* * *
The boudoir that the Countess of Lester had prepared for her was of such splendor and elegance that it could not even be compared to her own. Candlesticks embossed with dainty roses, ivory-colored wallpaper, gold-trimmed furniture and marble tables, and a red carpet. She had heard that an entire boudoir had been renovated for this luncheon, but she hadn’t expected it to be this lavish. This is what the boudoirs of the three duchesses of Battenberg look like.
Unlike her luncheons with young ladies who hadn’t even been titled yet, the people her mother would be entertaining were the wives of powerful men who controlled the South, so she could understand how the Countess of Lester would not want to appear weak in front of them. Belviana stopped and spat out her admiration. The Countess, supervising from a distance, smiled and approached.
“How are you feeling, my dear?”
“Much better. Were you worried?”
“How surprised I was when you suddenly disappeared yesterday. I was worried, but you look very pretty today, and you chose the right dress.”
The Countess pressed her fingers tiredly between her eyes and released them.
“I think we’re more or less finished here. Let’s take a short walk to your luncheon room.”
The Countess gave the two maids who hurriedly followed her separate instructions and closed the door to the boudoir. With the bustle cut off, the hallway was eerily silent. Except for the occasional clatter from the distant kitchen or the clanking of blades in the armory, it seemed as if she and the Countess were the only two people in the world. Strangely, even though the luncheon was about to begin, there was not a single servant moving up and down the wide second-floor hallway. It was as if they were under orders to stay away from the usual……. Before she could fully comprehend the strangeness, the Countess spoke in a cheerful voice.
“I can’t tell you how fortunate I am that you’ve been able to calm my nerves lately; the rumors about the cobbler were so vicious.”
Belviana froze in her tracks like someone who had been doused with water. Liam. Her mother had been the first to mention the rumors about him. The Countess of Lester took a few more steps, as if she hadn’t noticed Belviana’s agitation, and then looked back, puzzled.
“Are you still tired?”
“No…… no……. Keep talking.”
Belviana forced her stiff feet to move and quickly followed. The Countess came to her side and touched her shoulder affectionately. She spoke reminiscently.
“When I was younger, when I was just Lady Agnes. There were all kinds of rumors back then. Of course, most of them were unfounded, born of jealousy of me, but the life of a noblewoman can be ruined by the most malicious of gossip, and that’s why you have to be careful and watch your back. Don’t let any gossip come near you.”
“I know …….”
“People often make stupid mistakes when they’re about to get married because they’re worried and insecure about whether or not this person is the best person to take care of them, and if they get caught, it’s just a one-time fling, but that’s not the case with women.”
“But as long as you don’t get caught, you can do it. Your father may be a dysfunctional man, but I have different ideas.”
Belviana, her eyes fixed on the pattern of the carpet, lifted her head slightly at the Countess’s strange tone. Her mother’s sumptuously adorned face looked years older than it had last night, with a weariness she did not recognize, but there was not the slightest disturbance in her innate keenness and all-seeing gaze. The Countess’s voice lowered to a more confidential tone.
“It is important that you experience as much as you can, after all, I am only your mother.”
“I know the cobbler came and went last night. Chalk it all up to a nightmare. I will not question you further if you will only forget. You are a clever child, and you already know what I am talking about.”
“Answer me and give this mother of yours some peace of mind.”
Belviana barely swallowed and spoke. Her lips were stiff, as if they didn’t belong to her.
“It’s ……. Of course, that……, that’s what I was thinking.”
“Okay. That’s it. I’m starting to get anxious about your wedding, too. To think that I’m telling you all this nonsense when you should know better.”
The Countess pinched Belviana’s cheek gently with her gentle face. She pulled out a glass vial from her cuff and thrust it into Belviana’s hand. The flask, half full of an ominous-looking liquid, was warm with her body heat, as if she had been holding it for a long time.
“Drink this before luncheon.”
Giving Belviana a final, light embrace, the Countess strode off down the hall at a pace twice as fast as she had been walking. As if getting out of this place would get her away from this subject any faster. Belviana stood and watched her mother’s retreating form, then lowered her gaze to the vial in her hand, as if suddenly remembering.
When Belviana played after dark in the woods near her childhood home, her mother would always light a lantern on the way back. So that she wouldn’t lose her way back, so that she wouldn’t be too late. That was her parenting. If she’d already crossed the point of no return, she’d get her a pill that would erase any mistakes she might have made,
But it’s already too late. To let it flow into a dream in the middle of the night, or to walk along the lanterns lit by her mother like an innocent child who knows nothing. Nothing was certain, but Belviana could be certain of this one.
She would never be able to live up to any of her mother’s expectations.