Marielle Clarac’s Engagement – Main Story – Chapter 03

If I had to describe my fiancée in a single word, it would be “strange.”
I made it back to her at last after somehow fending off the endless flow of people trying to engage me in conversation. “I must apologize for leaving you unattended.”
Though I’d left her sitting alone by the wall for rather a long time, she gave no indication that it had bothered her. Instead, she greeted me with a serene smile. She spoke a few words of gratitude and concern for me, while saying absolutely nothing about what had happened to her in the interim.
This despite the fact that quite a number of people had come over to talk to her. She’d been engaged in conversation until just before my return. Although I’d stood at quite a distance, I’d been occasionally glancing back at her.
Since accepting my proposal, Marielle had suddenly attracted a great deal of attention. She’d become the target of jealousy and slander to a degree that she would never have experienced before. I was quite sure that while I’d been preoccupied this evening, she’d again been harassed and insulted.
But she didn’t breathe a word of this. She awaited me with calm and composed features, as if all was well. In other circumstances I might have been a satisfied fiancé, entirely impressed with what a well-bred young lady she was. However…
“Marielle?”
She’d been gazing at me with a peculiar sparkle in her eyes. No matter how hard she worked to keep her facial expression constrained, her eyes still betrayed something I couldn’t quite name. Curiosity? Passion of some sort?
Plain and quiet as she seemed, some sort of wild idea was brewing in her mind. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about it, but I couldn’t ignore the ominous feeling that hung in the air.
Or was it just affection toward her beloved fiancé—simply a young lady’s romantic reverie?
It could be as sweet and innocent as that…couldn’t it?
No, I decided. Absolutely not. It was nothing like that at all.
To a bystander it might have looked like that, but I was certain, without a shadow of a doubt, that this would be a mistaken impression.
“Yes?” She cocked her head in a charmingly ladylike manner and presented a look of feigned ignorance, as if she’d been thinking of nothing whatsoever. She appears so harmless and ordinary, so lacking in any distinguishing features at all, but what kind of person is she really?
She still didn’t realize what I knew about her.
The first time I’d ever seen her was a few years prior. A ball at the royal palace, just like this one. I’d escaped the hustle and bustle to somewhere less populated, and as I walked along to catch my breath, I heard some women’s voices.
I groaned internally. I’d been hoping to find a quiet spot on my own.
From the sound of their voices, I realized they were young ladies. If they’d noticed me it would have been quite a bother, so I started to walk away, when one of them said something that piqued my interest.
“Frankly, I find it utterly shameless that someone as disgraceful as you would even dare to enter the palace.”
Barbed words indeed, and dripping with haughty disrespect. Rather than an excited group of friends, I’d encountered some sort of argument. The thought of getting involved was exhausting,
but I stopped in my tracks anyway.
The ladies of high society were all the same. Captivatingly beautiful from their looks alone, but beneath the surface, so ready to antagonize and abuse that they’d try anyone’s patience. In all honesty, I wanted nothing to do with them, but in my role as a knight of the royal guard, I couldn’t ignore a quarrel happening right next to me. If it stays in the realm of words there’ll be no harm in leaving well enough alone, I thought, but I should at least make certain that no one is likely to be injured.
I stood and watched from the shadow of a large pillar. Five or six girls had gathered in the small courtyard. One was surrounded by the others. I couldn’t tell who she was with all the dresses in the way, but I could just barely see that her dress was a pale violet.
But looking at the faces of the ones surrounding her, I had a flash of recognition. They were all hangers-on of House Cavaignac. And amongst the crowd of well-dressed figures, one stood out as the most dazzling of all: Miss Aurelia, the daughter of Marquess Cavaignac.
In a glimmering violet dress.
Apparently they were both wearing the same color dress, and this had caused some consternation. That’s what I was able to glean from the words being thrown about. For daring to wear a dress the same color as Miss Aurelia’s, they all seemed to view the other young lady as a brazen, impudent girl who didn’t know her place.
All a bunch of nonsense. Why do women care about such trivial things? What difference does it make what color a dress is? And when there are hundreds of people in one place, how could it ever be possible for everyone to be wearing different colors?
It seemed so obvious to me—of course you’d encounter someone with the same color dress!
—that I couldn’t understand why anyone would find such a thing so unforgivable.

A profoundly tiresome situation. But it didn’t look like their accusations would be followed by any physical aggression, so I stayed where I was and kept watch.
Miss Aurelia and her cronies let every insult fly that they could think of, then finally sauntered away, their voices ringing with disdain and unbridled laughter.
The courtyard was left empty apart from one young lady.
She’d cast her eyes down, and her straight, brown hair hid her face. I assumed she was crying, or shaking in fear. Who wouldn’t be after they were ganged up on and berated like that?
Their dresses may have been the same color, but it was clear that this one was not nearly as fine as Miss Aurelia’s. She couldn’t have belonged to an especially high-ranking house. She did her best to dress up for the ball, and then she was scornfully mocked for it, accused of imitating
the style of her betters. She must be devastated.
As silly and trifling as I found the cause of her misery, I still felt sorry for her. A young lady was crying after being bullied—I’m not completely heartless, you know. I dithered over whether to go and console her or not.
The issue was that if I wasn’t careful, she might get attached to me, which I feared would lead to bigger problems. My general policy was to avoid starting any conversations with young ladies unless they spoke to me first. And if she gets too close to me, I thought, it could make her a further target for Miss Aurelia’s scrutiny, so keeping my distance might be better for her as well.
And yet, I also couldn’t bear the thought of just leaving her there alone. It seemed awfully sad.
As I stood there debating what to do, I heard a voice. The young lady in the courtyard let out the quietest of utterances.
Oh, goodness. She’s unable to contain her sobbing. I abandoned my hesitation and started towards her, deciding I’d find a way to console her that wouldn’t seem too forward.
Then I heard the sound again—more clearly this time.
“Hehe… Hehehe… Heh…”
I paused. Excuse me? It was a very odd noise for a crying person to make. It sounded less like sobbing and more like…laughter.
“Heh… Hehehehe…!”
She was still looking at the ground and her shoulders were still shaking a little, but what I heard was most definitely laughter.
A feeling of unease grew inside me. I chose not to step any closer. Has she been driven senseless? Could someone be so weak-willed that bullying of that sort leaves them totally devoid of reason?
I continued to hesitate, albeit for a slightly different reason than before. But my thoughts were interrupted by another voice.

“Marielle!”
A black-haired young lady ran over, so young that she was little more than a child. I didn’t recognize her; she’d likely made her debut into society only recently. She ran straight towards the young lady in the courtyard, who finally lifted her head. She was very young as well. She wore a large pair of glasses, and beneath them, her face appeared to be flushed bright red with
joy.
“It was incredible, Julianne! The very picture of being picked on by a group! The quintessential bullying young ladies! It was such a thrill, getting an authentic experience like that! I got chills!”
…Now hold on a moment.
“Now I really know what it feels like to be surrounded! It’s like a suffocating wall of dresses.
Lady Aurelia plays the role so well, I could almost fall in love with her.”
The black-haired girl, Julianne, looked stunned. All she could do was shrug. “Not that I really thought I needed to worry about you, but…”
I was equally stunned. Why is she smiling? How can she be so cheerful after she was mocked and insulted so relentlessly?
“Oh,” said the young lady, “I’d better write it all down before I forget. They used so many fantastic insults, I want to be sure I can borrow each and every one of them. I’d never have known so many different ways of expressing the same thing! I was very impressed. I suppose if you’re so well educated, it gives you a wide vocabulary. I have to portray them as accurately as possible.”
Then the young lady—whose name, I’d gathered, was Marielle—took a pair of small items out of her handbag. A notebook, and…a pen?
“They’ve given me so much material, I hardly need to invent anything at all. I could almost write a dictionary of insults. I hope they’ll come and harass me again at some point. I’d love to spend more time with them. They seem like a treasure trove of potential reference material.”
“I wonder if they’d bother. From Lady Aurelia’s point of view, people like us aren’t even worthy of notice.”
“I see what you mean. I drew her attention tonight because we happened to be wearing the same color, but I won’t be so fortunate every time.”
Fortunate? In what world could that bullying incident be called fortunate”!?
Miss Marielle continued, “For the bullying young ladies to have a long-term grudge against me, there’d need to be something about me that justifies that. The protagonist of the story always has some reason for being bullied. She’s really beautiful, or she has a special talent that everyone’s jealous of…the kind of quality that only a heroine has. That could never be me, though. Maybe I could find someone else who fits the description and do some close-up reconnaissance? That would be perfect.”
She diligently moved her pen across the paper as she spoke. Julianne, clearly used to this, just sat across from her and watched.
If nothing else, I understood that there’d been no need for any concern on my part. Beyond that, I was at a loss. I’ll confess that standing in the shadows and listening in on a private conversation between two young ladies was not the most admirable of behavior, but I was so intrigued by Miss Marielle’s eccentric nature that I could hardly help myself.
“The tragic heroine faces an onslaught of bullying, but then she meets a wonderful man and has a happy ending and shows everyone. I think the readers like that kind of thing. But for the climax to really make an impact, the story leading up to it is just as important, you know? If the way I describe the bullying feels too cheap and flimsy, they’ll see right through it. It’s just so tough to draw the reader into the world of high society! It’s not enough to have good heroes—you’ve got to have good villains, too.”
Readers… Story… Villains… It’s starting to come together.
As I listened to Miss Marielle’s animated explanation, I was finally able to grasp roughly what she meant. She was talking about novels.
Is she an author? Is she glad to have been bullied by Miss Aurelia and her friends because she can use the experience as reference material?
If so, I thought, that made a certain kind of sense. Her reaction had been so out of the ordinary that I’d feared she had some sort of mental affliction, so it was a relief to know there was a reason behind it.
And yet I still found it hard to accept. Surely no normal girl would go through something like that and treat it as nothing but reference material for a novel?
How could she be followed to a secluded place and attacked by a mob, then afterward be filled with glee at how helpful it was for her writing? How could she take the hateful words of abuse that had been targeted at her and gratefully write them down in her notebook? It was the furthest thing from normal!
Who is this person? I thought. What makes her tick? Even after that night, I found it hard to forget about this girl who’d probably only just made her debut into society, whose manner still marked her out as a child, and whose behavior was so very inscrutable.
I caught sight of her at countless balls and garden parties. She seemed to enjoy spending time anywhere that people had gathered in large numbers.
My line of work had made me experienced at recognizing people’s faces and other characteristics, and her glasses should have also marked her out, but in truth, it was often difficult to spot her in a crowd. She was no great beauty, but neither was she ugly, certainly not in any sense that stood out. She had brown hair and was of average height and build: the epitome of the word “average.”
She was the type of person that you might think you’ve seen somewhere, but then they disappear into a crowd and you lose them again. In trying to find something I could compare her to, the closest was an animal that blends into its natural surroundings by way of camouflage. An insect that perfectly imitates a leaf, or perhaps a lizard that changes the color of its entire body.
Spotting Miss Marielle in a crowd was like playing in a forest and finding all the wildlife that lives there in secret.
If I did notice her, I felt such a sense of accomplishment. I wanted to cry, “There she is!” Just like chasing insects in the forest when I was a young boy, before I knew it, looking for Miss Marielle became a force of habit.
And whenever I found her, she continued to be strange.
Even though she made an active effort to attend every gathering she could, she hardly talked to anyone and was usually on her own. I thought perhaps she had a timid personality that made it hard for her to start conversations, but a person like that would normally be hoping for someone to notice them. They tended to attach themselves to larger groups, or loiter in conspicuous places looking expectant. Young ladies like that often appeared in my general vicinity, so it was easy to tell the difference. Miss Marielle did not want to be seen. I had no doubt about that.
Which in turn made it clear that she was purposely acting in a way that she knew would draw as little attention as possible.
It wasn’t just her natural appearance. She also dressed in a way that always fit the situation, but never drew the eye. Most girls would be as creative as they could to try and stand out from the pack, to look just a little more beautiful than the other ladies, but Miss Marielle did the opposite. She wore modest clothes, but never so plain that they had the opposite effect. Perfectly ordinary clothes, neither good nor bad, every single time. It had to have been a conscious choice, and maintaining that level of invisibility had to have taken a great deal of effort.
But why do it at all? Well, that was something else that became clearer through observation.
She didn’t talk to people directly, but she did listen to other people’s conversations. She would nonchalantly draw near to anyone having a spirited discussion, blend in with the scenery, and focus all her attention on them. Young or old, male or female, she didn’t care. She hid in plain sight and took in every conversation she could.
It was impressive that no one ever noticed her, but these were, after all, places where vast swathes of people gathered. If a young lady stood nearby with no distinguishing characteristics to mark her out, most people would treat her as part of the scenery. In fact, if I hadn’t witnessed the events of that night, I’m not confident I’d have ever noticed her either.
And, after she collected a new conversation, she would find a hidden corner to write in her notebook. Whenever I saw her writing, she had the most joyful look on her face. She must have found some good material today, I always thought. I wonder what kind of novel she’s writing? I would watch in stunned silence, and it slowly played on my mind more and more.
When young ladies made their debut into high society, it was with the primary goal of winning a husband. They were eager to promote themselves and find someone who would improve their circumstances, even if only slightly. Miss Marielle, on the other hand, had made it
her utmost priority to attract no attention whatsoever, and was devoted to collecting reference material for a novel. I longed to challenge her directly: Why did you come here?
That was how it came to be that I spent several years of my life, alongside my normal work and societal duties, observing a very odd young girl.
“Simeon, aren’t you ever going to get married?” Prince Severin asked one day, devoid of any context, while I was accompanying him on an inspection.
I raised my eyebrows. “I might just as well ask the same of you.”
“I’m weighing my options,” he replied. “I don’t recall taking a vow of celibacy.”
I sighed. This was hardly the time for such nonsense. He does realize we’re surrounded by my subordinates? “I’ve never suggested that I intend on a life of celibacy either.”
“Then why aren’t you married? You don’t seem to even be trying to find a suitable match.
You’re almost thirty, Simeon. If you don’t start to have some involvement with women, people will get the wrong idea.”
“You needn’t worry, Your Highness. If people do start having suspicions about me, I’m certain they’ll deem you to be the other party involved.”
“That’s precisely why I am worried! You must get married—for my sake, if nothing else!”
I wondered if someone had said something to him already.
His sense of humor disappeared and he poked me with a finger. “Your mother’s worried, too!
Nobody wants their son and heir to be single forever. I don’t mind finding you a partner, if it helps. Start having some formal introductions. Just do it posthaste!”
“Formal introductions… Hmm, I suppose.”
His Highness’s concerns aside, it’s not that I hadn’t thought about marriage at all.
My parents, and my mother in particular, had been badgering me about it quite incessantly.
Though the clock wasn’t ticking as quickly for me as it did for young women, it still left them uneasy that their son was unmarried at twenty-seven. I began to think I had better start considering this more seriously.
I’d be lying if I said I had no interest in getting married, or no interest in women at all. I’d merely made work my highest priority and put it off until later. Besides, no partner had ever emerged that I’d actually want to choose.
But the thought of starting to meet potential candidates was still very unappealing. Truth be told, I was a little afraid of the type of young lady that might be presented to me. Would they all be creatures like Miss Aurelia, perfect on the surface but with decidedly imperfect depths? I could prioritize personality over looks, but then, women are so skilled at hiding their true nature.
There was every chance they might present themselves as being of sound character, then turn out to be rotten and spiteful to their core.
I didn’t wish for much. I just wanted someone that I could spend time with comfortably as a person.
I told His Highness so, and his face grew clouded. He’d been struggling to find a suitable princess himself, so he shared my frustration. If he found an ideal partner like that, he’d no doubt court her himself, rather than introducing her to me.
It was rather complicated.
While I was still mulling over all this, I had a chance to speak to Miss Marielle’s father, Viscount Clarac. He asked if I could introduce him to any suitable candidates for his daughter’s hand.
“Perhaps there’s someone amongst your subordinates who would be suitable. My daughter turned eighteen this year… She’s not a beauty even by the most generous description, but she has a decent head on her shoulders. She conducts herself in a bright and perceptive manner, and will
accomplish any duty that is ever asked of her. I’ve raised her very well in that regard, so I can offer up my daughter with every confidence.”
The Viscount sighed, then continued, “If only she weren’t so quiet and unassuming, she might be noticed by the gentlemen in society. Perhaps she might not seem like enough to all the esteemed royal guards, but she’d make a perfectly good wife. A wife is not the same as a lover, you see. If you’re to leave your home in someone’s care, they need to be virtuous and reliable. In that respect, my daughter would be a fine bargain. All of which is to say, perhaps you’d be kind enough to put a good word in, if there’s anyone you’d have in mind.”
The viscount made his case very effectively, and in a very respectable-sounding manner. He acknowledged all that Miss Marielle was lacking in terms of beauty and splendor, while emphasizing the qualities she did possess that would make her an excellent wife. An approach that looked innocent—he certainly delivered it as such—but that was, in fact, a cunning strategy worthy of a man like the viscount, who had worked hard and climbed the ladder well. I’m sure there were plenty of men who would hear a sales pitch like this and immediately jump on board.
But of course, it wasn’t entirely honest. It presented one facet of Miss Marielle, but left out something quite crucial. Her unparalleled eccentricity couldn’t be brushed aside; it was very relevant to potential suitors.
I understood that he was trying to present her in the best light. If he laid the facts bare, Miss Marielle would be passed up—there’d be no arrangement. Still, I was hesitant to pass on the viscount’s words directly to my men, knowing what I knew about Miss Marielle herself. If her fiancé calls off the engagement after discovering the truth, even Miss Marielle might find it
upsetting. Gossip would spread like wildfire and she’d have trouble finding another suitor, which has been difficult enough in the first place. It would be the ultimate stain on her reputation.
But perhaps, I considered after a moment, even that would leave her thrilled to bits at all the material it gives her. I could believe that of her.
I imagined the sight of Miss Marielle hunched over her notebook, beaming with joy, and I sighed. Someone will have to introduce her to a suitable partner. She certainly won’t find one on her own.
I wished there was someone who knew about her hobby and accepted it. And, in the very same moment, I realized that there was.
Well, why not? It would avoid all the bother of telling my men about her.
I already knew about her secret hobby. I already knew that she had a slightly odd personality.
It didn’t bother me—in fact, I’d always enjoyed my time spent observing her.
Miss Marielle was an eccentric individual, but she certainly wasn’t ill-natured. Despite her great enthusiasm for collecting gossip, she never spread any gossip herself. She acted purely for the sake of her novel writing, and the reference material she needed for it. I’d never seen her
express any interest in gossip for its own sake. In the world of high society, where every little rumor grew into a spectacular scandal, you could say that someone like Miss Marielle was hard to come by.
The principles that govern her are based entirely around her writing. That wouldn’t normally be praised as virtuous, but…that doesn’t inherently mean it’s bad, does it?
Besides, I thought, I’ve been looking for a marriage partner myself lately.
I told the viscount that she sounded perfect, and that I’d like to put my own name forward. He was shocked, to say the least.
“Oh,” he said, momentarily lost for words. “You honor me by even suggesting such a thing, but don’t you feel it would be rather an uneven match? My own house is not nearly equal in status to House Flaubert, and I’m certain that there are countless young ladies who can present
more favorable conditions for someone of your caliber, Lord Simeon. There’s also a slight difference in your ages…”
Rather than jumping at the offer, he expressed his concerns. I got a sense of the true nature that lay beneath his carefree exterior. A carrot had been dangled before him, but he knew better than to bite straight into it. He was cautious of a trap.
He was right to be wary. If she was matched with a man whose family was on equal footing to House Clarac, it wouldn’t matter so much if her true character was discovered. They’d still be able to smooth it over and push ahead with the marriage. “She has a slightly unusual hobby, that’s all,” or some such nonsense.
That wouldn’t be possible with me. There’s a fundamental power imbalance between us, so if I made any complaints, they’d have no recourse. The viscount had likely judged that even if he leapt at this chance, it could eventually lead to heavy consequences for his house, so it would be
better to avoid the risk.
He might even think that I’ve sensed a problem already and only made this offer to try and fish it out. He’s a sly one.
“You do have a point,” I replied. “To an eighteen-year-old, I must seem like an old man.”
“No, no, no, I’m suggesting nothing of the sort! No young lady could ever think that of you, Lord Simeon. Besides, nine years isn’t such a great difference. It’s fairly common, in fact.”
“Indeed, my own parents are eight years apart, which is why I felt it was still appropriate to ask for your daughter’s hand. Do you feel otherwise, Viscount Emile?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” he replied, with a calm smile that I was certain hid a frantic inner debate. I just smiled back, betraying none of my suspicions.
Even prudent people can sometimes cause themselves unnecessary turmoil by thinking too much. I’m the type to do that as well, so I couldn’t judge the viscount for it. I understood his concern, needless though it was.
I decided to continue the conversation, still revealing nothing. I was intrigued to see how he would respond to my insistence.
“For my house, this would indeed be a joyous turn of events. More than we deserve, truly…
But I do wonder how your parents would take the news. Would you not face some disapproval for marrying so far below your station?”
“Come now, there’s no need for such self-abasement. House Clarac has a long and proud lineage in its own way. You’ve faithfully served generation after generation of kings, which has lent you a degree of recognition, even if you haven’t always stood out from the other noble houses. You and your son are also well recognized for your skill in carrying out your duties.”
“Well,” said the viscount with an awkward chuckle, “it’s most flattering to hear you say such things…”
“My house is an earldom and yours is a viscountcy. I don’t feel there’s too great a disparity at all.”
A nervous breath. “Perhaps you’re right…”
Heh, he seems about ready to break into a cold sweat. Impressive that his face is still a perfect mask.
“But,” he continued, “my daughter is—how shall I put this—a very plain girl. I fear she’s lacking in many of the qualities required to show herself in public as a member of such a high-ranking house.”

“Didn’t you say yourself that she’d do an excellent job of taking care of a home? I’ve been looking for exactly that kind of woman. I’d be disappointed with a wife who was so focused on the latest trends and gossip that she was never at home. There’d be no need for any more socializing than she felt comfortable with. I’m not looking for a glamorous wife. All I want is one who will give me a happy and stable home.”
“Some would call that an old-fashioned mindset,” said the viscount, arching his eyebrows.
“It might sound conceited, but I am no stranger to women’s attention. The ones who have nothing to offer but their looks stopped impressing me long ago. I’m looking for a marriage partner, someone to spend my entire life with. Naturally my focus is on what’s inside, not what lies on the surface. I need to marry someone calm and reliable.”
His face screwed up in thought. “Hmm…”
Perhaps my words had finally moved him. There have been cases where the husband was a shameless debaucher, but the wife was plain and down to earth. The gentleman needed to know plenty of women before he learned what type of woman truly had value. Why couldn’t this be one
of those cases?
As if thinking the same thing, he let his upbeat facade drop and asked, “You really don’t mind that her appearance is the very definition of plain?”
“Not one bit.”
“She’s quiet, and that’s all she is. There’s nothing interesting about her at all.”
No, I thought, laughing inside, she’s very interesting. She might be the most interesting person alive. “Even quiet people have their own sort of appeal, surely.”
“There is one more thing. Ever since she was a child, she’s been a voracious reader, and it’s given her something of a fanciful quality. At times, she seems a little divorced from reality.”
He certainly had a way with words. “Something of a fanciful quality”? That’s putting it lightly. I had severe doubts as to whether Miss Marielle’s behavior could be accurately described by such a dainty little phrase.
“Are you saying that she can be overly sensitive?”
“You…could describe her as such,” he replied, his voice full of hesitation.
There’s no use lying, I thought. I could tell he was trying to find a delicate way to say that his daughter spent her life studying the people around her and using them as inspiration for her writing.
Instead he just sighed, as if admitting defeat. “Then perhaps it’s best if you meet her in person. Unless you talk to someone directly, there will always be aspects of their character that don’t come across. Then, if you find that she’s not to your satisfaction, you can feel quite free to say so. You needn’t be shy.”
And so, having finally given his consent, Miss Marielle’s father arranged for us to be introduced to one another. He must have thought that I’d change my mind the moment I saw her.
Which I certainly won’t, I thought.
I visited the Clarac family at their home and conversed with Miss Marielle for the first time.
It was there that I formally proposed to her.
Just as I’d expected, Marielle had a spirited disposition with not a hint of malice. She acted with restraint, never imposing herself on me, but when I spoke to her, she replied in a surprisingly sensible manner. She was clever, just as her father had said. Reading so many books, and writing her own, had given her a knack for getting straight to the point. And yet, I felt
none of the irritation one sometimes has when talking to an intellectual. I was satisfied that I’d found an excellent partner.
My mother presented a slightly different opinion.
“Simeon, are you sure you want to marry her?” she asked, after the meeting between her family and mine. She wore a very conflicted expression, a mixture of dissatisfaction and doubt.
“Quite sure, which is why I proposed to her. Do you not approve of her, Mother?”
“I wouldn’t say I don’t approve.” Her face grew even more troubled. “I’m glad that you’ve found someone so proper and composed. She seems well educated, and there are no particular problems with her.”
No particular problems. Only that she’s very, very plain. The type of person who melts into her surroundings, leaving so little trace that you’d forget she’s even there.
I could comprehend my mother’s wariness of such a creature of camouflage, whose presence was so slight that it was hard to even judge her. I’m sure she’d have been more comfortable with a simpler person, beautiful and charming and easy to read.
Marielle hid all her eccentricities perfectly and played the part of the most nondescript young lady one could imagine. She presented no gaps in her armor, even to me. You could describe it with a complimentary word like “modesty” or “virtue,” if you chose to, but it was as if there was an empty space where Marielle stood.
It must be very tough to form an opinion, I thought, knowing nothing about her true nature.
I’d also found it a challenge to find aspects of her that I could praise. All I could manage was perfunctory praise that could apply to anyone. This was by design on her part. She wanted nothing about her to draw any attention, so I found nothing.
She was no doubt being especially cautious of her true nature being discovered at an early stage, where I might call off the engagement straight away. I wondered what face she would make when she realized none of this effort was needed. It’s sure to be interesting! I’ll have to wait until I find the most effective moment to tell her. For now, I played along, as if she’d fooled
me completely.
As I pictured her look of surprise, a smile began to form. At the same time, I felt conflicted.

As long as she can’t be honest with me, she’ll never let her guard down. We may be engaged, but for the time being, our relationship is a formality, nothing more. That thought was somehow very disappointing.

“Vice Captain, your fiancée has arrived,” said one of my men, who’d come to the riding ground to deliver the message. Marielle had come at exactly the time we’d agreed upon. I left my horse in the stablehand’s charge and went to meet her at the entrance.
Marielle, who so far had never come to me with anything resembling a selfish wish or pleading request, had surprised me a few days earlier by asking me for a favor. “Is there any way it might be possible for me to visit the Royal Order of Knights? Only if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.” At first I thought it was an odd thing to ask, but I knew it must be related to her writing.
Unless they had relatives in the Order, the knights’ world was something women never got a glimpse of. She wanted to be a pioneer, venturing into unknown territory.
I didn’t learn this until after my proposal, but her novel writing was not only a hobby, but a job. She had dedicated herself to it fully as her profession. In fact, she’d had several books released officially by a publishing company.
When I read some of her novels that my cousin pushed into my hands, I found the stories were strewn with familiar details. They were love stories set in the royal court, and the ways they played out—not to mention some of the smaller goings-on that were included—made their sources of inspiration obvious to anyone who had knowledge of the original events. This had led to the widespread rumor that the author might be a young noblewoman. The name “Agnès Vivier” was certainly a nom de plume. Her true identity was a topic of much speculation for her readers.
But I know the truth. It’s her—it has to be.
The dress incident had given it away. The villainous young lady, berating the protagonist for wearing the same color, couldn’t have been anyone but Miss Aurelia. All the details matched that night, and she’d portrayed the whole scene so vividly.
Then I noticed something. The next book’s love interest is a royal guard? It’s not related to our engagement, surely. She can’t be using me as inspiration…can she?
She could and was, of course.
“I don’t mean to interfere with your work, so feel free to tell me if it’s impossible. Only, I’ve heard there are occasions when those outside of the Order are permitted to enter the grounds. If they’re delivering something to a relative, for example, or meeting with a superior officer. If there’s any way that it can be permitted, I would very much like to visit you at work, Lord Simeon.”
Anyone who didn’t know better would have taken this as a charming request from a girl who wanted to know more about her fiancé. When she presented it to me, phrased as humbly as she could manage, I just nodded, unsure whether to be shocked or amused.
Well, what’s the harm in her coming to take a look? Go ahead, make full use of it in your next book. Just don’t make it obvious that you based it on me. Please.
Marielle waited outside the entrance, accompanied by a maid in true noblewoman fashion. I asked the man on duty why he hadn’t let her through, but apparently she’d preferred to wait.
“Good day, Marielle.”
At the sound of my voice, she turned to face me. Then her eyes widened as if in shock. She covered her mouth with her hands and stared at me as if she wanted to bite into me, devour me whole.
Is there something wrong with me? I took a glance down at my clothes. No, everything seems in order…

She and her maid turned their backs to me and whispered amongst themselves.
“Another nosebleed, my lady!?” A whisper, but shrill and panicked.
“No,” Marielle replied, her voice a thin tremor. “I’m quite all right, thank you. I managed to contain it somehow. But…” She shuddered. “The sheer destructive force… It’s greater than I could have imagined!”

“He is rather easy on the eye, I must confess, my Lady.”
I ventured a trembling hand toward her shoulder. Nosebleed? Is she all right? “Marielle, is something the matter? Are you unwell?”
The second my hand made contact, she lifted her head, quick as a flash, and tried to smooth things over with a smile.
Huh. Now she’s a little too cheerful.
Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes sparkled so brightly, they were almost blinding. “No, please don’t trouble yourself,” she replied. “The sun is just a little bright today, that’s all. It caught my eye a moment ago and left me a little dazed and disoriented.”
Well, she wasn’t wrong. It was a particularly sunny day. Although the sun is definitely behind her.
She continued to gaze at me with that peculiar intensity. She looked me up and down, slowly, carefully, as if she wanted to lick me from top to bottom. Then she breathed out, a sound of quiet admiration. If I had to put it into words, I’d have said that my fiancée was enchanted by me, spellbound even. But I felt something else, too. Is that really all it is? There appears to be something else mixed in…
“Let’s go inside, then. I can give you a tour of the training grounds later. First, we can sit and have tea.”
I handed my riding crop to a valet and beckoned Marielle to follow me.
Instantly her face changed to a look of intense disappointment.
What? Why!?
Now she was looking right through me. Her gaze was fixed on the valet. The valet? Is he the one she was focused on all along?
I took a proper look at him. He was a young lad, only just enlisted. A boy, really, an apprentice even younger than Marielle. Surely there’s nothing about him that would provoke such a response…
Or was there? I suddenly noticed that her gaze was not fixed on his face, but on his hand.
Which held the riding crop I’d given him.
My head raced. The riding crop. How is it related!?
Driven by a sense that there was no use in asking, I began to lightly push Marielle toward the door. By this point, a number of men had stopped while passing through, full of curiosity.
They’d all longed to know more about this mysterious fiancée of mine. Yet, when they saw her, you could read the undisguised puzzlement on their faces. It was like biting into some meat that you thought was beef, but turned out to be chicken. Not bad, but not quite right.
I wanted to tell them, A woman’s worth isn’t only in her looks! But even so, if they’d followed up by asking where Marielle’s worth was, I’d have struggled to answer.
We went through to the drawing room and rested for a moment, exchanging a few more meaningless pleasantries.
Then in came my superior officer, apparently having heard us talking. “Ah, Simeon! So this is your lovely fiancée, is it? I hope you don’t mind if I join you!”
I gave him some empty reassurances. He came in without even waiting and was right next to me by the time I’d finished talking. He couldn’t even pretend to hide his curiosity.
At the sight of the middle-aged gentleman, Marielle stood and curtsied, betraying no surprise.
“Marielle Clarac. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I must apologize for my terribly audacious request to come and visit my fiancé here. I just felt it would be such a privilege to see how the Order is run, and to see the knights at work.”
“Don’t worry, you’re quite welcome here. Captain Albert Poisson, at your service. Truly, the honor is all mine. In a squalid place like this, a charming young lady is a sight for sore eyes!”
The Captain, whose fondness for all women was no secret, confidently lavished flattery even on a very plain one like Marielle. It reflected well on him that he didn’t judge women by their looks and reject the less pretty ones out of hand, but it did make him rather an indiscriminate
flirt. If his leadership skills were as flawed as his character, I’m sure he’d have been forced out of his position long ago.
It wasn’t uncommon for the knights to receive visits from friends or family, but they never drew as much mindless curiosity as my fiancée. It was growing quite annoying. More of them stood just outside the door, peeking in through the cracks like ghouls. Don’t they have anything more pressing to be getting on with? I’ll have to rearrange their duty rosters. Make sure they don’t have too much downtime.
“It’s caused a minor commotion,” the Captain continued, “hearing that our Simeon here has got engaged. You’ll have to forgive our excess curiosity. I realize it must be quite a nuisance.”
“Oh, not at all. I’m finding the sense of camaraderie here to be quite agreeable. Enviable, even. As a woman, all my time is spent at home. Seeing the way you all work together here, like a brotherhood, almost makes me wish I could live a similar life.”
The Captain laughed a big, bellowing laugh. “Well, I suppose it has its high points, but mostly it’s just a filthy pigsty. Even your fiancé… He puts on a polite face, but when it’s just us men, he can be rather brutal. His subordinates are always grumbling about him.”
Marielle giggled. “You seem quite easygoing by comparison. The two of you strike a fine balance, wouldn’t you say?”
“He does make up for my deficiencies! I’m glad to have him.”
Easygoing? I thought, incredulous. He’d like you to think he is, certainly! But how could a cheerful and soft-hearted fellow ever end up leading an order of knights!?

I might have been the militaristic one in the public’s eyes, but the Captain could also be quite venomous when he needed to. The very fact that he used me as cover should give a hint at his true viciousness. Curiosity was his stated reason for joining us, but I’m sure he wanted to scrutinize Marielle as well.
I knew that, but I didn’t interfere. It’s Marielle. I doubt I need to worry about her.
In fact, I was a little surprised at just how well they were getting along. Their discussion had become quite animated. I think they were each trying to piece together how the other saw me. I knew why the Captain would be concerned about that, but what information was Marielle looking for?
The men peeking in finally lost all patience and barreled into the room. At once, the room hardly had space left to breathe. They all started to ask Marielle questions about herself, but the conversation gradually shifted toward me as the main topic. I suppose they’ve all decided there’s
nothing specific about Marielle that’s worth knowing, so they’ve lost interest in her.
But I soon realized there was more to it. Even while giving humble and innocuous replies to all their questions, Marielle was subtly leading the conversation. With careful skill, she piqued their interest in discussing me rather than her. She dressed up her questions as the kind that a normal fiancée would be worried about—how do I spend my time when I’m working, how am I seen by the people around me—and steadily collected all the material she needed.
Marielle would make a rather good secret operative. It was not the first time I’d had that thought. She could use every trick to discourage interest in herself and ferret out the information she wanted to hear. If she was a man, I probably wouldn’t like her that much, I considered. But then I realized: Wouldn’t she actually be quite a lot like her brother?
It wasn’t just her father, it seemed. The whole family had more to them than met the eye.
Marielle was beset by raucous crowds until the very moment she went home, but her spirits weren’t dampened at all. She left with a look of pure satisfaction—definitely not the look of a girl who’d been continually interrupted while trying to spend time with her fiancé.
She looks so self-satisfied, like she had a goal and she fully achieved it. I suppose it really is true. The only reason she wanted to meet me was to get inspiration for her writing.
I knew this already, but it still astounded me that she thought of absolutely nothing except her novels.
After giving the men who’d shirked their duties to engage in idle chatter enough work to ensure they’d be busy until long into the evening, I returned to my office. For reasons unknown, the Captain followed me.
“She’s very much your type,” he said.
I returned his quip with a cold glare. “I’m glad to hear you say that, Captain.”
“She’s clearly not the ordinary young woman she appears to be. She’s intelligent, and very shrewd. Doesn’t miss a thing, if you ask me. If I really thought she was a devious woman trying to use you, I’d be urging caution, but…” He paused. “That’s not quite the case, either.”
He sat down with a thud and cocked his head. “It looked as if she just wanted to know more about you. Exactly how a fiancée should be, nothing wrong with it at all… Except that I had the feeling there was more to it than just being in love with you. There was some other, greater reason.”
Very astute of the Captain. No surprise that he read Marielle perfectly even through her polite conversation. He had yet to arrive at the true source of her thoughts and actions, however. This was to be expected. For anyone to figure it out on their own, they’d have to be very much the same type of person as Marielle herself.
I knew the truth before I proposed to her, and I didn’t particularly see it as a problem. I’m not the type of person who would look down on popular fiction, lumping it all together as vulgar dross. Marielle’s books had engaging themes. They could move the reader’s heart. I hadn’t read
only the ones my cousin forced upon me—I’d read every single one published to date. Reading them gave a vivid sense of how much the author had enjoyed writing them, and even after I was finished, each one left an imprint on my soul.
Marielle liked observing people, and she liked depicting them too. In other words, she liked humanity as a species. That was a true virtue of hers, I thought, and worthy of credit.
And yet, I still sensed something not quite right lately. Does she sense some dissatisfaction from my side? I wondered.
I hoped not. As long as she performed her role as my wife in a proper manner, I was happy to approve of her having a slightly unusual interest on the side.
“Do you already have an idea of what that reason might be?” asked the Captain.
I nodded. “It’s something entirely personal to her. I assure you, it’s nothing to worry about.”
“And yet you seem worried.”
The bluntness of this statement left me silent for a moment. “Do I?” I said at last.
“Have you spoken to her? Properly, I mean. Not just the formalities. You should make the effort to push past all the false smiles and little deceptions and truly understand each other.
You’re going to become family, spend your entire lives together. It’s much better if you can confront this head-on. Imagine being married, but having a relationship built on lies, never showing your true faces… It’s too tragic for words. It could almost make a grown man cry.”
The Captain looked me in the eye. “Just because you’re not marrying for love—it doesn’t mean you need to be cold and distant to each other on purpose. You must get to know her. Be friends, at least.”
I was speechless. I’d tried to hide all this, but the Captain had seen right through me.
I thought I’d been doing my best to be friendly with Marielle, but as the Captain said, there was nothing there but formalities. How could we truly know that things were comfortable between us if we were keeping so many secrets?
We’d hidden the very core of ourselves from each other. If someone told me I was just arranging things so that it appeared I had a happy engagement, I couldn’t have denied it.
Should I tell her that I know? That I’ve known all along, since before we ever spoke?
If I did that, I wondered if she would open up to me as well.
But when we spoke the other day, she picked up on my implications and started trying to make sure of what I meant. That chat of ours must have put her on her guard. If I broach the subject now, too suddenly, it would only make things worse between us.
I was utterly lost as to what I should do.
I kept it all to myself and went about my royal guard duties as usual. Soon came a night where I accompanied Prince Severin to a gathering at a duke’s residence, acting as his official escort. There I was accosted by a young woman I’d rather have avoided.
“Alone this evening, I see. Your fiancée preferred to stay home?”
Miss Aurelia greeted me with a self-assured smile and a dress of deepest crimson. As usual, an entourage of other young ladies surrounded her. Under their fierce gaze, I felt like a trophy buck about to fall prey to a hunter.
Their glimmering eyes gave Marielle’s a run for their money. Yes, I thought. This is how I’m used to being stared at. I’d been used to it for a long time.
Yet there was a quality to Marielle’s gaze that set it apart. Her eyes had enough zeal and ardor to give anybody pause, even these girls, but the impression they gave was completely different. But why? I wondered, my head full of doubt. What’s the difference?
“I’m here to escort His Highness,” I replied. “Purely official business.”
I was quite eager to get back to His Highness, in fact. I was there to guard him, so I couldn’t be too far away for too long.
But if I leave straight away, Miss Aurelia will probably just follow me. Since I’d taken myself off the market, she’d set her sights exclusively on Prince Severin. She was looking for every chance to get close to him, having never realized that he’d ruled her out long ago. I didn’t want to bother His Highness, so I pondered how to get rid of her.
“Of course, of course,” said Miss Aurelia. “I only forgot because you and your lovely fiancée have been inseparable lately. Naturally, His Highness is more important.”
The ladies around her all giggled shrilly.
Sensing a deeper meaning to her words, I took a quick glance around the room.
Ah, I see.
There, off in the distance, stood Marielle.
I obviously hadn’t asked her to join me since I was attending for work purposes, and as she hadn’t said anything to me about it, I assumed she wouldn’t come. It is rather odd for an engaged couple to come to the same event, but entirely separately. Miss Aurelia must find it quite entertaining.
I turned back to face the gaggle of girls. Hints of curiosity and scorn faded in and out beneath their otherwise composed expressions. No doubt they’d spoken to Marielle before me, and spouted all kinds of nonsense.
I wondered what Marielle thought of the situation. There was no need to worry, I was sure of that much. Miss Aurelia’s bullying would have left her not only undaunted, but positively thrilled. But did it really not vex her at all to attend the same function as me when I didn’t invite her?
I suddenly lost all patience, broke free from them as quickly as I could manage, and walked away. I didn’t feel much need to politely smooth things over after she’d been so hostile to me. It felt far more important to talk to Marielle. Despite it all, I was a little worried.
I went straight to her. When she noticed me there, she blinked behind her glasses.
“Good evening, Lord Simeon.”
The same polite smile as always, with not a whiff of anxiety or gloom. However, the calm facade she presented was anything but reassuring. Quite the opposite, in fact. My earlier sense of unease changed to frustration.
Yet, even though I’d been thrown so far off balance, I had to keep my composure at all costs.
I couldn’t be visibly angry with her.
“I hadn’t expected you to come. I must apologize—I should have told you earlier that I’d be escorting His Highness.”
She gestured casually with one hand. “You needn’t be worried on my account. I was already aware. I heard it from one of your men a few days ago. Naturally, your work comes first. Please, don’t give it a second thought.”
Hold on… When did she hear it? And from whom? Somehow, without me realizing, she’d gained the confidence of my subordinates.
“Hadn’t you better return to His Highness’s side? I’d hate for you to be reprimanded.”
And she was eager to send me away, too. Is she saying that it’s difficult to collect any reference material if I’m too close by?
“Come with me,” I said. “Since you’re in attendance, it would be rude not to say hello to him.
You’re my fiancée now, after all. It’s important to fulfill that role.”
“Of course, you’re quite right.” A pause. “Only, he seems to be rather busy right now. He’s talking to quite a number of people. That’s why I thought it might be better to speak to him later.”
She hadn’t said anything wrong. Knowing when to avoid intruding, and how to wait for the right moment, were admirable qualities. Indeed, what she’d said was entirely correct.
In my mind, I understood that. But it still made me irrationally angry.
“If you say that, you’ll be waiting forever. His Highness will be surrounded by people all night. Come.”
I had successfully badgered Marielle into following me over to His Highness. Her face let slip the barest hint of perplexity, but she otherwise stayed perfectly composed and raised no more objections. She greeted His Highness with faultless politeness and then parted ways with me
again.
Very blunt and to the point, I thought. Nothing like Miss Aurelia, or any of her hangers-on.
They’d do anything to be noticed, and jump at any chance to talk to someone like the crown prince.
Did Marielle really have none of their enthusiasm to talk to him, I wondered? Not even half as much? It seemed odd, since she’d looked at the both of us before with those passionate eyes of hers.
But then I realized. Her eyes are nothing like Miss Aurelia’s.
And I knew what the difference was.
Marielle’s eyes didn’t hold any affection or interest toward the opposite sex. The only fascination there was toward humanity as a species.
She hadn’t fallen in love with me.
I should have known it from the start, but when the truth finally hit me, it left me strangely crestfallen.
What cause do I even have to be disappointed? I’d arranged the marriage with her father, without even talking to her first. Of course we wouldn’t have a romantic relationship. I hadn’t even wanted that.
All I’d wanted was someone I could be assured was an acceptable wife. I’d chosen Marielle because she seemed the most suited for the role.
And that was all…wasn’t it?
“Don’t look so down in the dumps,” said His Highness with a scowl. “It’s very tedious. If it bothers you that much, go and follow her.”
I mentally chided myself for letting this show on my face. I needed to focus. “No, Your Highness. I won’t abandon my duties to deal with a personal matter. Marielle wouldn’t want that either.”
“It’s hardly better to have you here, infecting me with your sulking. I’m in charge, and I say go.”
“I’m not sulking…”
“It’s showing on your face, for once. You hadn’t noticed? Or perhaps you’d like to explain exactly what that look was, as your eyes followed her all the way across the room? Clearly she’s weighing on your mind.”
I was lost for words. Was it that obvious? That I’d failed so utterly at hiding my emotions came as another agonizing shock.
But I couldn’t just run after my fiancée, even if His Highness had expressly allowed it. I still had a duty to guard him, and I couldn’t abandon my post so lightly. Crowds of people surrounded the prince—masses, even. Any one of them could be a snake in the grass, blending in, hiding their ill intentions. Any of them could try to get too close to His Highness. The situation with Marielle was frustrating, but far from urgent. I could meet her again later.
His Highness let out an exasperated sigh. “If you bottle up all your feelings, Marielle won’t know about them either. You could try being at least somewhat honest with her!”
“It’s not my intention to bottle up my feelings,” I said.
“Perhaps not. But Marielle is weighing on your mind, and you’d like to go after her. You can just admit that. There’s no need to pretend.”
“Weighing on my mind? Well, that’s not exactly untrue, but it’s no reason to go running after her. There’s no reason to worry about it. I mean that, really I do.”
“But you still can’t stop thinking about her.”
He’s relentless. I sighed, defeated. We knew each other too well, and had since boyhood. It was no use trying to hide from him.
I decided to admit this feeling that I didn’t truly understand myself.
“Very well,” I confessed. “Marielle is weighing heavily on my mind. I don’t know what’s bothering me, exactly. As a fiancée, she’s faultless. She never does anything to cause me the slightest inconvenience, and never complains or expresses any selfish demands. She never
interrupts—she waits quietly until she’s spoken to. Tonight, for example, she fully understands that we couldn’t spend any time together because I’m here working, and it doesn’t bother her one bit. She’s the ideal fiancée.
“So this feeling of displeasure, of disappointment, doesn’t make sense to me. I’m asking myself what the reason is, and I’m coming up short. There must be something I don’t like about her, but I don’t know what it is.” I lightly massaged my temples.
With a world-weary expression, His Highness replied, “You really haven’t worked it out?”
“Worked what out?”
He glared at me, muttering to himself.
There’s no need to be quite so alarmed! He’s treating me almost like a clueless idiot.
I voiced this objection, and he said, “‘Almost’ doesn’t come into it. You are most definitely a clueless idiot. But,” he quickly continued, “perhaps I am as well. You’ve been no stranger to female attention, and you’ve handled it so skilfully, I’d had the impression that you were well versed in the art of romance. I was sorely mistaken, it turns out. I’ve revised my opinion: all
along, you were emotionally stunted.”
“Is that so?” I replied, seething beneath my placid smile.
“Don’t make that face at me! It’s the truth.” He took a few steps back. Did he think I was about to threaten him!? “And no wonder. The women have always approached you, so you’ve never had to put in any effort yourself. At twenty-seven, you’re finally going through adolescence. It would be charming if it weren’t so revolting.”
“Revolting? That’s going a bit far, surely.”
“People will see delayed adolescence as charming up to about the age of twenty. At your age, it is a little disturbing for you to be so naive.”
“All of this is very confusing to me. What exactly do my state of emotional development and supposed naivety have to do with my current dilemma?”
“If you weren’t emotionally stunted, you wouldn’t even need to ask. The proof is in the pudding, as it were.” He groaned. “This is taking too long, so I’ll just tell you. The reason you’re frustrated is because you don’t make Miss Marielle nervous. She doesn’t pay you any mind, she doesn’t give you attention, and you can’t stomach it.”
I was stunned into silence again. What does he take me for? A baby, throwing a temper tantrum because I can’t have my way?
But how could I deny it? I realized he wasn’t too far off, and it hit me like another hard shock to the system.
“Everyone wants their partner to notice them, to look at them. Of course being given the cold shoulder will make you feel lonely and upset. There’s a name for that feeling, you know. It’s called love.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again.
…Love?
“You’re in love with Marielle. That’s the answer.”
I heard the words, but I couldn’t process them. I had no idea how to respond.
Me? In love? With Marielle?
How can that be?
“I thank you most humbly for your advice,” I said at last.
He groaned again. “Don’t just try to avoid thinking about it! You’re head over heels for her,
admit it! There’s no other explanation. Haven’t I pointed out again and again how differently you’ve been acting around her compared to all the others? It’s been a remarkable surprise, seeing you fawn over her! Think back on all the times you’ve smiled at Miss Marielle. I’ve never had
the impression that it was just a fiancé doing his duty. She matters to you, and it shows on your face.”

He continued, “Why did you get engaged to her in the first place? When Viscount Clarac asked if you could introduce her to a potential suitor, why did you put your own name forward?
You’re not very well-matched, traditionally speaking. House Flaubert’s potential objections are obvious, but the proposal put quite a burden on House Clarac as well. Yet you pushed past all that and went through with it. Why?”
“Well,” I stammered, “it was because…”
But then I froze, completely at a loss. I’d decided that Marielle met all of my criteria. She was exactly the kind of wife I was looking for. But was that truly the only reason? If I’d kept searching, I’m sure I’d have found other women who met my needs just as well. They weren’t all twisted vipers like Miss Aurelia. I’m sure I’d have found an acceptable wife from a noble house
more equal to my own.
I knew that. So why did I choose Marielle? What made her the one?
“Didn’t you tell me you knew her before all this? She was the girl you were always watching, the one you found so interesting. Why did you keep observing her with such fervor if she was such a plain girl with nothing to distinguish her? If it was nothing but idle curiosity, why would you keep observing her for so many years, and ultimately propose to her?”
I had no reply to offer him. He sighed heavily and put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s obvious if you really think it through. The next step is just being honest with yourself. And talking to her about it, of course. It needn’t be today, tomorrow will do, but you must talk to her.”
I stood there, speechless, my mind in a state of turmoil. Not only was I unable to mask my feelings, I was barely able to function at all. Panic began to set in.
Am I… How could… Could it…?
It’s not possible. It’s not. Is it?
Never. Not in a million years. Never!
But if it was so impossible, why was it so hard to deny? And what was so wrong about it, anyway? Or was it even a matter of right and wrong?
Isn’t it… Can’t it just be… Oh, damn it all! I don’t even know what I’m thinking anymore!
“The one question I can’t answer,” said His Highness, “is why her? I can’t fathom what’s so appealing about her that she’s captured your heart like this. She’s lacking in any particular qualities that really sell her. Truth be told, I have trouble remembering her face.”
But that’s only what’s on the surface, I thought. Inside, she’s anything but plain and ordinary. Being drawn to the real Marielle is the most natural thing in the world.
In that one instant, I realized what I’d just admitted to myself. What I couldn’t deny.
And it threw me into turmoil again.
Is it true? Am I really in love with Marielle?
It’s not that I didn’t want to believe it. It was just so dumbfounding, I couldn’t make sense of it.
I spent the rest of the evening in a state of extreme unrest. My focus on my duties was so lax, it was a minor miracle that nothing happened to His Highness.
Then I lay awake all night, like a teenage boy.
And that marked the beginning of my very belated adolescence.

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