The meeting broke down. After receiving the invitation, the prince ordered the noble ladies who had gathered to guide them to the ballroom, and then said that those who had the time could go to the ballroom.
Everything was settled.
Josef headed for the prince’s private chambers. Mariella followed behind him.
“How is it. Was I right?”
Josef said, unbuttoning his sleeve.
Faced with his excited face, Mariella was blunt.
“What do you mean?”
“I told you I could save Marianne.”
“Don’t pull the wool over my eyes. I know we’re not out of the woods yet.”
It was only today that Mariella saw Josef’s true power.
He had used the image of Marianne imprinted on his subjects to turn the tables. Borrowing the ‘princess’s letter’ to say what he wanted to say was a clever choice, a punch in the gut without revealing his true nature.
His subsequent reveal of the Countess’s involvement was also surprising. She didn’t expect him to throw another punch when his opponent was already knocked down. Apparently, Josef is the type to uproot an enemy once he decides to step on you. It was a neat and brutal way to go.
Now no one would suspect Marianne of being a witch.
But there were still a few questions. The biggest question was how he had gotten Baredescha into the position. It would have been cleaner to just call in his subjects and see what the deal was.
Kingship and priesthood are different. No matter how well you try to spin it, no matter how much power you wield, surely the archbishop will tell you everything he knows as soon as he gets back to the Church. Then everything would be back to square one.
At this point, there was no one in Verdan who could overcome the authority of the Pope.
“I’m disappointed. I can’t believe how little you trust this body.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
He smirked at her question.
It was then.
Someone knocked on the door. It was the prince’s chamberlain.
“The Duke of Jovaton requests an audience. What would you like to do?”
Instead of answering, Josef smiled at Mariella.
“Hide behind the curtain.”
He hid her behind a thick curtain, then called for the chancellor.
Josef greeted the chancellor leisurely from his chair in his office.
The chancellor strode over with angry steps and spoke in a stern tone.
“What are you going to do, do you really intend to kill everyone?”
The prince realised that he had no small contribution in this.
The prince stood before the furious chancellor and played dumb.
“My intentions. That’s a little disrespectful. Besides, isn’t that word not what the Chancellor needed right now? You must find a way in time to save your youngest daughter, who is as precious to you as your own eyes.”
“…The Order will not kill everyone.”
He meant to get his daughter out of there somehow, and it made Josef’s heart sink.
“That’s right. Even a religious organization cannot turn all the nobles of the capital into enemies. They will try to pull out as many as possible. If I don’t disclose Marianne’s letter.”
The chancellor’s eyes glowed. He resisted the urge to twist Josef’s throat for the moment. Negotiation, not anger, was what was needed to save his daughter.
“Will you go public?”
“If Marianne is put on trial.”
“You know how cruel a trial can be, Chancellor, and I know how much you love your daughter. So, I’m going to give you two options.”
Josef rested his arms on the table and set his jaw. He looked relaxed, yet somehow intimidated. There was none of the childlike cheerfulness he usually displayed in meetings.
He looked the chancellor straight in the eye as he spoke.
“One would be for you to kill the priests yourself. Of course, you’d have to give up your position as Lord Chancellor, and you’d likely become the laughing stock of society… I doubt all of that would cost more than the price of your daughter’s life. Killing a priest is a felony, but if you plan it well, you might be able to slip through the cracks.”
“What’s the second way?”
The chancellor asked, not liking the first option.
One corner of Josef’s mouth quirked up at the question. The chancellor had taken the bait.
“Reveal the true leader of yours. You know well that the one you have established is just a decoy. If you just give us their name, we will take care of everything you need to do.”
The chancellor looked confused. He had thought, just a moment ago, that Princess Marianne’s letter and Josef were intertwined. But he hadn’t expected it to be so full-blown.
He had thought that the princess had awakened him, not that he had been hiding from them all along, seeing everything.
“…I misjudged you, Your Highness.”
“Everyone is seeing me wrong.”
Josef changed his tone in an instant.
He looked at the chancellor with his trademark arrogant, overbearing demeanour.
“What are you going to do, Chancellor?”
The chancellor stared down at the prince’s desk.
Wordlessly, he reached out and took the sword in his hand, unsheathed it, and met the prince’s eyes with a look of determination.
“May I show you an answer through actions?”
“As you wish.”
He meant to kill the priest. Josef approved of his actions with a look of disinterest.
The chancellor, Hans Jovaton, strode out of his office.
Josef muttered to the spoilt brat as he turned and walked away, not even bothering to bow to him.
“This is how you send away a chancellor.”
Seeing that the minister had left, Mariella stepped out from behind the curtain.
As she eavesdropped on their conversation, she realised the prince’s true purpose.
He had summoned the Archbishop and the priests of Baredescha here today in order to use them to discover his true enemy.
‘Though he failed.’
His head ached.
He had recognised the cunning man’s true intentions.
Josef smirked at Mariella.
“Isn’t it really easy? The bishop is dead, the prime minister is gone. There will be no one to touch Marianne for a while. It’s such a happy thing, isn’t it?”
His face didn’t look happy at all as he said it.
‘You’re just disappointed it didn’t go your way.’
Mariella stepped closer to him without a word, her eyes searching his face.
Shiny blond hair that looked like it had been shattered by the sun, emerald eyes that could have been set in jewels. Pure white skin, rosy cheeks, and red lips.
Such a beautiful face, could sometimes be so frightening.
Josef closed his eyes slightly, enjoying Mariella’s gaze.
In the silence of the office, a faint sound of music comes from somewhere.
Hearing it, Josef slowly opened his eyes.
“Ah, I can hear the melody from here. How about that, Mariella. Would you like to dance with me?”
He stood up and held out his hand to Mariella.
“I don’t know how to dance.”
“I’ll teach you how.”
She stared into his clear eyes, then cautiously took his hand.
Josef and Mariella began to dance to a very slow beat.
“You lied to me.”
Mariella said as she stepped out. The piercing gaze at odds with her small, cautious voice meant she perceived him as an enemy.
Josef smirked, as usual. It was a trick he often used to pass off situations as innocent.
“I’m a born liar, so I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”
“You didn’t set me aside to use me as your real pawn. The mission you threw at me was bait, to keep me focused on this stupid game.”
With those words, Josef looked her in the eye, as she had hit the nail on the head. Mariella tried not to look away from his gaze.
After a few seconds, he readily admitted.
“You’re being unnecessarily frank.”
“The woman I love asks, so I answer. So what then? What do you really want to say?”
The two were still dancing.
The music flowing from the ballroom was elegant and graceful. The two people’s dance was also refined and dignified.
But Mariella’s back was rigid, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was in a duel with this man before her.
“Let me out of this castle. With the lady.”
The music intensified.
Josef spun Mariella around once, then grabbed her by the waist. It snapped Mariella’s back.
“Do you still call Marianne a lady?”
He asked, his strong arm still around her waist.
“Shall I call her your wife then? In any case, I’m going to take Marianne out of this castle with me.”
Rising to her feet, she stepped away from Josef, pulling at the hand that held her, and she was back in his arms in an instant. Mariella tried to continue her next move, but Josef would not allow it.
The time for hiding one’s ugliness to a beautiful melody was over.
It was time to lay it all out on the line.
“You think I’m going to let you go?”
Josef whispered in her ear, his voice a growl.
Mariella turned to face him, unwilling to lose.
“I’m just now realising how you see Marianne. She was your substitute, someone to beat up nobles for you, someone to die for you.”
Her eyes flared red.
Josef stared at her without answering, and then he stood still for a long moment, his face covered by his large hands.
Mariella had no idea what the face behind those hands was feeling.
After watching him for a while, she saw his shoulders shake slightly.
And a bark of laughter, as if he couldn’t contain it.
He pulled his hands away from his face and stepped toward her.
His grinning face looked like a maniac.
She instinctively stumbled backwards.
But it was useless. This was the prince’s office, and there were limits to her escape.
“I have lied to you a lot. My suggestion for you to find my real enemy wasn’t genuine, and I didn’t keep Marianne by my side because I loved her. But you know that there is sincerity hidden within those lies, don’t you?”
Josef continued to stalk towards her.
Mariella tried desperately to avoid him, but it wasn’t long before she felt a wall behind her.
His face was getting closer and closer.
So close that they could feel each other’s breath.
Instead of kissing her, he gave her a warning.
“Smart girl, you should know you can’t escape my grasp.”
His face twisted into a grimace.
It was another side of Josef that Mariella had never seen before.
Mariella squinted, deliberately trying not to look frightened, and spoke again in a calm voice.
“I’m going to put a knife in your back.”
“I would be honoured to have my blood on your hands.”
She was annoyed by his joking attitude.
“I’m not joking.”
She said with irritation, and he glared at her. They were still too close.
She tried to control her breathing, hoping he wouldn’t hear her rapidly beating heart.
If she loses here, everything would be over.
Marianne’s safety, her own comfortable, uneventful life, which all fall under this devilish man, would be lost.
She was as desperate as a cornered mouse, the tip of her chin quivering.
Seeing it, Josef smirked, and Mariella immediately frowned.
He shook his head gently, stepped away from her, and leisurely walked back to his desk and sat down in his chair.
She stood still in her seat, staring at him.
Josef leaned back in his chair and looked at her with a languid gaze.
“Then shall I tell you the truth? You can’t do that, Mariella, because I am so much above you. If I wanted to, I could use any excuse to imprison you in the West Tower. Do you want that?”
She was silent for a moment.
Josef had had enough of threats, so he pacified Mariella and sent her to Marianne’s quarters.
He knew she would be tired, having suffered so much for the princess in such a short time.
But suddenly Mariella said something out of the blue.
“I want you to make a bet with me.”
“A real contract, not the same old game we’ve been playing.”
She stepped in front of Josef’s desk.
“Your enemy. I’ll find him, I will. And when I do, you’ll get me, Marianne, out of the castle by any means necessary.”
Josef was dumbfounded.
There was a gleam in his eye, as if he’d found a brilliant way to do something, but then he went back to his original proposal.
“Do you really believe that’s possible? I’ve been chasing them for years and never caught a hair on their heads.”
Undeterred by his scepticism, she continued.
“So I’ll make you a bet. But on one condition: you must actively cooperate with me. Information, people, money, all of it.”
Josef clenched his jaw in silence.
He lowered his gaze, lost in thought for a moment, then looked up at her.
“You make it sound quite tempting.”
At the affirmation, Mariella smiled for the first time since arriving at the castle.
“Of course I am, I’m the lady who bewitched the prince.”
She oozed confidence.