The eldest son and heir of House Flaubert had lived twenty-seven years without a single rumor surfacing that in any way associated him with the young lady who had apparently captured his heart.
Confusion reigned. After all, the groom-to-be had been a source of gossip since time immemorial. People admired him, wanted him, expected much of him, and had great curiosity about whom he’d marry. When he finally announced his engagement, astonishment spread through high society like a shockwave.
And when they heard that his fiancée was Viscount Clarac’s daughter Marielle, the response of most people was presumably to furrow their brows in befuddlement.
Even if one knew the name of House Clarac, it would be entirely unsurprising to have no recollection of what kind of person the daughter of that family was. She was a plain girl who didn’t stand out at all, and left no particular impression, as if she was made of air.
“She” being “me,” of course.
Which is precisely why I became such a target of curiosity. I was a mystery woman that no one knew a thing about.
As the cries of “Surely she’s some kind of hidden beauty?” reached a crescendo, the day finally came for me to show myself at a public occasion alongside Lord Simeon, at which point I felt all eyes on me from every corner of the room to such an extent that I even feared for my safety. Were I to have attended on my own, I imagine I’d have fled straight back home, shaking in terror.
First came the moment when they noticed me: “It’s her! She’s the one!” Then came the very next moment, when all those assembled were left with blank faces, having lost any trace of interest in me.
You could almost read their thoughts: “Really? That’s it? Surely there must be some mistake, and she’s merely the opening act?”
I understood their feelings of doubt and bewilderment perfectly. “Sorry, but this is it,” I longed to reply. “I don’t really understand how I ended up in this situation either!” Even at that very moment, I couldn’t make much sense of it.
I was an uninteresting young lady whose rank was not especially high, whose family pedigree put her decidedly in the middle of the pack, and who had no particular characteristics that stood out. The number of people dissatisfied to hear that Lord Simeon’s fiancée was such a person might have numbered not in the dozens, but the hundreds.
Naturally, I also had the pleasure of hearing cutting remarks and sarcastic comments from all directions. Wherever I went, I was forced to endure the humiliation of their sneers as they spoke ill of me behind my back. It even became an everyday occurrence for people to mock me to my face.
Even on a very special night indeed—the night of a ball held at the royal palace—the same familiar tale began to unfold.
“I must apologize for leaving you unattended.”
Lord Simeon had been detained for rather a long time by various acquaintances who sought this attention, but at last he had drawn things to a close and returned to my side.
I took the small notebook lying open in my lap and placed it back into my embroidered handbag. The hurriedly written contents were not for other people’s eyes, so I hid it and greeted Lord Simeon with a mask of composure. “You needn’t worry about me. You have so many
people to talk to, it wouldn’t do for you to pass the time in such a leisurely manner as I have. Is there no one else with whom you need to exchange greetings?”
He’d brought me a drink on his way back, which I politely accepted. I’d already had three glasses while I waited, and was almost full to bursting. I should have paced myself!
“No, I’ve finished dealing with everyone important, and I’ve had quite enough of people starting conversations under the pretext of congratulating me on my engagement.”
I giggled. “It must be a nuisance, being so popular.”
“I might say the same about you. You appear to have been talking to quite a variety of people yourself.” With a calm smile that revealed the barest hint of mischievousness, Lord Simeon sat down beside me.
Gosh, I thought. He noticed.
He had noticed the barrage of cruelty I’d been subjected to every time we’d been in public together. Had he been keeping an eye on me all along this evening, too?
Trust the Vice Captain to have no blind spots! No doubt the men of the Royal Order of Knights don’t realize he’s keeping an eagle eye on them every day as well, while all he shows is nonchalance. How wonderful!
“In my case, almost every conversation was about you, Lord Simeon. Everyone has a great deal of curiosity.”
He responded to my light giggling with a warm smile. From the outside, I’m sure it looked like a friendly and lighthearted chat between two people engaged to be married—though I was certain that all watching were disappointed at the female partner being an unbefittingly plain
young woman in glasses.
The glasses weren’t part of any effort to imitate Lord Simeon, if that’s what you’re wondering. I’d worn glasses since long before our engagement. My eyesight isn’t so poor as to prevent me from going about my daily life if I take them off, but removing them does make it difficult to tell exactly who’s standing in front of me. If I lost them, it would be a bit inconvenient.
I value practicality over vanity. If I can’t observe other people, there’s no point in me attending social gatherings.
“I’ve found the same thing,” Lord Simeon replied. “I had some inkling beforehand, but I’d never have expected an engagement to draw this much attention.”
“It’s because it’s your engagement, Lord Simeon. They’re all dying to know what kind of person you’ve chosen to marry. I suspect they’ve been wondering who it would be all your life.”
“Still, it’s quite troublesome for everyone to be expressing their curiosity so frankly about such a personal matter.” He let out an exasperated sigh and adjusted his glasses.
Unlike mine, Lord Simeon’s glasses didn’t diminish his appeal in the slightest. They only made him look that much more wonderful. When his eyes suddenly narrowed behind the lenses, his smile took on a sense of coldness that made my breath quicken before I knew it.
Even his glasses are so enchanting that they lead my thoughts straight into pervert territory!
He’s just so perfect! I don’t think anyone could ever embody my ideal man the way he does! I wonder if he’d agree to hold a riding crop or something for me, just briefly as a prop! Oh, but if he did that, I’m sure I’d get an intense nosebleed!
I’d intended to wear a benign smile, but perhaps my inner squeals of joy had leaked through.
Lord Simeon bent down slightly and peered at me.
Oh no, did he somehow get an unpleasant feeling from my inappropriate thoughts? If he looked directly at me and silently pressured me for an answer with the full force of his smile, I don’t think I could bear it. He’d leave me panting!
As we locked eyes—as I fought to hide my nerves and my arousal—a voice interrupted us.
“Still the perfect happy couple, I see.”
It was a pretty voice with a youthful tone. We both returned to how we’d been sitting and looked towards its source. The moment Lord Simeon saw who was walking towards us, he rose to his feet. With belated awkwardness, I stood as well.
“You look like you’ve been lovebirds for years. I never expected you to become one of those people, Simeon! I’m shocked, to be honest.”
The young gentleman smiled and affably poked fun while I greeted him with the deepest of curtsies. Lord Simeon laughed bitterly. “Don’t you tease me as well, Your Highness. I’m already thoroughly defeated by all the comments I’ve received today.”
“Those who are happy in love have a duty to put up with all the jealousy coming from single people, I suppose!”
“You’re hardly one to be saying that. If it’s that easy, perhaps it’s time for you to finally choose a marriage partner, Your Highness. Stop turning everyone down based on frivolous complaints and put yourself in the same uncomfortable position as me.”
“Sadly, in my case I can’t choose whomever I like based purely on preference. I’m envious of how much freedom you have.”
The man Lord Simeon was engaging in intimate conversation with was none other than Severin, the crown prince. He was the same age as Lord Simeon—twenty-seven—and I’d heard that the two of them got along very well and spent a lot of time together even outside of their official duties. Lord Simeon had apparently been introduced to His Highness when they were very young, with the intention that they should become school friends. However, I sensed that their friendship wasn’t only the result of political maneuvering, but rather that true closeness existed between them.
This was another reason I was the target of so much envy. Who wouldn’t seek the hand of such a close confidant of the future king? It would guarantee both a secure future and a tremendous amount of influence.
How in the world did Father secure a man like this for me? He couldn’t have found something compromising and blackmailed him, could he…? If he tried to use a tactic like that on Lord Simeon, House Clarac would end up crushed to bits!
I was certain it couldn’t be possible, but decided to check later, just in case. Even if a plot twist like that would excite me as a fangirl, I didn’t want to experience it in person.
I’d already introduced myself to Prince Severin earlier, as soon as I’d entered the hall, so there was no need for me to speak at this point. Rather than interrupting their conversation, I stayed silent and listened. I have to turn into air so I don’t disturb them. A moment later, I took a few steps back to maintain a proper distance.
It’s usually not appropriate for someone of my rank to come so close to His Highness. I had to make sure I didn’t conduct myself in an overly familiar manner. The only reason I could be so close at that moment was because Lord Simeon was present.
In any case, forcing myself into their conversation would be counterproductive. I didn’t want to do anything stupid like that.
Prince Severin’s black hair, dark eyes, and tougher, more masculine appearance struck a stark contrast with Lord Simeon’s pale blond hair, light blue eyes, and gentle, yet somehow shrewd manner. Seeing the two dashingly handsome opposites right next to each other was like looking
at a picture.
Yes, I thought, books in that genre do have illustrations along these lines. They could easily be the main characters of that kind of story.
My preference is for boy-girl romance, so I tend not to read those kinds of books, but I don’t particularly consider them to be outside of my range either. They tend to have my favorite type of character in them as well, so it would be a waste if I didn’t explore those too. I’ve borrowed and read quite a few volumes and pride myself on being quite familiar with the genre.
At first glance, it looks like His Highness would be the top and Lord Simeon would be the bottom, but I actually feel that with this pairing, Lord Simeon as the top would be the more classic approach. A prince who’s normally tough and commanding, but sometimes his mildmannered underling takes charge in an aggressive way, reversing the roles…
A classic take on master/servant.
I felt sure that my best friend stood somewhere in this hall, struggling to contain a nosebleed.
Probably very close by indeed. It was partly for her sake that I didn’t want to do anything as boorish as interrupt their conversation.
Even if they can’t talk about it in public, I think there are a lot of ladies, young and old, who share my friend’s taste. I wanted all of them to be able to admire and appreciate this beautiful spectacle!
Oh, what is it? Lord Simeon’s forceful smile is turned towards me once again. Could he have sensed something? I’d expect no less from the Vice Captain. His keen wits are so wonderful.
“Your fiancée is so meek and well-behaved. In fact, she’s almost too quiet. You’d forget she’s even there.”
I responded to Prince Severin’s words with nothing more than a reserved chuckle.
Yes, precisely, I thought. That’s exactly my special skill.
Pushing my plain and inconspicuous nature to the limit so that no one pays me any attention, allowing me to watch other people and listen intently to their conversations. I’ve achieved excellent results from this approach. I’m mainly acting for my own enjoyment and my own
profit, but I’ve occasionally gathered information I can pass on to my father and brother. After
all, if I can be useful for their work, it makes my life more comfortable in the end.
However, recently this had become more difficult. Since my engagement to Lord Simeon, I’d
become a focal point for eyes and ears, so I couldn’t proceed in the same manner as before.
I wondered if I needed to change my approach. Perhaps, I mused, there was even a way to turn my new position to my advantage and use it to gain information I could never access before.
“Sorry to interrupt! Ah, so this is Lord Simeon’s new fiancée!” A cheerful voice resonated as an older man approached—one I hadn’t seen before.
I racked my brain to think who it was. After three years spent diligently attending functions and observing the attendees, I had a relatively thorough knowledge of the kingdom’s nobility. I have no recollection of seeing him at all… Perhaps he’s from a foreign land.
He appeared to be roughly in his forties, with a fine, upstanding appearance. He was tall and very handsome. His reddish-brown hair, smoothed down in a very tidy fashion, had some flecks of white mixed in, which I was glad to see as they gave him an appropriate level of refinement
suitable for his age.
Lord Simeon met him with a smile. “So even you’ve become a victim of curiosity, Lord Van Leer?” This apparently sufficed as a greeting, and the other gentleman showed no signs of taking it badly.
“Apologies. If my ill-mannered curiosity has caused any offense, allow me to express my deepest regrets. It’s just that I’ve grown very intrigued about what type of person she is, having heard all the gossip flying about. Won’t you introduce me to her?”
“Oh dear, you are indeed firmly in its clutches. Marielle, this is Hubert van Leer. He recently arrived as the new ambassador from Vissel.”
Aha, so he’s an ambassador from a neighboring country. Now that I think about it, I had heard mention that a new one had just arrived.
I gave Ambassador Hubert a curtsy. “Marielle Clarac. It’s a pleasure and an honor to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is all mine. I’m glad I am able to meet you. My, what a sweet and innocent young lady you are. You appear to have taken all the bite out of Lord Simeon, too.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” I replied, glossing over the situation with an elegant giggle.
Of course I haven’t, I thought to myself. This is an engagement he agreed upon with my father without even seeing my face. To Lord Simeon, I’m nothing more than the daughter of House Clarac.
If I’d been an exceptional beauty, or blessed with any special skills, that might have been fertile ground for romance…but alas, I was just a plain girl in glasses. I didn’t have the slightest expectation of any development along those lines.
Nor did I have any problem with that. Lord Simeon was treating me exactly as a fiancée should be treated, and I had neither any wish for anything further, nor any particular interest.
It’s you that I’m interested in right now, Ambassador Hubert.
“You think so too?” said the crown prince. “I must say, I’m exceedingly surprised to see Simeon fawning like this over a woman.”
“It’s not how he normally behaves?” asked the ambassador.
“Not at all. Don’t be fooled by how he looks—on the inside he’s a harsh man. Many a girl has given him an amorous glance, but all they ever got back was a cold and indifferent smile.”
“Goodness. Then meeting Miss Marielle must have been some kind of fated encounter.”
“You might be right. She must be his destined companion, as decreed by God. As far as I can tell, they really are suited to one another.”
Lord Simeon cut in: “Your Highness, Ambassador, could you please refrain from going so far? You’re making this whole matter seem far too grandiose.”
Their exchange of jokes and diplomatic comments rose in intensity. Then the conversation wended its way towards the political sphere. Out of habit, I stood a few steps back and quietly observed.
I am air. I am an object.
On the surface I was the docile fiancée, keeping my proper place by refraining from butting into the men’s conversation.
All the while, I was merely blending into my surroundings, alerting no one to my presence,
while I listened in on everything they discussed. I wasn’t about to let this precious opportunity go to waste. I did my utmost to hold every new piece of information in my mind.
I could have screamed. If only I could write it all down in my notebook! Will I ever be able to remember it all? I must try my hardest. Names I knew were dropped one after another, though some of the connections between them were new to me, and unexpected.
I savored all the new information. It was the rare kind that you can only hear in the upper echelons of the kingdom. No half-measures here. They couldn’t broach topics of a truly secret nature while conversing in public like this, but nonetheless, for me the information was the most valuable treasure imaginable.
The discussion reached its end, and Ambassador Hubert broke away. I took that opportunity to leave Lord Simeon and His Highness and make my way to the ladies room.
First and foremost, I attended to the call of nature. Then, in the powder room, I retrieved the notebook from my handbag.
My notebook—the most important tool for my work. I carry it with me wherever I go, just in case I’m able to gather any source material I can use. I rushed to scribble the words down before I forgot any of the conversation I’d just heard.
Royal court romance and politics are inextricably linked. Putting in a serious chapter full of intrigue is a guaranteed way to give a story more depth. However, this element is hard to write based on imagination alone, so using real events as a reference lends a story authenticity, making
it much more interesting.
I’m so happy. To think I’d end up in a privileged position like this…
I was eternally grateful to my father, and resolved to repay him as a good daughter should: by sharing the parts of the information I’d gathered that seemed likely to be advantageous for him.
I wrote intently with all my focus on the page, but it still took a great deal of time to cover everything. Afterward, I closed the notebook and looked at myself in the elaborately decorated mirror.
The reflection staring back at me was that of a mediocre young lady with youth as her only redeeming feature.
Brown hair, brown eyes. I did look slightly younger than my years, but I suspected the modest makeup and hairstyle could be credited for that. And there, squarely in the middle of my face, sat my huge glasses. If I removed those, I thought, I might warrant being described as at least vaguely attractive.
No wonder I’d become the subject of malicious gossip from all quarters. For such an unappealing girl to sit by Lord Simeon’s side looked so mismatched as to be comical. Even Ambassador Hubert and Prince Severin’s attempts at flattery were too artless to be taken as more than false charm.
I wondered what Lord Simeon was thinking. Regardless of how much he might have been drawn to me when discussing the matter with Father, surely after meeting me he was disappointed to realize that someone so essential—his wife—would be a person like me? Or did he just have uncommonly low expectations? There are people like that who place more emphasis on the conditions of the arrangement, and want their wife to be nothing more than a virtuous woman who preserves his family line.
If he felt like it, Lord Simeon could have had more than his fill of romance. Perhaps, I considered, he was of the mindset that marriage was for his house, and personal pleasure was a separate matter, to be enjoyed with a different partner.
Thinking too hard about this did make me feel slightly lonely, but I could hardly expect anything else. Such arrangements are commonplace in high society, and the most I could ask for was to find a husband, one who would treat me well, while I was still of marriageable age.
Fulfilling my obligations first, and then pursuing the things I enjoyed. That, I’d decided, was my path to a happy life, and I was quite content with it.
I quickly finished reapplying my makeup, then stood up and tried to leave. However, I was left tilting my head in confusion, my hand still resting on the doorknob.
How odd. It won’t open.
The door only locked from the inside, so it couldn’t have been that. I was able to open the door just enough to have a small gap to peek through. It appeared that someone had put string around the outside doorknob and tied it to something.
I’d clearly been far too dedicated to my craft. In my state of fixation, I hadn’t even noticed when I was subjected to this cruel trick.
In any case, I was sure the perpetrator must be a young lady of some noble house or other.
This was not my first such experience. The people who were satisfied with merely talking ill of me were the good ones. Indeed, those who used force to harass me were numerous as well!
Merely trapping me in a room was child’s play. The time someone soiled my favorite dress had left me feeling quite defeated, but this situation hardly impacted me at all.
I shrugged my shoulders and walked over to the window. They didn’t exactly try very hard to keep me in here, I thought. Even with the door blocked, the room had a large window, and was situated on the ground floor. Leaving wouldn’t present even the slightest inconvenience.
I opened the window and looked around. All I saw outside was the darkened garden spread out before me. As far as I could tell, there were no signs of life.
But am I really alone?
I wondered if there might be someone waiting for the precise moment I climbed through the window, ready to point and laugh at my vulgar behavior. However, upon further consideration, I realized that anyone hiding in the garden purely to witness my behavior would themselves be
Perhaps the fine young ladies who did this could not even conceive of me rolling up the hem of my dress and clambering through the window…despite it being the only other option if the door couldn’t be used.
I kept a tight grip on that pesky hem and stepped onto the window ledge with a heave-ho.
Careful not to catch or step on my dress, I slipped through and descended into the night.
I unrolled my hem, quick as I could, then took a glance at my surroundings. There appeared to be no one there after all. Unless they’ve been hiding in the garden all along, and intend to spread malicious gossip about me later. But so what? I can always turn around and say that I’d been trapped inside, so I had no choice but to exit through the window.
A few people might laugh at me, I considered, but that would be fine. It’s not like I was used to being praised and admired anyway. If I were so sensitive that this degree of mockery caused me grave insult, I’d never have been able to agree to Lord Simeon’s marriage proposal.
It was past time for me to return to the hall, so I walked through the garden, wondering where exactly one could enter the building. I found myself walking along the wall searching for an entrance, marveling at the sheer size of the palace.
I was rapidly getting further and further from the hall without coming across anything resembling a doorway. Perhaps I was meant to go in the other direction? And yet, after coming so far, turning on my heel and going back the other way was not an appealing prospect.
I wondered if I might happen upon a knight who was standing guard. He might accuse me of suspicious behavior, but I’d be able to explain the circumstances and he might be kind enough to give me directions. Although ideally, I’d rather find the entrance myself before it comes to that.
Suddenly I sensed other people nearby, and stopped.
From the shrubbery that extended further into the garden, I heard hushed voices and sounds.
If there are people nearby, the entrance can’t be far. Perhaps they’ll tell me where it is? But what could they be up to in this desolate darkness? I realized that if I rushed in without thinking, it might end very badly for me.
Hiding myself behind the shrubbery, I tiptoed closer to the voices. I couldn’t simply leave as if I hadn’t noticed anything. If someone was having a secret rendezvous, I had to investigate it thoroughly.
Not so that I could start spreading rumors—just so I could obtain a new piece of information for its own sake. I couldn’t let the chance slip away. Not when I didn’t know what they were discussing, or how it could be useful.
The hushed voices started coming closer.
They were both male. Oh, then it can’t be a rendezvous. Unless they’re…those kinds of men?
No, that’s absurd, it’s totally impossible! …Or is it?
Though I shrank back in fear, I didn’t run away. I sensed a menacing atmosphere, and I was too curious to leave now.
“That’s not what we discussed!”
They seemed to be arguing. Perhaps the kind of lovers’ tiff that you only get from true blind passion? Or a break-up gone wrong? In fact, there seemed to be more than two people making noise and talking in raised voices. Oho, maybe a love triangle? No, still impossible.
My heart began racing. Suddenly, someone screamed. I jumped with a start in my hiding place.
Wh…What? Bloodshed? That’s a much more dramatic plot twist than I expected…
“Hurry up and do it! The guards are coming!”
“Dammit, he won’t keep still!”
“S-stop…!” And then a stifled cry of pain.
I had no idea what to do. It seemed as if a murder was about to be committed right in front of me. Standing idly by and doing nothing to help would of course be straying from the correct moral path. And yet, I knew I didn’t have the physical strength to jump in and save the poor victim. If I acted too carelessly, I’d get swept up in the events and be murdered myself.
I dashed away from the scene, got a bit closer to the building, and picked up a conveniently placed large rock from the ground. Then I gathered all my strength and threw it at a nearby window.
The window shattered with a thunderous crash.
I got another rock and did it once more for good measure. Another deafening crash.
The knights on guard heard the noises and ran over straight away.
“What is this!”
“What do you think you’re doing!”
I clung onto the first knight that arrived, and feigned sobbing. “I was…so scared…! I don’t know what happened, but someone just leapt out from the darkness! They ran that way!”
As I appealed to the knight, I pointed towards the shrubbery. The people who’d been fighting had to be either holding their breath or running away already. Hopefully they gave up on the murder, I thought. I hope I acted in time.
The knights went to investigate the area. I waited next to the building, under both surveillance and protection.
Then I heard my name being called.
“Marielle!” Lord Simeon ran toward me. I was impressed by how quickly he made it to the scene. Nothing less from the Vice Captain!
“Lord Simeon!” I jumped on him as if my salvation had arrived. I couldn’t stand being treated with suspicion here. I needed to make those around me accept that I was only an innocent passerby.
“What exactly were you doing here?” he asked. “You’d been gone for quite a while, so I thought I’d look for you.”
Oops, it seems I caused him quite some inconvenience. Sorry about that!
“I’m sorry, I was trapped in the powder room, but I somehow managed to climb through the window. Then I got lost trying to find the way back in, and happened upon a strange commotion!”
“Indeed, the door to the powder room had been tied shut from the outside. I saw that you must have been trapped inside.”
He even knows about that?
He continued, “What kind of commotion?”
“I’m not sure exactly… I heard some noises, and someone leapt out from the darkness all of a sudden. Then the windows got smashed, and…I just ran away in shock.”
I insisted that things had happened so suddenly, they were all a blur, and emphasized that I was a mere passerby with no knowledge of the situation. Which wasn’t entirely untrue, of course. I still didn’t really know what had happened.
One of the knights who’d gone to investigate came over to report to Lord Simeon. They hadn’t found anyone, but they did find a fresh bloodstain. Which meant the person they were after had run away as well. Thank goodness! I prevented the murder!
This consequently proved my innocence as well. Had nothing been found at all, I’d have been treated as someone causing a scene of my own volition. I’m sure at the very least I’d have been reproached rather severely for breaking the windows.
After that I was questioned further and asked again exactly what had happened, but I persisted in telling them that my presence was a mere coincidence, and I had no idea whatsoever.
I couldn’t risk saying anything when I couldn’t yet judge what was safe to tell them.
Before long, I was allowed to go, having been deemed an unfortunate young lady caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I returned to the hall, at which point my best friend came straight over, looking very worried about me. After assuring himself that I wasn’t being left on my own, Lord Simeon went to report to the crown prince. He ended up joining the investigation himself, so I left with my friend and returned home on my own.
I explained it all to my father and brother the next day. When I told them everything I’d been able to glean, they handled the matter for me with great gusto. In the end, it turned out to be a government official who’d taken part in a corrupt cover-up, fallen out with his co-conspirators,
and was being silenced. Definitely not a lovers’ tiff, then.
I hadn’t seen who it was, but given this information, I was able to surmise his identity from his voice. The man being assaulted was one of my brother’s colleagues. At one point he’d even been presented to me as a possible marriage partner. However, he refused me, so it never
progressed to a formal proposal. Despite that, his face and voice remained etched into my memory.
I also had my suspicions about who the would-be murderers were, but I couldn’t confirm this with any degree of certainty, so I left it up to my father and brother to draw their conclusions. I wouldn’t have wanted to inadvertently subject anyone to questioning based purely on an
educated guess with no evidence.
However, my guess did turn out to be correct. The men’s corruption was uncovered and they were charged with the crime.
For everyone in the royal court, this incident was something of a minor scandal. However, for me the whole experience was honestly rather exciting.
I told my best friend as much a few days after the ball. “I knew the palace would be a treasure trove of inspiration! The sordid nature of human relationships always breeds political intrigue!
And what better breeding ground than the palace, where a lavish exterior hides everyday lives full of scandal and cruelty! Calling it ‘fun’ wouldn’t do it justice. It was incredible!”
“I can’t believe you’re in such high spirits after going through something like that,” said my friend in response to my gushing. “If your plan hadn’t worked, you might not have lived to tell the tale!”
“True, I suppose. I’m glad there was something of a thrilling twist, but I’m also glad I didn’t get hurt.”
“That goes without saying! These circumstances were of an entirely different caliber than the unkind trickery of the other young ladies.”
Despite her lecturing and her look of exasperation, Julianne was in fact keenly interested in hearing every detail of my experience. I gave her a full recap of my earlier misfortune of being trapped in the powder room as well.
“That must have been Lady Aurelia and her cohorts,” she said. “They left the hall shortly after you did, as if to follow you. Though I was sure you’d manage to deal with whatever they had in mind.”
“Indeed, it caused me no difficulty whatsoever. I only wonder at their lack of follow-through.
The door was obstructed, but they made no attempt at preventing me from opening the window.”
“I doubt they had any idea that you might use the window. They’d never dream of doing such a thing themselves.”
“Well, excuse me for being such a disgraceful lout of a woman. I just didn’t see any point in sobbing helplessly. There was a clear way out, so I used it.”
“Lady Aurelia and her friends certainly didn’t realize their opponent was someone so brazen,” Julianne said, with a shrug. She knew that no matter how many biting remarks or cruel tricks I was subjected to, I would never have just put up with them, so she also wasn’t overly worried about me.
“I’m actually more grateful to those girls than anything. That kind of bullying may be cliché, but if the exact form it takes comes purely from one’s imagination, the way it unfolds will really feel nothing more than perfunctory. If I can write it based on a real experience, the plot will feel much more urgent, don’t you think? They’ve given me such good material, I almost want to thank them in person. And Lord Simeon as well, of course!”
I had to laugh. If anyone else knew that the sheer variety of attacks I’ve borne since my engagement to Lord Simeon actually make me thankful every day to the ladies who perpetrate them, I’m sure I’d be thought of as quite a degenerate!
And I’d never have had all these experiences with any other suitor. This was all because I was engaged to Lord Simeon. I was grateful both to the young noblewomen, and to him.
“So you intend to use this as source material, too?” asked Julianne, thumbing through the book in her hand. It was the latest book, freshly arrived from the publisher.
“Of course. But if I stick to the facts it wouldn’t be exciting enough, so I do plan to dress it up a bit. Perhaps the young lady gets caught up in the situation and ends up being kidnapped, then the hero comes and rescues her? It’s what one expects from a romance story.”
“Certainly, as long as you’re not the heroine, that’s exactly how it would play out. Although a more typical heroine wouldn’t even climb out the window. How do you intend to resolve that?”
“Hmm, good question.” I paused a moment. “What if there’s a fire? If staying in the powder room means burning to death, surely even the most ladylike of ladies would go through the window.”
As I spoke, this new concept started to come together in my mind. I’d had enough of stories that were about romance and nothing else. I decided the next one would involve a rip-roaring series of catastrophes, full of drama and suspense. And amidst all of that, the fires of love would burn forth! I wasn’t about to waste the new information I’d gone to such efforts to obtain, but this would allow me to incorporate the basic concept while changing it just enough that no one would suspect.
“Speaking of which, does Lord Simeon know yet? Have you told him about your work?”
I shook my head. “Not yet. I’m still mulling over what to do, but I definitely haven’t reached the point that I can tell him yet.”
“That’s understandable. It is commonly accepted that ‘author of popular fiction’ is not an appropriate occupation for a young lady from a good family.”
That’s my secret: I work as a novelist. I write romance stories that are widely read by upper-class and middle-class women.
It lets me combine pleasure and profit, so it makes my life very satisfying. No matter how plain I may be in real life, in the world of my books I can enjoy giddy romance and thrilling adventures. As long as I have something to feed my fangirl urges, it’s enough to keep me going.
That’s why I didn’t mind at all if my marriage was only for my family’s advantage. As long as my husband wasn’t too terrible, I didn’t wish for much more.
And of course, my husband-to-be was far from terrible—he was Lord Simeon! Out of every story I’d read and every character in those stories, I’d never seen someone that so perfectly embodied my favorite type of man: the type who appears kind and gentle on the outside, but is malicious and scheming on the inside. I couldn’t believe how thoroughly I was able to indulge my fangirl urges in real life! I may not have wished for much, but what I’d been granted fulfilled even my wildest expectations!
It’s the type of good luck that occurs only once in a lifetime. I couldn’t risk letting it slip through my fingers, so I decided it was best to keep my writing activities a closely guarded secret.
In that respect, a marriage of convenience was, in fact, rather convenient. It’s easier to keep secrets from someone if they have no real interest in you as a person. I expected that even if I were to be scribbling away at home, my husband would be unlikely to notice, since he’d be at work most of the time. I could rely on my family and the publisher to keep my secret. I saw no reason to abandon it.
Julianne went home, after requesting that my next work please include the particular type of men she enjoys reading about. My readers generally prefer male-female pairings, so I can’t write about those kinds of men too openly, but that doesn’t mean I can’t include a few oblique hints.
I decided I’d write lots of interactions between a pair of handsome young men—enough to make Julianne really happy! Leave it to me, Julianne! I have two men close at hand who make the perfect templates!
That said, if I gave one of them black hair and the other blond hair it would be obvious who I’d based them on, so I decided I’d turn the more masculine of the pair into a blond. And then his more mild-mannered companion could have softer light brown color hair… Yes, and then on the inside he’d be anything but soft! I chuckled to myself. The perfect contrast! Just thinking about it makes me want to write it!
I’d reached such a peak of fangirl excitement that I started putting some notes down on paper straight away, but alas, the butler came and announced that I had a visitor. It seemed that Lord Simeon had come to the house despite us having made no prior arrangement for him to visit. I
hurriedly checked that my appearance was in order, and went to the drawing room.
“I beg your pardon for the intrusion.” Lord Simeon looked as dashing as ever today. His white royal guard’s uniform suited him very well indeed.
Ah, isn’t it nice to see a man in uniform? It makes him seem stoic and imposing, and at least twenty percent more attractive! Seeing Lord Simeon in such a uniform made me feel ever so close to suffering an intense nosebleed!
“Not at all,” I replied, offering him a seat. “Is it about the matter from a few days ago?” A frank question, but it was the only conclusion I could draw from him turning up in his uniform without warning.
“After a fashion,” he said, a wry smile on his face. He sat down, and I took a seat opposite him. We carried on talking while sipping tea brought by the maid.
“At the time, you told me everything was so sudden that you had no idea who was there or what exactly had happened. And yet…”
“Yes, I must apologize to you. I know that if I’d realized who it was at the time, the case would have been solved more quickly. Only everything at the scene was such a blur of disorder and chaos… It wasn’t until I got home and was able to calm down that I finally realized who it was.”
see, if we’d hidden the fact that I’d contributed my suspicion of who had been arguing in the dark, solving the case would have been nearly impossible, so my father and brother had to reveal that the information came from me. This would of course lead to questioning about why I’d
hidden such crucial evidence in the moment, so I was well prepared for this.
The excuse I’d prepared was exactly as I’d just told Lord Simeon. It was all so sudden, it was a very dark night, immediately beforehand I’d been cruelly trapped in a room so I was already an emotional wreck, how could a terrified young lady ever hope to give accurate testimony, etc.,
The one thing I absolutely would not do was apologize for hiding the information from him.
Any apology would, I’d decided, be for the trouble I’d caused him by not remembering whose voice it was at the scene itself.
Lord Simeon stopped his questioning and remained silent for a moment. I’d beaten him to the punch. I had no doubt that all kinds of thoughts were whirling through his mind as he elegantly drank his tea. I was shaking from all the tension in the air.
“We interviewed the perpetrators, but they knew absolutely nothing about the windows being broken. I don’t suppose you have any idea who did it?”
I paused. “No, I haven’t the slightest idea. I was certain it was one of those men, but…if not them, it’s a mystery to me. Perhaps there was someone else there, other than me.”
I had the sense that he was about to vigorously proclaim that he’d seen right through my lies, but I feigned the best expression of ignorance I could muster. It was clear that I’d have been better off telling the truth about this point from the start, but now that I’d committed to thedeception, I had no choice but to follow through and maintain I was definitely not the one who
had broken the windows.
How could I have known back then what I could and couldn’t say? If the knights hadn’t found any signs of conflict, it would have looked like I was causing a fuss entirely of my own volition and breaking the windows for no reason! Just making a fuss would have looked better than making a fuss and causing serious property damage. I didn’t want to be blamed for that, so I continued to insist that I had absolutely no knowledge of it.
My story was verified when those traces of blood were found, and then the perpetrators were arrested, so things had mostly reached a favorable conclusion. Still, one wrong move could have had me labeled a disgraceful problem child and caused me to suffer a humiliating downfall. I
certainly hadn’t been in a position to reveal everything right from the beginning.
Julianne and my family might have believed me even if there’d been no evidence, but I couldn’t have expected anything like that from Lord Simeon. He definitely wouldn’t have trusted me that far.
“We still don’t know,” he replied. “We’re still investigating for now.”
“I’m so sorry that I can’t be of more help.” I made myself as small as possible, as if to show how ashamed I was at being so thoroughly unhelpful. My voice and body language said: I wish so dearly that I could show my fiancé how much I can help him, but I’m nothing but a useless
girl. Oh, what will I do if he falls out of love with me!
All an act, of course.
Not that my behavior came across as unnatural. It’s how you’d expect a scene like this to play out. Lord Simeon stayed quiet for a moment, but whether it was because he accepted what I’d said or he’d simply given up…eventually he let out a soft sigh and didn’t press the matter any further.
Instead, he changed the subject. “By the way, not that I’m expecting further calamity to befall you, but it might do to be careful for the time being. If you plan to attend any evening gatherings, or any other such functions, I’d appreciate it if you informed me about them. You do seem to have your fair share of other problems.”
I tilted my head. What other problems?
“I’ve come to realize that it might not be safe to leave you alone in places like that. Though you’ve been the target of plenty of malicious gossip, I felt that as long as you seemed unperturbed by it, there was no cause for concern. However, I can’t stand idly by when you’ve been treated in such an abominable manner as you were the other night.”
Oh, I thought, he’s talking about my mistreatment at the hands of those girls. Which reminded me: hadn’t he confirmed that I’d been locked in the powder room?
“Lord Simeon,” I asked, “how was it that you found out about the door? Did someone inform you about it?”
“No, I discovered myself that it had been tied shut. I checked the powder room when I was searching for you.”
Goodness, for him to have gone that far… How gratifying!
I paused, and tried to add an air of hesitancy to my words. “Lord Simeon… Do you think less of me? My thoroughly improper behavior, climbing out of the window like that…” I thought it best to ask the type of question a typical lady would feel was pertinent. Not that I expected he’d break off the engagement over something like this, but it seemed proper to ask, at least.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Marielle. I’d only be worried if you made a habit of it.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it!” It’s true, recently I’ve hardly done it at all…although until a few years ago I was regularly scolded by Mother for climbing out of windows.
“Nor do I suspect you would,” he replied with a kind smile. “I could never doubt your sense of modesty and decorum.”
Though he spoke as if to reassure me, I felt a vague sense that I was being silently subjected to his questioning. But it must be my imagination, surely? Just my guilty conscience playing on my mind? He doesn’t know the first thing about me as a person. He can only possibly know me as the plain, meek girl I appear to be.
Circumstances had forced me to behave in a way that was inappropriate for the daughter of a noble family, but I’d expressed all the required contrition. I hoped he’d be satisfied with that.
In the end, he couldn’t stay long, as he’d taken time out of his work day to visit me. He stood up with an apology for leaving so quickly. Then, in a tone that suggested he’d remembered the subject just as he was leaving, he asked, “Do you know the name Agnès Vivier?”
Do I know her? I thought. Why, yes. I know her better than anyone else in the entire world.
“Yes,” I said, playing up my hesitancy again. “Vivier… She’s an author, I believe. I’ve heard of her, yes…”
“And have you read her books?”
“…Yes. I imagine you hate that sort of thing?” It wasn’t uncommon for bullheaded men to be outraged by popular fiction. How dare anyone read such common filth? I wondered if Lord Simeon subscribed to a similar value system.
“Not at all. I’ve read a handful of her works and I found them quite entertaining.”
“You’ve…read them? You, Lord Simeon?”
This left me truly shocked. I’d never have expected a man to have read my books—and to have enjoyed them, no less! I’d most definitely written them with women as the intended audience.
“My cousin gave them to me. She told me if I was getting engaged, I should read them to learn about the female heart.”
A satisfying enough explanation for why he knew about them, but it was still a surprise that he had actually read them.
“What I’ve learned is that women have a far stronger will than we men like to believe, but also that they have a certain purity about them. Vivier paints such a clear picture of human interactions… I’ve found plenty of points worth noting even outside of the romantic content. She writes about people so realistically, one could almost believe she spends her entire life observing their behavior.”
“…I can see what you mean.” That feeling again. Like his smile is silently pressuring me. But it must surely be my imagination… Surely…
“As I was reading, I occasionally had a strange sense of déjà vu, as if real people and places I’d experienced had been used as the basis for the story. I have to believe that Vivier takes inspiration from members of the royal court.”
“Perhaps,” I replied. “She is rumored to belong to a noble family, I hear. Do you suppose the rumor is true?”
I know nothing! But, you know, there’s a rumor, that part is true. I’m a fan, so of course I’ve heard the rumors!
“It’s entirely plausible. If so, we might expect that the events of the royal ball will make it into her work as well.”
“I suppose!” I said, doing my best to play this off with a lighthearted smile in the hope that he’d move on. How else could I act in this situation?
I don’t have any special knowledge, not at all! I’m just a common novel reader. I can’t wait for Vivier’s next book!
I met Lord Simeon’s smile with a fixed smile of my own and held out until the very moment that I could see him off. I didn’t let him see the slightest waver in my resolve.
Of course I don’t feel like I’m under investigation. Why would I? I’m just an ordinary fan! I have no connection to Vivier at all!
I went back to my room and just about collapsed. Keeping up appearances around Lord Simeon, not letting a single crack show in my armor, was incredibly tiring.
Had he figured it out, I wondered? And if so, how? What had given it away? I was sure there’d been no opportunity for him to learn about my secret work.
Perhaps I’m overthinking it. My own guilt is making me feel like I’m under suspicion.
Though it pained me to the point of tears, I had to throw out the plans I’d jotted down earlier.
I couldn’t write a novel like that. If Lord Simeon were to read it, he’d have known immediately that it came from me. Even leaving aside the incident at the ball, he’d certainly have figured out who had inspired the two dashingly handsome young men I’d planned to include for Julianne’s
And they inflamed my fangirl urges so beautifully… How frustrating!
I wondered if I could rework it to make the connection less obvious. More urgently, I wondered if Lord Simeon’s words were an attempt to discourage me from writing at all.
It seemed farfetched to take our conversation as an implicit criticism of my work as a writer…but I couldn’t exclude the possibility.
I decided I had to find out more about Lord Simeon. So far I’d been relying only on my impressions of his outward behavior, and high society gossip. Perhaps I had to go beyond that and gather opinions from within the Royal Order of Knights. I’m soon to be married to this man.
I need an accurate picture of the type of man he really is.
I pondered how best to collect the information I needed. I had to do it, or I’d never be able to pursue my hobby without attracting Lord Simeon’s attention. I couldn’t let the engagement fall through, but I had to protect my own interests at all costs.
I realized for the first time that my fiancé might be rather a nuisance.
And yet, at the same time, I was finding it harder and harder to suppress the fangirl flames that were flaring up inside me.
What a terrifying, treacherous man. Oh, Lord Simeon, my future husband, you are too wonderful for words. I’m fangirling over you so hard. Whatever happens, please don’t let me down!