Everything was turned upside down.
The princess was freed, and the chancellor was hastily imprisoned for the murder of a priest. The aristocracy cowered and bowed deeply to the authority of the royal family, and naturally the positions of the royalist and aristocratic factions were reversed. The royalist aristocrats behaved in an overbearing manner.
However, at the same time, a subtle atmosphere had formed within them, because the princess’s letter had also included the royalist families.
The royalist nobles realized that since they could discard the prince if necessary just as they were prepared to do so, the prince could also discard them if necessary.
A grim feeling had set in deep in their hearts. A fine line had been drawn between the royal family and the royalist nobility.
Whether to be or not to be.
Princess Marianne, the protagonist of all events, remained faithful to her present pleasure.
All that mattered to her was that she was reunited with her friend Mariella. Nothing else mattered, not even the princess’s status.
Marianne ran over and hugged Mariella.
Mariella, who would normally have reacted lukewarmly, returned the hug.
The two were alone in the princess’s quarters for the first time in a long time.
Marianne stroked Mariella’s hair and carefully spoke her mind.
“Speaking of you, I’m disappointed in so many ways.”
Mariella and Marianne met her gaze in the mirror.
Mariella watched as the princess said something, then stood still.
“His Highness Josef. How can he behave so hatefully? You wouldn’t know how much I cried after I was suddenly exiled.”
“You know he was trying to save Your Highness.”
The softly persuasive words made Marianne snap, and she turned her head. She had a puzzled look on her face.
“Then you could have told me. What a load of bollocks, and I skip all that stuff in books.”
Mariella was left speechless by Marianne’s childishness.
Marianne had a tendency to put her feelings ahead of the other person’s situation. Growing up as the Count’s only daughter, she’d never been in a situation where she was expected to be sympathetic or understanding. Frustration rose to the top of her lungs, but then she laughed. It was nice to see her so helpless.
“Besides, I’m starting to get a little suspicious.”
Marianne added after a pause.
Mariella concentrated on untangling Marianne’s hair.
“What is it?”
“I don’t think Josef loves me. I feel like he’s looking at me from afar, like someone else’s pet, or something.”
Mariella’s hand stopped. This time, she couldn’t say anything.
Marianne’s animalistic senses would occasionally surface. It was a flaw, though, that it only came out when it had something to do with her own safety or gain.
* * *
Mariella returned to her room early and lay down on her bed.
The events of the day flashed through her mind like a beacon.
Josef’s exploits and true intentions, the political tables turned, the murder of the Duke of Jovaton’s high ranking official, and Marianne’s return.
So much had happened in such a short time. She had reached her physical and mental limits. Exhaustion overtook her, but strangely enough, sleep eluded her.
With her hands on her belly, she stared at the ceiling like a corpse, feeling that something was still wrong.
In the thriving city of Luxenthook, filled with desires and constraints, information is both a weapon and poison.
She knew first-hand the cost of holding onto even the slightest bit of misinformation. If you have any doubts, you must confirm them immediately.
As Mariella pondered the nature of this discomfort, she rose from her seat and opened the closet door.
* * *
A night where it wouldn’t be strange to gather a crowd and have a lively toast.
Josef was drinking alone in an empty establishment. As he drained his glass and raised the flask for the next one, he heard a clatter behind him. Josef finished his drink and, without turning around, greeted the intruder.
“What is it at this time of night. Is seducing me part of your escape plan?”
“I was just wondering.”
Mariella emerged from the darkness.
“What is it?”
“If I ask you, will you tell me the truth?”
“I’ve already been found out, so what’s there to hide?”
Josef laughed self-deprecatingly.
Mariella glared at him, then opened her mouth.
“Why did you have to do that? You’ve got enough on your plate with your own work, why did you have to keep me on my toes by throwing things at me on a regular basis? There were so many other ways you could have done it. You could have told me you loved me. Even if you didn’t, you could have… there were plenty of easier ways.”
“So you want me to sing you a sweet serenade now?”
After a long pause, Josef tried to pass it off as a joke, but she interrupted him with a cold look.
“Don’t be silly, just answer the question.”
He sipped his drink, delaying his answer.
“Never mind. If you’re going to lie, don’t say it.”
Disappointed by his steadfastness, Mariella turns her back and starts to walk back to her room, when she hears Josef’s voice behind her, low and calm.
“Because that’s what you wanted.”
Mariella immediately spun around to face him.
There was a hint of emptiness and despair on his face.
It was the look of a man more accustomed to giving up than dreaming.
“You kept acting like I had to have a reason, so I thought it would be easier and faster to give you one. At least you wouldn’t have to tear me apart so publicly if I revealed that you had other plans, right?”
She opened her mouth to defend herself.
He didn’t even give her a chance to defend herself.
“Understand. There is nothing as difficult for people like us as believing someone else’s heart at face value.”
Mariella shut her mouth, memories of the past flashing through her mind.
On the day of King Johannes’s funeral, Josef, alone in the chapel, called out to her.
‘Just a moment. Just a moment, stay and comfort me.’
Mariella realised that she had misunderstood him all this time.
‘What do you want?’
It occurred to her that she’d started off on the wrong foot.
* * *
Night had fallen in the dungeons of Luxenthook.
Inside his cell, the Duke of Jovaton sat still with his eyes closed, his clothes stained with dark blood.
A desolate place, lit only by the flickering torches.
He was quietly training his mind there.
And then, without a sound, a shadow fell over him.
The Duke slowly opened his eyes.
A man in a black cloak appeared in his vision.
The man didn’t return the Duke’s greeting, but instead asked a direct question.
“I understand you had a private audience with Josef before you killed the high priest of Baredescha. What did he say?”
The Duke replied, without a hint of offence, in a hushed tone.
“He made me an offer.”
“He asked me to reveal your name.”
That was the end of the cloaked man’s response.
“Is there anything else you wish to say?”
This time, the Duke of Jovaton caught him.
“I know you’re not one to divulge information, so it’s a waste of time to ask.”
The Duke of Jovaton smiled faintly at the man’s unquestioning faith. He warned the man.
“We underestimated the prince too much. Josef is no ordinary man. He is like a snake hibernating for the winter, nestled in the hollow of a tree, waiting for spring to come.”
The cloaked man shuffled away.
The Duke of Jovaton was about to say more when he saw the look on his opponent’s face and realised something.
“…You already knew everything.”
“Because I am supposed to know everything.”
The Duke of Yovaton’s brow furrowed. He didn’t understand the man’s behaviour.
“Then all the more reason to make the first move. If you know the prince to be so gifted, why are you unwilling to make his weaknesses known?”
His voice carried far and wide in the empty prison.
The man didn’t respond, only glared at him.
Realising he had overreacted, the Duke of Jovaton cleared his throat, embarrassed. He soon lowered his voice and spoke with a serious expression.
“That Prince Josef will not live long because of Greta’s curse laid upon the House Derschabach.”
* * *
After Mariella’s bewildered departure, Josef was alone again and sat down on his chair, the glass of wine he had poured for himself raised to his mouth, lost in thought.
The dark mages and Baredescha.
Like water and oil, never able to mix.
No, they were polar opposites, unable to survive without killing each other.
The idea of bringing them together, of balancing them, was the arrogance of their ancestors.
It was also a misuse.
And that’s what we have today in the Derschabach dynasty.
Josef leaned back in his wide, padded leather chair, his body sagging, staring into space with a blurred focus.
‘You know one, but not the other.’
An old man’s voice seemed to come from somewhere.
Josef knows it’s a hallucination.
A terrible nightmare that has haunted him ever since that day, fifteen years ago, when he followed his father to visit the Order.
‘Do you know that just as medicine and poison are of the same essence, so are blessings and curses?’
The old woman’s words, which he could now recite by heart.
Josef kept his eyes closed. The more he did, the more vividly the events of the day remain.
‘Everything is harmful in excess. King Johannes. You have betrayed our covenant, handed down from generation to generation, and sided with evil for your own gain. And today, our covenant is at work again, and now you will struggle to escape your eternal rest.’
The calm voice of an old woman utters a curse.
It was Greta, the Archmage.