Mariella thought she must have woken up in death.
It was unbelievably dark everywhere. Josef and Julian, who had been with her only moments before, were gone without a trace.
She had a vague feeling that she was the only one alive in the room.
Wooden furniture creaked in the distance.
Because of the eerie silence all around her, she could pinpoint the source of the sound.
With a sense of dread, Mariella walked towards the sound.
The closer she got, the harder her heart beat.
When she finally reached the source of the noise, what she saw before her was an old man who had become one with his armchair.
His entire body was dripping with mud, and his eyes glowed a dark blue. The Judge of the Underworld, the darkness within, the shape of a curse. Those were the names that seemed to fit.
One thing was certain, that was not Greta.
The old man stared straight at her, and Mariella’s entire body stiffened.
The sound of the armchair shifting sounded horrible.
–A visitor, at last.
It was the voice she’d heard earlier, along with the black smoke. The voice belonged not to the book, but to the old man in front of him.
The old man pulled out a thick book that was wedged between his side and the armchair. He flicked through the pages, looking for something.
–Let’s see… Mariella Hoban? Hmm, you’ve had a rough life.
Your family was used as a scapegoat by the people of Riedenburg.
And yet you’ve taken a girl from that family to serve?
It’s a strange thing.
You should have done the same in return.
Mariella shook her head in denial.
“Marianne is not the object of my vengeance. She took the whip to save my life. She tried to keep me alive when she thought I had killed her mother. I have never hated her for that.”
The old man glared at her over his large book. His eyes had no distinction between white and black, so it was hard to tell exactly where he was looking at her.
Mariella felt the hairs on her back stand up.
After a moment, the old man’s retort came in. It was clear from his rather blunt tone that he was not pleased with her answer.
–But Count Riedenburg is different.
If he hadn’t given those orders back then, your entire family would still be alive.
Don’t you hate Count Riedenburg?
I could have killed him right now.
Just make sure his daughter doesn’t find out.
“I’m not going to kill him.”
The old man shook his head.
The innocent childlike gesture seemed odd on his rotting, muddy body.
Mariella tried not to be frightened, and spoke her mind.
“Because I will forgive him.”
“I’ve already taken my revenge, and I won’t dwell on the past any longer.”
–The Count of Riedenburg doesn’t feel very guilty about what happened.
He sees his choice as unavoidable.
He’s the epitome of a man who values only the lives of his own family.
Think of your dead family members.
Think of the despair and fear they must have felt in their last moments.
It was like a whisper from the devil. But Mariella was not to be deterred.
“It’s something I’ve thought about a hundred times already, and yet I forgive him.”
–I don’t understand.
It’s hard to convince me.
Why don’t you try to convince me?
Yes… in sincere language.
The old man pointed a finger at her.
Mariella shrugged her shoulders as if it was no big deal.
“The reason is simple: I have the rest of my life.”
“I can’t spend the rest of my life hating others. Now that all the shackles the world has put on my ankles are off, I must cut my own ropes. For the sake of the rest of my life, I will forgive them.”
I could understand that.
The old man gave a small nod of understanding.
“Did I say the right thing?”
Mariella asked, and the old man suddenly looked terrified.
Then he stood up and slowly walked over to her. The old man left a trail of sticky mucus where he passed. Mariella felt a great sense of dread, as if her heart would stop beating.
She instinctively backed away, but the distance between them did not close. She tried to make an excuse, but her mouth wouldn’t open. All Mariella could do was shake her head in panic, her eyes wide with fear.
The old man’s fingers poked just below her collarbone. It was a hand too cold to belong to a living person.
The old man’s face came up to her nose. The old man laughed a gut-wrenching laugh.
–Do you think there are answers to life?
There are no answers to my questions.
There is only will and choice.
Mariella thought the old man might eat her with that big mouth.
She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to overcome her fear, and at the same time she heard a group of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people, a mixture of adults and children, men and women, laughing loudly.
–Remember my words.
At the end of that voice the deafening silence was broken.
* * *
When Mariella opened her eyes again, she was in Josef’s study.
The three of them had a bead or two of sweat on their foreheads and a somewhat dazed look on their faces. Apparently, they had all been through something similar.
“Did you meet an old man with a strange voice?”
Mariella asked, and they each gave different answers.
“I met my father in a hospital bed.”
“My stepfather, the one we killed, came back to life.”
She understood what had happened without having to elaborate.
Apparently, ‘it’ had no fixed form, and seemed to mimic whatever the caster feared most at any given time.
Its riddles, she thought, must have been similar.
“Did you say you forgive?”
To her second question, Josef shook his head and answered bluntly.
“No. I told him that my main enemy right now is the Order, and that I couldn’t be bothered with witches.”
How very Josef.
Mariella’s head snapped back to Julian.
“Duke of Bayer…”
Julian avoided her gaze, then replied in a low voice.
“…I swore that I would forgive or do anything for the sake of the one I love.”
He turned to Mariella, but his eyes were on Josef. One of his eyebrows shot up.
Offended, but not willing to argue with his only friend, Josef took over for the inflexible Julian.
“Yes, our Julian is a loyal man who would do anything for his beloved friend.”
Mariella decided to divert their attention.
“Has the curse been lifted?”
At her words, Josef loosened the hem of his robe. His chest was still covered in blue spots.
Josef replied, his voice quirky.
Mariella was speechless. She looked around in confusion, then hastily grabbed Greta’s book. As she flipped through the pages, a note fell to the floor. She hadn’t found it in five months.
Josef picked it up.
I forgive you. I hope you forgive me too.
“I see nothing has changed from what is written in those plausible words.”
Josef looked at Julian with a look of incredulity.
Julian, too, seemed perplexed by the situation, as nothing had been resolved.
Neither of them understood what they had done in the darkness of the night to take Greta’s test.
Just then, Mariella, frantically flipping through a book, muttered.
“What the hell…”
Her eyes darted around.
It was as if she was reading something in a book.
Josef poked his head over her shoulder. But his eyes were still blank.
“What do you see? I don’t see anything.”
Julian said after him.
Mariella replied in a shaky voice.
“It’s Greta’s spells. The spell she used to cast the Blessing of Rest, the spell to break the curse, everything… is in here, really everything…”
The White Stone was a byproduct of the Blessing of Rest, and the Blessing of Rest was a curse placed on the Derschabach family.
If they were to break the curse on Josef, there was a high probability that the White Stone would also lose its potency.
While she knew that she had to break the curse as soon as possible to save Josef’s life, she was also worried about what would happen if the surviving dark mages came back for revenge, as they had in Farni’s case.
Then she was handed a book containing Greta’s spells, even though it seemed only she could read them.
Josef smirked and joked.
“How strange. Beating out the King of Verdan and the dark mage Duke, only you can see the spell.”
“If I tell you the spell, can you break Josef’s curse?”
“I will do my best. For those I love.”
Mariella looked at Julian and asked earnestly, and Julian nodded immediately.
She couldn’t help but smile.
The happy ending they had only seen in fairy tales was right under their noses.
* * *
It had been a week since Mariella had acquired all of Greta’s spells.
Currently, she was walking in the royal garden with Josef, whose curse had been lifted.
It was a secluded spot, so they were out of sight, and they held hands with ease.
Mariella no longer had to be swayed by external factors.
She didn’t have to worry about being killed by rats and birds for offending the nobility, or risk everything for revenge.
It was like a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders for fourteen years.
She wondered how much better off Josef must be if she was this good.
“How does it feel to have a curse that’s been haunting you your whole life lifted?”
To her surprise, he shuddered.
“It feels weird. Like there’s nothing left for me to do. Suddenly I feel like I could die tomorrow and it wouldn’t be strange. Every time I wake up, I’m constantly asking myself, ‘What am I going to do now?’”
“Well, there is one thing you have to do.”
“What is that?”
Mariella suddenly stopped walking, which naturally made Josef stop as well.
She looked up at him with mischievous eyes, and then in a whispered voice, she enticed him.
She closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his once more.
The corners of Josef’s mouth turned up.
“Kiss me, Master.”
He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers.
A tender kiss, like a couple just beginning to make love.
With that one kiss, Mariella felt like she had everything in the world.
The oppression of reality, the limitations of her status, the scars of her past… How sweet is the love that overcomes all this and whispers in complete freedom.
⟨End of The Suspicious Lady of House Riedenburg⟩