“Her state of shock seems to have resulted from a momentary state of heightened tension.”
Upon hearing the words of the royal physician, Gusto let out a hollow laugh.
Initially, his laughter came off as someone in disbelief, but then it erupted into a loud laughter as if there was truly something amusing happening.
Straightforward eye contact, unwavering posture, and even the unwavering response to his words without missing a beat.
And she did all that in a state of tension?
Gusto shook his head as he looked at Briella, lying pale on the bed. Even though he had just confirmed her condition through the physician, he simply could not believe it.
Discovering an unexpected side in the appearance of the duchess, whom he had thought to be quite composed, somehow brought him a sense of satisfaction.
“Nevertheless, she endured remarkably well. I must admit that.”
Gusto muttered to himself in the face of the woman, who couldn’t respond, having lost consciousness. If she had been awake, she would have surely felt a strong sense of disdain.
Gusto crossed his arms and observed Briella attentively. The first thing that caught his attention was her hair, which seemed to be twisted from the moonlight.
He had never expected to see the silver strands of hair, which fluttered in the wind during Eve’s evening tea party, up close like this.
With his arms still crossed, Gusto slowly lowered his hand. Gusto did not find the movement unnatural, like how water would flow.
Gusto’s bulging Adam’s apple trembled noticeably. His face subtly changed as he grasped the silver hair that wrapped around his fingers, as silky as satin. How would the dark emerald eyes, nestled neatly beneath the lowered eyelids, react to this sight?
It was a trivial and unnecessary curiosity.
However, Gusto was genuinely curious.
If Briella were to open her eyes and see him holding her hair like this, what expression would she make?
How would she escape from the net he had set this time?
Gusto, who was lost in thought while holding Briella’s hair, turned his head at the call of the royal physician.
“It seems she will soon open her eyes.”
Upon hearing the physician’s words, Gusto turned his gaze to Briella’s face. The trembling of her closed eyelids seemed to confirm the physician’s words that she would soon open her eyes.
Gusto grasped the silver hair that was held in his hand. For a brief moment, he struggled between the desire to satisfy his curiosity and the Emperor’s dignity.
Once again, the royal physician called Gusto insistently. Reluctantly, he released the hair he was holding. As if anticipating this action, the moonlight strands slipped away from his hand smoothly.
That sight left Gusto feeling somewhat regretful, and his eyes became strained.
The murmurs of the people could be felt, and Briella struggled to free herself from the looming darkness by vigorously floundering, clutching onto her ankles.
With a determined effort on her stubborn eyelids, she finally managed to open her eyes after several futile attempts.
Her eyes stung as a sudden burst of light pierced through them.
As she blinked a couple of times, her hazy vision soon became clear.
Briella, who met Gusto’s gaze as he stared intently at her, closed her eyes again.
She had never expected to wake up and immediately see the person she least wanted to encounter.
“Madam, it seems you have awoken. Do you intend to faint again?”
Gusto’s voice had an unbelievably playful tone to it.
Briella’s emerald green eyes reappeared, displaying a refreshing gaze like a forest after rain.
The gazes of the two individuals met at eye level for a while.
Ironically, neither Briella nor Gusto had any intention of avoiding each other’s gaze.
“Would you please step aside, Your Majesty?”
Unable to bear the uncomfortable silence any longer, Briella spoke with a hint of determination.
“Ah! I have offended the noble lady with my impudence.”
Briella exhaled coldly as she watched Gusto retreat exaggeratedly, raising both hands.
Fainting in front of Gusto, she couldn’t bear to lift her face and think about her current state.
As Gusto moved aside, Briella grasped the bed with her hand and rose from where she lay.
She swept her cascading hair back and took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the stifling air.
The fact that she had fainted in front of Gusto and now found him here was not something Briella had anticipated.
It felt suffocating to think about how she would escape this predicament.
“I apologize, Your Majesty. I have shown an unsightly appearance in front of your esteemed presence.”
Briella, barely uttering words through her trembling lips, hunched her body.
Although a cold sweat ran down her back, now was not the time to pay attention to such things.
“If your health is not well, you could have postponed the next event. The noble lady seems to lack mental flexibility, more so than I imagined.”
Gusto’s words caused Briella to lower her head even deeper.
It was none other than Emperor Gusto who had demanded an unreasonable schedule under the pretense of an invitation.
It had been just this morning when Lucas left.
And he had to be undoubtedly aware of the fact since the order came from him.
It was an itinerary that could not be considered considerate in any way. However, Briella had no room for complaints.
It was an act orchestrated by Gusto to either start up bad blood between Briella and Lucas or to satisfy his suspicions about their relationship.
Briella had found an opportunity to act in that situation.
“I apologize, Your Majesty.”
Watching Briella, who placed her hands on her chest and bowed her head, Gusto clicked his tongue.
Briella waited for the moment when she could be free from his gaze and hide her face as much as possible.
If she made a wrong move here, it could harm Lucas and be damaging to her title as Duchess Viterpan.
She suppressed her emotions as she recalled his proclamation to make Lucas an emperor.
Even her own feelings had to be set aside for revenge.
So much so that even her heart had stopped beating on the precipice of this moment.
A light she couldn’t see and the life that had slipped away.
Now, she had to lower herself into darkness and hold her breath.
It was a fight that, as Lucas had said before, wouldn’t end easily.
“Rest in the palace today and return tomorrow.”
“If rumors spread that the fallen noble lady was disgracefully driven out, what will become of my reputation among the nobles?”
“Your Majesty, I appreciate your words, but I would like to leave now.”
“It seems that the noble lady intends to refuse my request.”
With Gusto’s words, the atmosphere in the bedroom became chillingly silent.
The handmaids exchanged glances and bowed their heads, while the physician’s face also hardened.
Gusto smirked, stroking his stiffened jaw.
Upon hearing her words, Gusto brightened and smiled warmly at Briella, as if he enjoyed the quickly shifting atmosphere.
Amidst everyone’s rigid faces and their cautious glances at each other, Gusto’s solitary laughter appeared quite alien.
Although they occupied the same space, they each experienced different emotions.
Especially Gusto’s gaze upon Briella, which was particularly pronounced.
He resembled a cunning exterminator, as if he were a cornered rat, anticipating when it would bite while using a heated iron rod to stab the vermin.
No, it seemed more like a terrified mouse succumbing to unjust violence, unable to stand against it, miserably waiting with its head bowed.
Gusto, reflected in Briella’s gaze, was a seasoned handler.
“A refusal, you say? I merely require some time to confer with the Duke.”
Briella responded calmly, evading his serpent-like gaze.
“Confer? Confer about the Emperor’s request?”
“It is a splendid opportunity. However, my mistake could also be a detriment to His Majesty or the Duke Viterpan. Therefore, I deemed it necessary to contemplate thoroughly.”
“Have you a silver tongue? I cannot possibly match the eloquence of the Duchess.”
“I apologize, Your Majesty.”
Briella rose from the bed.
Straightening her dizzy body, she bowed to Gusto.
He favored weakness and was lenient with those who clung to him.
Avoiding Gusto’s gaze here meant lowering oneself further and prostrating on the ground.
“A splendid opportunity indeed. That’s right. I, Gusto Rhone, make a request to the Duchess Viterpan.”
As expected, Gusto’s mood improved greatly, and he grumbled indulgently to Briella.
“Setting that aside, you must return today, without fail.”
“The mansion is empty. Since the Duke isn’t present, I cannot leave the position unattended.”
Her slightly clenched hand trembled.
However, no one could discern her tension from her clear voice or gaze, except for one person—Gusto Rhone.
‘It’s strange,’ he thought. ‘The story about her collapsing in shock keeps coming to mind.’
Lifting her half-covered face, he found it repulsive to keep responding promptly.
Even her flustered appearance, trying to escape from here, appealed to him considerably.
But at the same time, seeing her disappear like a chameleon made him feel a petty desire to break her legs and prevent her from leaving.
Gusto peered down at Briella, his head tilted.
Looking down on others was always a pleasurable experience.
“Indeed. Since the Duke has vacated the mansion, it is only right for you to take his place, my lady.”
“Thank you for understanding, Your Majesty.”
“The Duke must be delighted. With a duchess like you guarding the mansion, he has no worries, even if he were to die.”
Briella willingly maintained her silence in the face of Luca’s death, which she uttered herself. Gusto, wearing a broad smile, nodded approvingly.
“You may return today. I shall send you another invitation soon.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Let me continue, my lady.”
Gusto, who was about to leave, suddenly changed his course.
As he moved, his cloak fluttered in the wind.
“Being the guardian of an empty mansion without the Duke is the role of a duchess.”
“Who do you think can act as a representative in an imperial court without an empress?”
“I don’t follow.”
She turned her head, pretending not to know, but it was already too late.
“In a kingdom without an empress, who is the highest-ranking woman?”
Gusto tapped his cheek with his finger. His gaze was fixed on Briella.
“Oh! Since my cousin has not yet received the title of grand duke, perhaps this has nothing to do with the Duchess Viterpan?”
“In the Rhone Empire, there are noble families with nobler pedigrees.”
Lowering her gaze, she suppressed her feelings to avoid offending Gusto with her response.
But it seemed her answer was not what he desired, as Gusto leisurely raised the corner of his mouth.
“That’s right. No matter how noble my cousin’s pedigree may be, there must be households with a nobler pedigree than the Viterpan duchy.”
Gusto’s mocking remarks ignited a spark of anger.
The Viterpan duchy.
A false name that was nothing more than a lofty-sounding title.
One which was overshadowed by an unfortunate tale of a miserable prince and was gradually being forgotten by imperial subjects getting on with their lives.
Originally, Lucas was destined to be the emperor.
If her family had not turned away, if she had taken his hand a little sooner…
It would have been Lucas standing confidently in the highest position.
The one who could use the name Rhone, not the fake name Viterpan, as if wearing ill-fitting clothes.
Gusto’s ridicule caused Briella’s deep emerald eyes to darken, as if swallowing the darkness.
But Gusto’s mocking, oblivious to her true feelings, did not end there.
“This should have been an order, not a request.”
“Please heed that command.”
With a loud noise, the window rattled and shook.
The trembling appearance, as if it could open at any moment, was far from reassuring.
But under Gusto’s oppressive atmosphere, no one could move.
Like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web, Briella calmly bowed her head and held her ground.
With each lightning strike, the room flashed.
And finally, the large window that occupied one side of the wall could not withstand the pouring rain and opened.
In this sudden situation, the handmaids and servants panicked and scurried around.
Meanwhile, Briella and Gusto, who were near the window, were exposed to the rain as it poured in.
The cold raindrops fiercely lashed Briella’s face.
But no one could approach her.
The steward of the house, having just regained his composure, approached Gusto, but the latter raised his hand to halt his actions.
Meanwhile, the servants were busy closing the open window without respite.
Untangling the worn and broken loops proved to be a more arduous task than anticipated.
Only after the two servants struggled and clung together were they able to finally close the window.
Though it was brief, the rain had drenched Briella and Gusto.
“I had thought it was the Duke who had captivated the young lady. But it seems the lady herself has fallen under the Duke’s spell.”
As Gusto’s words finally escaped his lips, Briella felt her heart plummet to the depths of despair.