“An invitation has arrived from the Imperial Palace.”
Vinter presented a golden envelope resting on a silver platter.
Briella was giving instructions to the gardeners in the garden when she turned her gaze.
Her cheeks were rosier than before, as if she’d been fed a nourishing diet in collaboration with the manor chefs.
“From the palace?”
“It’s specifically for me, not His Highness?”
He looked surprised, as if he hadn’t expected it either.
“It came later than I expected.”
Only three days had passed since she’d turned down the Countess Lawrence’s tea party.
Vinter didn’t understand Briella’s words, but he didn’t mind.
To him, she resembled that of an innocent young woman, her peachy cheeks glistening in the sunlight.
The butler looked meaningfully at Briella as she squinted in the sunlight.
In the short time he’d known her; he’d realized that no one else was better suited to be the Duke’s mistress than Briella.
She headed the men of the manor, skillfully keeping them in check as if it were a natural calling.
Of course, there were those who resented her for it.
“The sun is scorching today, I suggest you move to the shade.”
Nodding at Vinter’s words, Briella stayed out of the sun’s reach.
Even with her wide-brimmed hat on, the autumn sun was blistering.
“Were you expecting it?” inquired Vinter impatiently, interested in the letter as she walked away.
Briella didn’t provoke the Countess Lawrence at the funeral for nothing.
The palace’s invitation was lavishly decorated compared to the bland one sent by Countess Lawrence.
“I have some business to attend to.”
Briella gracefully picked up the invitation.
The sender of the letter was Eve Ferena.
It had been a month since the Empress’s funeral.
Naturally, she expected to hear Eve be crowned empress immediately.
But the backlash from the nobles had been more severe than she’d expected, and she still hadn’t been given a proper title, only the noble’s surname that Gusto had forced upon her.
“It’s remarkable how shameless she is, brazenly attaching the imperial seal on an envelope without a title to her name.”
“What?” asked Vinter.
Briella handed the invitation back to him as she gazed at the sky.
The cloudless, blue skies stretched out before her like a painted canvas.
Lucas came into her field of vision, waving from the office window overlooking the garden.
How long has he been watching me?
Briella pulled the brim of her hat down and looked away, acting like she didn’t see him.
Lucas’s expression scrunched at her unusual action.
“What are you doing?” Baron asked, turning to Lucas whom had stopped working, his attention directed at the garden.
The circles under Baron’s eyes were dark, evidence of his sleepless nights.
“I was waving hello to my lovely wife.”
“That’s not the face of someone who’s greeted their lovely wife.”
Baron rose curiously from his seat and came to the window.
“The lady turns a blind eye to my greeting.”
There was no way for Baron to verify if Lucas was telling the truth or not.
All he could see was Briella in the garden, talking to Vinter.
Her appearance now was vastly different compared to the woman he’d first met in the carriage accident.
“What are you really set on doing?” Baron inquired.
Standing side by side, looking out over the garden, their expressions were different.
“Set on what?” Lucas responded.
Lucas still hadn’t taken his eyes off Briella. His brow was furrowed and his gaze remained fixed as if he was trying to figure out what he didn’t like.
“The new mistress.”
The Duchess Viterpan.
She was the most talked about name among the nobility these days.
“A new mistress, when you put it that way, I sound like a flirt.”
“That’s what I’ve been getting at. You’ve never taken an interest in women,” Baron replied as he smirked.
Lucas was the sole remaining member of the Imperial House of Rhone.
Even though Princess Serena still remained, the extent of her circumstances was not well-known.
Given his historical lack of interest in women, the recent, extraordinary turn of events had left Baron quite distressed.
“The time spent in interest for women isn’t a luxury I can exactly afford, now can I?”
Lucas said, still not taking his eyes off Briella.
“And yet there are accounts of your third son on the battlefield against the barbarians.”
Lucas laughed heartily at Baron’s words.
Looking at Lucas, Baron shook his head.
“Lack of time is just an excuse, Your Grace.”
“Isn’t that why you went straight to marriage without a relationship prior?”
Just then, he caught sight of Briella, who had been chatting amiably with Vinter, heading toward the mansion.
‘She deserves a second look, doesn’t she?’
Their eyes clearly met. Still, she deliberately avoided looking in his direction.
“Have you ever had a cat?”
“Huh? Why are you talking about cats all of a sudden?”
Lucas cast a sideways glance at the now-empty seat.
“Because I think you let a cat into your house.”
“Was that such a hard question?”
Baron furrowed his brow at Lucas, who continued rambling instead of answering Baron’s question of what his intentions were with Briella.
Then, with a pout, Baron turned and walked back to his desk, which was stacked with papers.
“This is your home, butterfly,” Lucas muttered, looking over the vacant garden as a butterfly passed.
* * *
“Is Madame Blanc still here?”
At Briella’s words, Vinter bowed ruefully.
Lucas had specifically chosen her, so it was only natural that he would bend to her commands.
But even if he didn’t, Briella was special.
Her every gesture, her every word, exuded grace and dignity.
“Inform them I’ll be visiting Madame Blanc’s boutique myself.”
Vinter retorted, startled by Briella’s words.
Currently, Briella was residing at the mansion, having recently turned down the invitation to a noblewoman’s tea party.
If word got out that she had simply gone out to tailor her clothes, Countess Lawrence wouldn’t be happy in the slightest.
“Don’t worry, once Madame Blanc finds out, she’ll arrive here shortly.”
“Will she now?”
Briella queried, somewhat dubiously.
“She must be weighing up the matter at hand, and if that’s the case, we should be first to act.”
“And I’ll be deciding who will be weighing who on the scale.”
Briella’s expression was somber upon saying that. The glistening peach-colored cheeks, reminiscent of a young woman was nowhere in sight.
Vinter lowered his head.
At this point, the need to go through the hassle of discovering her past identity was no longer of significant importance.
And just as anticipated, that afternoon, the snooty Madame Blanc came to see the Duchess Viterpan herself.
“It’s my first time I meeting you, Duchess Viterpan. Greetings.”
She bent to her knees in a formal curtsy.
Taking a seat with her maid and Vinter behind her, Briella studied Madame Blanc closely.
A part of Briella wanted to leave Madame Blanc stuck there in that position, her knees uncomfortably bent, waiting for her to give the order to rise.
However, some things in life were meant to be.
For now, moderation was the order of the day.
“I heard you’re not feeling well, you can stop now.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” replied Madame Blanc as she stood up, clutching the hem of her skirt.
“Please, you should sit down too.”
Madame Blanc could tell Briella had had strict etiquette training from the way she moved.
“When I heard you unwell, I had intended to go see you myself.”
Although it wasn’t made public, Briella had requested for her three times.
The said requests had placed Madame Blanc under such intense pressure that she contemplated closing up her boutique for a while.
“That’s right. One should have their rest when they’re sick,” added Madame Blanc, indirectly slighting Briella before smiling.
Briella was surprised but not shaken by Madame Blanc’s indirect slight towards her.
“Yes, you’ve been thinking quite hard, haven’t you? A headache can be quite painful,” replied Briella, unfazed.
Madame Blanc’s hand which was reaching for the teacup froze halfway upon hearing Briella’s words.
Raising her head to look at Briella, Madame Blanc’s eyes displayed embarrassment.
“…..perhaps it’s due to your upbringing in the north for so long, but it’s rather callous of you to say such things.”
“Like I would take your advice. It isn’t any better.”
Briella raised her teacup gracefully.
Madame Blanc couldn’t find a single error in her posture, not even at how she held her teacup.
‘I thought the rumors said she was a hillbilly with barbarian blood!’
Briella smiled chillingly as she watched Madame Blanc hastily raise her teacup to hide her embarrassment.
“How rude of you to invite someone and treat them this way,” said Madame Blanc.
“How ironic, those words coming from someone who refused the Duchess’s request thrice?”
Briella’s voice was laced with ease.
Was she was in a hurry to get to the boutique herself?
The Duchess was not as ignorant as the rumors suggested.
Everyone who spoke of her described her as timid and frail.
They also said they’d seen her turn tail and run at the Countess Lawrence’s urging.
None of that was true.
“If you were merely selling mundane clothes, I wouldn’t have noticed you.”
Now that Briella given Madame Blanc the stick, it was time to give her the carrot.
An evening-like breeze blew in from the open window.
It was cold enough to cool her fevered cheeks.
“What?” Madame Blanc asked with a stunned look.
“I’m talking about the elegance of your clothes.”
This, too, was unexpected, and she stared at Briella with her mouth open for a long moment.
“Unlike other designer clothing, Madame’s clothes compliment the wearer themselves, making them stand out even more, as if trends don’t matter.”
“Well, I’m grateful you see it that way.”
Madame Blanc lowered her head, unable to hide her shock.
“It’s clear you don’t need money at this point,” stated Briella.
Madame Blanc’s clothes couldn’t be bought for payments of large sums.
The artful use of commercial tactics cleverly exploited women’s speculation, fueling the competing among nobles.
It was a tightrope walk for line of business, but it worked.
“They say Madame Blanc’s clothes are the very embodiments of wealth, honor, and power.”
“You’re being flattering.”
Madame Blanc’s face looked more relaxed than she had at first, as if Briella’s praise hadn’t offended her.
“But how could the honor of someone making such refined clothing remain unchanged?”
She set down her teacup and lowered her gaze, a faint sneer was visible.
“My honor?” repeated Madame Blanc, perplexed.
“What are those nobles, those who wield power at the Madame’s side doing now?”
The color red tinged Madame Blanc’s cheeks as if once again she had been baffled by a question to which she could not deduce an answer.
“I’m asking you where those nobles are and what they’re doing; after all they couldn’t even stop a barbarian-blooded country girl from summoning you.”
Madame Blanc’s body trembled slightly at Briella’s words, which seemed to penetrate her heart.
She had risen to this position alone, unaided by anyone.
Despised and scorned by the nobility, she had taken up sewing at the age of ten.
All as a commoner.
Everyone wore her dresses to parties, but Madame Blanc had never once been invited to a nobleman’s party.
“That’s the thing about being a commoner,” said Briella, “you can’t keep your head above water long enough to keep up with the aristocracy.”
Madame Blanc’s brown eyes narrowed in anger at Briella’s directness.
Briella did not avert her gaze.
“It is well known that the late Empress discarded Madame Blanc’s clothes, handing them to Eve Ferena.”
It was a lie.
Eve Ferena had stolen the dress that had been intended for Empress Olivia.
But Briella hadn’t bothered to reveal it.
It didn’t matter if Olivia was reviled. She had to take advantage of whatever was available.
“I didn’t realize the story had traveled so far north.”
“That’s where the people live, too.”
The two women raised their teacups in anticipation. They needed a moment to recollect.
Madame Blanc gulped and sipped her moderately cooled tea carefully.
Her gaze remained on Briella.
‘She has such a presence.’
Only once in her life had Madame Blanc seen Olivia up close.
It was the empire’s annual New Year’s celebration.
While riding in a carriage, Olivia wore the ribbon she’d made which her maid delivered.
From then on, her desire for Empress Olivia grew.
It was her wish to make a dress for the Empress.
She smiled bitterly at the memory of the past.
Briella set her teacup down. The deliberate sound brought Madame Blanc out of her reverie.
Their eyes met, and as if waiting for the right moment, Briella’s lips parted.
“I’ll offer you a title.”
“Ho, ho, ho. You want to give me a title?”
It was a clear mockery.
There was no one in the Empire who didn’t know that Lucas was an unfortunate crown prince.
If Lucas had been in the emperor’s place, it would have been no problem, but the situation was different now.
“…..Do you have any intention of reclaiming your title of nobility?”
Madame Blanc’s face instantly hardened at Briella’s unexpected words.
“I’ll help you reclaim your title of nobility.”
“…..I don’t know how you know that, but I’m only half noble.”
The hand that set down the teacup with a clinking sound trembled slightly. The bright yellow tea rippled in the cup at Madame Blanc’s touch.
“Certainly Madame can fill the other half herself, can’t she?”
Madame Blanc’s face hardened at the innocent-sounding question.
“We should reclaim the title of nobility for Madame before Sir Harold tires himself further, and your son as well.”
The love of a noble and a commoner was always an unhappy one.
Whether it was noblemen or noblewomen, the end was the same.
Even in the face of Madame Blanc’s violent trembling at the discovery of her secret, Briella did not lose her composure.
She had preyed on the misfortunes of others. Though, it was not that she felt no remorse.
‘I’ll get my punishment later, all at once.’
Briella prayed to a goddess she no longer believed in.
A chill in the air entered as the sun set.
“Isn’t this a fair trade?”
Instead of an answer, Madame Blanc’s eyes met hers, filled with anger, despair, and confusion. Her gaze made Briella’s skin tingle.
Defeated by the perfect intimidation, Madame Blanc lowered her head.
“What do you need of me?”
Her voice filled the parlor, not unlike her venomous face.