The fated afternoon arrived, and the Flowers arrived at the Pautrier residence just as they’d proclaimed.
The butler knew in advance—he’d heard about it from me, in fact—so he allowed the trio to enter. Still, it came as quite a shock that a group of such head-turning beauties were there with such a large number of suitcases. Even in their relatively reserved street clothes, nothing could hide their sheer radiance and charm. They were flowers in full bloom, just as their name suggested, brightening every room they entered.
“Thank you. Could you leave those over there?” said Chloe to a servant, directing him in a calculating manner. One flash of her smile, and the young man was so enchanted he could hardly bear to look at her. Come now, I thought, don’t go corrupting an innocent youth!
Having noticed all the commotion, Lord Simeon was rather surprised as well. “What’s going on?” He continued muttering to himself, and I heard a few words like “Why?” and “Here!?”
But before I had a chance to explain, the goddesses pushed him out of the room. Each of them spoke in turn.
“Your role in all this will come later, Lord Simeon! Be a good boy and stay outside.” “Peeking will only ruin it! Why spoil all the fun?”
“We have a big surprise in store, so just wait and see!”
The door was closed right in his face, while I was left behind, surrounded by piles of cases. Isabelle turned toward me. “Now, no time to be standing around! It’s time to start getting everything ready!”
I decided I’d at least try to put up some perfunctory attempt at resistance. “Excuse me,” I said, “would you mind taking a look at the dress I’ve been planning to wear?”
But I faced immediate, enthusiastic rejection. “Oh, there’s no need for that,” said Isabelle. “We’ve already decided not to use it.”
“Keep it in mind for another occasion,” said Chloe. “We’ve brought a complete look with us today.”
“Although,” Olga added, “if you’ve had a sudden epiphany and prepared a dress that’s really audacious, it wouldn’t hurt to take a quick look.”
I silently withdrew. No, it’s nothing they’d call audacious. I just know what suits me and what doesn’t, all right?
I groaned internally, fearful of the clothes they were about to put me in. Knowing them, they’d never dress me in anything that truly didn’t suit me…but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t push the envelope as far as they could dare.
Showy, flashy, loud… These were words that were diametrically opposed to my very being. If I stand out, I just can’t relax! I’m normally a quiet creature, lurking stealthily in the shadows! If people notice me too quickly, I start to feel like my life is in danger!
I trembled as the Three Flowers dexterously stripped me of almost all my clothes, leaving me in only my undergarments. They told me that they’d start with a skin treatment, although honestly, I didn’t feel I’d been neglecting my skin; I had a perfectly adequate everyday skincare routine.
“Basic skincare is one thing, and preparing for battle is quite another,” said Isabelle in response to my protestations. Battle!? Am I marching off to the front line? “A spectacular party is a lady’s battlefield. As well you know, I’m sure!”
I was instructed to lie face-down on a couch, then graceful fingers began to press into my body with a strength I’d never have foreseen.
“Hngh, ohhh, it hurts…” I groaned. But then suddenly it felt good. “Oh, right there! Right there!”
“I knew it,” said Isabelle. “You’re tensed up from all that time spent hunching over a writing desk.”
“We have to loosen you up or your looks will suffer. If your skin’s in bad condition, it can lead to premature aging,” said Olga.
“And bad posture alone can be enough to make you less attractive!” added Chloe.
I continued to moan as they massaged my body. I felt like bread being kneaded. And yet, that pleasurable pain sensation was a feeling I could definitely get used to. Particularly intense was the effect it had on the area around my shoulders and shoulder blades. I suppose all the tension was what you could call an occupational disease. They even told me about some flexibility exercises that I could do to reduce the prevalence of the issue.
“Did you and Lord Simeon make up, by the way?” Isabelle asked.
Between quivering moans I replied, “Y-yes, pretty much…” The vigorous pressure on my lower back took my breath away. It hurt, but it felt so good. Yes… Just there… A tiny bit more…
“Pretty much?” Chloe replied.
“That’s good, though,” said Olga. “Incidentally, it is nice that you’re so slim, but your body shape is somewhat lacking in variation.”
“Shall we pad out her chest a bit?” suggested Isabelle.
“I think it’s fine the way it is,” Olga replied. “A better approach for Agnès—or rather, Marielle, I believe we should call her here—would be to emphasize her dainty and waif-like figure.”
I chuckled inside. Three very full pairs of breasts must be swaying to and fro above me. How disappointing that I’m lying face down, so I don’t get to see them. And how disappointing that I don’t have a pair like that myself! Woe is me.
But, though I was suddenly very aware of my blood circulation, I had no time to focus on that. Next they covered me in rose oil before wiping my whole body with a cloth soaked in hot water. The faint scent of roses wafted from my piping hot skin, and I found myself even more entranced than before. Considering how much money and effort goes into securing their services normally, it would have to be this incredible, I suppose!
They dressed me in special undergarments just for the party, and then, at last, they told me to sit down in front of the mirror. A vast array of makeup implements were laid out in a row before me. Are all these really necessary? Normally I’d only use about a third of these!
“Marielle’s main strength is her good skin,” said Chloe. “It’s silky smooth, and she has a lovely pale complexion.”
Isabelle replied, “Ah, the benefits of youth. I’m jealous that such a brief skin treatment produced such a fabulous result!”
“One’s teenage years are a dream that ends too soon,” said Olga. “You don’t realize how magical they are until they’re over, and then you can never have them back. Please, don’t waste them. Live these years to their fullest.”
Sharing words of praise, envy, and advice all at once, the three of them meticulously applied my makeup. I wondered, Is it really going to work if they layer THIS many things on me all at once?
Then Chloe asked, “What are we doing with her hair? It’s so beautifully straight, it would feel wrong to attack it with curling irons.”
“But it would be a shame to just leave it how it is,” Isabelle replied. “Her facial features are quite understated, so we should aim to have her hairstyle stand out.”
Olga contributed, “Why don’t we tie part of it up, then leave the ends loose, so there are wisps of hair swirling around her face?”
For the evening’s party, they’d not only brought a dress, but also styled my hair and applied all sorts of other finishing touches. At first I’d thought we were starting far too early, but by the time we were finished, it was just in time. It took significantly longer than I was used to, and by the time the Three Flowers gave their seal of approval at last, I was so distracted by my own appearance that I was left thoroughly dumbfounded.
Oh my. Makeup truly can work wonders.
The dress and the hairstyle made such an impact as well. I couldn’t believe what a different air I had about me. Compared to my usual self, it was as if I’d transformed into another person altogether.
The dress the Three Flowers had brought with them was pure white, almost like a wedding dress. Layers of light chiffon and lace fluttered when I moved, with an effect akin to petals or butterfly wings. Rather than using any large quantity of jewels, both the dress and my hair were adorned with flowers in a variety of colors. Those too, however, were not big and ostentatious, but sweet and delicate. The blooms attached to the dress were artificial, but those in my hair were genuine, and amongst them sat a single rose, red and bold.
This addition was the one and only request I’d made. The other colors were more like pale pastel shades, so I felt this would be the perfect detail to tie the look together.
I wore earrings and a necklace just to maintain the minimum level of decorum, but they were discreet and moderate pieces, decorated with tiny pearls. As was the Three Flowers’ calling card, the overall effect was polished and graceful. Honestly, I thought, it feels odd to be praising my own appearance, but the complete effect is far more attractive than I’d have expected. It’s quite a surprise.
It was decidedly strange to be describing myself like that, but in truth, I didn’t even see my own face in the mirror. I found myself thinking that before me sat a normal young lady—an attractive young lady. What I found most incredible was that after painting me so much, it in no way looked as if I was wearing heavy makeup. The result seemed entirely natural, despite being significantly more vivid, and cute, than I’d ever looked before. What exactly did they use on me, and where? This isn’t makeup so much as a disguise. It would even give Lutin, the master thief, a run for his money.
It was a fascinating experience, seeing how much my appearance could be changed. But now I have to go out in front of people looking like this. Will I be able to blend into the scenery as I normally do?
Olga said, “Why are you trembling like that? Remember, posture is important!”
“Now, time to charge into battle!” Isabelle added. “You can’t let yourself be beaten by those little upstarts from the country.”
“We’ve done all we can to prepare you, so go out there and make the biggest impression you can!” said Olga.
I hesitated a moment, which prompted the three of them to push me from behind all at once. I stumbled straight out into the corridor, where Lord Simeon awaited.
“Oho, in your uniform, I see!” said Olga, a measure of astonishment in her voice.
That prospect was a surefire way to capture my attention. I raised my head at once, and my vision was filled with the sight of a tall man in a royal guard’s uniform.
Wow, it feels like forever since I’ve seen him in uniform! And this isn’t even the usual one, but the extra formal one for special occasions! I’m seeing it for the first time ever!
Lord Simeon, you look…so…GREAT!
The uniform was shaped perfectly to accentuate his trained physique. As a whole, the look was austere, but what perfected it were the fine decorative details, brimming with style. And the aloof sharpness of his glasses, of course. I couldn’t imagine seeing this picture and not having my imagination sparked into the realm of wondrous delusion. His face was the only bare skin on show, but that in itself gave rise to an indescribable sensuality. Ohhh, how wonderful! His uniform is PERFECT, like a religious festival for my fangirl desires!
In reality, I’d say the Vice Captain was almost perfect. Only one last detail was missing. “Lord Simeon!” I began, drawing near.
“I’m not going to hold a riding crop.” He shut me down before I could even ask. But why!? When he’s gone this far, why won’t he add that one finishing touch just for me!?
“Careful, Marielle!” said Isabelle, holding me back for a moment. “Don’t get a nosebleed!”
The others added their own observations. “I suppose no makeover can change your nature,” said Olga.
“Anyway,” said Chloe, “why not let Lord Simeon get a good look at you?”
Having calmed down my fangirl urges to the point that I was less likely to spontaneously die from them, the trio presented me to Lord Simeon again. He stared at me silently, his brow furrowed.
Chloe chuckled. “Well? So taken aback that you’re lost for words, it seems?”
“Perhaps he feels his love rekindled, seeing his fiancée looking so much more beautiful!” said Olga.
But despite their prompting, he still didn’t say a word. He adjusted his glasses and inspected me from top to bottom. I felt so uncomfortable that I longed to run and hide.
It didn’t exactly feel like a romantic response. Quite the opposite, in fact. All that emanated from Lord Simeon was a cold, intimidating feeling.
“Cat got your tongue?” said Isabelle to him mockingly. “Or too moved for words, perhaps?”
But my intuition was correct. He turned his icy gaze on her. “I was indeed rather surprised,” he said at last. “I didn’t even realize it was my fiancée at first.” That’s just what I thought, Vice Captain! Isn’t it shocking that a person can be transformed like this? “How exactly did you craft such an elaborate deception?”
“No need to phrase it so rudely,” Isabelle replied. “We simply changed her makeup technique. She tends to apply it with an overly light touch, so of course this looks strikingly different!”
“Striking indeed. Compared to her usual appearance, I feel rather as if I’ve been struck in the face,” said Lord Simeon.
Chloe raised an indignant protest at this. “What an obstinate fool. Your fiancée is dressed to the nines for you, and that’s all you can say to her?”
Olga smiled, a degree of irritation visible on her face as well. “Dresses and makeup are a woman’s battle attire. Everywhere you look in high society, this is how young ladies have prepared themselves for war. Isn’t it unfair for Marielle alone to be denied that opportunity?”
“I’m hardly denying her…” In the face of this censure from all directions, even Lord Simeon softened his tone somewhat. He averted his eyes, clearly uncomfortable.
The last thing I’d expected was for him to be overflowing with flowery words of admiration, but this response was still a little disheartening. After all this effort, it truly makes no difference if I’m beautiful or not…
“Then kindly refrain from continuing to blather on about it,” said Isabelle, her voice irate. “If you don’t get a move on, I’ll kick both of you to high heaven.”
Lord Simeon sighed and offered me his arm. I gently added mine to his and stood nestled up close to him as usual.
“…Thank you for all your help,” I said, glancing back at the Three Flowers. “I’m truly grateful.”
“If you’re thanking someone, do it with a happier face,” came the reply from Olga. “If you express your gratitude so despondently, how can you expect us to feel glad about it?”
I rushed to straighten my back and put a smile on my lips. She’s right. After all they’ve done to help me, it’s rude for me to have such a negative attitude when addressing them.
Chloe spoke next. “Listen to me, Marielle. Even when your hackles are raised, even when you want to cry, always return an easygoing smile to whoever’s responsible. No matter how harsh its environment, a flower always has to bloom beautifully. If it wilts and drops its petals, it’s no longer a flower, but mere detritus to be thrown away. Never forget that you are a flower.” She lightly flicked my forehead.
“Although,” added Olga, “I can understand that if your key ally is a fool who doesn’t appreciate beauty, it must be hard to work up any enthusiasm.” She didn’t forget to deliver a frosty glare to the person beside me.
Finally, Isabelle added, “But tonight, you’ll find yourself admired by people on all sides! Forget about the man next to you, just enjoy it for everything it’s worth!”
Her buoyant tone made me burst into a smile again. In contrast, Lord Simeon began to pout sullenly. “Let’s go,” he said, starting to walk.
“Oh, y-yes,” I stuttered, moving my feet to keep up. “We’re off, then!”
All three of them replied at once. “Bye bye!” “See you later!” “Tell us how the battle goes!”
The goddesses waved us goodbye, and we proceeded to the banquet hall. For a while we somehow walked without saying a word, but then Lord Simeon cleared his throat rather forcefully. “I apologize for commenting as rudely as I did. Only, your appearance is so much more ostentatious than I’m used to, I was…how shall I put it? Utterly bewildered.”
“Yes,” I replied, “it was quite a shock to me, as well. I never expected that a change of clothes and a careful application of makeup could turn me into a different person.”
“Well, when I said I didn’t realize it was you, I was referring more to the air about you than anything else. You come across rather differently than usual, but if I look closely, it is indeed Marielle’s face under all that paint.”
His earnest, conciliatory tone made a smile form at the edges of my lips. This is what I love about him. Sometimes he’s a bit harsh, but he never bears me any ill will, not truly. He’s just being his usual earnest self.
“It’s quite all right. For me, this is all rather exciting. It’s as if I’m in disguise. I knew they were skilled, but it was remarkable to see their makeup wizardry up close. They showed me all kinds of techniques.”
His light blue eyes finally turned to look at me again. When he saw the expression on my face, the tension in the air dissipated. “But why did you invite them? Why the dramatic change? I suppose you simply decided a change was in order?”
“No, I’m also rather baffled to have reached this point. When they and I were talking yesterday, this plan simply formed out of nowhere.”
“Ah, so that’s where you were yesterday?” he asked.
“Yes. I thought it best to restore myself to good spirits by spending time in a flower garden.”
Lord Simeon appeared to be dismayed. Not that I’d expect him to have a positive view of me spending time at a brothel, of course. However, he was kind enough to understand that I’d made some wonderful friends with whom I could enjoy a comfortable discourse. He didn’t object to it per se—he didn’t want me to stop—but he was a little worried that others might find out.
It’s all right, though. No one ever calls me Marielle at Tarentule, and the ladies are being especially attentive to make sure that there is no risk whatsoever of the information being leaked. That is the most fundamental aspect of their job, after all. No need to worry!
“We’re just reaching the staircase, so watch your step. Can you manage it?” Since I’d removed my glasses, Lord Simeon escorted me with even more gentlemanly attention than usual.
“Thank you. My eyesight’s not so poor that I can’t see in front of me—nothing like that—so it’s quite all right. It’s only a shame that the faces around me will be something of a blur.”
Being unable to see clearly left me decidedly uneasy. I was worried I wouldn’t even know if the Le Comte sisters were approaching. But I know Lord Simeon’s arm will be there to lead me, so it will be all right.
“Lord Simeon, how is your eyesight without your glasses?”
“I’m not so dreadfully short-sighted either, but it is more troublesome than I tend to enjoy dealing with.”
That reminds me, I’ve actually never seen Lord Simeon without his glasses on. It doesn’t bother me, since his glasses actually add to his appeal… Not like mine. I’d even say they’re one of those essential props that make him so attractive. Right up there with the riding crop!
We gradually drew closer to the sounds of music and revelry. Once we’d descended the staircase into the entrance hall, we started to meet people who had only just arrived, and exchanged greetings with them as we made our way to the banquet hall.
Every one of them did a double take when they saw me. The layers of hushed voices built into a cacophony. “It’s Marielle Clarac!” they said. “That’s Marielle Clarac! The one from your city, Marielle Clarac!” “It’s not some unknown mystery girl, it’s Marielle Clarac! Look carefully, her hair is the same color!”
When we entered the party itself, every pair of eyes in the room fell on me! Well, not quite. The only people who could see me were those nearby. But I’d had that same feeling before. I remembered it well. It was very much like the first time I’d appeared in public after becoming engaged to Lord Simeon.
Whispers and murmurs of “Who’s that?” emanated from the assembled noblewomen. A few said things such as: “Her? It can’t be!” Not only did they struggle to realize it was me at first, but even when they did, they did not appear to be fully convinced.
Lord Simeon’s gallant apparel drew the eye as well, which made us the center of attention to an even greater degree. I fought with all my might to maintain my prim and proper countenance, while underneath I was in a cold sweat. I could have screamed. I feel my chances of survival slipping by the moment! I want to go and hide in the shadows, right now!
Since I definitely couldn’t do that, priority number one was saying hello to our hosts. Lord Simeon and I made our way over to Earl and Countess Pautrier.
Lord Cedric was with them as well, of course, and he was equally surprised by my appearance. “My word, I hardly recognized you. You look like a fairy who lives in a flower garden.”
“I am most grateful that you invited us, Lord Cedric. I must say that you, too, look especially like a proper young gentleman today.”
Considering this was his debut and introduction as House Pautrier’s heir, he seemed remarkably calm. He had a confident air about him, as if he did this sort of thing every day. He always came across as cultured and refined, which gave the impression that he was more than suited to being the heir to an earldom. The guests who were meeting him here for the first time all offered him words of praise as well, and their faces matched those words, even if they said all kinds of other things in far-flung parts of the room, or in the shadows of their hand fans. At the very least, however, there was no one who openly found fault with him.
His clothes, a lustrous shade of dark green, suited his lean and toned body, and drew the eye even in a room full of ostentatious outfits like this. When Lord Simeon stood next to him, the two dashingly handsome young men made a peerlessly dazzling impression. Their excellent physiques made them very attractive when viewed at close range or from afar.
Yes, indeed, I thought. When the two stand beside one another, it’s clear that their body types are very similar. Lord Simeon was slightly taller, but otherwise they had several aspects in common. Broad shoulders, surprisingly muscled chests, biceps that visibly stood out even through the fabric of their clothes… Their formal wear had no unnecessary slackness in the material at all, but rather clung to their bodies, so all of these aspects were on clear display.
Does Lord Cedric have some background in martial arts? That would seem odd, since he said he had no experience with fighting. I doubt his body could be this honed simply by doing occasional exercise… When I think about Prince Severin, for example, he has a keen interest in horse riding and gets plenty of exercise, but his body is nowhere near the level of a knight’s. His Highness has the same slim physique as any other gentleman of his age.
I wondered if physical labor could result in a physique like that. I still hadn’t asked him in any great detail about his life in Linden. It was possible that he’d been engaged in that sort of work.
…And yet not only his physique, but his entire manner comes across too differently from any other manual laborer I’ve ever seen.
As part of my efforts to gather reference material, I’d spent more than a little time watching laborers working downtown. I’d gone on jaunts to various places accompanied by a manservant, my editor, and occasionally even my older brother. When I thought back to the manual laborers I’d seen in the past, Lord Cedric’s entire demeanor was nothing like them at all.
No matter how one looked at him, he came across as no more and no less than a nobleman. This could have just been the result of the efforts he’d made to live up to his status as a suitable heir. Perhaps, I considered, he had inherited it from his father to an extent as well. Given the position he found himself in, it was definitely a desirable attribute for him to come across this way. However, there was something not quite right, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
He was beset by a sea of guests offering their greetings, so I wasn’t able to engage in much of a conversation with him. Lord Simeon and I soon had to give way to other people and move somewhere else. The two of us also separated for a while. He sought out his own friends, and I was looking for someone as well. It was only natural for us to go our separate ways for a time.
“Are you sure you’ll be all right?” he asked with an anxious tone.
I smiled back at him, and nodded. “I told you, my eyesight’s not so bad that I can’t see where my feet are stepping. There’s no need for any concern.”
“That’s not why I’m concerned. You’re going to look for Patrice, I assume. Why? What are you planning?”
Oops. He has me all figured out once again. “I’m not planning anything. I merely want to observe him. I’m sure he wouldn’t try to do anything to Lord Cedric here in public.”
“Don’t be overly attached to him as the perpetrator,” Lord Simeon replied. “Just because the handwriting is similar doesn’t mean we can firmly conclude that he himself wrote those threatening notes.”
“But it really was exactly the same…”
“There are people out there who are especially skilled at imitating other people’s handwriting. Certainly, there are various aspects of Patrice’s behavior that cast him in a suspicious light, but we have to keep those things in mind for what they are, rather than using them to draw any hasty conclusions.”
“And I’m sure I needn’t remind you, but you mustn’t let your guard down around Cedric either. I can’t say anything too specific where others might overhear us, but I can say that he’s someone around whom you should exercise plenty of caution.”
He said this with such a serious expression that it startled me. My gut instinct was to say: Lord Cedric? Why would you say such nonsense? But I couldn’t, because—as I had to remind myself—I, too, had a sense that he was hiding something.
On the surface he came across as the perfect heir, but I had an unmistakable sense that below the surface, there was some sort of a catch. I wondered if Lord Simeon already knew the truth about Lord Cedric that lay at the heart of my feelings of unease. What was making him express so firmly that I should exercise caution?
I asked him, “What exactly do you mean?”
“I’ll explain later. For now, I ask you just to stay alert. And not to accompany any men who invite you to spend time with them. Don’t accept any drinks you’re offered, either. There are those who would try to harm you by mixing in excessive quantities of alcohol.”
His words had begun as something more earnest, but had quickly become a standard lecture. My shoulders sagged. Oh well. Whatever secret Lord Cedric might be harboring, I doubt anything will happen at the party. After listening to all of Lord Simeon’s lecture, I left him and went my own way.
Why does the Vice Captain have to be so overprotective? It’s been years since my debut, and I’ve spent all of those years as a wallflower. What are the chances of men deciding to talk to me now, after all this time?
But the moment I had that thought, a group of men appeared before me. “Excuse me, young lady. Might I ask your name?” I was flabbergasted, and for a moment I stood still, unsure of how to reply. Wha…? Is he talking to me? If I wasn’t mistaken, he was the third son of House Larrieux.
“Would you be so kind as to accompany me for one dance?” This gentleman was the heir to House Taillon.
“I’m so glad I could be here to see such a lovely flower in bloom. Please, let us find a quiet corner where we can talk.” The third one, who presented a drink to me as he spoke, was not even an heir, but the head of House Villeneuve! Where’s his wife!?
A procession of men gave me their attention. I couldn’t refuse them fast enough—there was always one more. I thought, What on earth is going on? I was suddenly aware that Lord Simeon’s little lecture wasn’t born of overprotectiveness at all. The transformative arts of the ladies of Tarentule were so formidable that I not only looked like a different person, but was treated as one, too.
I’ve met these people plenty of times, but until now they’d never actually noticed my existence. I’m standing out from the crowd, and it’s BIZARRE! And when people come up to me, that just means even more people notice me! Please, everyone, stop noticing me! I don’t want people to pay attention to me—I’M supposed to pay attention to THEM! I like to be on the outside looking in! I don’t even want to be a wallflower, I want to be WALLPAPER!
“Now you are a young lady I’ve never seen before, and a sight for sore eyes at that. Could I have this dance?”
“No, I don’t dance!” I hastily replied. “I’m just wallpaper!” “What?”
Oops. After being spoken to one too many times, I’d accidentally replied honestly to one of these men. But it’s true, wallpaper can’t dance. It would definitely be a struggle.
“Sorry, forget what I just said. Think of me as…a harmless wandering ghost.” “You realize you’re only intriguing me more!”
“What if I’m just a shadow cast on the wall?”
“Oh, if a shadow could talk, that would be rather terrifying!” said the man. “Hold on, for you to be saying preposterous things like that, you can only be…Miss Marielle!? I can’t believe it!”
“Oh?” Hearing my name brought me back to my senses. When I looked up properly, one of the city’s preeminent sources of male beauty stood before me. “Y-your Highness! I wasn’t aware that you’d be in attendance!”
Beneath his black hair, his masculine yet beautiful features stared at me in disbelief. I genuinely had no idea that Prince Severin’s name was on the guest list. It takes someone of Earl Pautrier’s status to personally invite the crown prince to his grandson’s debut, I suppose!
All aflutter, I gave him something resembling a curtsy. “I must apologize for my rudeness. I’ve been rather distracted so far this evening.”
“Well, I must say, nobody is ever distracted in quite the same way as you,” said His Highness with a sigh. “I made rather an embarrassing mistake as well, asking you to dance before I realized you were my closest friend’s fiancée.”
Ooh, sorry about that, I thought. So even you were fooled by my appearance, Your Highness!
He stared at me, unblinking, and with an expression that was quite difficult to read. “You seem to have put a remarkable amount of effort into your appearance this evening. Well, that in itself is hardly out of the ordinary for any young lady. What surprises me is quite how different you look as a result.”
“Well, you see, one thing led to another…” I began.
But, almost to himself, he said, “That was rather a close shave…” “What was?”
But rather than tell me what exactly was a close shave, His Highness dismissed my question with a brusque wave of the hand. “It doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s clear that you’re the same person on the inside. Anyway, tell me, why are you so distracted tonight?”
A member of the Royal Order of Knights stood guard behind him. I recognized his face—he was called Alain. Good evening, Alain! His uniform was not the ceremonial variety, but the everyday type, just as Lord Simeon would wear while escorting His Highness.
“Because I can hardly walk three steps without someone—including you, Your Highness— inviting me to talk or dance or share a drink. I’m so unused to being the center of attention, I don’t know what to do!”
“As far as I’ve seen, this is the norm for young ladies when they come to a party like this. It’s only you, in your usual guise, that experiences these events differently.”
“Yes, exactly. And when I told you I was wallpaper, it was a true expression of what I wished to be the case. Although I soon realized that wallpaper can’t move, so the ghost option might be better.”
“I don’t know which is better,” he replied, “but I’m afraid I’ve no time to spend on anything quite as demented as keeping up with your thought processes. Where is Simeon, anyway? I can’t imagine why he’s letting all this run amok.” I had the sense that he was disparaging me, but his words recalled something quite different for me.
“Oh! You’re right! By all means, go and find Lord Simeon! I believe he’s somewhere over there!” I pointed His Highness in the direction I believed Lord Simeon was in. Truth be told, I had very little idea where Lord Simeon was at that moment, but I was certain His Highness would be able to find him. Or, more likely, Lord Simeon will find HIM. No matter how far apart they are, he’ll always find His Highness!
“What do you mean? There’s no need for us to reconvene yet. I’ve only just greeted Earl Pautrier and his grandson.”
“Don’t say that! It may only be a fleeting dream, but please, make it come true!”
“Wh-What the devil are you talking about?”
“I’ll disappear, so please, don’t worry about me!”
“Now hold on there!” he exclaimed. “I’d feel less comfortable if you disappeared! Why do
you feel compelled to do that!?”
Disrespectful to his status though it was, I ignored His Highness’s words and ran off. Once I was lost in the crowd, I knew he wouldn’t be able to come after me, as he himself would inevitably be beset by people approaching him from all sides.
I found a curtain and ran behind it, concealing myself in the shadows. At last I had a chance to get away from everyone’s attentive eyes. I breathed a sigh of relief. Hiding gave me a deep sense of reassurance. I felt I could just about go on living.
Once I’d calmed down, I reflected on what had just happened. I wonder if His Highness went to find Lord Simeon after all. I hope he did. Lord Simeon is always so concerned about my wellbeing, I have to do what I can to help him achieve some measure of happiness as well. That’s what I’ve decided.
I took a small peek from behind the curtain and saw nothing but a blurry mass of people moving in all directions. It might have been that I couldn’t see clearly, but I was far more conscious of the sounds of music and voices than usual. At times I heard gossiping about Lord Cedric. Some voices even touched on His Highness, Lord Simeon, and myself. It didn’t seem as if I’d be able to move from that spot just yet.
Despite my ambitions of investigating Lord Patrice without being noticed, I still didn’t have the slightest idea where he was. Not having my glasses was really quite frustrating. If a genie appeared right now and granted me three wishes, one of them would definitely be to improve my eyesight. I guess the second would be for my family to be happy and prosperous, and the third would be for Lord Simeon to be holding a riding crop.
Staying hidden, I strained my eyes to look at the flocks of people. Oh! Is that Lady Aurelia over there, the radiant-looking blonde one? I’m quite proud of myself for spotting her even without my glasses! I suppose she is one of the jewels of high society. Not only her beauty, but her entire presence makes her stand out. Lady Aurelia certainly is wonderful! I wish I could get just a tiny bit closer…
Out of nowhere, a voice blasted in my ears at a distance rather too close for comfort. “She really is shameless and disgusting! How dare she!?”
I all but jumped out of my skin. A pair of young ladies had positioned themselves nearby without me noticing. Wait, aren’t they the Le Comte sisters? So this is where they’ve been.
Evelyn continued, “Calling in outside help is going too far! It’s excessively sly and sneaky!”
“That’s not the dress she was supposed to be wearing!” cried Suzette. “I can’t believe she’d arrange a special delivery on the day of the party! Deceitful, wicked woman!”
There was no need to guess that I was the target of the sisters’ indignant words.
“And she’s only had to put on so many layers of makeup because underneath, she’s a plain- faced cow!”
“And all the gullible men propositioning her are merely exposing their foolishness. It’s all fake, a forgery of beauty. Take off all the layers of polish and she’s nothing but ugly. How can they all fail to realize that!?”
Yes, indeed, I thought to myself, it’s just as you say. It’s all true, I fully admit it.
However, I also felt I could consider this a victory for the Three Flowers and their handiwork. I suspected that if I told them just how bitter and resentful it had made the sisters, they’d be very smug indeed.
The Le Comte sisters let out a stream of complaints aimed not only at me, but at the young men at the party as well. It seemed that every conversation they engaged in with a gentleman had ended rather quickly when their relatively low-grade birth had become apparent. They’d probably been trying to secure men of too high a rank. With no noble rank at all, they’d be better off aiming lower, just as I’d have done if not for Lord Simeon. Anyone of too high a rank is unlikely to see them as viable marriage partners, but amongst the lower-ranked nobles, I’m sure they can find suitors who don’t turn up their noses at young ladies with no noble rank at all. They were both very good-looking, and their family had a decent amount of money, so as long as they maintained reasonable expectations, it seemed like they should be able to find husbands.
I wanted to give them advice, but I couldn’t exactly leave my hiding place. Besides, they didn’t know I’d overheard their conversation. I felt it better to silently cheer them on from the shadows. You can do this! There are tons of eligible bachelors at this party, so if you persevere and really look, I’m sure you’ll both meet someone great!
Of course, I didn’t need to say anything, because they had no intention of giving up. They spied another fine young man and proceeded in his direction. As I watched them go, I silently expressed my admiration for their efforts.
Everyone’s trying their hardest—the men who were approaching me and the young ladies like the Le Comte sisters who are trying to find husbands. For young people, gatherings like this are a vital opportunity to meet potential partners. Beautiful romances are born here, and so are terrible tragedies. My purpose in life is to stand on the sidelines and watch it all, but it is rather vexing that I had to hide in the curtains to be able to do that today… After all the effort the Three Flowers put into dressing me up, I’d rather be back to normal. Even Lord Simeon didn’t respond to it particularly well…
Perhaps, I decided, anyone who knew the normal me couldn’t help but see all of this as artificial. Contrary to being impressed, they might even be thinking that it was shameless of me to go so far.
I felt somehow dejected. I didn’t care what other people thought, but I’d wanted Lord Simeon to praise my appearance at the very least. I needed to accept that I was in no position to be expecting such things from him.
I let out a quiet sigh…and in that instant, I lost my hiding place as the curtains opened.
I jumped in fright at being exposed, but the voice that greeted me was a kind one. “What are you doing in a place like that?” It was Lord Cedric. He peered at me, baffled, as I shied away from the light.
“O-oh, Lord Cedric,” I stammered. “I didn’t realize you were there. I might ask you the same thing, though. The party’s in your honor, so what are you doing in a far corner like this?”
“I found myself at risk of drowning in the sea of people, so I made my escape. I suspect we both had the same idea.” He chuckled. “More precisely, I had to catch my breath, so I asked my grandmother’s permission. I understand why tonight is so important, but as I feared, being in front of so many people puts rather a strain on me.”
I attempted a polite laugh. “Yes, I was also trying to get away from the crowds so I could take a breather.”
Unfortunately, I longed to tell him, the only way I can calm down is by hiding myself completely. Normally I can make myself into part of the scenery just by standing still, but tonight I’m in a rather different situation.
Lord Cedric offered me his hand. “Let’s excuse ourselves to the lounge. We can rest for a moment, away from all the attention.” He gestured in the direction of the doorway leading to the small relaxation room.
I hesitated, recalling Lord Simeon’s advice. What should I do? Going with him might turn out to be a mistake. And yet, I don’t sense any danger from him…
“Is something the matter?” he asked.
“Oh, no, I’m quite all right. Yes, it would be fine just for a moment.” I took his hand, ultimately deciding I wouldn’t refuse his offer. I wonder if Lord Simeon will get angry with me later. He’s not too far away, though. A short while would be fine, surely?
We left the banquet hall and entered the lounge. A serving girl arrived and poured tea for us, and when she came close I realized that I didn’t recognize her face. I investigated every corner of the manor. Was she not there? But it wasn’t uncommon for temporary staff to be called in for a large event like this, so perhaps, I thought, it wasn’t that odd.
Once she’d left, Lord Cedric said rather awkwardly, “You must have expected I’d handle myself better, but in the face of all this pomp and circumstance, I find myself rather daunted.”
“Actually,” I replied, “I’m quite the same. And after all the effort my friends put in to make me look beautiful, it turns out I’m entirely uncomfortable with it. I can’t be at ease at all.”
“Oh, really? Personally I think it becomes you very well indeed. I meant it when I said you looked like a fairy. It’s only natural that you’d attract a lot of attention.”
“I’m still surprised that it made this much of a difference, though.”
“When a lady changes her clothes, she can turn into a different person—isn’t that what they say? Today you’ve had the opportunity to show off charms that no one ever knew were lying dormant in you.” He offered these words to me in a tone that sounded natural, not like empty flattery. I was glad, but honestly, I was ill at ease as well. Perhaps noticing this, he let out another chuckle and said, “In any case, your biggest charms lie elsewhere. Personally I prefer your usual, undecorated self.”
“Well, thank you.” I suppose he knows me as someone plain, so if I appear before him like this, it’s too late to make a new impression.
“And I must say, it’s very like you to be so entirely indifferent to your own charms, Marielle. It’s quite interesting!”
“I suppose you’re right. I’d definitely say it’s more accurate to consider myself interesting rather than charming.”
“…I fear you’ve taken that in a negative sense that I didn’t intend. I meant that you’re exceedingly interesting, and that is something that lends you plenty of charm.”
“Yes,” I replied, “I understand what you mean, and I’m grateful.” I hadn’t taken Lord Cedric’s words in a negative way, and I cheerfully smiled and nodded back at him…so why did he still look so perturbed? Did I do something wrong? I cocked my head in confusion.
In response, he smiled bitterly. “What a bother. You really have no conception of how other people see you. I did my best to express it in no uncertain terms, but it still didn’t do the trick.”
He leaned forward and took my hands, which were resting in my lap. “Perhaps, given the nature of your fiancé, you see no need to look anywhere else, but…if possible, could I please ask you to look around as well, if only a little bit?”
“What do you…?”
His deep blue eyes stared intently at me from a very close distance. Is…is this the exact situation Lord Simeon meant I should be on my guard against? If someone saw me in this situation, they would definitely get the wrong impression. I tried to subtly draw my hands away, but Lord Cedric would not let them go.
“Have you noticed that there’s a man right here who’s thoroughly charmed by you?” “Excuse me, Lord Cedric?”
His gaze was filled with an entirely different intensity than usual. It was the first time anyone had ever fixed their eyes on me in that manner, and I had no idea how to take it. All I knew was that this was very bad, and I was extremely uncomfortable with the situation.
“I’m not saying this to flatter you,” he continued. “I mean it in all sincerity. I’ve been thoroughly drawn to you from the moment we first met.”
“Wh…what!?” What is he saying? What even is this? Did he just admit he has feelings for me? There’s no way, surely. Why would he be… I mean, we’ve only just met, and we’ve hardly had time to develop much of a relationship. Love at first sight is only meant to happen if the protagonist is an UNPARALLELED beauty!
I was entirely lost for words, and seeing this, a soft laugh slipped out of him and he finally released my hands. At once, the mood was entirely different from before. Was he always like this? I wondered. I thought he was a kind person, wearing his heart on his sleeve. He seemed like someone who was easy to get along with because he put on no airs, no pretense. Now, though, I can’t perceive what he’s thinking at all. All of a sudden, I felt keenly aware of how little I knew about his true nature.
Perhaps he’s mocking me? In his eyes, I saw a sense of trickery, of the darkness that can lurk within people. “I’m honored by your words,” I replied at last, putting on a smile. I decided it might be best to respond as if playing it off as a joke—or to leave things ambiguous, at least. “This is the first time I’ve been complimented by a gentleman like that in my entire life.”
“Oh my. Lord Simeon never compliments you like that?”
I froze. “I…” It hadn’t occurred to me until he said it, but indeed, I couldn’t think of any particular moment when Lord Simeon had paid me a compliment. He was often growing exasperated with me and rebuking me, but complimenting me? Not that I could recall.
Oh, now that I think, he did tell me he liked my novels. That wasn’t related to my own personal charms, though. At our first meeting he also said something about my appearance being “quite lovely,” but that was nothing but empty flattery. He was just saying the right thing in front of my father.
I sighed internally, lost in thought, and it prompted another laugh from Lord Cedric. “What a cruel fiancé. A lovely woman like this, and he never pays her a single compliment.”
“No, it’s not like that,” I began to protest…but the more I thought back on our interactions, the less I felt able to deny it. Ever since I found out that he knew about the way I spent my time —for both pleasure and profit—I’d made no effort whatsoever to cover it up. Who could ever compliment a woman who was continually shouting from the rooftops about her fangirl urges?
Lord Cedric shrugged. “He seems to be quite generous with his affections when talking to Evelyne and Suzette. In fact, his behavior with them is quite the opposite to what you’ve described. One starts to doubt his faithfulness.”
His words startled me. He knew about that? However, I was already fairly certain that it hadn’t been anything resembling infidelity.
“I will mention, Miss Marielle, that it’s not yet too late. You’re not married, so you could still start afresh.”
He produced a small box from his breast pocket and opened it in front of me. Inside was a
ring set with a single large emerald, which refracted the light into a million bewitching splinters.
I’d seen this spectacular ring somewhere before. Wasn’t Lady Monique wearing this a few days ago? “That ring, it’s…”
“My grandmother gave it to me last night. She said it’s been inherited by the wives of House Pautrier for generations, and that one day I was to give it to my own bride.”
Generations of wives… That explained why Lady Monique had it, being the widow of the eldest son. But Lord Cedric didn’t have a wife yet, so it seemed awfully soon to be handing it over to him.
“If I say that I’d like to give this to you, will you please accept it?” he asked searchingly.
I looked up at him again. From his facial expression, I honestly couldn’t tell whether he was being serious or toying with me.
I tried to give another answer that could fit in either scenario: serious proposal or overzealous joke. “Lord Simeon gives me flowers. Those are more to my taste.” I sensed that it would be dangerous to be too drawn in by the atmosphere he was trying to create. Right now, it was as if the genteel kindness he’d always conveyed before was an illusion. Instead, he looked like a shrewd and cunning individual. Perhaps this is what a REAL black-hearted scoundrel is like, I considered. And yet, for reasons unknown, I had a hard time finding anything wonderful about it. My fangirl urges were not fired up at all. All it did was make me intensely wary.
I put all my effort into hiding this. I couldn’t let it show on my face. “After all,” I continued, “I am a fairy in a flower garden. I have no need for any human ornaments.”
Laughing, Lord Cedric closed the box and returned it to his pocket. He didn’t show any signs of pursuing me persistently, but it felt like only a temporary reprieve nonetheless. I still could not tell what he was thinking at all.
Lord Cedric glanced away briefly, so my eyes followed, and I saw that the serving girl from before was watching us from the doorway. Rather than entering, she gave a slight bow and left immediately.
“I suppose we mustn’t stay here too long. If we’re alone in a room like this, your venerable fiancé will get angry again,” said Lord Cedric with a touch of sarcasm. He stood from his chair, and I did as well, seeing the wisdom in his words. We still had tea left in our cups, but if anyone realized that the two of us had left the party to spend time alone, it would definitely have come across as an illicit rendezvous. I assumed the servant had come by out of concern for our reputations.
When we exited into the corridor, it was rather chilly. It was midwinter, after all, so it would be a poor choice to stray too far from the warmth of a fire in my off-the-shoulder party dress. I quickened my pace a little, hoping to get back to the banquet hall as quickly as possible, when Lord Cedric stopped and said, “Oho!”
I looked where he was looking and saw a figure walking in the opposite direction, away from the banquet hall. I could tell that it was a man, but without my glasses on, I couldn’t see exactly who it was at this distance.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“It’s Lord Patrice. I wonder where he’s off to.”
Lord Patrice? I instantly regained the purpose that I’d lost while listening to Lord Cedric’s befuddling words shortly beforehand. Lord Patrice! I was looking for him! That’s the entire reason I parted ways with Lord Simeon! So this is where he’s been.
Indeed—where was he going? “To use the facilities?” I suggested.
“No, it appeared very much like he was on his way to the second floor.”
The two of us followed Lord Patrice, careful to keep hidden. When he reached the staircase, he turned his head this way and that, as if afraid of what prying eyes might think. Then he began to climb. Lord Cedric and I looked at each other. There was no way around it: what we were witnessing was suspicious behavior. Lord Patrice wasn’t staying as an overnight guest, so there was no obvious reason for him to visit the second floor. His slippery manner also invited plenty of suspicion about where he was going and why.
What popped into my head were the words scrawled on the wall in Lord Cedric’s room. He’s probably on his way to undertake something else along those lines. I clenched my fist, certain that I was right. “Let’s follow him,” I said to Lord Cedric. “In terms of who wrote those threatening notes, he’s the primary suspect. We can probably catch him at the scene of the crime!”
Lord Cedric instantly gave a nod of assent. Once Lord Patrice had climbed the staircase and was just out of view, we followed him up there, masking our footsteps as much as possible.
We peered along the second-floor corridor just in time to see him walk past Lord Cedric’s room. That’s odd. So that wasn’t his destination after all? We followed him with our eyes to see where he was going, and he stopped in front of a door further along. The collection room, if I recall correctly.
The two of us looked at one another again. Perhaps we were about to catch him in a different criminal act?
He stood in front of the locked door, rummaging and rattling around. Ugh, how frustrating that I can’t see properly. But the motion suggests he must be unlocking the door? As if to verify my suspicion, Lord Patrice opened the door and walked through it. Dismayed, I walked along the corridor toward the collection room.
I wondered when he could possibly have obtained the key. It seemed inconceivable that he could have stolen it from the butler, who kept them on his person at all times. It also seemed inconceivable that the butler could be his co-conspirator. Now that I thought, the servants in the kitchen had gossiped about him standing in front of the door to the collection room and rattling the doorknob. Could he have been taking a mold of the lock, perhaps?
I thought back to my conversation with Mr. Danton, too, and it made Lord Patrice’s goal crystal clear. The earl, all his relatives and all of the guests were busy at the party. So were the servants—none of them would have time to visit the second floor at present. He could sneak in and steal a treasure or two while all eyes were averted, then sell his ill-gotten prizes to pay off his debt. In all likelihood, I considered, this was another reason he’d been visiting the estate every day. He needed to be sure he knew his way around.
No matter what financial difficulties he’s experiencing, the respectable son of a baron couldn’t ever… Well, no, I suppose this family has quite a few problem children.
Despite my fraught mood, I was careful not to make a sound as I stepped closer and peeked around the door frame into the open room. In the pitch-black room, Lord Patrice moved by the light of a single candle. He tried to prize open some of the cases and cabinets where the jewels were stored, but they were each individually locked. Evidently, he hadn’t been able to duplicate the keys that would unlock these. He cursed under his breath.
Lord Cedric tapped me on the shoulder. He pulled me away from the door for a moment and whispered, “I’ll keep watch here. You run and fetch help.”
I nodded, and turned around to go. Even if I’d tried to get involved, there were priceless valuables everywhere, and the second the glass in the cases or cabinets was smashed, it would all be over. I decided at this point I could dare to make a tiny amount of noise as I crept away. I felt confident I could muster sufficient help before he had time to achieve his goal and escape.
Leaving the scene in Lord Cedric’s hands, I picked up the pace and returned to the first floor. I found a servant near the banquet hall and had him summon the butler. Then I explained the situation as quickly as I could. The butler gathered up a group of men right away and went up to the second floor. I’ve done what I can, and the rest is up to you. I’ll be cheering you all on, right up until the end!
With no need to conceal their footsteps at all any longer, they thundered up the staircase, but before they reached the top, a scream and a thunderous crash resounded from upstairs.
“What was that!?” exclaimed several of the men present. The servants and I all froze in shock for a moment. It didn’t sound like something small—one of the smaller cases being smashed open, or something of that scale. It was more like something very large and heavy had been smashed to bits. The floor still reverberated from the impact. Had one of the immense cabinets been knocked over, perhaps?
But that scream… I imagine it was Lord Patrice rather than Lord Cedric, but what happened
to make him scream like that?
Everyone ran into the collection room. I stayed by the door and gingerly peered inside. As I thought, a cabinet had fallen. Lord Patrice was on the ground, having fallen on his backside, while jewelry and shattered glass blanketed the floor around him.
Lord Cedric was nowhere to be seen. “Lord Patrice?” said the butler.
With a start, Lord Patrice turned his head and looked at the assembled servants, who held out lamps and lit up the room. In the glow, I noticed that Lord Patrice’s cravat was soiled. How did that happen? And it’s not just his cravat, but his shirt that’s stained as well. It’s red, as if he spilled wine on it or something. I hoped that was the case, anyway, because the alternative that momentarily occurred to me was too terrible for words. Directly beside him on the floor was a ceremonial sword that had tumbled out of its display case. The blade was out of its scabbard, and it, too, was covered in some sort of red substance.
And, looking at the area around the fallen cabinet, not only glass and jewels had been spilled. The carpet was stained with something dark and wet. Is that… No, it couldn’t be…?
“Where’s Lord Cedric?” I said, not even fully conscious of the words slipping out of my mouth.
In response, Lord Patrice began to tremble. “It’s not what it looks like!” he protested, springing up from the ground and drawing away from the crowd. Despite having nowhere to run to, he raced deeper into the room, screaming in his own defense all the while. “You’re wrong! It wasn’t me! The cabinet fell down on its own—you have to believe me! I didn’t do anything!”
A servant ran after him. Even after he was cornered, Lord Patrice continued to yell that we were wrong, that we’d misunderstood.
I wished Lord Simeon was with me. I have to tell him. I turned back toward the door, silently cursing my quivering feet. That instant, I saw a figure sliding smoothly out of the door while all the servants were distracted by the commotion.
The man’s clothing marked him out as a servant, but based on his stature, I couldn’t help thinking he resembled Lord Cedric. It was a little alarming. I wondered why a servant would be leaving the room alone while everyone else was so focused on Lord Patrice. Where was he going? To alert the police, perhaps? But if so, surely the butler would have given such an order out loud?
I turned and looked at the inside of the room once more. Sweeping my eyes across the room with a level head, I realized there was no sign of another person passed out on the floor, and nor was anyone pinned underneath the cabinet. I considered the possibility of him being in a dark corner that I couldn’t see from where I stood, but then someone else should surely have noticed him. It’s quite puzzling. Where did Lord Cedric go? In all the commotion, one of the most crucial details had been completely overlooked.
Rather than immediately running out into the corridor, I poked just my head through the doorway to try and see if the man who’d slipped out was still nearby. The dimly lit corridor held no signs of life except for the motion of a single door, closing without making a sound.
I crept along as far as that door, then hesitated a moment. Should I knock? No, I can’t give my target any warning. A surprise attack is the only way.
I put my hand on the doorknob, then steeled my courage and twisted it open.
Inside, I found just darkness and silence. The moonlight through the window provided the only dim light. There was neither sight nor sound of any life. Do I have the wrong door? No, I’m quite sure I saw him go into this one. I never took my eyes off him for a second. I’m sure this was the one.
I crept into the room. The sparse furniture gave the impression of a room that was not currently in use. The window was closed, and when I drew nearer, I could confirm that it was locked from the inside. If he’d left the manor from here, the window would have to be unlocked. But then, where on earth did he disappear to? A chill ran through me. Could he be lurking here in the darkness, watching my every move?
Just as I decided that it was time to find Lord Simeon after all, a voice spoke directly in my ear. “You are a very inconvenient person indeed. You were supposed to tell them what you saw and then run straight back to your fiancé.”
I jumped in fright. How did he get this close when I’d sensed no one nearby at all? Just as I opened my mouth to scream, a large hand covered it. He pulled his other arm around me, keeping me firmly in place. Unable to move or speak, I struggled for dear life.
“Calm down. I have no intention of causing you any harm.”
Even with my head in disarray, I recognized that voice. I stopped moving and turned my attention to the body that was keeping mine fixed in place. His height, his physique, the toughness of his hands… I knew those hands. We’d practiced dancing together, my body close to his.
We’d been together until just a few minutes earlier.
“Don’t make a fuss, all right?” said the man, an amiable tone to his voice. “I’d rather not use force to keep you quiet.” Then, slowly, he removed his hand from my mouth and lessened the force with which his other hand gripped my body. With the little freedom to move that I now had, I turned to face him. My eyes had grown used to the darkness by now, so I took in the appearance of the man standing right behind me.
It wasn’t the face I expected. In fact, it was a man I had never seen before in my life.
And yet, the secretive laughter, that peculiar chuckle, was most definitely Lord Cedric’s voice.
“Lord Cedric? Is that you?”
“I’m finished with that name,” the man replied. “It will do for now, though. At some point I’ll have you call me something else.”
What does he mean? I wondered. Is he NOT Lord Cedric? But he is still the person I know, isn’t he? Which means… What DOES it mean?
“I knew you were no ordinary young lady,” he continued, “but I didn’t know you were quite so fearless. I felt certain you’d go straight to your fiancé’s side. What to do, what to do…? If I leave you here and go, the scheme I’ve worked so hard to set up will all go to waste.”
He closed the door, which I’d left open when I entered. That was when I noticed for the first time that a third person was in the room. The light from the corridor disappeared before I got a proper look, so all I could tell was that it seemed like a rather large individual.
My mind raced in confusion as I tried to make sense of what was happening. Lord Patrice had attempted a theft and it had led to a big commotion…but amidst all that, Lord Cedric had been planning something as well, if I understood. But what was it? To sneak out without anyone knowing? But if that was all, why would he behave in such a manner? And who was the other person? If Lord Cedric was working with someone else, then it had to be a rather elaborate scheme, didn’t it?
He just mentioned a scheme, but…does that mean that the commotion around Lord Patrice was something he caused intentionally as well? I just don’t understand what’s going on here.
“Now that everything’s in place, I think I’ll just take you with me. After all, where you are, your fiancé is sure to follow. Besides, the servants are fully preoccupied, which means I’ve more than achieved my goal. It’s not quite what I’d intended, but perhaps it is best if you join me.” He spoke in a soft voice, entirely unbefitting of the grave situation. It sounded as if he was inviting me over for tea, maybe.
I understood, however, that he meant nothing of the sort. “Wh-Where are you taking me?”
He laughed, and replied in a jolly, singsong voice, “Where indeed? Wherever I please, I’d say.” Then, with me still in his grasp, he moved further into the room—toward the window.
“Please, wait a moment,” I said. “What’s going on? I have to know. What kind of distraction did you create, exactly? Is someone injured? What did you do?”
“Oh, there’s no need to worry. All that ‘blood’ was just a little touch of theatrical magic. The best way to capture people’s attention is to give them something to focus on, wouldn’t you say? A shocking spectacle. A murder case is far more exciting than a burglary, and makes a far bigger commotion. That creates the perfect distraction for us to casually make our escape.”
He frog-marched me in the direction of the window, gripping me tightly again, so much so that my feet were half in the air and I couldn’t even keep myself planted on the floor. As we moved, it finally dawned on me that I was about to be kidnapped.
“N-no! Stop! I’m not going anywhere! Let go of me!”
“Stop struggling, Marielle. I told you, I don’t want to use force on you. I could knock you out for the time being, but I’d prefer not to cause you any discomfort.”
“Then let me GO!” I put all my energy into my diaphragm and began to shout at the top of my lungs, “Please, someone—”
But without a moment’s hesitation, he covered my mouth again. My muffled voice strained against his hand.
“Well,” he said, “I can’t leave here while both my hands are occupied. I suppose I’ll have to teach you some patience after all.”
What does that mean!? Is he going to hit me? And then…take me somewhere while I’m unconscious? This is serious!
As exciting a development as this would be in a story, I definitely did not want to experience it in real life. Unlike in a story, I had no gallant love interest to arrive just in time to save me. Even Lord Simeon would probably give up quite quickly if I was taken somewhere out of reach. After all, the duty of the Royal Order of Knights was only to guard the royal family. Investigating a kidnapping would be far outside of their jurisdiction.
No! I don’t want to go! On the inside, I was screaming as loudly as I could, even if it was in vain.
And just at that moment, the door burst open with a clatter. I was blinded by the dazzling light that streamed into the room. The man holding me seemed to have the same reaction, and he immediately froze.
Then a clear voice resounded.
“This is as far as you go. Unhand Marielle and surrender quietly. You can resist all you want, but I won’t let you escape.”
I knew it was him before my vision had even returned to normal. Tears of relief welled up in my eyes. I blinked to try and clear my eyes, and once I did, I saw the welcome sight of Lord Simeon before me. A group of men in police uniforms entered behind him.
Just above my head, a whistle resounded from my captor. “Now this is quite the surprise. You’re far more prepared than I expected.”
“Naturally. These men have been standing by since before the party began.”
At Lord Simeon’s belt was a saber that he hadn’t been wearing before. Did someone lend it to him? And the police have been at the ready? Why? Did he know in advance that all this commotion would happen?
“Gosh,” the man replied. “In that case, do you mind if I ask what it is exactly that you’ve figured out?”
Lord Simeon began without hesitation. “You masqueraded as Cedric and wormed your way into House Pautrier so that you could take advantage of them. Your goal was to steal one of their priceless treasures. However, since merely stealing it and leaving would be too dull for you, you constructed this entire performance, and drew in Marielle and myself as your supporting cast members. You pretended that someone was sending you threats, then made it appear that Patrice was the culprit. Realizing that he was after the treasure as well, you decided to use his attempted theft as a distraction, calling the guards so that they’d be preoccupied with him. To make the scene even more dramatic, you made it appear very much as if Patrice had hurt or killed someone. You planned to make your escape while everyone was up in arms, then surprise the world in the coming days with a grand reveal.”
As he announced all these details in a thoroughly detached fashion, I was left stunned. It can’t be… It was nothing but a deception, right from the start? I’d had a few doubts, to be sure, but I’d never expected to learn that not a single word he’d said to me was true. He played the role of the grandson so perfectly that I’d never doubted him in that aspect, not even for a second.
And yet, when I looked back, there were several ways in which he didn’t quite fit the required image after all. He had a very noble bearing for someone who was raised a commoner, for example, and his highly trained physique had also seemed rather at odds with what I knew of him.
Individually, each detail had felt only slightly out of place. If not for Lord Simeon warning me to be on my guard, I’d never have thought much about it. Why wouldn’t he have tried to take on more of a nobleman’s demeanor, rather than letting himself seem too much of a commoner in the earl’s manor? After all, if one spends a lot of time in a new place, it’s easy to get swept up in the atmosphere and find your behavior changing to match. No doubt, this person had played the role with that possibility in mind.
He whistled again. “Most impressive. I can do nothing but express my admiration toward the clever Vice Captain for figuring it out. But I’d like to ask, when did you first catch on?” The voice above my head showed no sign of being flustered at having all his plans revealed. On the contrary, he sounded like he was enjoying himself.
With no apparent interest in this impish and jovial attitude, Lord Simeon answered in a detached manner. “I knew from the start.”
“From the start?”
“You painted yourself as a weakling, deathly afraid of these threats and with no combat ability of your own that you could use to defend yourself, but when I shook your hand, I knew it was the hand of someone used to holding a sword. If you wanted to deceive me, you should have worn thick gloves.”
This was met with silence. Lord Simeon continued, “The entire premise was rather suspicious. A relative raised abroad, whom no one in House Pautrier, nor anyone related to them, had ever met? I had my doubts straight away. It’s easy for you to impersonate other people, of course. I gather that you’re renowned for your ability to transform yourself, so it was no surprise that you made your appearance so accurate. The representatives that were sent to Linden had only met the real Cedric a handful of times, so they didn’t know him especially well. It was easy to convince them that the person they knew to have initially refused had suddenly changed his mind. They believed this without question, and gladly brought you back with them, not realizing you were a fake.”
The real Lord Cedric refused? So he had no intention of coming here? I suppose that’s what let this man carry out his scheme so confidently. He had no fear that the man himself would suddenly appear and expose his deception.
“After we met that day,” Lord Simeon continued, “I immediately had an investigative team sent to Linden. But of course, it’s quite a distance to travel, so we only barely received the results in time. It was very fortunate indeed that they arrived when they did. It’s because of this that your plans have gone up in smoke. The manor is surrounded by knights and police units. You have no hope of escape.”
The policemen, who had come prepared with such things as sabers and ropes, gradually sidled closer. Since the man had me as a hostage, they were careful not to make any sudden movements. At least the hands he gripped me with couldn’t simultaneously hold any weapons— but wasn’t I forgetting something?
I swept my eyes across the room, looking for the other man I’d glimpsed before. With the room now lit by the lamps that had been carried in, I knew he’d be far easier to see by now.
“Very impressive, Vice Captain. If you’ve guessed everything else so accurately, then I’ve no doubt you know what my name is? Now is the time. Call me by my name.”
I realized at this point that his goading words were not only an attempt to put on a brave face. They were to draw everyone’s attention to him. I have to tell Lord Simeon somehow. I struggled as hard as I could, but the hands did not give me the slightest leeway. I can’t speak, but please, you have to notice him too!
“All I feel the need to call you is a common criminal,” Lord Simeon replied. “Besides, don’t fairies tend to get rather sour when you use their names without permission?”
“How mean!” said an unfamiliar voice. “Lutin is a fairy that loves other mischief makers. I’m sure he’d be grateful!”
I let out the loudest muffled yell that I could, but in that exact moment, a man leaped out of a shadowed corner. His enormous frame swooped down on the policemen so quickly that two were knocked down before they could even react. The others attempted to draw their swords, but were struck before they could. With fists like boulders and arms like tree trunks, he showed the assembled police force no quarter at all.
I watched as he took them down in a flash. A man with a body that appears to be hewn of rock, but with a sharply contrasting face that resembles a beautiful statue… I’d seen an extraordinary person like this once before. So the strongman from the circus was Lutin’s ally all along!?
Next his immense frame bore down on Lord Simeon. My breath caught in my throat. But rather than being knocked out cold, Lord Simeon nimbly dodged his fist.
The strongman came after him with speed that felt uncharacteristic of his size. He attempted to land another blow, and a third, but Lord Simeon avoided them all—then found an opening and struck back. The slash of his saber was blocked by the man’s speedily drawn cutlass.
I didn’t move a muscle as I witnessed the battle before me. Sword clashed upon sword as they went for each other. Sometimes the sounds of their collision reverberated so loudly, my ears rang. If one of the swords strikes true, it will cut their body, and spill their blood, I realized. And if it cuts too deeply, and hits somewhere vital… I could hardly look for fear that Lord Simeon would sustain a serious injury. And yet, I couldn’t bear to close my eyes. If I did, I feared I might miss his last moments, which would be even worse. All I could do was keep my gaze focused on his every move.
I cried out in shock as Lord Simeon narrowly dodged a slash of the man’s cutlass that almost grazed his shoulder. Thanks to my involuntary exclamation, I suddenly became aware that my mouth was no longer covered. Lutin was holding his breath as well, just as absorbed in the two men’s fight as I was. I briefly wondered whether that might give me an opportunity to escape, but alas, he was now gripping my body with both hands, and more tightly than ever. I was on tenterhooks as I gradually came to realize that my mere existence was potentially a pair of shackles to Lord Simeon.
“Vice Captain!” shouted a group of knights who appeared in the doorway. I assumed that His Highness had ordered them to come and lend their support.
However, when they tried to enter, Lord Simeon commanded them otherwise. “Don’t move! Wait there!”
The knights, who had taken a few tentative steps into the room, stopped in place. If they enter the fray now, they’ll only get in Lord Simeon’s way. The tiniest opening, a split-second or less, would decide this. Even I understood that much.
Now the cutlass brushed past the tip of Lord Simeon’s nose. Did it hit him? Lord Simeon adjusted his glasses. Perhaps it had grazed him after all. Please, God, I prayed, grant him your divine protection!
Although, looking around, it seemed I was the only one fearful of Lord Simeon’s imminent demise. The Vice Captain himself kept up a relentless offense and defense, but on his face, he retained his composure from start to finish. The knights watching from the doorway showed no sign of desperation either. It soon became clear, even from my inexperienced perspective, that the winner was already decided.
Gradually, what had begun as an exchange of offensive and defensive moves on both sides changed into nothing but attacks from Lord Simeon, and nothing but defending on the strongman’s part. With swift, careful, level-headed strikes, Lord Simeon forced his opponent back more and more. Soon, the strain was visible on the strongman’s face. He struggled to keep his stance, until finally the cutlass flew out of his hand.
The very next moment, Lord Simeon raised his foot high. With a powerful kick—every bit as powerful as his sword strikes had been—he swung his foot into the strongman’s side. This single strike was enough to knock over the man’s considerable frame. The floor shook as his body landed with a thud. Lord Simeon wasted no time in delivering the next blow: an elbow drop, with his full body weight aimed squarely at the man’s vital organs. The giant fainted entirely.
“Arrest him,” said Lord Simeon, standing as he gave the curt order. Without a second’s delay, the knights sprang into action and tied up the strongman with the ropes the police had brought with them. “Now,” he continued, adjusting his glasses again and turning in the direction of me and Lutin, “will you try to resist any further? I’ll tell you now that you shouldn’t expect me to let you escape merely because you have a hostage.”
Lord Simeon’s voice and face remained placid, but the eyes that stared fixedly toward us were cold and sharp like ice. No, that’s not it. Not like ice—like fire. Like fire that’s reached such a high temperature, it’s turned blue. His gaze, aimed straight at Lutin, was so oppressive, I felt at risk of burning to death.
This is the first time I’ve sensed true bloodlust in my entire life. I was so taken aback, I didn’t think to even make a sound in response.
Above my head, I heard a puff of breath. “For Dario to be beaten so soundly… Quite unbelievable. You are a monster, Vice Captain.” Even at this stage, Lutin hadn’t lost any of the composure in his voice. I was left feeling almost impressed. Bluff or otherwise, such things were no mean feat. He continued, “I thought the royal guards were mere puppets who stood looking prim and proper in the royal court. For an earl’s son, you are unexpectedly skilled in martial arts.”
“Of course. I am a knight, after all. And as long as Captain Poisson and I are still here, we won’t permit the enrollment of any knights who see that title as nothing more than a decoration.”
“Goodness gracious. Such a pretty face, and yet on the inside, you’re remarkably strong- willed. I feel thoroughly defrauded by your outer appearance. Come, don’t glare at me with that fearsome face of yours. I know it’s pointless to try to oppose a monster like you, so I have no intention to do so. Besides, Lutin only carries out burglaries that are pristine works of beauty. Committing a murder would be unthinkable. I’ll even be a good boy and unhand the princess.”
He released his grip on me…but only for a moment. The next thing I knew, I was in his embrace.
“Sadly, it seems my only option at this point is to admit defeat. Adieu, Marielle!” I felt his breath on my face, but—before I had time to try and avoid it—I felt the pressure of his lips on my cheek. What are you doing, you thief!? Briskly, wordlessly, Lord Simeon strode toward us and pulled me away from him.
Then, with a certain hurried feeling, the royal guards apprehended Lutin. Although the knights had captured him, was it my imagination, or did the scene appear somewhat as if they were protecting him from Lord Simeon?
“Unbelievable,” said Lord Simeon, as he handed Lutin over to a group of policemen who’d just arrived. Lutin gave a wink as he was carried away. Lord Simeon watched with an irritated pout, then took out a handkerchief and wiped my cheek.
“Lord Simeon!” I protested. “If you rub that vigorously, you’ll ruin my makeup!” “Disinfecting you is more important. Someone bring me some alcohol.”
“You hardly need to go that far.” But it was already too late. My rouge was rubbing off onto the handkerchief—and after all the work the Three Flowers had put in! But never mind, I thought. I’m sure the party has been called off anyway.
At last, nestled in his arms, I said, “Thank you for rescuing me.” Even once he’d calmed down, he didn’t let me go. A sense of relief washed over me. Although I’d been held just as tightly mere moments ago, it felt completely different. I felt safer in these arms than I did anywhere else in the world. Feeling infinitely secure, and deeply satisfied, I looked up at Lord Simeon’s face.
“I said to be on your guard,” he said. “I wish you’d listened. It was quite terrifying for me.”
“I kept your words in mind all along. Only, I’d never have expected events to unfold like this. If you knew from the start, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I found him suspicious, yes, but I had no proof. The possibility remained that he wasn’t a fake, but rather the real Cedric, planning a dastardly scheme of some sort. As I mentioned earlier, I received confirmation just in the nick of time. A message was sent to me yesterday, and I left to speak to the Order and the police. We had to set up the plan for catching him as quickly as we could. Lutin would never miss a chance to create a spectacle, so I knew he would execute his plan during the party.”
So that was why he left yesterday. But…does that mean His Highness knew about all this and came to the party anyway? Or perhaps his presence was an excuse to bring royal guards with him, hiding in plain sight?
But I was still thoroughly dissatisfied that he’d said nothing to me at all. When I voiced this, Lord Simeon said, “Yesterday we weren’t talking, correct?”
“You could have told me this morning,” I replied, my words rather pointed.
Pouting, he said, “I didn’t know how seriously you’d have listened if I did tell you. You seemed to be fully entrenched in Cedric’s camp.”
How dare he! …Well, it’s true, he did have me completely fooled. I was so drawn in by Lutin’s complete pack of lies that I even let myself be sympathetic to his cause. Ugh, even thinking about it is so frustrating!
“…You’re so mean,” I said at last. “Not as mean as you,” he replied.
“Me? In what way am I mean!? What an inexcusable thing to say!”
“You’re not intentionally malicious, I’m sure… But I suspect you may not always be aware of my feelings.”
“You’ve caused me some rather intense feelings as well, Lord Simeon! Don’t think that some boxes of sweets are enough to make up for it!”
“You’re hardly in a position to say such a thing! You’re the one who—”
Our argument was cut short by the sound of a throat being cleared very loudly indeed. We both regained our senses and turned in its direction. In the doorway, looking very fed up, stood His Highness. His arms were folded across his chest. “How long do you intend to keep that up? The others have all left.”
Only when he said that did I notice that we were the only ones left in the room. Even the policemen that were lying knocked out on the floor had either come to or been carried away. Either way, they were all gone. Out in the corridor, Alain and several other knights had gathered in a cluster and were peering in on us with strangely deadpan expressions.
“I apologize, Your Highness,” said Lord Simeon, gathering himself together. “Marielle, let us depart.”
“Oh, uh, yes!” I replied, and together we went out into the corridor.
There, His Highness asked, “Well then, Miss Marielle. How did you find it, being a cat whom curiosity almost killed?”
Is that intended as some kind of rebuke? I wondered. How did it feel… My true feelings at this moment…
“…It filled me with fangirl joy,” I told him at last.
“Eh?” he replied, with a very puzzled expression.
Beside him, Lord Simeon pressed a hand to his forehead.
As the throes of excitement built up in me, I at last abandoned all reserve and gave in to them. “I understand that it was dangerous. Even in the moment, I fully understood that this was not a game. I’m truly glad that I’m still safe, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. And yet… And yet…! It made me fangirl so intensely! This was the duel of my dreams, come to life! A breathtaking battle! The Vice Captain, seething with unbridled bloodlust! I’m fangirling so hard… I’m so moved… I’m thankful to God for my very existence that led to this moment!”
I couldn’t contain it, even knowing that there were people around to see. This blaze of fangirl fire, the sheer thrill of it all, was so intense that I couldn’t help but scream about it. I wish I could put it all down on paper right this instant! Lord Simeon truly is the best! I’m too happy for words!
“Simeon…” began His Highness.
“Don’t say another word,” he replied. “I’ve already reached a state of enlightenment when it comes to this.”
“For that, I have the deepest level of respect for you. Although I fear I’d rather do anything but follow in your unenviable footsteps.”
As a quick aside, I’ll mention that Agnès Vivier later received a great deal of praise for the visceral impact of her knight dueling scene.