The castle in which the most honourable man in the country lived was larger and more complicated than the mansion of any count. Mariella walked through the dark corridors, clutching in her arms the gold and silver embroidery set she had received from Marianne. The corridors were deserted, leaving a chill in the air. There was something that unnerved her even more than the eerie atmosphere in the castle.
‘Where am I?’
She was lost in the middle of the castle. She walked and walked and walked, but it felt like she was going in circles. There was no one in sight to ask for help. It was at this moment, when she was trying to remember how to get back to her room, that someone grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. Someone grabbed her by the nape of the neck. It an unimpressed royal servant.
“It’s you, the spoilt maid.”
“Who are you?”
Mariella looked at them warily. The servants, mistaking her demeanour for fear, giggled among themselves. The man at the head of the line puffed out his chest and swaggered.
“I am Lord Dennis, who controls everything in this castle with a snap of my fingers.”
There was no way a servant doing menial tasks in a royal castle would be called ‘Lord.’ Mariella knew they were mocking her.
The man who introduced himself as Lord Dennis leaned toward her.
“I hear the princess is very fond of you. You have eyes unbecoming of your station.”
His gaze fell to the embroidery set in her arms.
“You have quite a collection of fine things. Did you steal them?”
He snatched it away before she had a chance to respond. Instead of scrambling to retrieve it, Mariella glared at him.
“I’ll slap this on you as a toll. Next time I see you, be careful, cheeky girl.”
The man flicked the tip of her nose and disappeared with his friends. Their snickering echoed down the corridor.
“You’re giving it to Anne, aren’t you?”
Mariella stared in the direction they’d disappeared, still lost.
‘I can’t go where they are.’
A surge of forgotten fatigue hit her.
‘Let’s go to the light for now.’
She pressed hard on her throbbing temples and quickened her pace.
The ‘place where the light comes out’ that Mariella had set as an arbitrary destination was the prince’s private study. Through the open window, she could see Josef discussing state affairs with someone.
The face of the man sitting across from him stopped her in her tracks. Julian von Bayer, the youngest duke in the kingdom. Dressed in white robes, he had come to fetch the blind Josef. With his jet-black eyes and hair, he was an imposing, cold man.
Upon arriving at the castle, Mariella was wary of him, having seen his face before, but she soon realised that it was unnecessary. Whether it was because she looked like Marianne or because it was unusually dark and gloomy that night, Julian paid no attention to her.
Nor should he have. Julian was the kingdom’s only Swordmaster, the Pope’s adopted son, whom he had carried in his arms since infancy. It was unlikely that such a noble man would take much notice of a mere maid’s face.
‘A fortunate misfortune. One less thing to watch out for.’
It was at that moment that she locked eyes with the prince, who had turned his head away from the window. His eyes were arrogant and venomous. The sensation of being pierced through the heart took over her entire body. Mariella hurriedly ducked behind a pillar.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing, I think there’s a cat wandering around outside. Shall we close the window? It’s cold.”
Soon there was the sound of the study window closing. Mariella peeked over the pillar to see where the prince was. The window was completely closed.
‘I need to get out of here fast.’
She stepped out, careful not to make a sound.
An uneasy feeling swept through her, that perhaps the royal life would be more difficult than she had anticipated.
* * *
“Lady, wake up.”
In the early hours of the morning, Mariella woke Marianne to make sure she had memorised everything about Josef.
Ever since her accidental eye contact with the prince last night, Mariella had been sleepless with anxiety. It was a fear that had no clear basis. For the first time in a long time, she shuddered out of instinct, preferring to listen to reason over emotion.
“Marie can take care of that. I’ll just go to bed.”
“Don’t be weak. You want to wear a rope around your neck instead of a collar?”
She shot the whimpering princess a stern look.
Instead of berating the unruly maid for not knowing her place, Marianne pouted her lips and rose from her seat, then sat back in her chair to read the cunning paper Mariella had written for her.
With such a relaxed yawn.
Mariella looks at my master with a fierce glare. Marianne pouted and pouted.
“That was just a yawn.”
“What did you say the princess sold at the Nashantara pawnshop?”
“Let’s get back to class.”
Mariella looked at Marianne wistfully and unfolded the paper.
* * *
The morning dawned. Marianne was ready to greet the King, who was unable to rise from his sickbed. When she opened the door, a neatly dressed Josef was waiting for them.
“You look beautiful today, Marianne.”
“Your Majesty, did you sleep well last night?”
To be exact, he was waiting for his new bride. Princess Marianne gave a light bow directed to her new groom. The prince kisses her lightly on the cheek.
Mariella watched their affection from two or three steps away. Just a few months ago, the seat next to Josef had been hers. She felt a twinge of bitterness, but she couldn’t show it. Instead of dwelling on it, she decided to keep an eye on the prince. The frosty look in his eyes from last night bothered her.
“Don’t feel too sorry for yourself. I’m just too busy with the affairs of state to make time for you, but my feelings haven’t changed, my saviour.”
“I do feel sorry for you, but you are the prince of this country, so it can’t be helped. I’m sure I’m prepared to lose my husband to the country.”
She spoke in an uncharacteristically meek manner and hugged him.
Mariella ran after her, wondering what she was doing.
* * *
King Johannes Heisen Derschabach, the highest of those who bore the surname of Derschabach, the father of the rich country of Verdan, lay in bed with a shameful face. The room is filled with incense burned to take away pain.
“The king hasn’t woken up in a long time, so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t respond.”
The prince whispered fondly as he smoothed back her hair. Marianne swallowed hard and held his hand tightly. Marianne had a weakness for family. She had a deep longing for her mother, who had died unexpectedly when she was fifteen.
Marianne looked at Josef with a furrowed brow. The prince smiled languidly and patted the back of her hand as she took his.
Mariella glanced at their hands, then dropped her gaze back to the bed. The King with nothing but skin on him is a corpse. No wonder the prince is hanging in state, unable to take one look at his new bride’s face.
‘I wonder if it’s better to be alive or dead.’
She recalled the last words of the dying Countess.
The image of her sunken eyes, bloodless face, and the blue rash of hives on her skin was still vivid in her memory.
On that day, the Countess reached out once towards her daughter’s side, and then died. It was an unexpectedly quick death, as she had expected it to be for another day or two.
Mariella closed the Countess’s eyes for the young lady, who was unable to see through her tears, and spoke her last words in her ear.
It is said that the last sense a person has before death is hearing. Presumably, the Countess heard everything she said.
‘Mom…! Mom, don’t go. Mom!’
Watching the young woman sobbing, Mariella had mixed feelings. The Countess was the one responsible for the destruction of her family, and she was also a dear family member of the young lady who had saved her life. At the same time, she was a high and mighty noblewoman whom she had no power over.
The lady sacrificed herself to save her, but she did not blame her mother or father for killing the Hoban family. On the contrary, she loved them terribly. She could not understand them, but she could also understand them. To a nobleman, a commoner who has nothing to do with them is just a commoner.
The thoughts and feelings that had confused her on the day of her mother’s death still lingered with her, haunting her. In a position where she could simply say yes or no, Marianne’s anguish was that of a lowly person, unable to know the end.
* * *
There was a customary rite of passage for all new princesses to the House of Derschabach, and that was to lead the officials to tea.
There was no need to be nervous, as the officials and the new member of the royal family were gathered for a ‘new bride’s welcome party’ to familiarise themselves with each other.
…If only the bureaucrats hadn’t brought their arguments.
“We must keep it! How many taxes did His Majesty Johannes do away with as soon as he became ill, and not just this one. Taxes on alcohol, tobacco, luxury goods, and noblemen’s estates!”
“When did we say get rid of taxes, we said reduce them, reduce them!”
The bureaucrats, divided into two factions, the nobles and the king, fought fiercely, seemingly oblivious to the princess in front of them.
‘One would think this was a battlefield.’
Mariella watched them fight in disbelief. She wondered how weak the monarchy was that the ministers would be out here making such a fuss. The presence of the prince, who should have been the head of the king’s faction, was not noticeable.
Her eyes flickered to the prince, waiting to see how he would react.
“You are quite right.”
“You have a point.”
The prince smiled wryly, nodded, and repeated himself.
Mariella found his willingness to accept the arguments of both the noble and royal factions bizarre. She suddenly had her doubts about the prince, who would show such an attitude when someone was blatantly taking his plate away from him.
‘If you’re staying up all night to watch the state affairs, isn’t it because your work is too difficult for you?’
The thought occurred to her as she saw Julian in the back seat, arms crossed, glaring at the nobles with a disgruntled expression on his face. She recalled the Prince’s fierce gaze from last night. Eyes as cold and fearsome as the lord of an ice castle.
‘Perhaps my nerves are just on edge from the strangeness of my new home.’
Or perhaps I’m misinterpreting the casual glances of noblemen at a passing maid. She glared at the prince, who only smirked, then scratched her cheek in embarrassment.