“I’m still against this.”
“Charlotte, for the umpteenth time, this is not a sacrifice.”
“I don’t want to be crowned by dragging your reputation through the mud.”
“I’m Ian David Martin Astius, and I don’t care about my reputation.”
That was a lot of confidence. Charlotte paused for a moment, feeling very unfortunate, but also strangely convinced.
“…I’m just saying that it’s ridiculous to choose your marriage partner like this.”
“I was going to marry a girl I barely knew anyway, so I don’t see what the difference is.”
“I don’t know what’s different.”
Charlotte, who had been standing by the window, staring out at the mournful scene, turned and looked at her brother.
At the same moment, Ian, lying languidly on the long sofa, lifted his eyelids. Their identical faces stared at each other.
It was time for a murderous nerve war to ensue.
“Your Highness, I’d like to report on today’s events….”
Just in time, Marcus entered the room.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness, I’ll be back in a moment.”
Marcus, who came into Ian’s office at the usual time without knowing about Charlotte’s visit, took a step back.
“Welcome home, Marcus. You’re welcome.”
But the voice of the Prince, softer than usual, stopped him in his tracks.
Marcus caught Charlotte’s eye before he could stop himself. The princess glared fiercely at the prince, who was trying to play dirty.
“Good work, report.”
Ian slowly rose to his feet and smirked at Marcus. Charlotte, who glared at him, turned to face the window.
Marcus, forcing a businesslike smile through the uncomfortable air, began to report on the day’s events. As much as Ian was glad to see him, he quickly grew bored with the day’s unremarkable schedule.
“Oh, and Your Highness, this is the investigation into David you mentioned.”
After finishing his report, Marcus held the file out in front of Ian.
But strangely, there was no response. Marcus wondered if Ian didn’t remember the name ‘David’ so he explained.
“Pen name David, Baron Warfield’s lady, Miss Natalie Dowse.”
Charlotte, who had been staring out the window the entire time, showed some interest in the vaguely familiar woman’s name, and she slowly approached the table.
Marcus, a well-trained aide, summarised his findings.
“Since her acquittal, she seems to have moved down to Warfield and stayed in the mansion ever since. Nothing special except that her sister, Miss Dorothy Dowse, made her debut on the social scene last year. It seems that she hasn’t been invited to anything this year and is staying at Warfield.”
“Her name still comes up as a topic of conversation at social gatherings, but nothing has really been written about her since the trial. A very small newsletter has run about eight articles consisting of nothing more than sensationalised speculation, but again, I can find no evidence for any of them. There has been no mention of her for the last half year.”
The report ended, but Ian listened without much reaction.
“… Shall we find out more?”
When Ian didn’t respond, Marcus grew a little uneasy.
Ian’s lips parted easily, his expression blank, as if he didn’t know what he was thinking.
Charlotte, watching his expression with interest, opened the file instead.
“Did I order an investigation into her?”
Ian spoke up.
“You told me to look into it yesterday….”
Ian finally looked up and stared at Marcus. It had been a long time since he’d looked like he was seriously considering whether he should cut that thing off.
Flustered, Marcus racked his brain for the right words.
Charlotte murmured, perched on the armrest of the sofa, flipping through some papers.
“It was a few years ago, so I don’t remember the details, but I’m pretty sure what she did wasn’t even really illegal–offending the older members of the nobility, I think?”
Ian’s gaze left Marcus and turned to Charlotte.
‘My God, thank you, Princess.’
Inwardly, Marcus was infinitely grateful to the princess for taking the prince’s stinging gaze.
“Since the aristocratic circle was making efforts, it was only a matter of time before her identity was revealed. But it cannot be denied that it is related to the royal family.”
Ian’s eyes narrowed as Charlotte’s lips quirked upward in a subtle hint of blame.
“I feel particularly sorry for Miss Dorothy. A lady in the prime of her life not getting any invitations. It must be hell for her every day.”
“Charlotte, what is it you want to say?”
Charlotte was not a particularly charitable person, but she was exceptionally generous with young ladies. She looked back at Marcus, who was holding his breath.
“Marcus, send an invitation to the Warfield family.”
“You mean for the royal ball the Princess is organising?”
“Yes. I’d like to show her a little mercy.”
“But Baron Warfield’s daughter doesn’t fit the prince’s criteria for a bride. She’s not in debt to the family. And they have a son, so there are no succession issues.”
“Who told you to invite her as a bride candidate, and it’s not like she’s the only one anyway. I’m just inviting one or two more people.”
The real purpose of this royal ball, hosted by Princess Charlotte herself, was to find a troublesome bride.
Charlotte looked at Ian and raised an eyebrow in question.
If Charlotte was right, inviting one more young lady didn’t seem to hurt his plans.
However, he was strangely bothered by the woman who would pop up in his mind if he forgot about her.
“I’ll kill you if you pretend to know.”
Natalie turned her head slightly and looked out the car window, ignoring Dorothy’s terrifying threat from the opposite seat.
“Why do you have to speak so harshly! Be careful, Dorothy. This is an opportunity you obtained somehow.”
Baroness Warfield, looking round for any listening ears, pointed out Dorothy’s behaviour in a trembling voice. She was shocked at the increasing ferocity of her youngest daughter’s language.
Dorothy stopped glaring at Natalie. Natalie’s eyes, now free from the stinging gaze, began to take in the landscape. Beyond the window, a barren landscape with only young grass sprouting was passing quickly by.
Clinging to the shaking train carriage with a never-ending noise, her head spins. Even after three years of not riding it, the ride on the train feels just as terrible as ever.
However, the fact that she was riding the train after a long time wasn’t the issue now.
‘How completely unexpected.’
Natalie still couldn’t believe she was going to Duan, that she was crawling back into that nightmarish place.
Just yesterday, early in the morning, a luxurious, gold-encrusted letter had been delivered to Natalie and Dorothy. It was an invitation to the royal ball. It was Princess Charlotte’s first ball since her return from a tour after a whole year.
Natalie had a reasonable suspicion that the Princess had sent the invitation in error. Perhaps because she had never hosted a ball before.
Natalie wasn’t the only one stumped. The Baron and Baroness Warfield were not keen on Natalie re-entering social circles. They’d had enough of scandals and ridicule, and they didn’t want to be the subject of a new story.
But to turn down a royal ball was to go overboard, and it was too late to send a letter of refusal.
The ball was a week from now. Somehow the invitation arrived too late.
Even if they were lucky enough to get an immediate train ticket, it wouldn’t be enough time to fit a new dress. And what about accommodation?
Although it was an expense, finding a suitable mansion to rent would be difficult at this height of the social season. Even modest hotels would be fully booked. The remaining lodgings were priced beyond what an ordinary rural noble could afford.
Realistically, travelling to Duan certainly seemed reckless.
Still, it was an opportunity for Dorothy.
When she received Princess Charlotte’s invitation, Dorothy’s face brightened for the first time since the end of the last social season, when she had seemed to have given up on life. Her hopes were high, and no one could disappoint her.
Determined to send his youngest daughter to Duan somehow, the baron sent a servant to procure three train tickets to Duan. One ticket was for Dorothy, and the other two were for Natalie and the Baroness.
The Baroness was also determined, as there was no one in Duan to act as a chaperone for her daughters. As the previous baronet had no sons, it was better for her to go than for her husband, who would inherit the title and have no experience of balls.
Next, when the baronet and his wife went knocking on neighbours’ doors in shame to raise money for other expenses, Natalie offered the money she had set aside to contribute to Dorothy’s dowry.
Dorothy wasn’t grateful. Instead, her reaction was that it was only natural for Natalie to do so, as she had ruined her life.
Having scraped together what little they had, the three women finished preparing for the royal ball and got into the first carriage to Duan.
The ride was surprisingly smooth, to the point where it was uncomfortable. Other than the fact that the sisters seemed like enemies and the mother-daughter relationship was more awkward than others.
Natalie closed her eyes quietly as if to suppress her anxiety.
The problem was still her.
“It would have been better if you didn’t do anything at all.”
Natalie lived every minute of every second with the words Bianca had said to her the day she’d found out she was David.
Do nothing. Play dead.
She didn’t even want to look at the direction to Duan. She couldn’t understand how she had been invited to the Princess’s ball when she was tacitly forbidden to set foot in social circles.
‘Get a hold of yourself, Natalie. Just don’t attract anyone’s attention.’
Natalie steeled herself for the umpteenth time.
‘Hopefully the nobles of Duan have forgotten the names Warfield and Dowse.’
Rattle, rattle. The train rocked incessantly, making sleep impossible.