First, Mariella crossed her arms and nodded.
“Everything you think is right. Marianne and I are like sisters, and I have a pretty deep relationship with Joseph.”
“How dare you…!”
The words enraged Mihael Schlitz.
Her behaviour was unthinkable by his standards. Mariella smirked and pointed out his contradiction.
“I suppose your relationship with Marianne doesn’t fall under that ‘how dare’ category?”
“Don’t try to hide your shame behind the excuse of ignorance, Lord Schlitz, for I know that the love within you has not yet been extinguished.”
There was no way he would have said he would die in Marianne’s place if his heart hadn’t been with her. Mihael was a good and gentle young man, but there was a part of him that was a tyrant. If he had given up on Marianne, he would not have offered to die in her place, but to be punished with her.
Because in that innocent young man’s mind, the sentence that every sinner must be punished equally according to his crime would have settled like a truth.
Mihael shook his head helplessly. He was admitting something he had denied so many times: his love for Marianne.
“Isn’t it time to stop avoiding her?”
Mariella asked, and he shook his head.
“The Marquise does not know my heart.”
“Why should I need to know?”
“Your undying love for Marianne, or your loyalty to Josef, is not my concern. What I want is one thing. Make up your mind, or we’ll go on like this forever.”
Mihael lifted his head and looked at Mariella, the down-to-earth way she spoke made her look like a witch in his eyes.
“Do you know the word deceived?”
“I know you feel betrayed, but what can you do? You’re already in love, and it’s time to choose.”
“Wake up from your fantasy, Lord Schlitz. There is no time for this now. The beautiful love you desire does not exist in this world. You must choose between cowardice and meanness.”
A cowardly flight or a mean love.
Mihael’s eyes flickered slightly at the two choices Mariella gave him.
“For your information, I’ve done both.”
Run away, fell in love.
Hearing her add that lightly, Mihael asked.
“Which was more valuable?”
Mariella shrugged her shoulders and answered.
“They were both insignificant.”
Don’t look for meaning in such nonsense. All you’ll be left with is annoyance.
She patted him on the shoulder and advised.
* * *
It had been five days since Mariella had met and talked to Mihael, and in those five days Marianne had grown thin with nervousness and anxiety.
In desperation, Mariella suggested she take a walk. The idea was that some sunshine would make her feel better.
“The daffodils were in full bloom out front the other day, and I thought it would be nice to take a walk around the garden for a while. To get some fresh air instead of sitting around.”
Marianne thought about that for a moment. Then she nudged Mariella with a suggestion.
“Why don’t we invite the Marquis of Arell to join us?”
Mariella looked dubious. Why would she need to invite the Marquis of Arell for a simple stroll in the garden?
Marianne added hastily.
“It’s always just us. I’d like to meet new people.”
That was even more suspicious.
“I think I’ve been your only friend at the Count’s for twenty-five years.
Mariella swallowed and nodded.
“Very well, then. I will do as Your Highness wishes.”
Marianne’s face visibly brightened.
‘With her relationship with Mihael in shambles, I can’t imagine she’d be interested in someone else’s love life on a whim.’
Mariella decided to wait and see what Marianne was up to.
* * *
Luxenthook’s garden was just beginning to sprout.
Suddenly a gust of cold wind blew in.
As Mariella clutched her shawl, which fluttered in the wind, the Marquis of Arell took off his own outer garment and draped it over her shoulders.
“The wind is still cold.”
“It’s still early spring.”
There were only two of them in the garden. That was because Marianne suddenly said she felt dizzy and went back with Daisy. Mariella’s suspicions deepened at the obvious connection.
‘Why all of a sudden?’
No matter how much Marianne often commits the eccentricity of recreating ancient scenes from popular novels, now was really not the time.
Mariella glanced at the Marquis of Arell, who had suddenly found himself standing beside her.
His long, thin brown hair fluttered in the breeze. Unlike Mariella’s bronze-coloured hair, the pale colour of his hair, which looked as if it had been spiked with white milk, softened his otherwise good-natured features.
Their eyes met.
Cedric Arell turned his head slightly outward, as if embarrassed. It was an attitude that made it clear that he was attracted to her.
Love taps gently at the heart.
It was a moment that would have made anyone’s heart flutter, but she had other ideas.
‘No time to mope around here.’
Mariella decided to ask him directly.
“I find passing time without meaning boring. I guess I’ve picked up some habits from my time as a maid, because if I talk in circles when I’m working, I get scolded.”
What she really wanted to know was why Marianne was so anxious to push things between the two of them, but she couldn’t ask him outright when we weren’t even acquainted, so she deflected.
Marquis Arell frowned at her words.
“I assume you have something to say, or am I wrong?”
“No, you are correct.”
Cedric Arell’s eyes suddenly turned serious.
He swallowed hard and stared at her.
Mariella thought she would finally hear the backroom dealings between Marianne and the Marquis of Arell. But Marquis Arell’s next move completely defied her expectations.
The royal gardens were full of people.
Suddenly, the Marquis of Arell knelt before her.
“I would like to ask you to marry me.”
A stunned sound came from her mouth.
Whether he hadn’t noticed her subtle rejection, or was pretending not to, he continued.
“Will you marry me?”
The first thing Mariella did after hearing the proposal was to look around to see if anyone was nearby.
Not far away, she spotted a gardener trimming a tree and sneaking behind it.
It was all too obvious how the jealous Josef would react.
He was also worried about how Julian would react if word got out that he had been proposed to by the Marquis of Arell.
Mariella squeezed her eyes shut. Her head was throbbing again.
* * *
It was the same night.
As she had expected, Josef had asked her to come to his place.
Mariella travelled through a secret passage to his residence, where she was told of the situation.
“The secretary is to be Count Philip Schuster, an alumnus of the Academy, known for his brilliance and lack of greed.”
Josef’s solution to the secretary problem was simple.
He turned Mariella Hoban into Mariella Coburden to keep the aristocrats out of it, and then split the factions so that no one from either the nobility or the royalists would be able to take up the post of secretary.
Then he brought in a friend who was living quietly in the countryside.
The deputies were unhappy that a count whose name they had never even heard of was going to be in charge, but they couldn’t let him be elected by the other faction, so they agreed.
In the end, Josef managed to keep everyone happy and reassure everyone at the same time.
For the first time in a long time, Mariella knew that the success of his plan was not due solely to his competence, but she didn’t bother to point it out. She was interested in something else.
“Is Count Schuster a man who can never be appeased?”
Mariella smirked at his assurance.
“I didn’t realise Your Highness was so trusting of people.”
Josef smirked, not offended.
“You’ll see for yourself. My confidence in him is of a slightly different nature than my faith and trust in people.”
“I’d like to hear you elaborate.”
“He has no desires, or more accurately, no interest in what bipedal things wear or say.”
The words were unintelligible from start to finish. Mariella squinted at him. Josef laughed, as if there were such a thing.
“How are things with Julian these days?”
She shrugged, as if there was nothing more to say.
“You’ve done a great job of ruining it.”
“Well, he went off to the manor for some urgent business and hasn’t returned in a while.”
Mihael wasn’t the only one who had suddenly lost contact. Julian, too, had fled the capital in a hurry after that night and refused to meet with her.
Mariella was baffled and puzzled by his sudden loss of momentum.
Where was the Duke of Bayer, the scion of an evil dark mage, who controlled the political scene as she knew it?
She wondered if she had misjudged Julian. Of course, that didn’t mean she couldn’t admit it to Josef. She smirked, tossing out the bony words like a joke.
“I hear the Duke’s best friend has betrayed him and won the woman he’s been in love with for years, and that’s why he’s so heartbroken.”
Josef didn’t blink an eye at the words that would have made anyone else cringe in shame or walk away. Instead, he used this as an opportunity to ask the question he really wanted to ask.
“So, Cedric Arell?”
Mariella shut her mouth. She knew the words were coming, but she didn’t think it would be this time.
Josef didn’t hide his own jealousy. He raised an eyebrow, sneering.
“I got rid of the other man, and here comes the new one.”
“You needn’t fear. He’s only a marquis from Greenard.”
Mariella walked over to him and hugged him lightly. One arm slipped around his waist, the other rested on his shoulder. The natural manner of a lover.
A flash of satisfaction crossed Josef’s face as he tightened his arms around her waist. Then he bared his teeth and nipped her earlobe.
Mariella jerked back in surprise. Josef didn’t hold on to her with force, but let her go.
She looked up at him, rubbing her feverishly heated ear. He pouted and shrugged, a look of rebuke and irritation in his eyes.
“I figured you’d give up easily enough.”
She thought about being bitter with him, but stopped herself.