

Nocton smiled lightly at the sight and sat across from Valrose.

“I was surprised. As soon as you became an adult, her Excellency handed the title to you. It usually takes until you’re in your thirties, at the earliest, until you can take over the position. She must have been tired.”

“That’s what she said. She said she was tired of power and left for Faust, and she certainly seemed weak for a while. There’s no such thing as an easy job.”

“She said the tea didn’t taste good, right?”

“Umm… I’m sorry, but that’s right. What did you do to make it so sticky?”

Valrose added hastily after replying without much thought right after.

“I’m not insulting you, you know that, right? I’ve always drank your tea with gratitude. It’s great to talk to you and enjoy a cup of tea… Well, even if it’s a little awkward, it’s fun. Really fun-”

“Valrose.”

While Valrose was rambling in embarrassment, Nocton stretched out his hand. Her rosy hair was a mess from when she sat down on the sofa.

Valrose smiled softly and ruffled his hair too.

“Now your Grace is like me.”

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Their faces weren’t close because he reached towards her from a reasonable distance.

However, Nocton’s fingertips touched Valrose’s ear, transmitting his warmth, and even his heartbeat.

From the corner of his eye, Nocton noticed Valrose gripping at the edge of the sofa. Only then did Nocton slowly remove his hand. If he got too close, she might’ve run away.

Nocton liked Valrose’s hair because no matter how well she maintained her elegantly wavy hair, it got messy quickly when it rained or when she laid down on the sofa.

It was Nocton’s pleasure to tidy up her messy hair.

“You’re going on a trip.”

“Wha-What did you say?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Huh? No, uh… I heard, I heard it wrong…”

Even if Valrose pretended to be calm, her face quickly turned red. Nocton found it cute to see her shaking her head with a blushing face.

Valrose knew that her face had heated up too, so she put the back of her hand on her own cheek to cool it off, trying to speak calmly.

“Ah, trip? Yes, I’m going on a trip. I haven’t been there in a long time.”

“Are you going to see an old friend?”

“No, I only have friends outside of the Capital.”

“…Well, that’s good, but I think you can leave out ‘outside of the Capital’, Valrose.”

“What? Then, you didn’t even think that we were friends? No, it’s not even surprising.”

Seeing Valrose frown slightly, Nocton pressed his lips together.

‘Friends. You and I are friends?’

He consciously loosened his hardened expression and smiled.

‘If you were just a friend, I wouldn’t only be looking at your lips.’

Contrary to his thoughts, his smile seemed very natural.

“No way. I meant that it would be better to put ‘other than you’ instead of ‘outside of the Capital’.”

“Because I don’t have any friends other than you…? What are you saying? You’re the same.”

“That’s right, you’re the only one for me. So where are you going?”

“What? Ah, the trip. I’m just going anywhere outside of the capital, wherever I can go.”

“Did the Marquis of Valrose allow such a frivolous plan?”

“My father is okay with it, but mother is the problem. However, she allowed it because I go there often. Anyway, the escort knights will always be with me.”

‘She goes there…often.’

Nocton thought maybe it just meant that Duroa travels often, but it sounded more like she often visited the same place. Perhaps, she was going to meet an old friend who Nocton didn’t know.

Exceeding the level of concern, Nocton nodded. He pretended to be relaxed, although he was nervous as if his heart was a burning candle. He still couldn’t ask her because he got that answer back when he asked the question before.

‘I don’t have to tell you everything.’

Nocton vividly remembered a cold face he had never seen before. After that, Valrose returned to her usual self, but the afterimage of her bitter expression remained imprinted in Nocton’s mind and he didn’t persistently question her anymore.

“So, when are you leaving?”

“You’re very interested in my trip.”

“I’m always interested in everything about you.”

“Yes, you are. Your words are smoother than the main character in the play I saw yesterday. I will leave for my trip next month.”

Nocton wasn’t conscious of his words before. But if he thought that if he could seduce her with words, he would’ve done so more sweetly. What Nocton said to Valrose was more of a habit that he wasn’t aware of.

“You went to see the play again?”

“Yeah, it was fun. It was the original novel.”

“Isn’t the finale still out these days? The one of the novel you’ve read before.”

After speaking without much thought, Nocton regretted it.

“You pretended not to be interested, but you also wanted to know the end of the novel.”

Instead of laughing at him, Valrose only tilted her head but Nocton could see a grin.

“I’ve seen one or two things before. What are you talking about?”

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“There’s only one thing you’ve been particularly passionate about. What was the title? The…”

“The?”

“…Nevermind. I look like a fool because I’m the only one who remembers.”

“I just don’t remember, silly Nocton.”

Ignoring the childish remarks, Nocton stared down at Valrose’s feet, narrowing his eyes.

“Even though you like it so much, you completely forgot it as time went by.”

“It’s strange, but I feel betrayed. It seems you liked the things I liked, not me.”

“I’m just worried about your forgetfulness. If you don’t see me for a few days, maybe you’ll forget me.”

“You think I’m a goldfish!”

Duroa raised her voice with a guilty expression on her face.

“I might forget you in a few years instead of a few days, but don’t worry. I’m not going to be away from you for a few years.”

“What?”

“That’s right. Even if you’re a friend, you’re a man, and the one I’ll marry would turn against you. We won’t be able to meet everyday.”

“…Valrose.”

“Nocton, will you marry me?”

The words came out in a casual tone, but for a moment, Nocton was so surprised that he couldn’t even speak.

It was the first time he was ever speechless.

As she watched Nocton with his mouth wide open, Valrose pouted, wondering what he was thinking about.

“Is it something to be that surprised about? It’s the first time I’ve seen you like this. That’s too much. Well, if you marry me, you can’t call me ‘Valrose’ anymore.”

“You said that so suddenly… how wouldn’t I be surprised?”

“You don’t even have the intention of marrying the person you love. Come to think of it, there are only a few people who meet the conditions and also have good looks.”

Then, Duroa started folding a few of her fingers as if she were counting.

“I didn’t realize it because we’re together every day, but your house is a high-ranking family.”

Nocton took a short breath at her exaggerated words.

“Are you going to get married already?”

“Not yet. Alroy got engaged two years after she became an adult, and I’ll be an adult soon so after a year, they’ll come one after the other.”

“Well…”

‘That can’t happen.’

Gulping the lump in his throat, Nocton chuckled. Still, it was he who felt bad.

Duroa said those words without thinking, but Nocton was determined to stop her marriage letters even more.

“I don’t want to think about that, I just want to stay here. There are times when it feels more like home because I’m here so often. It’s comfortable, familiar, and the food is good and I don’t think anyone would notice if I took one or two luxury and expensive ornaments.”

“I can’t believe you, Valrose.”

“And you know what?”

Closing her eyes as she buried herself on the couch, Valrose reached out her hand. She touched Nocton’s head.

Nocton couldn’t understand her gestures, but he gave up and let Valrose’s hand touch his black hair. Her hand lightly ruffled his hair before pulling it away.

“You’re here too.”

Nocton’s expression hardened once again, but Valrose’s eyes were closed and she was unable to see him. She looked like she was getting sleepy.

“I can see all your expressions even when I close my eyes, Nocton. I don’t want to marry you, so don’t worry. You and I getting married was just a joke.”

“…”

“It’s a pity that we won’t be able to visit each other once one of us gets engaged.”

“…Valrose.”

“Oh, I’m getting sleepy because I closed my eyes. I’ll sleep for a bit.”

With those last words, Valrose’s breath became heavier.

However, her words fell heavily on Nocton’s chest, and he just looked at the sleeping Duroa for a long time.

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