Mariella had the kindness to keep watch over him as he slept a few more times that day. At some point, Julian began to incorporate her into his daily routine. On days when Mariella had class with Josef, he would wait without sleep for her to return, but he tried not to show it.
He put on a stiff face, but inside he was always nervous that she would throw out his demands. Mariella had a big heart for Julian, who behaved like a puppy that needed to go potty.
But there was a problem: as she continued to be seen by his side at night, rumours of their inappropriate relationship spread through the castle.
Outnumbered and outmanoeuvred after the failed witch hunts, the nobleman’s subjects, feeling justified, seized on the rumours.
Eventually, Josef summoned Mariella.
“I hear you’ve been getting along with my friend lately.”
Dry eyes that don’t reveal much.
They felt different from Julian’s watery eyes.
As she stared at him, she felt a renewed sense of gratitude.
It was understandable. They’d seen each other almost every day, but always in secret at night.
“He doesn’t sleep well alone at night, so I was just keeping an eye on him.”
The tone was businesslike, but the content was affectionate.
Josef smiled broadly at Mariella’s childlike attitude towards Julian.
“Julian is a little afraid of the dark.”
At her question, Josef shrugged.
“I don’t know. I vaguely suspect it has something to do with the war.”
“War? You mean the Third Holy War?”
“House Bayer was attacked by witches and nearly destroyed. Julian is the only one who survived. At the height of the war, the Duchy of Bayer was one of the fiercest battlegrounds. No one knows how it came to be, except for the paladins who fought in it.”
She nodded her head in understanding. She didn’t know what the circumstances were, but she could guess that he had a terrible past, too.
“Some kind of war trauma, then.”
“It’s a common thing here. Even if they don’t show it on the outside, everyone has at least one similar illness in their hearts, whether they’re nobles or commoners. It’s only been seventeen years since the war ended, so that’s why they’re particularly sensitive about the dark mages. It’s because they don’t want to bring out the dark boxes that they’ve hidden deep inside.”
Mariella was silent for a moment.
Josef watched her, then cut to the chase.
“I know you care about my friend. But Mariella, he’ll have to find another maid for that in the future. It’s not your job to look after Julian.”
Her brow furrowed at that. She didn’t look convinced.
“Did you call me here to give me permission to do that?”
“No way. The courtiers are so talkative that they are probably just trying to kill time and show off. And in the meantime, they get to see your face more. So when you go out, pretend to cry a little as if I scolded you badly.”
Mariella laughed at his playful addition.
“Oh my, you’re so funny.”
“I can’t really get mad at you, you know. I have to do my best for my beloved lady.”
“Isn’t it already too late for that?”
The idea of being interrogated about her relationship with Julian was absurd and made her laugh bitterly. But that was all.
‘Thanks to that, I was able to avoid a bothersome and tiring task, so I’m glad.’
However, she couldn’t help feeling a cool sense of disappointment in her heart.
* * *
Darkness fell. Julian was sitting on the sofa, reading a book, when Mariella went up to him and said in a rather clerical tone.
“I’ve done everything you asked me to do, can I go back now?”
He looked up from his book and glanced at her.
His gaze had a strange way of drawing you in. It was a different feeling compared to the gravity of Josef’s hand on her shoulder.
Mariella was more susceptible to the former than the latter.
‘I can’t go over it.’
She deliberately dropped her gaze to the floor.
When Julian remained silent the entire time, she bent her knee slightly in greeting.
“I think I’ll head back now.”
She glanced up and saw the Duke’s face staring back at her from the same position.
He looked slightly surprised. He was in shock and didn’t immediately grasp her words.
A few seconds passed, and he frowned slightly.
That was it.
Mariella mimicked his response in her mind.
The short exclamation was a mixture of hesitation and impatience. It would have been cute if here were a child, but Julian was an adult. Two years older than her.
She found him inflexible and stuffy.
It doesn’t matter how good his bloodline is. He’s trapped by manners and norms, unable to express his true feelings.
‘But that’s a good thing, because it makes my job easier.’
Mariella turned and left Julian’s quarters. As she had expected, Julian did not stop her.
After that day, she no longer guarded his bedside. At the same time, she treated him with a businesslike attitude. Sometimes she felt him looking at her with a wistful gaze, but she tried not to notice. Her relationship with Julian was, if anything, harmful, never beneficial.
It was Josef’s warning that had made her so resolute. She had recognised in his conversation that she was not in a position to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The castle of Luxenthook was a battlefield. It was hard enough to deal with Marianne alone. She could not afford to give her heart to the prince’s friend for nothing.
Especially not when the heart she gives him is rooted in guilt over her brother, who died in vain.
Compassion is a dangerous emotion. It was sure to catch up with her at a crucial moment.
Julian was taken aback by her sudden change of attitude. He also felt a twinge of regret.
He seemed to be trying not to show it, but it was obvious in his eyes. A lingering gaze, a lowered eyebrow, a hint of disappointment. Mariella pretended not to notice until the end, and it wasn’t long before Julian regained his composure.
Both of them seemed to have stopped caring about each other and returned to their original attitudes.
This didn’t mean that there was a coldness between them. They were moderately awkward. So much so that you couldn’t help but notice the subtle tension between them.
The first to notice were the servants and maids who attended to the Duke.
“The Duke doesn’t seem to have taken a liking to the new maid again, does he?”
“Well, she seems to have lost interest.”
“I can’t stand it. I hated seeing her blabbering around here without even knowing where she stands.”
“She was a little too eager. She thinks she can control the Duke of Bayer after the Princess. It’s not like she’s a country count.”
“Not when she’s the one who’s been kicked out.”
They chuckled among themselves as they sat down to dinner.
The servants and maids in the annex has never been fond of Mariella. In fact, everyone in the castle hated her. If it was haughtiness, it was haughtiness, and if it was jealousy, it was jealousy.
They wanted to berate the new maid who had come up from the countryside. They wanted to make sure that their little bit of power was still intact.
“I don’t know what to do now. With the prince and the duke both gone, what can we do?”
“The Duke hasn’t left yet, so we have to be careful.”
“No, he will soon.”
One of the senior servants among them smirked. They put their heads together to make a plan to outsmart Mariella.
* * *
A few days passed. Mariella was tidying up the books that lay in a mess on her table.
Suddenly, one of the maids tripped over her feet. It was the maid who was in charge of changing Julian’s clothes.
Mariella stared down at the fallen maid in a move that was all too obvious.
She deliberately approached her in that spacious area and kicked her own leg towards herself, causing herself to fall down.
It was obviously meant to be a prank on her, but it started so poorly that she chuckled, intrigued to see what would happen next.
As the maid fell and made a fuss, another maid burst through the door as if she’d been waiting for it. She hauled her fallen colleague to her feet and exclaimed.
“Oh, my God, Maslin, are you all right?”
“I think I sprained my wrist!”
The awkward interest that felt like watching a cheap play was completely gone. She turned her head and tried to finish what she had to do, but then a thunderbolt struck from behind.
“Are you trying to pass it off without even apologizing?”
She was getting a little annoyed.
Mariella managed her expression and turned back to face them.
“Are you kidding? I apologized when she first fell, but it seems like you came too late to hear it.”
“You didn’t trip on Maslin on purpose, did you?”
“I just know her name is Maslin, so why would I do that?”
The two maids were bewildered as she walked out with a full head of steam. They exchanged glances, then cut to the chase.
“Well, that aside. It’s true that Maslin lost the use of her arm because of you, so you’ll have to take responsibility.”
‘It’s not even broken.’
It was a ridiculous demand. She could have turned it around, but she didn’t want to stir up trouble here.
Besides, she was curious as to what they were hoping to get out of the situation, so she kept quiet.
“For the time being, you will take Maslin’s place as the Duke’s wardrobe attendant.”
‘Attending to his clothing?’
Mariella’s head tilts slightly. Not enough information. From this, she couldn’t figure out what their purpose was.
“Can’t you hear us?”
She was silent for a moment, thinking, and then the maids brushed her off. She pretended to answer reluctantly.
‘Perhaps if I pretended to struggle a little, it would lessen the hostility.’
Not bad for a woman who needed to get to know the maids and servants.
Hearing her answer, the two maids looked satisfied and disappeared out of Julian’s quarters.
They were greeted by the servants and maids who were waiting for them at the door.
“How did it go?”
“She said she would.”
“I’m sure she thinks it’s not very poetic.”
They giggled among themselves.
“Duke Julian hates it more than anything in the world to have his lower body seen when he’s changing, and I don’t know if a maid from a country count knows that.”
“That’s right. I’d tell her, but she comes from such noble background that she won’t even talk to us.”
“I’m sure she’ll get in trouble.”
“She’ll find out for yourself how scary the Duke of Bayer is.”
They waited impatiently for night to fall.
* * *
Julian did not like to change his clothes with the help of the maids. He had been raised by the Pope for most of his life, and the touch of a woman’s hands on his body was unfamiliar. He tried to dress himself as much as possible, but noblemen’s clothes were complicated to put on and take off alone.
Darkness enveloped Verdan. It was time for Julian to change.
Mariella took the nightgown from the maids and approached him.
Julian was about to scold her, but he flinched at her reflection in the mirror. He furrowed his brow in disbelief.
“Why would you…”
“It just happened.”
Mariella replied in a cold, subtly flirtatious tone, running her hands over Julian’s clothing. Offended by her unchanged tone, Julian slapped her hand away.
“Forget it. I can do it myself.”
“You can’t be bothered to change yourself, so don’t be silly and stay put.”
In the silence of the annex, the sound of laces and buttons being undone was unusually loud. At the same time, the Duke’s face grew redder and redder.
Mariella removed Julian’s robe in a dutiful manner. Then she reached for his nightgown, which she had laid aside.
She was about to finish dressing him.
The scarred back caught her eye.
Mariella’s eyes widened slightly.
She recognised it instantly.
The scars on Julian’s back were from whipping.
Not a whip that had been modified to sound louder to frighten humans, but a rough whip made for handling real horses and cattle.
She unconsciously touched his back.
Julian was right behind her and grabbed her wrist. He had a furious look on his face.
“What do you think you’re doing…!”
About to reprimand Mariella for crossing the line, Julian shut his mouth for a moment.
The look in her eyes was icy cold.
“Who did this?”
The tables were turned in an instant.
Mariella had pushed Julian away. Now she was very, very angry.
Like when she saw the scars on Marianne’s back.
Julian didn’t answer. She asked again.
“Who put that scar on your back?”
This time he was silent.
Mariella sighed heavily. She knew full well that if she asked, she wouldn’t get an answer.
“Wait. I know of a medicine that can help erase the scar.”
She released his grip on her wrist and stepped outside.
As she walked down the dark corridor, Mariella tried to suppress the emotions swirling through her like a typhoon, but the more she tried, the more her anger erupted.
‘I know that scar. Those are the marks from when I was a child.’
It was the same shape as the scar on Marianne’s back.
If there was a difference, it was that Julian’s was more horrific.
‘Could the scar on his back have something to do with the Duke’s fear of the dark?’
Mariella shook her head, trying to guess what the Duke had been through during the Third Holy War. This is where curiosity should stop.
There’s no worse form of goodwill than trying to expose someone’s terrible wounds.
‘It’s a big deal, anyway.’
She stopped in the middle of the corridor and turned to look out the window.
The moon, not yet full, ugly and distorted, lit her up.
‘I have so many people to protect.’
Mariella decided to no longer deny the fact that she had developed attachment for Julian.