Unable to waste time, Julian rose to his feet.
“Then I’ll leave right now. Rise, Mihael.”
He didn’t even bother to say goodbye to Josef.
“I’ll follow you out, then.”
“As you wish.”
Mihael hurried after Julian.
The sudden departure of the two men made the Marquis of Arell rise to his feet, as if he felt he had to do something.
“Then I’ll join you…”
It was Josef’s calm voice that stopped the Marquis from hurrying after them.
“No, Marquis, you will remain here with me.”
The Marquis of Arell looked back and forth between the spot where Julian had left him and Josef, with a timid defiance of his own.
Josef smirked at his persistence in not removing his mask. His cold eyes indirectly indicating that his smile was not a positive one. His hair and clothes were still stained with Edmund Pakal’s congealed blood.
“This is not a coincidence. You must have suspected upon seeing Duke Byer entering the room. We knew your true identity from the beginning.”
Josef smirked at the Marquis of Arell.
“Before we go to the meeting, I have asked Julian to lead the archers to the gardens and shoot every bird that flies in and out of the castle.”
He reached out and picked up the two dead birds Julian had brought with him. There were notes tied to their ankles, one from each.
Josef unfolded one and read it.
“‘We’re moving up the date: tomorrow night, nine o’clock, we’ll have the big ceremony.’ Hmm, this must be from the remnants of Farni.”
He finished reading the other one.
“‘The Prince’s behaviour is suspicious. I guess we misjudged him. Please hurry up and make sure Mariella is safe before he exhibits any unexpected behaviour.’ Yes, this looks like a letter from you.”
The Marquis of Arell clenched his fists. Josef’s sneer was unstoppable.
“It’s too obvious, isn’t it? For a way to communicate with the witches of the manor without magical tools or spies.”
The Marquis’s face, which had seemed so innocent and gentle, hardened.
“You come with proof, so I can’t deny it, and now you’re going to kill me.”
Seeing his sensitive, sharp expression, Josef groaned inwardly.
Why hadn’t he realised that if he could play the glazed, insignificant prince, so could someone else.
He felt some sympathy for the Marquis of Arell, but it was fleeting. And the only thing that mattered was getting Mariella to safety.
“Kill? Why would I? I’m afraid your identity doesn’t inspire me much. Greenard’s intentions are obvious.”
When the Marquis of Arell made no move to return to his seat, even with the time given, Josef shrugged and rose from his seat.
Walking over to the Marquis, he held out the copper box that Julian had brought with him. The Marquis hesitated, then took the box and opened it.
When he saw what was inside, he made a face of disgust. Josef smirked, enjoying the reaction.
“This is a gift of my own making for Greenard.”
“Why is this…”
“I’ll tell you plainly, it’s to tear you apart.”
The Marquis of Arell frowned. He looked back and forth between the ‘something’ inside the copper box and Josef. It was not a face that told a lie, no matter how you looked at it.
‘What the hell is this for?’
When Marquis Arell failed to understand anything until the end, Josef looked at him with an expression as if he expected it. Joseph kindly explained as if he would make an effort to help him understand.
“Two forces with nothing in common have joined forces to kidnap the princess. A witch on one side, and on the other, the royal family of Greenard who have lost their country. Words were exchanged back and forth. The witches would offer to help them gain independence, and Greenard would be both pleased and disturbed by the idea. Verdan’s history of witchcraft and fear-mongering had led to three civil wars. You were afraid. Fear that the Greenard royal family, once at the mercy of the Ashakals, would be controlled by them.”
It was an accurate assessment of the situation. The Marquis of Arell feared what this man was thinking.
Josef’s fingertips closed over the copper box in the Marquis’s hand.
“Isn’t that what you needed, this ‘white stone’?”
“You’re being facetious, how is this a white stone, it’s just…”
Denying Josef’s words and staring at the horrible thing in the box, Marquis Arell soon realised something.
His pupils dilated.
Marquis Arell asked in a trembling voice.
“You mean the white stone is…”
Josef smirked, as if he’d just realised.
“Yes, that’s what it is. It’s nothing much, but it’s become a prized possession for our family to carry with us to the afterlife. There are only two people who know about it. Me, the prince, and Pope Roberto Gardin. That makes three now, I suppose.”
The Marquis of Arell stared at the box in disbelief.
Josef pushed the copper box toward the Marquis of Arell.
“I give this to you. I will not allow any harm to come to Greenard, but what goes around must come around. There is not much I want from you, only one piece of information you must give me.”
He whispered low in Marquis Arell’s ear.
“Tell me the true purpose of the witches.”
It was the deal of a lifetime, the deal that would determine Greenard’s future.
The Marquis of Arell bowed his head deeply. His hand, holding the copper box, trembled sweetly.
Josef watched the Marquis of Arell lazily. He had no intention of pressing the already cornered man further.
‘The death of Edmund Pakal was enough of a threat. That’s all the appeasement I need. All that’s left is time.’
Josef waited for the Marquis of Arell to calm down and make his choice.
But after a few moments, the Marquis of Arell’s reaction far exceeded his expectations.
The Marquis of Arell lowered his head and laughed.
Josef’s displeasure was evident in his inability to contain his laughter like a madman.
“Why are you laughing like that?”
“Because it feels weird. I’ve been twisting and turning like that to get what I want, and then, unexpectedly, everything falls into my hands.”
One of Josef’s eyebrows shot up. The threatening look did not intimidate the Marquis of Arell. Instead, his eyes took on a form.
“The witches of Farni want only one thing.”
There was nothing left to negotiate.
The Marquis of Arell, all judgement done, revealed the truth he had been hiding.
“To find out how the White Stone is made.”
* * *
It was a similar view.
Locked in a warehouse-like room, Mariella sat in shock.
The words of the witches of Farni echoed in her head.
‘The White Stone’s power weakens as time passes.’
‘We destroyed the White Stone. We definitely destroyed that damn thing.’
‘Even after getting rid of it, it kept reappearing. As if… there’s a separate method of creation.’
It turns out that Josef had once stalled on explaining the white stone.
She remembered Julian bursting in and leaving her with no answer.
“What’s the difference between the White Stone and the Blessing of Rest?”
Mariella thought back to her own question.
What must have been going through Josef’s mind when he heard her uninformed question.
Mariella sorted through the tangled and twisted information in her head.
The information she had diligently gathered over the past year was defined in a single sentence.
“…There’s something between the white stone and the Blessing of Rest.”
Her eyes, clouded with confusion, grew clearer.
Something the House of Derschabach wanted to keep hidden.
A great truth lies beyond.