It had been a week since Josef had collapsed.
He had forbidden all but the doctors who were treating him to enter the palace. He even refused his wife, Princess Marianne, to visit him.
Many of his subjects waited for him at his residence, but he refused to let them in. A week passed before he locked the doors and refused all visits, and the once-flocked courtiers stopped coming.
“Just tell me how His Highness is. This is the earnest request of Her Highness the Princess.”
Mariella, the prince’s maid, knocked on the door of the prince’s residence, alone and determined.
Of course, she wasn’t really worried about the prince’s illness.
Josef had refused her visits since that day, and he hadn’t even called first. The visits had stopped, like a lie. She didn’t know what it was, but she was sure something had happened. Now, using his illness as an excuse, Josef is blocking Mariella from sharing the information he has with her.
The fact that something was going on behind the scenes that she didn’t know about made Mariella anxious.
The prince’s servant, impressed by her devotion, beckons her over. He looked around to see if anyone was around, then whispered to her.
“It’s not a life-threatening situation, but it’s not something to be taken lightly either, and that’s all I can tell you. Just wait and everything will go back to normal, and I need you to tell the princess so she won’t be upset.”
With that, Mariella quietly returned to the princess’s quarters. In truth, going back was all she could do.
‘Isn’t this an easy illness to get over? If I wait, everything will go back to normal?’
As she walked back to her quarters at the end of the day, Mariella slowly reflected on what the servant had said earlier in the day. His expression had not been one of concern for the prince’s health.
‘We must turn the illness into an incident. Something not life-threatening, but not something to be taken lightly either. What is it?’
Mariella chewed on her nails as she strode through the dark corridors of the dungeons.
The ground floor of the castle is where the maids usually stay. It was late at night, and the entire basement was silent, so she could hear the maids chattering at the end of the corridor.
“I’m very worried about His Majesty’s frailty, it’s not the first time this has happened.”
“Didn’t he disappear for months once before? Hopefully he’ll get better soon this time.”
“The maid said he’s been like this since he was a little girl.”
‘It’s happened before?’
Mariella listened to the maids’ chatter, and then realised something.
‘So that’s how it was during those months when I was taking care of Master Jay.’
She shook her head excitedly.
It was against this backdrop that the country’s sole heir had been missing for months, and yet the talkative, mounted servant had managed to get by without a fuss.
I could see Josef having to play the weak and foolish prince, until he gained the strength to dispose of the nobles once and for all.
‘He would have had to say, ‘Yes, I see!’ all the time, so that when he really had to say no, he wouldn’t have any recourse, so that when the time came, he wouldn’t have locked himself away in his chambers, using his illness as an excuse.’
It’s a history that builds and builds and builds, creating the image people have of the prince today: fragile, sunny, and incompetent.
‘Still, it’s a bit harsh to not notice his absence for three months, what’s going on in the country?’
She continued to eavesdrop on the maids’ conversation, thinking that if she were the head of the noble faction, she would not have let this go unnoticed.
‘The Duke of Bayer is very good. Whenever His Highness Josef is ill, he’ll drop everything to come and nurse him.”
“Yes. Even when His Highness was not seen for several months, he’ll always meet only with Duke Bayer. That’s why there were rumors.”
The maids lowered their voices to whisper in each other’s ears, then giggled.
Mariella wasn’t particularly curious about their whispers. Word must have got around that Josef and Julian were in a relationship. It was meaningless hearsay.
‘That’s not the point.’
Mariella turned on her heel, heading for the prince’s quarters.
‘If I can get through to the Duke, I can get to Josef.’
Her steps quickened.
She stood in front of the prince’s quarters, carrying a tray of honey and warm water. She pretended that Marianne had sent for her out of concern for her illness, to avert the knights’ suspicions.
The knights standing guard urged her to return, saying that the Prince would not let her in, but she shook her head and insisted.
“His Highness Marianne has ordered me to come and deliver his message today, and I must wait here until I have fulfilled the princess’s command.”
I stood firm, playing the loyal maid.
After two hours of waiting, a familiar figure exited the prince’s quarters. It was Julian.
“What is it?”
He looked down at her with a cold expression. Mariella answered without blinking.
“The princess sent me.”
“Useless. Go away, this is not the place for you to play love games.”
“The princess has commanded me, and if I can’t deliver hot tea, at least come and see how he’s doing. Is he very ill? You refuse to allow Marianne to visit, so I, her maid, am forced to be impatient.”
Julian gave Mariella a cold glare at her iron-faced demeanour.
Mariella felt a prickle down her back. Enmity unlike anything she had ever felt before. Living seemed to be the closer word.
Her grip on the tray trembled, but she held on.
Julian swept past her with graceful strides, offering advice.
“When you’ve said something nice, go away. This is no place for a maidservant like you to interfere.”
Mariella thought as she stood there.
Julian wasn’t just famous for his title as the ‘friend of the prince.’ He was also the only Swordmaster on the entire continent, the future of the Holy Knights, favoured by the Pope.
It was a tremendous feat to have survived his ordeal. Anyone else would have shuddered and forgotten all about it, but not Mariella.
There was something strange about him today.
It was as if he had something to hide, something that made him hostile.
Like a young animal puffing itself up with its fur.
‘What is it? Something very simple yet something I didn’t think of.’
Mariella realised that she kept missing that something.
The truth was drifting around her.
* * *
From that day forward, Mariella was desperate to find information about the prince’s disappearance.
But no one would be so foolish as to cluck their tongues at a maid from the provinces, much less one of the princess’ closest confidants.
It was one of those days. She was acting as nonchalant as possible, maintaining her composure and carrying on as usual, when Marianne suddenly called her by her nickname.
“I told you not to call me that anymore.”
“Marie, that’s not important right now. I have a letter from my brother.”
Mariella stopped what she was doing and read the letter Marianne handed her.
The letter was short.
‘Lily, there’s a summons from the capital.
They’re summoning father to the capital.
But something seems strange.
I’m worried about what’s going on.’
– Your eldest brother.
There was something significant in it.
‘Count’s summons? What kind of situation is this?’
“Lady, do you know anything?”
Mariella was flustered enough to call Marianne a lady. A sense of impending doom washed over her like a tidal wave.
“I, I don’t know.”
Mariella asked so earnestly that Marianne stuttered, stunned.
It was then. There was a commotion outside Marianne’s door, the sound of steady footsteps growing closer and closer, and then the door burst open.
The man who opened the princess’s door, accompanied by eight knights, was the Chancellor.
“His Highness Josef.”
Marianne and Mariella looked at each other. This was not Josef’s joke. The chancellor looked serious and solemn as he addressed the prince.
“Your Royal Highness, Marianne Diphne Derschabach, from this moment on, you are not to take a single step out of this place.”
It was unexpected.
Marianne blurted out. Her voice was a mixture of surprise and anger.
The chancellor continued with a grim expression.
“Also, entry by maids who were brought directly by Count Riedenburg is prohibited. His Highness’ maids will serve as the attendants for Her Highness.”
“What the… Where is His Highness now, I must see him for myself.”
Marianne looked around in despair, but there was not a single person here who could be her ally. Everyone was staring at her with stony faces. Like a prisoner in a cell.
“I cannot allow that. As I mentioned before, Her Highness is currently in a state of confinement. Then, I will complete the remaining tasks.”
He saluted Marianne with a snap, then ordered the knights behind him.
“Drag her out.”