Mariella smirked, cutting short the princess’s imposing aspirations.
“When are you going to meet him, when are you going to seduce him?”
Josef had been pining for Marianne for days.
They met only at set times, like the minute and hour hands of a clock, when the time was right.
The problem was that even those few times they were never alone. They were followed by numerous servants and maids, and in the future they would be joined by Mrs. Hortner and Marquis Bahachman.
“Why, the Prince is not coming!”
Marianne sulked and threw down one of her trinkets. Throwing things when she was in a bad mood was one of her bad childhood habits.
‘I should have put her in a chair to reflect when she was younger.’
Mariella wrapped her arms around Marianne again, secretly cursing her parents for giving their daughter such a poor education.
“Even if you want something, you have to wait for the opportunity to come along. Rumours are scary here, and if you misbehave and are branded a wretch, it makes you less of a princess.”
Marianne nods weakly. She was getting frustrated with the difference between fiction and reality right now. In popular fiction, the heroine was always vivacious, lovable, and solved problems with self-confidence. To be this lonely, incompetent, bored, and stifled was unexpected.
Mariella rubbed Marianne’s back as she shivered, and then a thought flashed through her mind.
“There’s a way!”
“You can come and go. I’ve got a snack ready. I thought you might be hungry after all that business. I want you to sneak up on him. Come to his bed tonight.”
Instead of a shit-faced expression, Mariella brought a forced smile to the surface.
Marianne’s eyes sparkled.
‘This girl is making trouble again.’
As always, it was up to Mariella to clean up after Marianne.
* * *
As Mariella made her way to Josef’s private study with a snack and a cup of hot tea at the princess’s command, she met a familiar face in the corridor.
It was Julian.
He was handing a letter from someone she assumed was a priest.
Mariella stopped in her tracks and bent slightly at the knees to bow to him.
“What is it?”
Julian stopped walking and stood before her. His eyes were cold.
“I thought you were the princess’s maid, so why are you wandering around here?”
“Ah… Princess Marianne is concerned about His Highness’s health and asked me to bring you some food and hot tea.”
The Duke glanced at the refreshments she held.
“You didn’t poison it or anything, did you?”
Mariella’s heart sank for no reason. It was a habit of the lesser people that the mere suspicion, without proof, could cost them their lives.
“Well, I’m a maid from the Counts of Riedenburg with no connections, and I’ve been in Princess Marianne’s service since she was a young girl, so how could I be?”
“That remains to be seen.”
Julian did not take kindly to this; he muttered something about ‘the Riedenburgs…’ with a look of disapproval.
Mariella looked up involuntarily to see the Duke’s face, locked eyes with him, and hastily lowered her head.
“What are you doing, don’t go away.”
The Duke nodded toward the study. Mariella was dumbfounded. Wasn’t it just a moment ago that he was the one who’d accused her of poisoning the food?
‘Well, they’re all crazy.’
Mariella scowled and brushed past him. Inwardly, of course, because she didn’t want to be decapitated for revealing her feelings to the noble Duke.
When she entered the study, Josef was dozing at his desk.
Taped to one cheek was the paperwork he had to sign by tomorrow, and on his bedside table lay the papers associated with it.
Apparently he hadn’t been making it up when he said that state business prevented him from visiting the princess’s quarters.
Mariella watched Josef from afar, his face shadowed by the flickering candlelight.
From the tangle of golden hair that spilled over the desk, to the smooth forehead, the neatly set bridge of the nose, and the dark lashes. The man she knew, the Master Jay of her memories, was there.
Her heart, which she thought had been buried, throbbed. At the same time, she felt uncomfortable with herself for having these feelings.
‘I need to get this over with and get out of here.’
She approached the prince’s side with cautious steps, not wanting to wake him.
She set the tray down and started to walk away, but her eyes kept catching on the edge of his.
The prince was dressed in clothes that would make him cold in this weather. He looked uncomfortable in his sleeping position.
Mariella thought for a moment.
‘Maybe this would be okay… This would be okay.’
Finishing her rationalisation, she walked over to the prince and threw her coat from the chair over his shoulders.
It was then that Josef’s eyes fluttered open. Then he called her name in a soft voice.
Startled, Mariella jerked back.
He smirked as he caught up.
“You must be Mariella.”
But that wasn’t what mattered to Mariella.
The Master had called her by her nickname.
It was the first time she’d been called it since he had returned to his princely status.
“The princess has sent you on an errand, and you have been disrespectful.”
Mariella bowed her head deeply, like a sinner who had committed a great sin.
“Ah ah, Marianne.”
His gaze fell on the tray Mariella had brought with her. On the tray were light sandwiches, hot tea, and a cup of honey.
“What? Ah, yes. Her Majesty said it was your favourite…”
“It is a favourite of mine. You never forget to bring it, Miss Marie.”
Joseph smiled warmly and spoke to himself.
“I’m sure it’s your favourite…”
She was silent.
It felt strange. He must be thinking of Marianne, but it felt like he was talking to her. Even though she was clearly aware that the only ‘Lady Marie of the House of Riedenburg’ to Josef was Princess Marianne.
She tries not to forget who she is and why she is here.
“The princess is always waiting for you, and missing you.”
She twisted and turned her words, but in the end she meant, ‘Please don’t forget to visit the princess’s bedroom.’
Hearing this, Josef lowered his eyes. He thought about it for a moment, then spoke in a very serious voice.
“…tomorrow. Tell her I’ll be there tomorrow night, Mariella.”
“I will tell her.”
She bowed slightly, then rose, and hurried out of the study.
Mariella was forced to admit her mistake. Her arrogance.
It was not because her feelings for him were so neatly organised that she had been able to face him this far.
It wasn’t because he was a dirty prince that all her feelings for him were gone.
It was just that he treated her as if she didn’t exist, and she could barely stand it.
‘It’s too bad, I’m not over him yet.’
She half-admitted to herself.
A longing she’d buried deep in her heart had begun to sprout tonight.
* * *
Resolutions leave an afterimage. If you try not to think about it, you think about it, and if you try not to turn back, you want to turn back. Was that why?
“You look beautiful today, my little flower.”
“I am so flattered by your compliments.”
“It’s a shame when you get used to it. It’s my duty to always make you feel loved.”
Mariella’s head was filled with Josef.
Everything was as usual. Josef was affectionate with his wife. Marianne was cuddly and affectionate with her husband. And Mariella followed after them with a stoic expression on her face.
The only thing out of the ordinary was in Mariella’s head.
Tonight, she thought of the two men who would make the big move.
One was the woman she had pledged her life’s loyalty to, and the other was the man she still loved.
She was a quick study, which was why she was always quick to give up.
Such was the case with Josef. Marianne had cajoled him, but in the end, it was Mariella herself who had made up her mind to give him up. She decided that as a commoner, she could not dare to aspire to the position of princess.
Mariella wished she could cut her heart out as quickly as she had made her decision that day.
But no matter how hard she tried to erase it, to cut it off, she couldn’t calm her racing mind, her constant thoughts.
Thinking about tonight’s events made her feel overwhelmed and disturbed.
The only saving grace was that Mariella was a maid who was skilled at hiding her emotions.
No one could tell that she was harbouring feelings for the prince.
“I will send roses to your place before nightfall.”
“Oh, shame on you. Then I will scatter those roses on my bed.”
Even her best friend, her favourite, her nearest and dearest, Princess Marianne.
Mariella looked at Marianne, who whispered sweetly in the prince’s ear, but soon bowed her head.
* * *
“I suppose we should start practising how to walk.”
It was just after breakfast. Mrs. Hortner gave her a disapproving look and declared the princess’s gait training. Marianne took advantage of Mrs. Hortner’s distraction and made a show of throwing up on Mariella.
“A gait is a sign of character, and you have a tendency to walk on eggshells. Are you the kind of person who causes accidents and leaves the clean-up to those below you?”
“No, not at all, my lady.”
“Well, we’ll see about that, but we’d better get to training now, I need a book to put on your head…”
Mrs Hortner looked around the room for a book. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the room they were in except a couch and a table.
“You, go out and get a book.”
Mrs. Hortner ordered, nudging Mariella. Mariella didn’t hear Mrs. Hortner’s voice because she was thinking about Josef.
‘What if this heart keeps growing for him? Wouldn’t it be better that I would rather go back to the Count’s family?’
The impatient Mrs. Hottner snapped.
“What are you doing being so lazy, I told you to go and get the books at once!”
“I’m sorry. I’ll get it right away.”
Mariella rushed off to get the book.