“No, I used to, but I don’t think about it anymore.”
For once, Marianne says something that suits Mariella’s taste.
Then she rattles off a series of unasked-for reasons.
“When I returned to my hometown, Sofia had given birth to a child. Holding the incessantly crying baby in her arms all day, Sofia’s eyes were empty. They were like the eyes of a hollow scarecrow. Even standing in front of a guillotine wouldn’t be more despairing than that. So I thought, realistically.”
The word is so unfamiliar coming out of Marianne’s mouth.
‘If you’d just been realistic, things wouldn’t have gone this far.’
Mariella pretended to listen to Marianne’s words, hiding her devastation.
“I don’t have the patience for a child who cries and whimpers all day long, and my twenty years are too full of promise to sell out to some fanciful fantasy.”
It was uncharacteristic of Marianne to ponder, and as she reviewed Sofia’s sulky figure in her memory, she snapped back to reality. What mattered now was Edmund Pakal’s evil deeds, not her untried parenting.
Marianne looked up at Mariella, her eyes shining.
“Anyway, I need to find out exactly what’s going on.”
She wants to know.
Daisy, who had been standing still beside her, stepped forward. Daisy was now feeling a sense of crisis in her position, which had been drastically diminished by Mariella’s appearance.
Normally, Mariella would have waved her off. But this was not a job she could handle. Mariella cut her off.
Frustration flashed across Daisy’s face, but she pretended not to see it.
“Whisperings among the maidservants tend to have a surprisingly high accuracy rate.”
Mariella pretended to be nothing more than a shrewd and aggressive maid.
* * *
Mariella left Marianne’s quarters at once.
As soon as she rounded the corner through the long corridor, a large hand shot out and grabbed her shoulder. An ugly force pushed her back against the wall in one swift motion.
Mariella looked up to see the face of her attacker. The large man was a familiar face.
Julian von Bayer.
He was staring at her with fierce eyes.
When she met his gaze without averting it, he lowered his head and growled softly.
“You seem to have forgotten where you belong just because you’ve changed jobs.”
He was obviously quite annoyed by the events of the day.
It was clear that he thought Mariella had deliberately set him up.
Mariella was unmoved by his anger. Being cowed here would only deepen his suspicions. Instead, she glared at him and snapped.
“Wasn’t it the Duke himself who told me not to be so presumptuous and to stay put? How is a mere maid supposed to go in and out of the Duke’s quarters, in this castle with so many prying eyes?”
When she had finished speaking, she removed Julian’s hand from her shoulder, and with a quick, feral touch brushed away the crumpled hem of her garment and the dust.
It was her, and no one else, who should be annoyed.
Julian made a pained face.
Mariella wasn’t satisfied with that. She decided to push him further.
“What the hell is going on? The Duke of Bayer, who sees everything coming, is so unprepared.”
Julian showed no reaction to her sarcasm. He remained silent and thoughtful, then slowly lifted his eyelids to stare at her.
“Don’t make a scene.”
His jet-black eyes swivelled.
“I will find a way to bring you back.”
* * *
It was a rainy dawn in winter.
Josef had just finished his state duties and was about to go to bed when Julian visited him.
Julian’s face was filled with confusion.
“What’s going on, no words.”
Josef asked with a mischievous grin, dressed in a thin nightgown, his eyes catching the hem of Julian’s robe soaked with winter rain. He must have been pacing the garden, lost in thought. He deliberately tried to ease his friend’s tension.
Despite Josef’s efforts, Julian remained stiff and rigid. In fact, he seemed to tense up even more.
Swallowing hard, Julian avoided Josef’s gaze and spoke up.
“I have a favour to ask you.”
“What is it?”
“Can you return my maid…?”
Josef’s playful face turned cold. In a cold voice, he confirmed the fact once more.
“You mean Mariella?”
“I want her to be my personal maid again.”
Silence hovered between them.
Julian kept his gaze down, unable to meet Josef’s eyes.
Josef hoped he would back down now, but there was no sign of it.
Frustrated, Josef ran a hand through his hair. He sighed shallowly and asked, not bothering to hide his raw emotion.
Julian was silent.
Josef had no intention of letting it go. He didn’t have the luxury of time right now.
Josef asked one more time.
His voice was tight with anger.
“Why did you suddenly come to such a decision, Julian?”
Julian raised his head slowly. Unlike the tip of his chin, which was trembling, his eyes no longer wavered.
“Because I fell in love with her.”
There are some emotions that are amplified the moment they leave your mouth.
Love was one of them.
The air around them sank, frighteningly so.
Josef pressed the bone beneath his brow, not bothering to hide his displeasure.
“It’s not like you didn’t know the relationship between her and I.”
Julian replied immediately to Josef’s cold words.
The bluntness of his response irritated Josef. Josef raised one eyebrow and stared at Julian.
“I think I also told you that I plan to bring her as a mistress soon.”
“Then why, now?”
This time, the answer didn’t come right away. Julian turned his head at his friend’s question and looked around his quarters. The ivory bedspread, the molten gold pattern on the wallpaper, the vases with fine lines that had been handed down from the imperial family of Rembato in the Empire… The wealth and power of Verdan, accumulated over a hundred years, were all here in this one room.
Julian imagined Mariella in this position. What was the difference between a taxidermied mount and a mistress?
To him, they served the same purpose.
A trophy to reaffirm someone’s authority.
It was not a position for the assertive, intelligent Mariella. Even if she wanted it.
Julian murmured in a low voice.
“To the powerful, mistresses and concubines are ornaments, things that can be made without love.”
His gaze scanned the room, then slowly returned to Josef.
They were the eyes of a man who had cut out all options and was determined to stay on one path.
“That’s why I’ve come to ask you. If your decision to keep her as your mistress stems from any other physical relationship than love, then let her go…”
Josef pulled one corner of his mouth into a smile. He saw right to the heart of the matter that Julian was avoiding.
Josef asked, not avoiding Julian’s gaze.
“What about love?”
“What if I am truly in love with Mariella Hoban?”
Josef’s judgement was correct. Caught off guard, Julian was instantly at a loss for words.
Josef didn’t give his silent friend a chance to breathe.
Until finally, Julian revealed his true feelings.
“If that’s the case… I hope you’ll be even more lenient.”
“That’s not like you, Julian.”
Josef was openly sarcastic. He thought he knew Julian well. A rigid gentleman obsessed with good and evil, morality, and discipline.
That’s why he chose this aggressive method.
He thought that if he could just let Julian know that he was going in the wrong direction, he would correct himself to get back on track.
But the response was not what he expected.
“You can only put her in the position of a mistress at best, but I can give her the title of Duchess.”
Josef’s eyes widened at the unexpected answer.
“You… Does that mean you’re willing to give up your position as head of the Paladins?”
Julian nodded his head sharply.
“You can’t cheat your longing heart out of that position.”
“When the Pope returns, I plan to resign everything and step down.”
Josef was taken aback by this attitude of having already made up his mind.
He deliberately sounded strong to hide his surprise. He furrowed his brow, lowered his voice, and made a small, scowling gesture.
“You think she, a commoner, can afford the position? A sudden good fortune is worse than poison.”
But Julian was not swayed by the sight.
Rather, he stepped up his game.
“I plan to go down to the duchy and live in seclusion. Social life has never interested me.”
Julian turned to Josef desperately.
“Let her go, Josef. At the very least, release her superficially.”
“What does that even mean?”
“If you love her deeply, you may see her in secret, as you do now. I will give her only the title of Duchess, and you may keep it that way.”
Turning to Josef, who was withholding his answer, Julian added.
“You know it’s safer that way.”
The tables had turned.
Julian’s bold display of sincerity had backed Josef into a corner.
Even though the tables had turned in his favour, Julian’s feelings were mixed. He was now questioning his decision.
Was his desire to take Mariella from Josef’s arms for political reasons, or was it a black heart he harboured?
Either way, he didn’t want Josef to find out. He pushed through his confusion and focused on the task at hand.
“A duchess-turned-mistress rather than a commoner-turned-mistress… It would be a better choice. For her survival, and for the sake of her future children.”
“And if she doesn’t like it?”
This time Josef revealed his true colours.
“I’m greedy, as you well know, and I can only lose my temper when I have the whole thing, inside or out.”
He was different from Julian to the bone.
Jealousy, selfishness, enmity, arrogance.
He had no qualms about revealing the twisted emotions inside of him to get what he wanted.
* * *
It was a few nights ago. Mariella had been summoned and dropped by his place.
Something was off about Josef today. Gone are the mountains of papers, the maps, the numerous dossiers listing each person’s weaknesses, and he sits her down at the table with refreshments, while he sits across from her and stares at her through clenched jaw.
‘What are you up to again?’
Suspicion flashed through her before the feeling of pressure took over, and she sipped her tea as she was advised, trying to be as nonchalant as possible.
Josef, who was now practically bent over the table watching her, broached the subject.
“I’ve been thinking.”
Sensing a strange vibe, she tried to nip the conversation in the bud.
“If you’re going to say something stupid, maybe next time.”
“How about being my mistress.”