* * *
Despite her disastrous first impression, Liliette was actually quite a nice person to hang out with; she was very knowledgeable in all sorts of things, and yet she was gentle without ever showing off her knowledge. For Belviana, whose social life had been severely restricted in the run-up to her wedding, she was like rain in a drought. Before a day had passed, she felt she had a good rapport with Liliette, and by the third day, they were best friends.
They talked about all the events and gossip and crazy love stories that happened around them, and they shared their favorite novels and poetry books. For the most part, they hit it off very well. Belviana even laughed out loud for the first time in weeks.
Liliette, who not so long ago had had to worry more about dressing for winter than noble manners, was now the heir’s only sister. A pension of at least 200,000 sols a year was in her future, and she was second only to Belviana in southern social circles. Everyone despised her and loved her, belittled her and worshipped her bright future. Liliette’s only problem was her infatuation with Aiden, no matter how many times Belviana warned her about his lowly origins.
In fact, rumors abounded about Aiden’s origins, but no one knew for sure. There were rumors that he was the hidden heir to a powerful family, that his mother was a royal whore, and that he was called the devil’s child because of his golden eyes, which were extremely rare in the South. The oldest, most realistic story was that he was an orphan, the child of a poor magistrate father and a fallen noblewoman mother. Whatever the truth, his parents had at least died without leaving him any property, and all Aiden had received from them was an overly polished exterior. Add to that the meager stipend that came to the servant’s door, and that was all Aiden had.
Liliette often entrusted Aiden with her private attendance, at the Count’s request. Of course, it was taboo in Dietrich for a servant to enter the intimate bedchamber of an unmarried young lady alone, and Liliette trusted that her discretion would not be called into question. But Belviana was occasionally disturbed by an unexplained uneasiness.
Liliette often whispered in Belviana’s ear that she wanted to get engaged as soon as Aiden returned from Cambridge. She imagined a small house in the suburbs, just the two of them, and talked about how perfectly she could provide for him. Soon Belviana was convinced that Aiden was using her. Because Liliette wasn’t stupid enough to be delusional enough to go around talking about something like that without any assurance. Money. That had to be the only reason Aiden had approached her, but she hadn’t been able to warn Liliette directly about any of it.
She could barely breathe, especially when she looked into Liliette’s face, her body so tortured by Aiden, and felt so guilty.
The dinner was better than she’d expected: the food was excellent as always, and the wine, which the Count had taken great care to provide, was exquisite. Liliette led the conversation in a thoughtful manner, and she wore a pleasant, affectionate smile throughout the meal. It was enough to win the favor of the assembled nobles, and by the end of the meal, even the aloof Count couldn’t help but smile in approval at her. The only person in the room who wasn’t satisfied with the meal was Belviana.
The banquet that followed made her even more uncomfortable. In the great hall, on the outdoor terrace, and in the gardens, everyone she encountered was unusually chatty. Relatives she didn’t know or rarely saw lined up to pester her, telling her how lucky she was to have found a husband worthy of her status-or, rather, excessive.
Each offered her champagne and wine, which she drank in far greater quantities than usual, and grew irritated by the fussing and passing of two dozen excited maids. These days she was easily irritated by everything. The sound of people laughing, the toasts to her marriage, the chatter about the war with the North……. It was all annoying. Belviana laughed sharply. Slowly, slowly, she felt like she was going mad.
Her family was fiercely devout, and she was no exception. Her affair with Aiden was a blatant violation of the doctrine that chastity and modesty were feminine values, and she had openly scorned the unchaste young women at the university. It had been a terribly stupid thing to do, to give yourself over to a man, body and soul.
But now she could not even laugh at them. She was no longer a noble, no longer a servant, and now she was being played by a man she didn’t even like. Her love for Liam was the only thing that kept her going, but she could feel it reaching its limits. Like this, when people’s laughter felt like it was directed at her……. She hoped the next two weeks would pass quickly.
“Would you like some more wine?”
Belviana held out her empty goblet without answering. The servant deftly opened a new bottle of wine and filled her glass. It was better to get drunk sooner rather than later. She leaned back on the terrace and sipped her drink when she saw Liliette walking side by side with Aiden. She huddled a little tighter behind a pillar. She doesn’t know why, but she didn’t want them to know she was watching.
Liliette was even prettier than usual today. Her black organdy dress and white ribbon all fit her like a glove. Her sparkling eyes were pixie-like, her smile was adorable, and facing her was Aiden……. Belviana felt her stomach tighten. He was smiling. With the same face he’d rarely shown her since so long ago. Belviana swayed and gripped a pillar. A maid passing by quickly put one arm around her.
“My dear, my dear, are you unwell?”
“No, I’m perfectly fine. Thank you for your concern.”
Belviana wasn’t sure if her voice was actually normal.
“But you’re completely pale, don’t you think you should be resting?”
“I’m just tired of talking about the war all the time. I just need to sit down. See, there’s a chair, and I’ll stay here, and you can bring me some more wine.”
“But it’s much more than your lordship has authorized…… I see, I’ll bring it to you in a moment, please sit down and rest.”
“Close the door and go. I hate to be disturbed when I’m resting.”
The terrace door closed soundlessly, and Belviana turned her attention back to the garden in the darkness. But Aiden and Liliette were gone, and she clasped her trembling hands together. Betrayal. Yes, this was betrayal. She’s stuck in this hellhole, slowly going insane, and he’s out there with his beaming, maritime face……. She downed the rest of the wine in one gulp.
She didn’t want to know what crazy idea he’d had to approach Liliette; she didn’t want to know if the same hand that had taunted her was now touching her, muttering incoherently. Any nervousness she felt was probably just genuine concern for Liliette. She was more desperate for wine. When she finally rose from her chair to go get it herself, the terrace door opened. Belviana wiped a hand across her sweaty brow.
“Leave it. I’ll pour myself a drink.”
“I think you’ve had enough already.”
Belviana turned around with a snap; in her haste to get up, she knocked over a chair and nearly tripped over it. Aiden leisurely caught her and pulled down the curtains to the terrace. She whimpered, then spoke up.
“Why are you here?”
“Did I come somewhere I couldn’t?”
His expression, so hard these past few days, was strangely cheerful. It grated on her nerves. Belviana coldly brushed his hand away.
“But Liliette, you were with her, what the hell…….”
She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence. He and Liliette had been gone from her sight for only a few moments, but maybe that was all it took. Belviana felt almost unbearable. It wasn’t hard to imagine Aiden’s lips caressing Liliette’s white breasts. The unpleasantness seemed to multiply with each breath.
What was truly offensive was the fact that it was mixed with something else. Hate, fear, and disgust were easier to discern; they weren’t the kind of emotions that made her weak. But this, this was something more, something slimy, something sordid, something unbearably dirty. He smirked and snatched the glass from Belviana’s hand.
“Any suspicions you have about me with that stupid woman are pretty futile, though it’s been a while since I’ve seen you look like this.”
Stupid woman. Belviana felt an odd sense of relief at his disparagement of Liliette. She didn’t realize it was jealousy she was acting out, Belviana retorted, blushing.
“Oh, don’t talk like that. That girl……. You know she likes you.”
“Don’t touch her.”
“Yes. She’s innocent, she’s nice, and Mother already considers her her own daughter…….. I don’t want her to be hurt by your behavior.”
Aiden chuckled in disbelief. His eyes turned cold. Belviana’s shoulders slumped involuntarily. Whenever he looked at her like that, no matter how noble her rank or social status, she always felt like a vulnerable prey. It was a primal gaze, like he was ready to devour her at a moment’s notice. He spat,
“Do you think I’m some kind of dog who’ll go off on any woman?”
She tried to back away, but her back touched the railing of the terrace. Taking advantage of her inability to get away, Aiden dutifully closed the distance. He stretched out his arm and grabbed the railing. In an instant, she was trapped in his arms, pale and panting.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say you’re a dog in heat…….”
He grabbed her chin and pulled her up.
“I don’t see how what you’re saying is any different from that.”
“You, you’re messing with me for fun. A-and Liam and I, we’ll be gone in a few days. She’s different. No lady would seriously consider marrying a mere servant, and if word got out, she’d have a hard time marrying into a good family, and the gossip would completely undermine Aubrange’s standing, and Lester would be the laughing stock of the South. Most of all, Aiden, for God’s sake, Liliette is only seventeen years old…….”