A burly man strode up and hugged Josef. It allowed Mariella to escape the prince’s intense gaze.
“Duke Hans Jovaton.”
Mrs. Hortner leaned in and whispered in the princess’s ear.
“He is the Chancellor of this country.”
Mariella’s eyes widened at the word. She turned and looked at the Duke of Jovaton, a burly man in his mid-fifties. He was imposing, with a massive frame and belligerent eyes.
She searched her memory for the bureaucrats she’d met at the tea party. She certainly didn’t remember seeing him there.
‘This is the head of the Aristocracy.’
She watched his every move.
Attaching Mrs. Hortner and the Marquis of Bahachman to the princess as soon as possible was the best way to combine courtesy and cause, warning and profit. It gave Mariella a taste of the world of power, albeit indirectly.
The chancellor said a few words of greeting to Marianne and Mrs. Hortner and then casually left the room. As soon as he was out of sight, Mrs. Hortner took a small book from her handbag and placed it in the princess’s hand, then spoke sternly to the princess, who looked at her with a questioning expression.
“There are many things to prepare for the funeral, and you are the sole hostess of the royal family. Please keep your head on straight.”
Marianne took instructions from Mrs. Hortner, who stood at her back, and became the general organiser of the funeral.
Her immediate tasks were to decide what food would be served tomorrow, which musicians would be hired to play the hymns, and how to arrange accommodations for the guests who would be visiting the castle.
As Marianne became busier, Mariella became busier, too. She ran around the vast castle at all hours of the night, eavesdropping on the conversations of high-ranking officials.
“Now that the king has died, who will succeed him…”
“Naturally, it should be Prince Josef, the one and only blood of this royal family…”
“But he hasn’t been crowned crown prince, that’s a bit…”
“And there’s also a process to be recognised by the Church…”
This is what most of them were saying, and they didn’t seem to realise that the maid was a sentient being.
Nor did they seem to realise that now that the king had passed, Josef was the sole master of the country.
Mariella passed between them, pretending to hear nothing, her face impassive.
‘It seems Josef’s place in the castle is narrower than I thought.’
Somehow, the longer she stayed here, the more she felt for the prince.
Compassion, love, pity, anguish… Every human emotion Mariella possessed tilted towards Josef. Mariella shook her head quickly and made up her mind again.
‘I must burn the letter quickly.’
But the castle was too busy, and Mariella was too busy to burn the letter in secret without anyone noticing. Her resolution was not fulfilled until three days later.
* * *
The final journey of the king was a grand one, and he was laid to rest in the St. Andrea Cathedral located at the capital’s outskirts.
Mariella slipped out of the princess’s presence on the pretext of going to the toilet.
She didn’t think she could sneak a letter under Mrs. Hortner’s fierce eyes.
There was one place she had marked out as she led the invited guests to the funeral. It wasn’t far from the princess’s quarters, and it was an off-the-beaten-path room, perfect for today’s purpose.
She walked swiftly to the room, glanced around, locked the door behind her, and stood in front of the fireplace, holding a lit candle and the ashes that remained of the burning logs.
She took out the letter she had hidden in her arms. The letter was ragged from her tears. Her heart sank as she saw the mess it was in, as if it were her own heart with all its regrets.
Mariella closed the letter with her fingertips. Then she said goodbye in a small voice.
Without hesitation, she lit the fire.
She didn’t bother to open the letter and read the prince’s letter again. Regret would only break a man. It was time to move forward.
The sound of burning paper hit her hard.
In the short time it took for the letter to burn, many things flashed through her mind. From the first time she saw Josef in the back of the fishmonger’s shop to the moment he smiled at her. It was a chilling memory she could never go back to, but she never regretted it. He had given her a warm feeling she’d never had before, and that was enough for her.
‘It’s really goodbye now, Master Jay.’
There are times when it is effective to set boundaries with action. Like right now.
As I burned the flame, I felt a sense of relief. Mariella could finally say goodbye to the love she had been nurturing for the past half year.
When she returned to Marianne, Marianne had awoken from the cesspool and was looking for Josef.
“Do you know where His Highness Josef is?”
“Shall I look for him?”
“Yes. Tell him I’m looking for him.”
At Marianne’s command, she went to the prince’s bedroom, but he was not there. She visited the prince’s study, just in case, but he was not there either. She searched his office, the other rooms he might have used as a bedroom, the ballroom and the bathroom, but he was nowhere to be found.
I panicked, worried that something had happened to him.
Given his fragile nature, it wasn’t impossible.
She searched every room in the castle, trying to guess where he might have gone. Finally, she found him in the chapel.
He was sitting in a chapel chair, sleeping quietly.
He seemed to have fallen asleep on the spot, perhaps staring blankly at the spot where his father’s coffin had been placed.
Mariella approached him quietly.
Tiredness and gravity hung over his dark lashes.
‘It must not be easy to inherit the throne.’
Mariella gave him a wistful look, then quietly backed away. She wanted to wrap a blanket around him, but she was afraid that would wake him up like the last time. She also didn’t want to tangle with him anymore. She didn’t want to get involved with him again.
‘I’ll just tell her I couldn’t find him.’
No sooner had she thought that, she tripped over her own feet. It wasn’t a loud crash, but it was enough to wake the sensitive Josef.
He opened his eyes slowly.
Once again, faced with his exquisite, serene green eyes, Mariella jumped to her feet. His pupils had a charm that could make even the stranger fall in love. She avoided his gaze, pretending to straighten her clothes.
“I apologise, Your Majesty. I did it again.”
“You must be Mariella. It’s all right, I only dozed off for a moment.”
Josef called her name again, this time fondly. His voice was so soft that she wondered if she was his secret lover.
Mariella wondered if she should really go back to the Count of Riedenburg. It was not a matter of regret. Who wouldn’t be thrilled that such a handsome prince would remember the name of a maid from a commoner’s family? And to call her so warmly.
At the same time, she was glad she’d burned the letter earlier. Perhaps because of it, her heart was a little immune to Josef’s affection.
‘Do not be mistaken. His Majesty is only doing this because he loves all his people.’
It was all thanks to him that she could put up this wall of reason now.
“I’ll leave you then, I think you need some time alone to collect your thoughts.”
She ducked her head and turned to hurry out of the chapel, but he caught her.
She looked up, stunned. She saw Josef’s pleading eyes.
“I need someone to talk to, not collect my thoughts.”
Mariella thought for a moment about how to get out of this situation, and then came up with an answer.
“…Shall I call for the Duke of Bayer?”
At her words, Josef smiled and shook his head.
Even in the faintest of smiles, it was obvious how exhausted his mind and body were.
“Julian is not fit for this conversation, I need comfort, not advice, and Mariella, as you know, I… have just lost my father.”
Josef looks at her with a furrowed brow.
Eyes that were glassy with despair.
Mariella recognised those eyes. They were the eyes she’d had when she’d lost her own family.
‘He must be really struggling right now.’
Mariella’s heart shook violently.
But still, comfort was not her place.
She knew how much of a barrier their different identities were. She and he could not exchange even the most trivial of consolations.
Besides, Josef was a prince. Not just a nobleman.
It would be easier to cross a mountain than to overcome the difference in their statuses.
She fought down the urge to run to him and embrace him now, and found her composure. She avoided his gaze, trying to find an alternative.
“Well, then, I will bring Her Highness to you.”
The more she said, the more impatient Josef became.
“Just a moment, just a moment, please stay and comfort me.”
He clung to her like a man pleading with a lover who is about to part. Mariella’s heart broke at the sight of Josef’s vulnerability.
It took a lot to get herself to turn away. Mariella didn’t bother to hide her distress. When she called out to him firmly, he stammered like a man in a panic. It was an attitude reserved for those who were truly desperate for love.
” I can’t show such a weak side in front of my colleagues. Not even to my only friend… So please don’t go anywhere. Just stay here and think of me as a stranger.”
Mariella was puzzled. It was strange for the soon-to-be king to be so desperate, as if he were going to kneel before a mere maid.
Of course, it wasn’t entirely incomprehensible. She had often seen ladies and lords of noble families grow too fine and precious to withstand trials and break down in weakness. Perhaps the prince was such a case.
The reason he broke down in front of her… was probably because she was a maid.
A maid who doesn’t need to be treated like a human being, who needs an inanimate object to comfort her appropriately, just as she cries into her pillow when she’s lonely.
Mariella smiled bitterly, and made her intentions clear. It seemed more like a statement of inevitability than a statement of her will.
“Your Highness the Prince, I will call for Her Highness the Princess.”
Josef did not answer; he buried his face in his hands. Mariella looked at his uneasy state and nailed him as if for confirmation.
“I will call her.”
He didn’t answer until the end.
After checking on him, Mariella turned around cautiously, just as she took a step toward the chapel door,
A cold, sharp voice.
It was a voice she had never heard from him before, and for a moment she wondered if she had misheard him.
People stop thinking when they are confronted with something too sudden, and when they stop thinking, they revert to the habits their bodies had gotten used to.
Mariella recognised Josef’s strangeness, but she was too flustered to react to it. She simply tried to leave the chapel as she had originally planned.
But Josef’s voice grabbed her ankle.
“I thought I told you to stop, Mariella Hoban.”
Mariella didn’t even answer. She just stood there, frozen, staring at Josef. Like a herbivore paralysed by the sound of its predator’s cry.
Josef’s gentle green eyes glowed dangerously.
She felt it in her bones that something was going wrong, but it was too late.
“Why can’t you? You love me, and when the man you love is so broken after losing his father, why can’t you offer him a simple comfort?”
“I, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I can’t understand you at all…”
He revealed her heart to her. She stammered, unable to hide her embarrassment, and tried her best to deny it.
It didn’t work.
Josef openly laughed at her efforts.
He ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. In a tone that anyone who knew the usual Josef would never have guessed was sly and sarcastic.
“Ah, I see now. It’s because I’m being glib, is that how I’m supposed to say it?”
He stood up and took a step toward Mariella.
She watched him approach with a contemplative look on her face, unable to think of running away.
He reached out and lightly tousled her stray hairs. Then he bent down and whispered in her ear.
“My dear Marie, I wonder if you ever read my letters.”
She realised in hindsight.
The sweet, polite, smiling yes-man was not the real Josef.
An arrogant, clever, cruel, quick-thinking man.
That was Josef Heisen Derschabach’s true nature.