Chapter 34

Cain’s gaze flickered with a subtle tremor. Unlike Marcella, Lariana opposed participating in the hunting festival. For Cain, the family had always been a subordinate to the Duchy. But this woman, why? Even blood-related family seem to value the Duchy more than themselves.

Suddenly, a warmth surged at the edges of his ears and the back of his neck.

“Lariana, stop talking and treat it.” As Cain grumbled curtly, Lariana pursed her lips and then defiantly bit them, directing her attention solely to the makeshift emergency treatment she had undertaken.

Within the mansion, silence settled. Cain stared at Lariana intently.

Perhaps engrossed in treating the wound, her nose crinkled and her lower lip was fiercely gnawed upon. The pressure was so great that her pink lips, resembling petals, seemed as though they could tear apart any moment.

Cain irritably flipped the strand of hair that had fallen onto his forehead, a gesture to distract himself. It was annoying. The minuscule, plump lips bothered him incessantly.

“Don’t bite your lips.”

“Should I now have your permission for my actions?”

Lariana, immersed in treatment, cast a fleeting glance at him before defiantly biting her lips between her teeth once more.

Without warning, Cain, using his uninjured hand, brought his fingers close to her lips, forcing them apart and then thrusting his finger between her lips to prevent further biting.

“Stop doing it.”

In an act of rebellion, Lariana lightly grazed her teeth against his finger.

In that moment, Cain abruptly stood up from the bed. His fingertips had touched something. Something incredibly smooth and supple.

“What was that?”

It was a shocking sensation he had never before experienced. He had been unaware that something so soft could exist for a human… A sudden surge of pleasure coursed through his entire body.

“What are you talking about?”

“Are you hiding something in your mouth?”

“Hide? Ah…”

Bewildered, Lariana obediently opened her mouth. Though her gaze was perplexed, to Cain it seemed almost provocatively enigmatic.

His focus remained fixed solely on her parted lips. He wanted to explore further that small mouth.

Cain lowered himself onto the bed, lost in his torment.

Ah, bit by bit, he was losing himself, inching deeper into madness.

⋆ ★ ⋆

Within the golden-hued mansion, Lejandro held a goblet of wine and smiled incessantly. Though his companion, Jenox, prattled on, he remained oblivious to his words.

He reminisced about his memories with Lariana, savoring them like the taste of wine. Strangely, he found himself loving her even more now than when they were together.

He had planned to ascend as Emperor and introduce the concubine system, making her his concubine… But Cain had intervened.

Lariana had aimed to become a concubine in the imperial court, and even Cain had been willing to promote her status in exchange for his assistance in ascending. Yet, their marriage had shattered all of Lejandro’s plans.

In the depths of despair, the appearance of Lariana’s cousin, Jenox Heliosen, had been a stroke of luck.

While not as exceptional as Cain, Jenox was quick-witted and eloquent. He didn’t hesitate to employ any means necessary to achieve his goals.

After all, the prince’s faction had plenty of talented individuals. Those willing to take the forefront were ample, but someone was required to take care of the more clandestine matters behind the scenes. In that regard, Jenox was the perfect candidate.

Particularly as he held animosity towards Cain, Lejandro found him even more appealing.

“Why did the heroic Cain Delacroix of Martessen fall into such an ailment?”

“He must have fallen victim to a witch’s curse.”

Lejandro smiled, sipping his wine as Jenox chatted on, completely deaf to his words.

There was no definitive explanation or cure for madness yet, so it was often attributed to witch’s curses.

But Jenox was adamant that the madness wasn’t a disease, but a witch’s curse. He even claimed that witches still existed and their curses and magic were real. To believe such fanciful tales was naive at best, yet he seemed so sure.

“Indeed. Let’s see if the Witch’s Forest will be displeased with Cain.”

“Your Highness, as you know, many in Heline are of Rindell descent. Isn’t Lariana’s mother also of noble birth in Rindell? I’ve verified it. Those cursed by the witch cannot escape the Witch’s Forest alive.”

Jenox was confident that Cain would meet his end in the Witch’s Forest. This conviction was rooted in information he had discreetly taken from the diary of his grandmother, a high-ranking Rindell noble.

“If not death, I wish Cain to suffer greatly. Well, ideally, I’d prefer him dead, but that’s wishful thinking.”

Lejandro’s brows furrowed as he felt his wife’s piercing gaze fixed on him as if observing his soul. She looked even more disdainful than usual, and her actions were equally sluggish.

“Seems you made an amusing jest to the Duchess Delacroix.”

Meeting his eyes, Julia opened her mouth as if she had been waiting for it.

“A jest? Do you really consider it a jest?”

Lejandro retorted sharply with a chuckle.

In the mansion of the royal couple, the couple and Jenox were present. Apparently, they couldn’t afford to display marital discord in front of their subjects, so Julia gave Jenox a subtle glance to withdraw.

“Your Highnesses, it seems the opening ceremony of the hunting festival is imminent… I shall leave to prepare.”

“Jenox. What are you talking about?”

“Indeed. Do go ahead.”

Rejecting Lejandro’s reluctant gesture, Jenox hastily departed. Left alone, Julia adjusted her posture.

Sitting upright, she tossed the book she had been reading onto the table. Even her once soft voice had now turned aggressively sharp.

“You made a comment to the Duchess, and you think that’s just a jest? What’s the point, even if you did? The Duchess will never accept you as a mistress. Do you forget that she’s married to Cain Delacroix?”

Lejandro flung his wine glass at Julia in irritation. Knowing she wouldn’t be hit, he threw it in a way that it would miss her, but Julia didn’t even blink.

A commotion outside the mansion began to grow as the courtiers gathered.

“Ha, the Princess of a petty kingdom, you dare speak such words to me? Do you not recall that it was my marriage to you that preserved your status as a princess? Had I not married you, Serren would have fallen!”

Amused by her agitated husband, Julia covered her mouth with the sleeve of her golden dress. Concealing her face with her sleeve, Julia smirked.

“You’re no different. Without me, you would have lost your position as Crown Prince to Princess Sonia.”

Sonia had postponed her marriage to pursue the throne. Marrying would have inevitably caused a hiatus due to pregnancy and childbirth. And having an unwed daughter was undesirable for the Emperor Ivelian II. Lejandro had exploited this gap.

Knowing his father’s intentions, Lejandro promised to protect Serren, so Julia, believing in his word, married him.

Furthermore, Lejandro had made a secret pact through his union with Serren. If he wasn’t appointed Crown Prince, Serren would rebel.

“You couldn’t even make me the Crown Prince.”

“What did you say?”

“You must have thought my marriage to you would secure your position as the Crown Princess. But that’s not the case. It’s partly your fault too, Julia. Had you been born in a larger and more powerful kingdom, your family might have been of help to me. Or at least, if you were prettier. If you were a beauty, my father might have favored you and given me the Crown Prince position.”

“You truly are pitiful. Do you think I have nothing to offer you except for my face? It’s not top-notch, but it’s decent enough. I suppose. I thought if I married you, Serren would become stronger. Yet, you haven’t given Serren anything. You haven’t even secured your position as Crown Prince. At this rate, I can’t guarantee how long our marriage will last.”

As soon as Lejandro finished his harsh words, he shook his head in frustration while staring at Julia’s face. Somehow, today, her normally plain face seemed even more repugnant to him.

“That’s why I despise you. If you’re so weak, at least be gentle in your words. Just looking at your face makes me nauseous, I can’t bear to be around you.”

With Lejandro’s offensive remarks, Julia met his gaze squarely and tightened her jaw. He huffed and stumbled out of the mansion, leaving it resounding with his retreating footsteps.

As her husband exited the mansion, Julia’s strength seemed to drain away. At the crossroads of survival, she fervently repeated Serren’s bright future to herself.

⋆ ★ ⋆

As the sun began to set, all the nobles who were attending the festival gathered in front of the imperial mansion. It wasn’t long before Ivelian II, accompanied by the Empress, Princess Sonia, and Prince Lejandro, made their appearance.

Amidst the crowd, Lariana stood alone. Having been the lover of Lejandro before her marriage, she wasn’t welcomed by either faction, the princess’s or the prince’s. In the prince’s faction, she was treated nearly the same as a prince’s faction traitor due to her association with Cain. And in the princess’ faction, she was seen as a betrayer.

Moreover, it seemed that Lejandro’s recent comment had spread as whispers had already started circulating, and everyone was ignoring Lariana’s greetings and words.

‘If only Cain were here by my side, even this situation would be better….’

Amidst the disdain and persecution, only Cain, who meets her with hostility yet somehow cares for her, seemed to engage with her sincerely.

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