It was then.
Someone called out to her.
She turned reflexively and found herself face to face with Julian, who looked like he was about to cry.
Before Mariella could finish her sentence, Julian swept her into a crushing embrace. It was a strong, rib-crushing embrace. She pushed at him to get out of his arms, but he didn’t budge.
The voice came from just above her head.
“I never looked back.”
The voice was so desperate.
Mariella stopped trying to get away from him.
A confessional-like statement followed.
“For me, the past was a collection of unavoidable events. I knew in my bones that if I went back, I’d make the same choices. All I was given was the worst and the next best thing. I firmly believed that I had made the best of it, and I have never regretted it, even as I cut down many of his men who were with him, even as I watched him suffer for it… I had to protect him, because it was the only way.”
“I’ve been nostalgic for the past, but I’ve never wanted to change my choices. No, I’ve never been afraid or hesitant to make a choice, but…”
Trailing off, Julian buried his head in her shoulder. She noticed that his body was shaking slightly.
“For the first time in my life, I want to deny all of it, every moment of my life, every way I’ve lived…if I had known it would hurt you. If I’d known you’d be in this much danger…”
There was water in his voice.
Julian was speechless.
After a moment, he loosened his hold on her, and Mariella, now free of his embrace, looked up to see his face.
There before her was a young man with tears streaming down his face.
It was the moment when his bare self, which he had hidden from everyone for so long, was revealed.
As soon as she met Julian’s clean, clear eyes, Mariella’s body stiffened. She couldn’t decide what action she should take.
Should she soothe him as he cried, turn her back on him as if she didn’t know him, or shoo him away coldly.
As she stood there, helpless and rigid, Julian made the first move.
He called her name in a sobbing voice. Without giving her a chance to respond, he reached out and cupped her cheeks.
Mariella, catching on late, tried to stop him.
But she was a step too late.
Julian’s lips settled over hers.
There was no movement to open her mouth, no attempt to mix their tongues. Just a brush of lips, as if to confirm that she was alive and well with the warmth of his embrace and lips.
The kiss lingered, soft as petals falling from a flower.
She held his lips still, knowing that if she pushed away now, he would withdraw quietly.
How could she refuse a heartfelt kiss from a man whose heart was broken and whose eyes were brimming with tears.
* * *
It was the next morning.
Mariella opened her eyes in Julian’s bed.
She was now in Julian’s bedroom, inside the Duke of Bayer’s castle.
‘I didn’t mean to come this far…’
Mariella thought to herself as she ruffled the hair of the sleeping Julian next to her.
None of the sticky stuff you’d expect from a night spent between a man and a woman had happened. She’d simply taken the weakened Julian into her arms and comforted him.
Soon after their kiss in the Marquis of Arell’s mansion, Julian had taken her hand and refused to let go.
Nor did she have the will to release it.
Naturally, the ride in his carriage brought them to this place.
She was ashamed, afraid, of him, or something else. Until they reached the Duchy of Bayer, Julian kept his mouth tightly shut and said nothing. He didn’t seem to be in a mood to answer questions, so Mariella didn’t ask either, and followed him as he went.
When she realised from the greetings of the servants and maids that this was the Bayer Castle, Julian’s home, she was slightly surprised, but showed no outward sign of it.
Mariella laid Julian down on the bed and rose from her seat.
“You’ve had a long day, get some rest. I will rest elsewhere.”
At that moment, Julian, who had been silent for a while, looked up at her and asked.
“Are you going back to… Luxenthook?”
He didn’t seem to understand what she meant by resting in another room.
Mariella gestured to his quarters with her hand.
“We can’t spend the night here, can we?”
Julian clamped his mouth shut again. He had the look of a child who has a million things to say, but can’t bring himself to say them, either out of pride or circumstance.
She smiled wanly and rose from her seat, her back turned, when a tiny voice grabbed her ankle.
Mariella turned and saw Julian, his head bowed low, his face grim.
“Stay with me.”
As if those words weren’t enough to convince her, he added cautiously.
“Just for today… for one day.”
Mariella knew instantly that his ‘with me’ was a comforting one, stripped of its sinister purpose.
Like a child seeking a parent’s embrace after a nightmare, Julian simply wanted the warmth that would ease his fears.
The Duke of Bayer, who had been on guard with all his might, was confused as to she this was.
“Okay, just for tonight.”
And just like that, Mariella was sharing a bed with Julian.
* * *
Mariella, dressed in a robe, wandered around Bayer Castle alone. She planned to waste time here until Julian woke up.
A dark corridor led to a spacious hall.
Portraits of every duke and duchess hung there. Beneath each portrait was the artist’s signature and a note identifying who they had painted.
She looked around at the paintings, starting with the oldest.
At first, she stood in front of the paintings with interest, looking closely at the figures, but as time went on, she skimmed over them.
The Bayers were a prestigious family with a long and storied history, and as many houses as there were people. There were so many figures and paintings that her focus and attention were scattered. It was only natural for her mind to wander.
She worried about Josef at Julian’s castle.
‘It’s a good thing the witches of Farni don’t know how to use a sword, because if they’d stabbed him just a little further to the right, he would have been mortally wounded and would have died within minutes.
By the time she got to the portrait of the former Duke and Duchess, she was almost at the point where she could barely look at it.
‘I’ll say goodbye to Julian and then I’ll head back to Luxenthook. Go check on Josef, see how he’s doing, and sort out this mess…’
She stopped in her tracks as she absentmindedly looked up and stared at the portrait in front of her.
“How can this be…”
Mariella’s fingertips trembled as she stood there, dumbfounded, staring at the Duke and Duchess in the portrait like someone who had just been slapped across the back of the head.
To be precise, she was staring at the woman.
Vanessa Bayer, former Duchess of Bayer and mother of Julian.
The one without the magical powers of the Ladarsi family.
According to what Julian had told her last night, she had mysteriously disappeared around the time of the Third Holy War.
There was a great deal of geographical distance between Riedenburg and Bayer. Vanessa had disappeared during the Third Holy War, so Mariella, born and raised in rural Riedenburg, should never have encountered her.
But what happened?
Inside the mighty Bayer Duchy.
The woman with the benevolent smile in the portrait was someone she knew very well.
She couldn’t help but recognise her.
Because this woman had turned her life upside down.
The pale-cheeked woman.
The woman her father killed under the Countess’s threats is in that painting.
Mariella’s head moved rapidly.
‘Last year, in the royal dungeons, when I spoke to Count Riedenburg about the pale-cheeked woman, what did he say?’
She searched her memory, trying to recall what she had said and what he had said.
“If you loved her so much, why did you not leave her a single portrait? I have searched the Count’s study and chambers at every opportunity, and there is not a single letter there. Is it true that you loved her so much?”
“But, Mariella, it wasn’t a choice for me, and I don’t know if I should tell you this, and it seems hypocritical of me to say it, but it was for the best, if you can understand that.”
And now, more than half a year later, she realised.
Mariella turned and ran.
She hurried to Julian’s bedroom. She didn’t even bother to say good morning to the freshly awakened Julian, just demanded.
“I need you to prepare the carriage.”
“I need to go down to Count Riedenburg.”
“Explain to me what the hell is going on…”
Julian blinked in confusion.
Mariella demanded firmly and coldly, as if she had neither the time nor the inclination to explain.
Mariella realised in hindsight.
Just as she had buried the truth with the Riedenburgs, so too had the Riedenburgs hidden something from her.