When the Pope regained consciousness, he was lying on a bed. He opened his eyes and saw three men standing in front of him.
Their names were Josef, Julian, and Mariella.
“You’re finally awake.”
Josef said with a wry smile.
The Pope realised that something was amiss. Now that Julian was revealed to be a dark mage, and Mariella had been instigated for Joseph’s assassination, those three were never supposed to be together.
The Pope hurriedly tried to call for help from outside, but his tongue and mouth froze, and no sound came out.
Only a guttural groan escaped his mouth.
Mariella shook her head sternly.
“Don’t expect any outside help, your adopted son Julian has barred all the priests from entering. Oh, and you won’t be able to move or shout yourself, I’ve paralysed your entire body just in case.”
His face coloured with embarrassment.
Josef laughed out loud at him.
“I guess you still don’t realise that we planned this whole thing from start to finish.”
He glanced back and forth between Mariella and Julian, who shrugged in agreement.
“What the hell does a cowardly little bastard know when all he’s ever done is tell people what to do from behind. Fearlessly running around, not realising he’s been set up and played.”
His words were received by Mariella.
“It’s human nature, you focus on one thing and overlook other important possibilities. That’s why I didn’t realise until too late that you were the cause of all this.”
She turned her gaze back to the Pope, making no effort to hide the same look.
“We kept you alive partly because we didn’t want the coronation to be tainted by your death, and partly because we thought your sins were too great to let you go in vain. Wouldn’t you rather die knowing at least what happened, so you don’t spend your last days sulking?”
She began to point out his failings, point by point.
To explain it all, we have to go back in time.
To the day the Pope made his appearance, that is, roughly two weeks ago.
* * *
“Since when did you know he was above the head of the royal family?”
It was the night Josef realised Julian’s identity. Shortly after learning that their common enemy was the Pope.
Mariella knew now was the time to tell the truth.
She began cautiously.
“There’s something I need to tell you, something that may hold the key to this whole thing.”
Josef’s head snapped up.
Mariella took a deep breath and confessed her sin.
“I’ve killed people in the past. About… fifteen?”
The words made Josef shake his head. He didn’t understand what her words had to do with the Pope’s work.
“I haven’t even tried to count how many people I’ve killed.”
Mariella continued, steadfastly.
“I thought I was doing a good job of hiding it for the last ten years without anyone finding out, and then suddenly Julian caught me. Because one of the people I killed was Marianne’s mother.”
Hearing that, Josef remembered Rothlan’s words. The old woman who was the undertaker of the Riedenburg country estate. She had testified that there were blue spots on the body of the Countess of Riedenburg.
He nodded in understanding.
“Aah. That’s why you got on the same boat with Julian. He caught you of being a witch.”
Josef’s eyes lit up with understanding. Revenge, enmity, and pity were among the things he had to let go of quickly if he were to survive in the castle. What mattered to him was not the past, that the two people had once betrayed him, but the present, that he could join forces with them to take down the Pope.
He was about to tell her that he had no more excuses. Mariella spoke up, her nervousness evident.
“Actually, there’s a more important truth than that.”
“It’s something that even Julian doesn’t know.”
Something that neither Count Riedenburg, nor Julian, nor the witches of Farni knew exactly.
For the first time, Mariella confessed her secret to someone.
* * *
A few days have passed since Mariella told Josef the whole truth.
The night before Josef left for the province of Viha.
He gathered his entourage for a small banquet.
Daisy wet her pillowcase, unable to hide her disappointment that she wasn’t among them.
‘Why does my life always have to be like this, why do people have to be mean to me?’
Daisy buried her face in her pillow and cried harder.
There was a small knock at the door, and she thought she was hearing things.
‘No one would look for someone like me in this royal family anyway.’
There was another knock, and she had no choice but to open the door.
The chamberlain stood in the doorway.
She wiped her eyes with her handkerchief and asked.
“What can I do for you all of a sudden?”
The chamberlain was blunt and to the point.
“His Royal Highness the Prince wants to see you.”
Daisy repeated, her eyes wide.
* * *
Wiping away her tears, Daisy hurried to stand in front of Josef, where Mariella was also present.
“Your Royal Highness, for what reason have I been summoned…”
“I would like to seek your assistance in removing the obstacles.”
Daisy’s eyes widened.
Josef didn’t even give her time to digest the situation, cutting straight to the chase.
“I’m warning you, it’s very dangerous, and they’ll try to bribe you. With a lot of gold and silver.”
He shrugged, and with a mischievous look on his face, he added jokingly.
“You can keep the gold and silver for yourself, but we want you to be our double agent. Of course, I’m not asking for anything in return, so I’ll give you what you want most.”
But even that wasn’t playful.
Daisy looked dumbfounded.
“What I… want most?”
Josef smirked, as if he’d been waiting for the question.
“Philip Schuster is going to be heading straight home before next year, and something he collected this spring, a butterfly or a slug or something I can’t remember, is going to metamorphose in the autumn, so the secretary’s position will be vacant. You can take it.”
A secretary, a position coveted by all great nobles.
Daisy forced herself to keep her surprise from showing. She dampened her dry lips with the tip of her tongue and asked cautiously.
“But a woman is…”
“Think about it. Verdan’s greatest king, Bayon II, integrated dark mages into Verdan politics. As you know, the ability to wield black magic is most often manifested in women, which is why the heads of dark mage families are all women. For their sake, my great-grandfather took it upon himself to rewrite the law to allow women to be politically active, and that law remained unchanged even after the Good King drove all dark mages out of the country in the Third Holy War. That is to say.”
He leaned toward her. Then he whispered, like a snake offering to eat the apple of her eye.
“Which means you fulfil the conditions.”
Mariella, who had remained silent the entire time and stood behind Josef, asked.
“What are you going to do?”
If she refused the offer, he was ready to move on to someone else.
A cold sweat ran down Daisy’s back.
The opportunity of a lifetime stood before her.
Daisy opened her mouth, her voice trembling. The words didn’t come easily.
She took a deep breath and opened her mouth again.
At that moment, Daisy’s eyes flashed with desire as she looked up at the two of them.
Something inside her that had always been in vain filled with satiety.
She realised that what she wanted so badly was not to be treated as a prestigious young lady, but the power to hold and shake people.
* * *
The flashback is over.
Mariella and Josef looked down at the Pope, who was still in shock, and began to talk amongst themselves.
“So that’s how we got Daisy to be our mole, before the Order got her.”
“We imprisoned Julian because we thought it was the safest course for him. With Julian in a position where he could do nothing, we figured the Order wouldn’t care about him, and we were right.”
He looked at Julian with pride.
Julian looked a little shaken and didn’t say anything, not because he was in a bad mood, but because he wasn’t quite adjusted to the reality of having his situation overturned in one fell swoop.
“And then there was some sort of… behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, of which Count Philip Schuster, an alumnus of Josef’s academy and current secretary, was a great help. He went to see Julian under the pretext of an interrogation, and after explaining the whole situation to him, he asked him to keep the Order away after the Pope fell, and that’s why he’s here now.”
Mariella finished and looked at Julian.
Julian looked back at her with a blank stare.
She was still uncomfortable with him, so she turned her head again to stare at the Pope.
There was a strange undercurrent between them, and Josef could guess what had happened between them. He decided to pretend he didn’t know.
The important thing right now was to harass Roberto Gardin, the man who had caused them so much trouble, not to be jealous of a relationship that had ended so neatly.
Josef turned to the Pope with a slightly raised voice and expression.
“Incidentally, bringing Mrs Hortner back and arguing in front of her was all planned. She was more favourable to the aristocratic faction than the royalist faction, and had more connections there. I thought that if I dug up those connections, I might be able to reach the Church.”
Josef left the finale to Mariella.
Mariella spoke in a calm, yet eerie voice.
“I’m sure you still have questions about what happened to you when you held the White Stone, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to miss this morning’s tea to explain it.”
As she took a deep breath and tried to finish explaining the situation, there was a sudden knock at the door.