As he listened to her tale of wretchedness, Josef cocked his head in question.
Mariella asked bluntly, pretending to be nonchalant, but inside she was deeply nervous.
Partly because she had never told her story to anyone before, and partly because she was afraid that the prince would pick up on some tiny error in it.
“Why don’t you care?”
Josef stared at her with a puzzled expression.
She kept her expression blank.
Soon, he scrambled out of his seat and sat down on the bed, folding his fingers together as he tried to sort out what was wrong. He was determined to convince Mariella.
“Marianne’s mother is the one who caused your family’s deaths, her father is the one who personally ordered your family’s execution, and she stole me from you. J”Even if only one of them were done, it would be enough to consider them as the worst of the worst, but that family has committed all three of the atrocities against you.”
Mariella didn’t understand what the prince was talking about. As she stood there watching his behaviour, the prince leaned in and asked.
“Aren’t you angry? If I were you, instead of being loyal to the princess, I’d have a knife in my back.”
‘Ah, so that’s it.’
In hindsight, I realised what Josef had wanted to say.
His question was not at all puzzling. For thirteen years, everyone in the Riedenburg estate had been wondering the same thing.
She gave him the answer she had repeated over and over again for thirteen years.
“Lady Marianne received seven whips with her precious body to save my life.”
Is kindness equivalent to reward? I always prioritize revenge.”
That was so Josef. The words of a man who could use the woman who had saved his life as a pawn in a political game.
At the same time, it pointed to a great contradiction deep within Mariella’s mind.
Mariella was silent for a moment. She felt like she’d been caught red-handed.
She took a slow breath and chose her answer again.
“Commoners have their own way of life. It’s different from the noble ones. We embrace the ordinary daily life rather than the grand cause.”
I wanted him to let it go, but he didn’t.
“Well, I think that one’s feelings for their family and lover have nothing to do with their social status.”
Mariella was uncomfortable with his persistent questioning. Everyone has a reality they’d rather avoid. She changed the subject to avoid the situation.
“I’ll stop talking about useless things, and I’ll ask you something while I’m here. I forgot the most important thing.”
“What is it?”
“I need to know your story, how you ended up in the marketplace of Rohena, and what happened to your eyes.”
This time, Josef was silent. Mariella’s situation was not one to be overlooked. Not wanting to discuss her past, Mariella pretended not to notice the prince’s uncomfortable expression and persisted.
“How did you end up in Riedenburg? There was no sign of the prince visiting the Lassane Hunting Grounds the day you sent your proposal to the count. I went through the records from the count and compiled a new list of visitors. The prince has never officially visited the hunting grounds.”
“Of course not, for I had no intention of visiting Riedenburg.”
“Then where have you been visiting?”
The prince’s gaze drifts elsewhere for a moment.
He withholds an answer, and then tries to pass it off with his trademark smirk.
“Can I not comment on it?”
“Then should I just finish everything and climb up to the gallows?”
When she looked offended, Joseph made an expression that he was tired.
“You’re a bit harsh.”
“How am I supposed to find them when you’re not telling me anything?”
“Okay, you’re right, I’ll tell you, but why don’t you get over your anger and sit down here.”
Josef patted the seat next to him. Mariella hesitated for a moment, then sat down next to him, which meant that they were two grown men and women sitting side by side on a fluffy bed.
Josef half-leaned against the bedpost and began to talk.
“I’ve been travelling in the Schwalding region.”
“Because I got some information.”
“That the archmage Greta was last seen there.”
Mariella’s brow furrowed.
The Third Holy War had ended fifteen years ago. Witches who could wield black magic had disappeared from the world. The Order had killed them all, exterminated them.
Archmage Greta was no exception. Records show that she died near the capital of Verdan, not in Schwalding.
But where does Schwalding come into this, a small mountain village above Nashantula?
Before she could continue her question, Josef beat her to it.
“I really don’t know how I lost my eye. I rode down there in secret with the people I trusted the most, and all of a sudden there was a flash of black light and I couldn’t see. The horse went wild, and I held on for dear life before losing my footing and rolling off in the middle of nowhere in the woods. It must have been the hunting grounds of Lassane, for you found me in the marketplace of Rohena.”
“Did anyone who travelled with you to the Schwalding region survive? Any witnesses?”
“No. When we returned, they had all been declared missing. We hurried to the Schwalding area, but there was nothing there either. No bodies, no signs of fighting, nothing.”
Bitterness crossed Josef’s face.
Mariella could tell that the people he lost that day were very dear to him.
‘His feelings must have been the same as mine.’
She stopped asking questions and lowered her gaze to the floor.
For the first time, I felt felt a sense of camaraderie with him. Even if it was only a little.
* * *
Mariella stayed with the prince until he fell asleep and then slipped out of his quarters. As she quietly closed the door behind her, she encountered Julian standing in the doorway with his arms crossed, apparently having been here for some time. She was angry and surprised, but she didn’t show it and greeted him.
The Duke did not return her greeting, but stared at her with cold eyes.
“You put a potion in the food instead of poison?”
Mariella just shut her mouth. Not because she was being stabbed, but because she didn’t know what to say, and she didn’t feel the need to respond.
The Duke reached out and gently squeezed her shoulder. It was a large, sinewy, cold hand.
“I want you to be wiser.”
He whispered in her ear, his voice small and low.
“If you’re not going to get yourself killed, at least know your subject.”
And then he was gone. Apparently the Duke perceived her and Josef as having some sort of adulterous affair.
‘I’m tired as it is.’
Mariella glanced behind her as if she were looking at an annoying mosquito, then walked on without a word.
* * *
The concert was held. Thanks to Mrs. Hortner’s compromise.
When Marianne said she wanted to have a ball, Mrs. Hortner thought for a moment, then suggested a concert in honour of King Johannes.
The invitation list was drawn up by Mrs. Hortner herself. Mrs. Hortner planned an all-women’s concert and sent out invitations to a select group of well-to-do families. There were thirty-five in all. It was a small number, but it was worth it.
“I’m honoured to be invited.”
“I’m the one who’s honoured to be here.”
Marianne greeted them with a warm smile.
One by one, the nobles, dressed in muted colours and simple attires, took their assigned seats.
The order of the concert was simple. After taking their seats and enjoying the music of the royal musicians, they would chat over a light meal afterwards. The evening would end before dinner, and everyone would go home.
For Marianne, the hostess, and the invited nobles, it was a simple schedule, but not for Mariella, who had her hands full. From the flowers that would decorate the parlour to the food that would be served after the music ended. It was all Mariella’s responsibility.
Princess Marianne had no maids of honour to attend to her, only Mariella, who travelled with her day and night.
As a result, Mariella, an exclusive maid, took on the role of assistant director of the concert behind the scenes.
Mrs. Hortner was unhappy with Mariella’s lack of understanding of how to organise the concert, and the maids didn’t like the idea of a commoner telling them what to do. As a result, she had to endure the stinging glares from both sides.
When the busy work was done, it was time to relax, and as she turned to look into the ballroom, she saw Marianne reading a brief greeting.
“First of all, I would like to thank you for attending the ceremony in honour of His Majesty Johannes.”
Mariella watched her with a wry smile.
‘Come to think of it, this is actually your first social debut.’
The Count of Riedenburg’s estate was a long way from the capital. Of course, there were parties and banquets in the neighbourhood. But Marianne had little interest in them, finding them too boring for the life she wanted to lead.
Marianne was a stage person, and she recited her lines without a hint of nervousness. Then she frowned slightly and looked at the Countess, who sat at the centre of the room.
“Today’s piece is a new work by Fabien, our court composer and head of the orchestra. It was composed for the late King Johannes… Countess Sophia, are you ill?”
At her words, all eyes turn to Countess Sophia.
The Countess had a pale complexion. She looked like she was going to collapse at any moment.
“Oh, no… I’m fine, Your Majesty.”
“Would you like me to call for a doctor, my lady?”
“No, I’m fine…”
The lady faltered, making a feeble attempt to rise from her seat. Others nearby helped her to her feet. Mrs Hortner rushed over.
“We need to call the doctor, Mariella!”
Mariella quickly answered the call.
“Take the lady to the doctor’s office, now.”
“Yes, I understand.”
Mariella escorted the Countess out of the ballroom, and as she did so, she realised that something was amiss. As she approached the Countess, she heard the distant sounds of the ladies’ giggles.
‘What is it?’
As she walked the Countess back to the council chambers, Mariella thought about the subtle vibe she had sensed earlier.
Countess Sophia was the wife of Count Beder, one of the leading representatives of the Royalist faction. It was the ladies of the aristocratic faction who laughed.
Although the two factions were not on good terms, they would not have laughed so casually at someone else’s sickness. Moreover, it was an obvious sneer.
As she walked slowly down the corridor, she tried to formulate theories, but none of them made sense.
The answer to her question soon revealed itself.
“The Countess’s face was quite a sight to behold, wasn’t it?”
“Seeing that it has led to such contemplation, it seems that we must have had quite a deep relationship after all.”
“When Lord Beder finds out about this, there will be another big row.”
“Like the last time, eh?”
After the performance, it was time for finger food and chit-chat.
As Mariella checked on the food supply, she overheard a conversation among the noblewomen. It was a conversation tinged with arsenic.
She realised what was going on.
‘Fabien, the court composer.’
Countess Sophia had been flirting with Fabien, who was conducting tonight’s concert. Apparently her husband had recently found out and turned the tables on her.