The door swung open and darkness promptly enveloped her ankles.
Even in broad daylight, the interior enclosed by heavy curtains remained dimly lit.
“Greetings, Your Majesty, Sun of the Empire. May the Goddess’s blessing be with you.”
Lucas knelt first, followed by Briella, kneeling beside him.
“Greetings, Your Majesty, Sun of the Empire. May the Goddess’s blessing be with you.”
The words that came from her lips flowed in such a tranquil tone that any fear of trembling was dispelled.
“I heard rumors about your secret midnight wedding. I presumed her to be a woman of high status, but it seems I was mistaken.”
Briella blinked repeatedly at that statement.
Neither Lucas nor Briella straightened their hunched backs and bent knees because they hadn’t been told to stop.
The only thing they could see was Gusto’s silhouette.
“That’s your type? It’s clear why the slew of women I’ve sent couldn’t capture your heart, Duke.”
Compared to his choice of words, his tone was laid-back.
The conversation appeared peaceful, as if they were simply discussing the day’s weather.
Nothing could be said or done yet on the part of the greeter without a command from the Emperor to stop.
The question phrased by Gusto wasn’t meant to be answered, but intended to be a one-sided insult.
‘Does he always have to endure such insults to his face?’
Her mouth went dry.
Unlike the times when Briella stood before Lucas, she sensed a feeling only apparent now when standing beside him.
This swirl of emotion that stirred within her that she hadn’t felt before when she as Olivia looked on at Lucas from atop of the stairs where Gusto now seated.
“I sent you to save the people of Rhone from the barbarians, and all you’ve done is court them instead.”
Looking up at Gusto from down below, all she saw was malevolence—the arrogance, conceit, superiority, and cruelty of a man in power.
“Don’t you have a mouth, Duke? Huh! Get up.”
At Gusto’s words, Lucas straightened his bent knees and raised his head.
“Of course, how have I not realized it. You’d only speak when I tell you to stand up. Tsk, tsk.”
The contempt in his gaze caused Briella’s stomach to churn as if having a case of acid reflux.
However, she held her composure and lowered her head.
With a silent exhale, her eyes landed on the red carpeted floor.
She gritted her teeth, trying to banish the illusion of blood that was slowly trickling toward her.
Unbearable anger and sadness quickened her heart.
‘I will survive.’
‘I will survive,’ Briella vowed, noticing Gusto’s silhouette.
“You, the new Viterpan.”
His gaze was chilling as it swept over her.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
But she didn’t let the slightly raised corner of her mouth drop.
Her half-lidded eyes averted Gusto’s gaze, focusing on his shadow on the floor.
The image of his mocking face, smeared in her blood, flashed across her mind, but she will persevere.
Until the moment her blade could find itself plunged in his heart.
“I am Briella Viterpan. It is an honor to meet you, Your Majesty.”
There was no mistaking the trembling in her voice.
There was a faint glimmer of water in her otherwise dry eyes.
It was all calculated, but Gusto, thankfully, didn’t seem to notice.
‘Look at her.’
Gusto looked down at the resolute Viterpan, who was sneaking glances at him.
“Do you have barbarian blood in you?” Gusto inquired, eyeing the silver hair that resembled moonlight.
Silver hair was an uncommon hair color.
“Your Majesty!” retorted Lucas.
The empire had waged war against the barbarians not so long ago.
It was a great insult in the Empire to be openly accused of having barbarian blood.
“I didn’t ask the Duke.”
“My mother died shortly after she gave birth to me.”
“So you don’t know?”
A smile tugged at the corners of Gusto’s mouth, as if he was satisfied with the short answer.
Only time would reveal whether he was feigning ignorance or genuinely unaware.
“I’ve heard you fell in love and married hastily. Is it true, or are you merely pretending?”
The news of Lucas’s sudden marriage, shared by the imperial knight startled Briella, but it led to nothing more.
The northern region was ravaged by barbarian warfare, with only one survivor barely clinging to life.
That was the extent of the information he could gather on Briella.
Gusto was vexed.
He was already irritated by Lucas’s erratic behavior.
He had recently murdered the contentious Empress Olivia, Lucas’s former lover, and now Lucas had gotten married out of nowhere.
“I’m unsure if the princess is doing well. I’ll have to pay her a visit after the funeral.”
It was a clear provocation.
Lucas closed his eyes in response to the venom in Gusto’s voice.
In the darkness, which he had become more accustomed to than the light, his clenched hand slowly relaxed.
The sensation of chapped lips touched the back of his hand.
…. It’s a hallucination, or a vision.
Lucas hearkened back to the previous night when Briella’s lips touched on the back of his clenched hand.
That alone was enough for him to act nonchalant in front of Gusto.
“Ah, cha-cha-cha. I keep forgetting as I get older. There are no princesses in the Rhone Empire.”
With a smirk, Gusto grinned at Lucas.
Lucas’s fist seemed poised to strike him, slightly raised.
However, Gusto’s expectations were completely wrong.
Instead of a fist that could strike him at any moment, Lucas uncurled his fingers; his hand then lingering on the underside of his thigh.
His previously stiff jaw that hinted at his hidden anger was now overtaken by an expressionless look.
“I hope I get a chance to see Serena this time, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to accompany Her Highness personally.”
Far from being angry, Lucas’s reaction was one of indifference.
“….Think about it,” Lucas added.
His eyes didn’t look as angry as before.
Instead of a fierce hound that bared its fangs at its master, an air of calmness had set in.
It was unexpected.
“Get going now. I think the time has come to bid farewell to the Empress.”
Following Lucas, Briella gently bowed.
“Ah! Did you hear how the Empress died?” Gusto blurted at the two.
She had barely reached the door when she stumbled backward.
Briella’s head snapped up at the unexpected provocation.
She saw Gusto, his eyes narrowed and broad smile on his face.
“My Empress, the virtuous and wise Mother of the Empire, had an affair,” voiced Gusto with a contemptuous tone, attempting to get a rise out of any one of the two.
Holding the hem of her black dress, her hands began sweating.
She knew her death wouldn’t be concluded with a reputable obituary.
But an affair?
Yet there was nothing she could do about him spinning shameful lies about her legacy.
“She eagerly spoke of having a baby that would lead the empire whilst her womb carried the seed of another,” Gusto added with a disapproving tone.
Viterpan’s silence didn’t deter Gusto.
He simply blurted out everything he wanted to say.
“How shameless, isn’t it?”
“To think that the instant the child is born, everything would have come to light. Maybe that’s why she died. I am merely curious about the color of the baby’s eyes in the womb,” disparaged Gusto as he concluded his rant.
“…..then, we’ll be on our way,” said Briella as she smiled.
Lucas bowed once more.
The curtains that blocked the sunlight fluttered in the breeze.
Gusto’s hazel eyes glistened in the sunlight.
As the door closed, Briella’s dark green eyes met Gusto’s hazel eyes.
Briella had chosen to smile over shedding tears.
Gusto’s brow crinkled at the corners of Briella’s mouth.
It was her choice, in front of Gusto, who openly suspected Empress Olivia and Lucas of an affair.
Throughout the long corridor, the butler never looked back.
All the while, the two found solace in each other’s warmth.
At the end of the lengthy corridor, they finally stepped outside, bathed in light.
He blinked his eyes several times, momentarily dazzled.
“Well, then, I’m off.”
The butler made a short, dismissive bow.
Lucas nodded slowly. A line of nobles and courtiers dressed in black robes ascended the stairs.
“Hey, isn’t that Duke Viterpan? Who’s next to him?”
The nobles gawked at the two figures standing at the top of the stairs.
They had seen the two when they exited the carriage, so rumors must have spread to an extent.
“Let’s go in.”
Lucas slipped his arm around Briella’s waist and led the way.
They walked along the white carpeted path.
Someone offered Briella a single white lily, and she casually took it.
Lying in a transparent glass casket was a familiar, yet unfamiliar, version of her past self.
Her pale face was masked underneath a bed of rose petals.
“My God. The Empress’s affair was shocking enough, but Duke Viterpan getting married blows that out the water.”
A malignant curiosity was directed at the two as they stood side by side before the deceased Empress’s body.
Laying a single white lily upright at the feet of former self, Briella turned away.
A final farewell to the family she knew, and the life she abandoned for someone else.
“What kind of marriage is behind closed doors, especially someone of such stature like the Duke’s?”
The temple’s atmosphere lacked the solemnity of a funeral.
Even if there wasn’t a funeral, rumors were swirling of the Lucas’s alleged affair with the Empress.
“Isn’t it bizarre, this sudden marriage?”
“Of course it’s bizarre!”
The buzzing chatter was directed at the two of them.
It was a blend of malicious sneers and curiosity.
The truth didn’t matter.
“Her Majesty’s ex-fiancé, the Duke Viterpan,” uttered an attractive woman whose red lips peeked through her black veil.
Briella responded with a smile as the attractive woman’s gaze examined her slowly.
‘She smiled?’ thought the attractive woman inwardly.
‘Does that hillbilly with barbarian blood think she can look down on me?’
Suddenly, the attractive woman’s gaze turned fierce.
Stepping down from the dais after paying her respects, Briella seemed to walk on clouds.
Her movements displayed impeccable imperial etiquette.
Briella elegantly led Lucas, who had stiffened under the stares.
They were still inside the temple.
She passed by the Countess Lawrence, who appeared incensed at her graceful walk.
Her gaze was intense, as if Briella’s smile had offended her.
Eve’s closest confidante, the Countess Lawrence, was formidable.
[Speaking in Kali.]
The language Briella had just mouthed was Kali.
In truth, Countess Lawrence was not a citizen of the Empire, but of the Kingdom of Kali. It was a kingdom that had long since vanished.
Very few were privy to this fact.
At that moment, Countess Lawrence was the only one who deciphered Briella’s lips.
“What?” she said taken aback.
Seeing the bewildered look on Countess Lawrence’s face, Briella turned her face away.
It happened so quickly that no one knew what had occurred except Briella and Countess Lawrence.
Countess Lawrence’s shrill voice echoed throughout the temple where the funeral was being held.
Her furious gaze looked primed to tear Briella’s hair out at a moment’s notice.
Everyone’s eyes jerked at the Countess’s outburst.
“What is it, my lady?”
Earl Lawrence asked, studying the Countess’s sharply angry expression.
The couple looked more like father and daughter than husband and wife.
It was well known in aristocratic society that the gray-haired Earl of Lawrence was fond of his young wife.
The Countess shuddered with anger and covered her face with her hands.
Countess Lawrence’s gaze naturally turned to Briella.
Lucas paused for a moment, stunned by what had happened.
Briella led him calmly through the crowd again.
Behind them, she could hear Countess Lawrence’s voice, still ranting.
Briella still had a faint smile on her face.
“Ha,” sighed Briella as soon as they stepped outside the temple.
“What’s the matter?” Lucas brushed Briella’s hair back and whispered in her ear.
It was an affectionate gesture. However, it was staged.
“You said it was a celebration, so let’s enjoy it.”
Briella stroked Lucas’s cheek and smiled sweetly.
Today was the day of Empress Olivia’s funeral.
When an empress or emperor passed away, it was customary to observe a week of mourning.
However, due to the unhealthy rumors surrounding the Empress’s death, the funeral had been condensed to just three days.
The imperial temple was situated at the highest point in the capital, offering a panoramic view of the entire city.
On the way to the imperial cemetery, a procession of imperial subjects in black robes gathered.
“A large crowd.”
Lucas muttered, looking down.
“Yeah,” Briella replied, observing the assembly that gathered to bid her farewell for the last time.
She wondered how many of them she had actually met or laid eyes on.
“The Marquis,” announced Lucas.
Briella turned at Lucas’s words, seeing Marquis Ronae was ascending the stairs.
‘Father,’ said Briella inwardly.
The Marquis’s sharpened jaw line and sunken eyes gave off aged yet sharp countenance.
Marquis Ronae must have seen Lucas and Briella, because he strode briskly toward them.
“Long time no see. Duke Viterpan.”
“Greetings, Marquis Ronae.”
Lucas looked down at Briella and then met the Marquis Ronae’s formidable gaze.
“Briella Viterpan,” said Briella introducing herself.
“Viterpan,” muttered the Marquis, his greeting repeating Briella’s greeting.
“I see. Duchess Viterpan, this is neither an apt time nor place to get formally acquainted, let us exchange pleasantries another time.”
With those words, Marquis Ronae redirected his attention to the temple’s entrance and prepared to depart, but Briella interjected.
“I am relieved to see the Marquis in good spirits, considering the unfortunate rumors circulating about the Empress’s demise.”
It was an impulsive comment.
She didn’t expect the Marquis to weep. However he appeared far too composed for someone grappling with his daughter’s death.
As Olivia, she was to stand by Gusto’s side under her father’s orders, as if she were merely a sold object.
It was her father, the Marquis Ronae, who knew better than anyone what it was like to live in the briar environment that is imperial life.
At Briella’s inconsiderate words, the Marquis Ronae’s eyes narrowed.
But then he turned to Briella and gave her a stern look.
“Perhaps my daughter’s inept behavior has offended the Duchess, for which I will apologize for on a separate occasion.”
‘I had intended to keep her alive until next year, as agreed with the Marquis.’
Gusto’s words rang in my ears like an echo.
In truth, she already knew.
The bitter truth that her father had allowed her to die.
A tall shadow fell over Briella as she watched the Marquis Ronae excuse himself.
“How about just crying it all out?” said Lucas after observing Briella closely.
Lucas pulled her into a hug around the waist.
The thud of his heart reached her ears.
The clenched palm she’d uncurled the night before consoled her small back.
Soon, the grey, cloudy skies joined in her weeping. Rain began to fall.
The long procession that followed was not without wailing.
After much weeping, the casket containing Olivia’s body disappeared into the dirt.