Mariella opened the door to Julian’s quarters with a cautious touch, a lamp in her hand.
She covered the surface with her cuff to block out the light, lest it be too bright and wake Julian. She stood on her heels and walked gingerly on her forefoot.
Scanning the floor and looking around, she saw a book lying near the table. She stooped to pick it up and turned.
It was then.
A wheezing sound came from somewhere. At first she thought it was her own breathing, but it wasn’t.
‘What was that?’
Mariella turned her head towards the source.
A thick, dark curtain was drawn. Beyond it was Julian’s bedroom.
She stared at it, wondering.
The sound was getting worse.
She stepped cautiously towards the source.
She saw the inky image of a man lying on the floor near the bed, clutching his chest. Mariella lifted her lamp to see who it was, and soon rushed towards him.
“Oh my God, Your Grace, the Duke!”
Julian was gasping, clutching his chest. He didn’t seem to be breathing properly.
She grabbed the Duke by the shoulders and shook him lightly.
“Duke, are you all right?”
He was in no condition to speak.
His gaze followed the lamp light intently, but it was not a sign that she could readily recognise in the face of such a desperate situation.
Mariella lifted his breathless, gasping upper body and held him lightly in her arms. It was an instinctive, unconscious gesture, like a mother holding a crying child.
She patted his back, soothing him in a way similar to what Master Jay had done to her in the past.
“Calm down, nothing is happening, just try to relax and breathe in slowly.”
As if to follow her, he slowly inhaled and exhaled.
The Duke slowly followed her breathing, unable to help himself at first. He looked up at Mariella with watery eyes, trying to trace the shape of her mouth.
Mariella felt a strange emotion at the sight, an emotion of a different colour and texture to the two objects of her affection, Marianne and Master Jay.
‘I wonder if this is how he felt that day.’
She thought of Josef as she comforted Julian.
Julian’s urgent, mournful gaze was like that of a baby bird that had lost its mother. His eyes were pitiful, his lids raised.
Where Josef’s eyes were mesmerising, Julian’s were compassionate.
When she was lost in his eyes, gazing at him mesmerised, Julian slowly came to his senses.
He managed to say, but his voice was too small to be heard.
She listened again, but there was no answer.
His breathing became ragged again.
Mariella noticed that Julian’s moist eyes were staring longingly at something.
She looked around.
Julian hated the dark enough to keep his room full of candles at night. She jumped to her feet when she saw that all of the numerous candles in the room were extinguished.
“Just a moment, please.”
She scrambled to her feet and began to light the candles.
As the room got brighter, Julian’s condition improved noticeably.
When she returned with all the candles lit, Julian was sitting up in bed, looking embarrassed. Perhaps he had regained his senses.
Julian turned around, coughed a few times, and then said, his expression grim.
“What’s going on at this late hour?”
“I thought I forgot something.”
She deliberately didn’t say what happened next. It wasn’t exactly an act of consideration. She just knew from experience that it was best to pretend it didn’t happen so he wouldn’t get upset.
She tidied up the dishevelled bedding as if nothing had happened.
“It’s getting late, you should probably go to bed.”
The Duke, sitting on the bed under the covers, stared at her wordlessly. He looked hesitant, like he was trying to hide his fright.
Mariella pulled back the curtain that separated the bedroom from the living quarters. She lit the candles scattered around the room and made her way to the table.
“I have a lot of reading to do, and I’m going to finish it.”
She sat down and forced herself to read the words that didn’t make sense.
The knowledge that Josef was waiting for her at the room weighed heavily on her mind, but the sight of Julian’s dark groggy eyes made it impossible for her to leave.
That day, she stayed up until daylight.
* * *
Most nobles go to bed late and get up late, not only because they don’t have to work as hard as the commoners, but also because they don’t have to get up as early in the morning, and because they enjoy the high society’s pastimes of balls, card games, and gambling mostly at night. For them, breakfast was a special treat that they sometimes ate when their eyes were open early.
‘If only Julian had been like that.’
Early in the morning, after an unintentional night of reading, Mariella stared through stiff eyes at Julian as he ate his meal.
The duke ate with a straight posture, shoulders and back stretched.
‘I’m so tired.’
She barely managed to stifle a yawn, vowing never again to make a fool of herself out of sympathy.
The silent breakfast was over. Julian put down his fork and a servant waiting behind him cleared the bowl.
Mariella walked over to him and asked in a low voice.
“Have you finished your meal?”
Hearing that, Julian frowned briefly. It wasn’t a strange reaction, given their relationship, but it was a cold one, considering the events of yesterday morning.
It was awkward, but she didn’t mind. On the contrary, it seemed cute because it was a reaction she had roughly expected.
Normally, people with high pride are embarrassed to lean on others.
She was well aware that Julian was secretly grateful.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you since earlier, but there’s some food splatter here.”
Mariella said as she flicked her right cheek with her index finger, and he hurriedly followed suit and wiped his own.
Mariella rolled her eyes and laughed at the sight.
“No, the other side.”
The Duke’s ears flush at her lighthearted teasing. He wiped his other cheek with his sleeve and scrambled out of his seat.
“Let’s go back to my room.”
She replied, stifling a laugh.
He strode out, and she followed after him.
‘You may be a big boy, but you’re no different from a child.’
After last night, she began to see Julian differently.
Even though he was two years older than her, in her eyes he was like a child in need of care.
She had never felt this way before. It was different with Josef and Marianne. It was love and the desire to rise in status that drove her to care for Master Jay. Lady Marianne’s was kindness and grace.
But Julian was…
She stopped following him and stood still.
She pressed her hand silently to the centre of her chest. Something like a tender longing stirred within her. Julian evoked feelings similar to maternal love.
She felt a ghost of her brother in the Duke.
The tiny hands and feet of her younger brother, who had died thirteen years earlier, flashed before her eyes.
‘I can’t let my emotions get the best of me.’
Mariella drew a line in the sand with her emotions. And she wouldn’t let it escape.
Julian, who was waiting for her not far away, spoke.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“I just almost fell for a second.”
She excused herself and hurried on.
‘This is Luxenthook, after all.’
A terrible place of survival of the fittest, where everything is eaten and more die than survive to take the glory.
To fully escape from this place, it was necessary to minimize what needed to be kept in mind.
Mariella, a mere maid with no power, had only one burden to bear: Princess Marianne.
* * *
As usual, Julian made his way to the training grounds for his sword training.
Mariella leaned her back against the wall of the rehearsal hall and watched the birds flying overhead.
She was tired of watching the men practice their swordsmanship. She wished she could read a book, but with so many eyes on her, she couldn’t.
All she was allowed to do was stand there and collect her thoughts.
‘When will the Pope return to the Verden capital? Before that, we need to use force to draw out the leader over there… Josef seems to have his own plan, but he hasn’t revealed everything to me yet. I’m in no position to blindly follow his plan either.’
She pondered for a while, then realised that the air in the training ground had settled down.
Nearby, the Duke suddenly stopped as if he were a child, with a dazed expression, instead of continuing his training.
Julian was quietly staring down at his own palm.
Red blood trickled down his forearm, the callused skin of his palm bursting under the strain of constant sword practice.
Mariella rushed to him in alarm.
When she caught his wrist, Julian gave her a nonchalant look that told her not to fuss.
“It’s a common occurrence. Nothing to worry about.”
“No matter how good a swordsman you are, you can’t leave a gaping wound. I’ll have to put some medicine on it before it gets infected.”
She ran to the apothecary and retrieved a potion.
Yulrian, who felt like she was wasting her time, ended up receiving her treatment in silence. Mariella carefully applied medicine to the duke’s palm and covered it with a clean bandage. During the process, she noticed that the duke’s fingers were slender and long. His pretty fingers, which could have only held a pen for his entire life, were just as clumsy as a servant’s while performing rough tasks.
“You have a lot of calluses.”
“Because I’ve held a sword all my life.”
Julian, who had turned his head the other way to hide his flushed face, spat out in a blunt tone.
She smirked at the sight and finished wrapping the bandages.
* * *
It became dark outside. Julian was sitting on the sofa reading a book, and Mariella was wiping his blood-stained sword with a dry cloth.
The door burst open and the maids came in, quickly pulling out dozens of candles and lighting them with familiarity.
Mariella watched and felt suspicious.
‘How could all those candles go out at once? It’s indoors, and there’s no way a breeze could blow them all out.’
It was too much of a coincidence. She thought about it, then shook her head.
No one would attack Julian. What good would come of threatening him?
Julian was a favourite of the Pope and the Church, rumoured to be the Pope’s hidden child. Since his victory in the Third Holy War, the Order of Baredescha’s standing has soared to new heights. It was fortunate for the aristocracy as well as the royalists that he did not interfere in politics and remained strictly neutral.
When her father was still alive, Mariella would occasionally see a dead snake in the Lassane Forest with its belly burst open. It was the price of devouring prey that was not fit for its size. Mariella thinks that’s what Julian is.
A big, fat, nutritious, coveted prey.
You shouldn’t mess with that kind of thing, or you’d end up with a burst stomach.
‘Still, it’s strange.’
When she finished cleaning his sword, she tucked the cloth into the small pail she carried.
Today was a day without a meeting with Josef, and she thought of returning to her quarters and catching up on her sleep.
Empty rooms, devoid of maids. Mariella approached the Duke and bent to greet him.
“Your Grace, then I…”
She was about to say that her work was done and that she was going to go get some rest when she ran into a problem. As she lifted her head, her eyes met Julian’s as he stared back at her.
The Duke’s dewy eyes would make any sane person feel guilty.
Knowing his vulnerability, knowing his fears, put even more pressure on her, and she found herself speaking as if caught in his gaze.
His face is superimposed on her brother’s. Thirteen years ago, he was only seven years old.
Mariella hesitated for a moment, then made an awkward excuse.
“…It doesn’t seem like the royal salary is particularly generous. Even buying enough candles to brightly light a room is a burden for a lowly maid like me.”
Julian showed no reaction.
She wanted to say, ‘What am I doing?’ and turn around and walk away, but she couldn’t bite her tongue because she had already said it, so she continued.
“I can feel my eyes drooping as I try to read by candlelight in a dimly lit room. Do you mind if I read here today?”
The Duke made no reply.
Mariella quickly added, thinking it was somewhat ridiculous that she was pushing the matter, but she couldn’t help it.
“I’ll just read my book in peace.”
“…You can do that.”
He gave me a grudging look of approval, but she knew he didn’t mean it.
‘It’s a big problem, there are too many unnecessary attitudes.’
With a small sigh, she pulled up a chair and sat down in the closest part of the bedroom. She could hear the rustle of bedding through the curtains.