It was different from the usual monotonous routine up until now.

Mariella asked, her face full of suspicion.


“I have a cousin of mine who has a huge ego and a thick skin.”

“Ah, Edmund Pakal.”

She remembered the young, arrogant nobleman who had been so crushingly defeated by Marianne a few months earlier. He was said to be staying in a mansion in the capital, not having made much of a presence since then.

“He’s going to hit us.”

One corner of Josef’s mouth lifted dangerously. It was a habit of his whenever he got overconfident.

Faced with his cunning snake-like nature, Mariella was numb.

She tried to detect his malice in the words that were dropped like hints.

“You mean assassination?”

“I don’t care if it’s anything like that, as long as it proves that the Ashakal are infiltrating Verdan.”

She crossed her arms and gave him an ugly look.

“Do you think the coward will do that?”

“Of course, he won’t directly reveal his true identity. If he were that kind of person, would he have engaged in such covert actions during the last Holy War? Needless to say, there’s no need to resort to assassination. We just need to uncover the planted spies. Converting spies into assassins is the task for my personal guards.”

“To defeat the enemy within, we first create enemies from the outside… It’s a clever strategy. It ensures we have a clear target to eliminate.”

Indeed, if they wanted to turn their attention to the outside world, the best thing to do was to bring up black magic. But the price of touching it was too high. They would risk reopening the issue of the princess’s bloodline, which had been sealed before.

Involving the Ashakal, on the other hand, would clean things up. There’s no civil war like the Holy War, and there’s no room for the Papacy to interfere. It would simply be a matter of kicking out Edmund Pakal and his associates and the matter would be sealed.

Since the division of the Empire, Verdan has been the unofficial hegemon of the continent, and though they don’t show it, the people of Verdan have taken great pride in that fact.

To them, the fledgling Ashakal was a thorn in their side. Regardless of the individual interests of the nobility, the public sentiment was the same.

It was clear that both the noble and royal factions would agree on the removal of Ashakal.

“So, when is the execution?”

Josef answered her question as if he had been waiting for it.

“I’ve already found all the spies my cousin planted. All that’s left is fine-tuning.”

He made it sound like the operation was almost complete, but in truth, coordination was the hardest part.

They had to make their work look like political manoeuvring by the enemy Ashakal to devour Verdan, not a cousin’s battle for the throne, while at the same time not making it big enough to start a war.

But he couldn’t make light of it.

At the moment, Edmund Pakal was enjoying the favour of the nobility. If it wasn’t big enough to shake the kingdom to its core, the aristocracy would sweep it under the carpet. The people would never know what happened, and it would all be forgotten.

They need an event that’s just threatening enough to make everyone’s hair stand up.

It would take quite a bit of thinking, but it was none of Mariella’s business. Her goal right now was to have the hearts of both men in her hands, not to have Josef ascend to the throne.

“I see.”

She nodded a couple of times.

She wasn’t her usual self today. She didn’t ask, ‘What do you want me to do?’ or pretend to be deeply troubled. She stared down at his lips with mesmerised eyes.

The upturned corners of his mouth even when he wasn’t smiling, and his lower lip, red and just the right thickness.

It wasn’t an overtly flirtatious look, but rather a subtle, soft one, like a man who had unwittingly revealed his true feelings in an unconscious act.

As Josef recited his plans for how to intertwine Edmund Pakal’s spies with Ashakal, he sensed a strange vibe.

He stopped, tilted his head slightly in a ‘what’s this all about?’ kind of way, and then turned to her, unable to contain the laughter that was bubbling up inside.

“What are you looking at?”

Just like that.

“As if there were separate desires that exist.”

He said slowly, stepping closer to her. Their lips, playfully arching, drew closer and closer. Their breaths sounded closer than ever.

Body heat in the space between them, almost touching.

Mariella sighed and closed her eyes.

Soon, their lips met. It was a full-blown kiss, unlike the last one, which had been nothing more than a light peck. His tongue darted between her closed lips, flicking lightly across her teeth. Just as she was about to cautiously open her mouth to receive him.


The door to the study burst open.

Their eyes snapped to the unwelcome intruder, who stood there with a murderous look on his face. He looked like he could cut someone down at a moment’s notice.

“Ah. Julian.”

Josef smirked and called my best friend by his first name.

There was none of the shame or urgency of someone who had been caught in a secret kiss.

He seemed to have been waiting for this to happen, and Mariella was sure that he too had sensed Julian’s feelings.

“Josef, you…”

Julian stalked toward him. There was a dull anger in each step.

“I’ll leave you to it.”

She curtsied with a throaty movement, then hurried out of the room.

Like a person who had been caught doing something shameful, she ran out with her face hardened in embarrassment, but her heart was not like that.

After walking for a while, she caught her breath behind a pillar and turned around, her frightened expression wiped from her face. The window of the study, where Josef and Julian would be, was as small as a fingernail.

‘It’s obvious what kind of conversation they’ll have.’

Mariella walked forward, a satisfied look on her face.

She has to stimulate their imaginations.

To make her intensely suspicious.

* * *

Mariella left the study.

The air surrounding the two remaining men is eerily still.

Julian, as if to ask for an explanation.

Julian was staring at him with frosty eyes, as if demanding an explanation, and Josef returned his gaze with a steady, dignified one.

They stared at each other for a long time without speaking.

It was Josef who raised the white flag and spoke up, his voice mischievous and his hand lightly tapping Julian on the shoulder.

“Why are you suddenly being so cordial? Didn’t you already know about our relationship?”

“I’m thinking of your wife, who will only have eyes for you.”

“Ah, are you referring to Marianne? Well, she’s what… deeply immersed in the artistic world created by the creator and never even bothered to glance at someone like me.”

Josef smirked, remembering Marianne, who seemed unable or unwilling to distinguish between the world of books and reality.

Even for a man who had seen all kinds of people in his time in the castle, Marianne was a new kind of human.

At his light-hearted banter, Julian didn’t lift a finger. His demeanour remained cold and rigid.

“Deception is the same language as betrayal.”

Ironically, Julian’s very words were deceitful.

Julian is now confronting Josef about respecting the princess, but they both know it’s only a façade.

Josef’s heart is twisted by Julian’s behaviour, as he hides his true feelings and pretends to be noble. It had been so long since he’d felt this way about someone he cared about, he wasn’t even sure what expression he was supposed to wear now.

“I know.”


“So I’m going to make it public.”


Julian asked, frowning, as the conversation seemed to take a strange turn.

There was a gleam in Josef’s eyes that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, whether it was pride or madness.

“As my mistress, I mean.”


The sudden declaratiom sent a shiver down Julian’s spine.

He’d always insisted on taking stock and following the obvious path to the right answer.

Now he was starting to make unplanned moves.

* * *

After a night like the eve of a storm, the sun rose without warning.

A warm noon, when even the mountain birds, which had been flying from tree to tree, chirping noisily, drooped their heads in drowsiness.

The Prince and Princess took tea after a long time. The venue was a glass conservatory.

The couple sat across from each other at a small table, with Daisy right next to Marianne.

Mariella, the only commoner here, stood alone, serving tea instead of an attendant. She feigned obliviousness, but kept her eyes on Josef’s behaviour.

The posture of sitting with the chin propped up, the eyelids slightly lazily closed, and the corners of the mouth slightly raised. None of them were suspicious. It almost feels like a splendid warning that something great will happen soon, so look forward to it.

‘No, its a warning.’

She caught a glimpse of Josef’s mischievous eyes. If she looked deeper, she could see the emotion bubbling inside them.

Though, given the events of the previous night, his anger didn’t seem out of place.

Mariella swallowed hard.

She’d expected a provoked Josef to react in some way, but she’d prepared herself a bit, but she wasn’t ready to take everything at face value.

She was still only a wandering maid who had been here less than a year, and Josef had been rolling in this mud since he was born.

She was under no illusions that she was above him because she’d won a few kisses.


Josef laughed softly at Mariella’s obvious wariness of him. He tipped his teacup, pretended it was a mistake, and spilled tea on the hem of Marianne’s dress.

“Oh, my.”

Contrary to the sound of sighing, it is an expression that shows no regret at all.

Daisy, at Marianne’s side, fussed.

“Your Royal Highness, are you all right?”

“Oh, I’m fine. It’s milk tea, so it’s not too hot, though I need to change my clothes.”

Josef looked at Mariella wordlessly.

Mariella clutched the hem of her skirt. She thought that if there were a sound to the gaze, it would be the shattering of glass.

The tension between them was palpable.

Even Marianne, who had no interest in Josef, could see through it in an instant.

Fortunately, however, Marianne and Daisy were distracted by the spilled tea and did not notice their skirmish.

Josef flashed Mariella a sheepish grin, then turned into the Prince Josef everyone knew and worried about Marianne.

“Are you hurt, my love? It’s all my fault. My wrist was sore after the hunting tournament, but I took it lightly and ended up hurting you…”

“It’s all right, Your Highness. I’ll be back in a few minutes to change my clothes. Will you excuse me for a moment?”

“Of course.”

Marianne rose from her seat with Daisy. Josef smiled wryly and motioned for her to go.

“I’ll stay here.”

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