Diego’s mouth tightened. His brow narrowed slightly.
“So, you’re telling me that’s the only condition for you to give me the name of the traitor…?”
“You weren’t just going to sit around and kill time, were you?”
Estella asked with an expression of ‘No way?’ as if she were looking at a man without a conscience who was about to eat the consequences raw. It was a look that seemed to be directed at an unscrupulous person who was determined to achieve their desired outcome. The thought that he had been deceived flashed fiercely through Diego’s mind. It was only natural that his expression became even more grim.
“So now, if I want answers, I have to go through that shitty botanical atlas?”
“…Your words are a little harsh… No, yes. You’re right.”
Estella, who had been pointing out Diego’s language, sighed in a tone of giving up. Diego stared at her for a moment, his eyes searching. There was nothing sinister about her, but that’s what made her so much harder to deal with.
Diego let out a short chuckle and stood up.
“Miss Margaret, if you’re trying to be grumpy about the last time I tested Cedric…”
“Little Duke, the children are much more clever than you realise. If you go any later, you might really lose.”
Estella’s warning was sincere. Diego bit his lower lip and stood up abruptly. He crumpled his shoes and looked back at Estella with a grimace as he roughly removed his jacket and tossed it onto the mat.
“Damn it, if I ever grow to hate the teaching profession, it’s because of you, do you understand?”
If he said anything more, he’d be in trouble. Estella scooped up the coat he’d thrown at her and walked away. She placed the folded garment in her lap and gave him a small wave.
An awkward smile tugged at the corners of her mouth before she turned away. He couldn’t help but feel like he was being played by her.
‘Who needs to know the types of spring flowers?’
With that thought, Diego trudged through the streets, annoyed. Estella’s words were not far from the truth. Indeed, it was not uncommon for people to learn the seeds of plants as part of their education. It was not that Diego had not been taught such things.
But there was a stark difference between the flowers that Estella had asked him to find and the ones that were usually taught as family symbols or important trade goods. Not these insignificant wildflowers.
Diego stopped dead in his tracks. He looked down at the rose bush in front of him and muttered.
“Well, they’re not wildflowers.”
These are the seeds carefully collected by the Duchess. For a commoner, Anna has done quite a good job of pretending to be an aristocratic lady. She tended the gardens seasonally to make sure they were spotless for her guests, and she avoided any designs that might make her appear the least bit vulgar. If the Duchess hadn’t been so determined to remove him from the mansion, Diego might have given her some credit.
Her mother, Duchess Berta, is still the head of the family, though she is resented by the local residents of the manor. Anna, the Duchess, takes great care of her husband and has become a major figure in social circles. Cedric is quite bright, too, and will probably do just fine if he is given the job of heir apparent.
Maybe he’s the only one standing in the way of this beautiful family.
He could feel the grit of the pebbles crunching into the bottom of his shoes. He hadn’t expected to spend much time on the dirt in the first place, so he’d left his low-heeled shoes on. Diego pulled the tie off his neck and continued walking. The high visibility made it hard to see his surroundings. After wandering around for a while, he was still empty-handed.
As he turned to retrace his steps, a rustling sound came from nearby. Diego frowned and looked in the direction of the source. A head of silver hair poked through the bushes, a vaguely familiar length and colour. It looked exactly like the half-sister who had shunned him earlier.
Diego suddenly realised that he didn’t have to search the bush himself.
He walked over to Cecilia and watched her shuffle for a moment. With a twitchy hand, she plucked a dandelion from the flower bed and crawled out from under it. Cecilia stared at the flower with delighted eyes, then slowly stiffened. She spotted the black shadow hanging over her.
Cecilia instinctively hid the flowers in her hands behind her back. Diego stepped in front of her, and as he bent down to her level, he called her name.
“You must have found a lot.”
Cecilia flailed wildly. Diego shot back with an incredulous look.
“Do you think I’m trying to take anything away from you?”
It looked very much like it.
Cecilia backed away slowly, her guard up. Diego held out his hand to her patiently.
“Dear, show me how many you’ve collected.”
“Shhh, what is it you want to get. Sweets, a lapel pin, whatever it is, I’ll take it over your tutor any day.”
Cecilia’s eyes rolled again. This time there was no fear in them, only worldly calculation. Diego snapped his fingers with the arrogant grin of a winner.
“Yes, good girl… Give it to me.”
Just then, he heard a twig snap behind him. Diego turned his head reflexively. There stood Cedric, clutching a single, half-wilted flower. It was the moment of discovery.
Cedric muttered in disbelief.
“Brother… caught you… cheating…”
For Cedric, Diego was a model brother, distant though he might be, principled and caring. When Cedric saw Diego’s dark side, he was shocked.
“Cedric, this is all a misunderstanding, come over here.”
Diego tried to calm Cedric down, just as he had just done with Cecilia. The problem was, his half-brother was overly impulsive.
Before Cedric could spit out the rest of the words, Diego hastily clamped his hand over his brother’s mouth. Cedric struggled to get away from him, but he was no match for the grown man’s strength. Diego muttered a curse under his tongue and tightened his grip on Cedric. He was deeply impressed by the fact that his younger brother had grown up to become a person with a strong sense of justice who stood up against injustice.
Quickly, Diego began to whisper soothing words into Cedric’s ear. It was like the devil’s temptation.
“Shh, calm down. If you keep your mouth shut, I’ll give you what you want. So…”
Diego’s voice slowly faded. He felt a shadow fall over him. Diego slowly raised his head and looked up at the object that blocked the light. Unsurprisingly, it was Estella, the woman Cedric had just called out to.
It didn’t take her long to figure it out. Her eyes were already half-lidded with horror. Blackmailing children to rip out flowers was, in a way, a very villainous act for the setting…
“No, how could you possibly think of winning by blackmailing children…”
At the same time, it seemed very unlikely.
She made an effort to let him get to know the kids, and he turned into a blackmailer. She didn’t think this whole ‘make believe’ plan would go so smoothly, but this was worse than she expected.
Estella stared down at Diego for a long moment in disbelief. At the last possible moment, Diego sighed and removed his hand from Cedric’s mouth.
Cecilia, who had been watching, gently placed the flowers she had collected on his lap. At first glance, they were not a small number. Diego picked them up and held them out to Estella. He was unperturbed and brazenly protested.
“Didn’t I tell you to gather those flowers yourself?”
Cecilia, who had been watching from the sidelines, drew her cheeks together and her eyes sparkled.
* * *
The commotion ended with a bang. Cecilia defended herself by saying, ‘These flowers were collected by Diego.’–though she hadn’t actually said that in a complete sentence. She had shouted something like, ‘Diyego!’ or ‘Dat’s rite!’–and whether Cedric looked betrayed or not, Cecilia’s enthusiastic support made the winner of the bet Diego.
“How did you fool Cecilia?”
Estella asked as she watched the brother and sister digging and playing in the distance. Diego was quietly putting his robe back on, which he had left off. He replied impatiently,
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Estella barely managed to keep the accusatory glare out of her eyes. She knew life was too precious to argue with a murderous demon. When she stepped back, Diego asked a question.
“So what’s the name? Of the traitor?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Estella answered.
“…It’s your maternal uncle, Franzel.”
From the moment the extended family was called out, Franzel had been a candidate on their list. Diego asked a series of questions without showing any sign of surprise.
“Because the current Marquis of Botry is in poor health, and his eldest son died of the plague a few years ago, leaving no worthy heir. If the Marquis of Botry dies before his second son comes of age, the title will most likely go to you.”
“Do you mean to say that he thinks I would covet the Marquisate?”
“You should have at least that much reason to threaten your nephew’s life, shouldn’t you?”
There was no disbelief in Diego’s voice at Estella’s words. He had spent his life among those who would harm his family for gain, and to him, his maternal uncle’s decision was well within his understanding. Diego spoke in a nonchalant tone.
“My maternal uncle has hated me since I was a child, or rather, he hated my mother.”
“My uncle eventually inherited the title, but even if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have had a place in the family, because I’ve heard that the second most favoured child was my mother.”
Diego’s mother. Estella didn’t know much about her. In the story, Diego’s mother was already dead, so she was only mentioned a handful of times. The most memorable was the phrase that she was an ugly woman. There was a certain malice in the author’s seemingly sincere description.
Estella stopped plucking the leaf from the stem and looked back at Diego, her eyes searching his face as she asked cautiously.
“What was the Duke’s mother… like?”
“She was a wise woman.”