It was the following afternoon.
Mariella walked with the secretary, Count Philip Schuster, in the gardens of Luxenthook.
The reason for their conversation here, away from the many parlours and studies, was Count Schuster’s peculiar interest.
“Count Schuster. What was that business you were talking about the other day…”
“Wait, the praying mantis on your shoulder!”
Mariella was about to rush out when Count Schuster interrupted.
He moved the bug on Mariella’s shoulder to his own hand and looked at it lovingly.
“It’s a red scythe mantis. A species that lives on dry pine needles and is rarely seen around here!”
Mariella shook her head gently, as if she couldn’t believe it.
‘I can see why Josef trusts him, he really has no interest in bipeds.’
You had to have at least six feet to touch his desires.
“You’re interested in gross things.”
“Insects are our friends! How would we be fruitful without them…”
It was nice to have an ally who would never play into the hands of the enemy, but there was one problem. When it comes to insects, he talks too much. Whenever a conversation threatened to get too long, she had to cut it short. Like right now.
“So, what happened to the last time we spoke about?”
Despite this rather rude way of speaking, Count Schuster was not offended.
“You mean Julian and the witches of Farni in the dungeon. Don’t worry. They’re doing what they were asked to do…”
Before Count Schuster could finish his sentence, he heard her call out from the distance.
She turned to see two servants walking towards her.
“Her Royal Highness is looking for you. You will have to come with us.”
“Please wait a moment, I will finish my conversation and be on my way.”
The expressions on the two knights’ faces when they heard Mariella’s words were grave.
They stiffened and added an explanation.
“This is not a favour.”
Only then did Mariella realise that something was going terribly wrong.
* * *
Mariella followed the knights to the parlour.
There she saw Marianne with the Pope and quickly realised what had happened.
The atmosphere was frosty.
Two of the knights knelt her down in front of them.
“I have summoned you today because I have something to see for myself.”
Marianne’s frosty voice came from overhead.
Mariella was aware that Marianne’s jaw was quivering as she feigned coolness.
“…Did you kill my mother?”
The moment that Mariella had been deeply dreading for the past decade, desperately hoping would never come, was now upon her.
Mariella thought about what to say, then gave up on answering. No excuse would work with Marianne, who had just lost a loved one.
When Mariella, who usually argued back and forth, said nothing, Marianne became enraged. Her eyes welled up with tears. Marianne spat out one word after another through tear-streaked eyes.
“I am asking you if you are the witch who killed my mother.”
Mariella didn’t answer until the end.
* * *
Mariella was imprisoned at Marianne’s command, not in the dungeons of Luxentook, but atop a tower in the north. It was the place where Marianne had been once, when she was accused of being a witch. To prevent her from using black magic to escape, the Pope lent her a white stone.
When Count Schuster learned of the situation, he hastened to rescue her, but the count, who was just beginning to rise to power, could not disobey the princess’s orders. Not a day passed before he turned tail and left.
The first day she was locked in the North Tower.
The Pope himself came to see her. He looked down at her with a sour face.
“Don’t think the princess will change her mind. I am in a very good position to sway a person, and I swayed even her handmaiden.”
Only then did Mariella realise why he had been so smug when she had refused his offer. The cloaked woman she had seen that day was Daisy.
“You’ve managed to woo Daisy.”
“She’s drooling over her jewellery.”
The Pope curled his thumb and forefinger and chuckled.
Mariella shook her head helplessly.
“Haven’t you changed your mind yet? This is what women are for. They risk their lives for love or luxury, even when I tell them it means nothing.”
Mariella kept her head down and said nothing, a haggard look on her face. She was obviously very tired.
The Pope did not miss the expression of the moment. Judging her to be much weakened, he spoke in a good-natured tone.
“Then let me offer you my kindness, if your love for Josef is so intense that you cannot give it up. He is the last of the precious Derschabach bloodline, and must be preserved for posterity.”
The offer sounded too good to be true, and Mariella lifted her head to look at him. The Pope grinned devilishly and added a condition.
“In exchange, you will kill Princess Marianne. The time is the day of her coronation, as scheduled.”
Mariella’s eyes trembled.
“What does killing the princess have to do with you?”
“Not directly, but indirectly, there are many, many things you can use to your advantage. For example, we could make the coronation a non-event, buy time to wreak havoc in Verdan politics, and start rumours that she died because of a witch’s curse placed on Prince Josef. What people would want a cursed king? The tide will slowly turn, and a noble loyal to our Baredesha will be crowned king.”
When Mariella looked confused, unable to make up her mind, the Pope clicked his tongue slightly, then gave her two options as if it were her last chance.
“You can, of course, kill the prince as originally planned. All you have to do is show him or her dying of a witch’s curse at the coronation. My objective is to bring Verdan to power, not a personal vendetta against a particular person.”
“So what do you want to do? Your old master, who you’ve served all your life, and the man you love, who wants you dead. It’s up to the Marquise to decide who to kill.”
“And if I refuse both…?”
He replied with a shrug.
“Then you must die, and so be it.”
* * *
It was dawn on the second day of Mariella’s stay in the North Tower.
It was very late in the morning, long after everyone else had gone to bed, but she couldn’t sleep. She sat on her bed, staring out the window, when suddenly, with a clang, the door opened. Marianne had come to see Mariella, with Daisy on her back.
Marianne just stared at her through the open door. She stood with her lips pressed tightly together, not sure if she was angry or sad.
Mariella didn’t know how to react to her either, so she kept still.
After a few moments, Marianne asked, her voice trembling.
“I came here to hear it from your own mouth. Is it true?”
“Did you really, really kill my mother?”
Instead of answering, Mariella turned her head to the other side, turning away from her. Then Marianne stepped toward her.
Marianne took Mariella’s hand and leaned her cheek against her thigh.
“I’m only going to believe what comes out of your mouth, Mariella. So just spit out one word: no, please say it.”
Mariella’s eyes fluttered at her plea that sounded like a scream.
But there must be no wavering here.
She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, turning away from Marianne as far as she could.
“Do you really think denying it here will quell my suspicions so easily when the… situation is so compelling? Suspicion is like a flame, once it’s lit, it never stops until it’s burned everything to the ground. I’ll neither confirm nor deny until I’m proven innocent.”
“I have no one but you, I really do, and you, you’re the only one…”
The hem of Mariella’s skirt was wet with Marianne’s tears.
Mariella realised that her plan to coldly push Marianne away had failed, because she was the one who couldn’t pretend not to see her tears.
Mariella reached out and wiped away Marianne’s dishevelled hair and flowing tears. Then she glanced at Daisy, who was watching her from the doorway with a sullen face.
‘The Pope must have a lot of spies planted.’
Instead of telling the truth, she chose to soothe Marianne with kind words.
“My lady. Do you remember the moment, fourteen years ago, when you were whipped to save my life?”
“I vaguely remember, but…”
Marianne replied in a whimper. She had stopped crying now, but there was still a hint of sobbing in her voice.
Mariella continued to run her fingers through Marianne’s hair. She whispered in a voice that was warm, soft, and reassuring. It reminded her of a mother patting her child, or a grandmother telling an old story to her grandchild.
“You saved my life seven times. And that day I swore to protect you seven times, so remember this. Mariella Hoban never forgets revenge, but she also never forgets grace.”
“And now you’re… Mariella Coburden.”
Anyway, nothing is ever taken lightly.
Mariella smiled faintly at the sight of Marianne sobbing and vomiting.
“In your presence, I will always be Mariella Hoban. Just as you will always be a lady to me, even if you become a princess.”
* * *
Three more days have passed since then.
Tomorrow, after the rite of condemnation, Josef would return.
The coronation was to begin immediately upon his return.
In the depths of the night, the Pope visited the north tower where she was imprisoned. Unlike the dungeon where Julian was held, the North Tower was accessible to the Pope.
“Do you have the heart to listen to me now?”
Mariella had been expecting him.
She nodded, her face expressionless.
“Yes, but on one condition.”
He snorted, as if she hadn’t heard of such a thing.
Unfazed, Mariella stated her demands.
“Please don’t ask me who will die at the inauguration ceremony tomorrow. In my heart… I would prefer to pretend it never happened.”
She looked like she didn’t even want to say it, like the fact that she had made the choice was too much to bear.