Lord Simeon has been acting awfully strangely as of late.
“My lady, another one has arrived again today,” said Natalie, my maid, as she entered with a single rose in hand.
“With no message or letter of any kind?”
“I’m afraid not, my lady.”
“Fair enough,” I replied. “Thank you.”
I took the rose, unwrapped its protective paper covering, and put it into a vase. I’d amassed a small collection by now, all of them the same deep crimson. Some were little more than buds, while others had already opened to their full majesty.
“This one has seen better days.” I touched one that had gone past full bloom into wilted territory. Several petals fell off and floated gently down.
“Perhaps I’d better change the water,” said Natalie, picking up the vase. “I’ll take care of it right away.”
After seeing her off, I let out a sigh. How many days has it been now since I’ve seen Lord Simeon’s face? He hasn’t come to visit since the party that night, and he hasn’t invited me to see him either. Nor has a single letter arrived.
All he’d sent were these roses. One rose per day, every day.
Maybe he was too busy with work, I thought. But then he’d at least send me a message, right? Lord Simeon’s a fine, upstanding person. If it’s just a lack of time, he’d say something. He wouldn’t just ignore me like this.
Perhaps, I considered, the worst had really happened. He’d lost all affection for me.
The thought made my heart heavy.
On the day Duke Brassiere had thrown a party at his residence, I knew that Lord Simeon would be there, but I went on my own without saying anything. Still, I did my best not to get in his way. I knew he’d have to stay with Prince Severin, so I kept my distance. I reasoned that since I was engaged to a knight who was entrusted with the duty of personally guarding the crown prince, it wouldn’t be the last time we ran into this situation. I didn’t think much of it; I simply went to the party and focused on my information gathering, as I always had before.
But apparently I didn’t have free rein to do that anymore. When Lord Simeon saw me and came over, his smile only barely concealed the displeasure underneath. The air was thick with it.
I suppose it came across as fairly immodest of me to go to a social event on my own when I was already engaged. Then Lord Simeon had scared me a little with how forceful and angry he seemed, so I’d run off as soon as I could after saying hello to His Highness.
And that was the last time we’d seen each other. Since then, I hadn’t spoken to him, and he hadn’t spoken to me. He must really be angry. Everyone must have been shocked at what a debauched woman I am, abandoning my fiancé to have fun on my own. He can’t have liked that.
It made too much sense to deny. I’d been a bit too rash and careless, and this was the outcome. A tolerant man might not raise any complaints if his freewheeling wife went out to socialize on her own, but anyone with a more old-fashioned perspective, or anyone a bit cantankerous in general, wouldn’t be so forgiving. It wasn’t uncommon for there to be married
couples where the wife was hardly seen in public except by her husband’s side.
Lord Simeon must be that kind of man, I thought. Since we’re engaged, he’s treating me like his wife, so he wants to exercise control over my movements. No wonder it got his back up that I went out without permission.
I should at least have asked him, I decided. It was a poor choice not to give him any warning at all. I sighed and sighed again, regretting my mistake. He was my once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I’ve probably scared him off. He hadn’t officially broken off the engagement, but we were closing in on a month without him writing me even a single letter. Perhaps, I thought with yet another sigh, I was meant to understand that it was already over.
Natalie returned with the vase, full of fresh water but missing all the faded blooms. What was left was a beautiful display of flowers in their prime. Every petal was velvety soft and a passionate shade of red. They could have been the perfect bouquet to send a message of true love, but for me, they held a totally different meaning.
Sending a single flower every day, with no message… I wrote about that in one of my books.
This is so similar, it’s uncanny.
Lord Simeon told me he’d read Agnès Vivier’s books, so he must have been copying the idea from there. By reenacting something from my books, he was sending me a message, silently but clearly: “I know your secret. I know everything.” There was no other explanation.
But whereas the heroine of that story suffered the excitement and agitation of not knowing who was sending the flowers, Lord Simeon put his name to every single gift. Even without showing his face, he was chasing me relentlessly, sending a clear message that I couldn’t run or hide from him.
Every day when I looked at the roses, they weighed upon my emotions more and more. “My fangirl fire has gone cold,” I lamented. I rested my chin in my hands and let my shoulders sag. I don’t understand. I thought it would be so thrilling if Lord Simeon turned his cruel questioning
skills on me, but I’ve found I can’t enjoy it at all. It’s just making me feel worse and worse.
There could be no doubt. Lord Simeon had concluded, with certainty, that I was Agnès Vivier. That had to be the reason he was so angry with me.
But he can’t have any proof, I thought. Surely. If he asked my publisher, they’d just have told him they couldn’t divulge any private information about the author. And even if he tried to use his position of authority to force them, they’d have asked for a reason. What would he have said,
that he suspected his fiancée of being Agnès Vivier? He’d be disgracing himself. Nobody who had his dislike for popular fiction would ever put themselves in that position.
If he doesn’t play this carefully he could expose himself to ridicule, so he’s trying to make me confess on my own. That must be it. He’s just waiting… Biding his time until I can no longer bear the unrelenting deliveries of roses, day after day after day. He’s slowly pushing me closer to the
cliff’s edge, all while looking—to any outside observer—as if he’s the ideal fiancé, showing me his affection every day.
The vicious Vice Captain strikes again, I thought. I couldn’t help but be impressed, but the situation was too dire for me to fangirl over him.
I decided it might be time to just give up. We were never a good match in the first place, with his family’s status being so much higher than my own. Some kind of miracle or cosmic error had led us as far as an engagement, but it had been arrogant to think we’d ever be able to get married.
If Lord Simeon had given up on me, why waste my time trying to fight against it? I knew if I kept feigning ignorance, he’d eventually break off the engagement anyway, under some other pretext. That unfortunate party would have been more than enough reason on its own.
I’m sure the only reason he doesn’t come right out and say it is that he’s trying to do me one last act of kindness. If he breaks it off from his side, it will be widely assumed that there was something wrong with me, and word will spread through society. I’ll be ruined. He must want me to come up with a suitable excuse to bow out.
It was considerate of him to approach it this way. It’s really, really, really sad, I thought, but it’s over. Anyway, even if I can’t be next to him, I can still catch glimpses of him from afar, can’t I? That’ll have to be enough for me.
I thought of all the great material he’d given me in such a short span of time. Especially the time I visited the Royal Order’s headquarters and saw him holding that riding crop! It was just as I’d hoped and dreamed! It was so fantastic, that mild-mannered look with that sense of danger buried inside… Vicious, brutal, and beautiful! The phrase “a feast for the eyes” was
invented for men like that, and I got to eat him right up!
I closed my eyes and recalled the blissful spectacle. I was absorbed, spellbound. Yes, I thought, I could write an entire book based on that one memory.
And that would be enough, I decided. He’d brought a marvelous dream to life for me, and I didn’t need anything more.
I knew my father and brother would agree to it as well. They’d always found this match to be somewhat unrealistic.
I suppressed the pain that nagged at my heart and took out my writing paper. Since that fateful party I’d been so afraid of Lord Simeon that I didn’t dare try contacting him myself. But now I’d strengthened my resolve. The worst was coming, and I was quite ready for it.
I put pen to paper and composed a letter to Lord Simeon.
“I must apologize for my carelessness, which I know has left you deeply disappointed,” I began. “I must convey my proper understanding of my place in society relative to yours by withdrawing from our engagement.” I paused. I absolutely, positively could not say anything about my novel writing. I couldn’t give him anything he could use as proof. Still, if I at least
communicated that I’d resigned myself to the situation, I was certain Lord Simeon would be satisfied.
I chose every word with great care, rereading and amending it several times. At last I wrote up a neat copy, sealed it, and entrusted it to a servant. I asked him to deliver it personally to the Flaubert residence, and after seeing him off, I felt a wave of fatigue wash over me.
Well, I thought with a heavy exhalation. It’s over.
I wondered if I’d become the talk of society again. I was sure that there’d be gossip flying this way and that for a while. I’d be laughed at wherever I went, and the snide remarks from Lady Aurelia’s coterie would reach a new peak of triumphant haughtiness. Ordinarily I’d be ready for anything—excited, even, for all the juicy material it would give me. But for once, I
couldn’t muster any enthusiasm at all.
When I thought about the distance between Lord Simeon’s status and my own, our engagement felt like a dream, or an illusion. This was just waking up, returning to reality. So why did I feel such crushing disappointment?
This won’t do at all. I can’t be downhearted forever. I need to do something to take my mind off of this.
I quickly got dressed and left the house. I didn’t bring Natalie along, nor did I ask for the carriage to be prepared. I just left on foot. I won’t have to walk far to reach the roads frequented by carriages, and then I’m sure I can catch a passing fiacre to take me further.
As a young lady of good breeding—or, indeed, as an unmarried woman—it was quite taboo for me to go on an outing like this. That alone could lead to accusations of degeneracy. My family didn’t mind, though, nor would any of the servants have tried to stop me. As long as I wore clothes that made me look like one of the common folk, no one would even notice. Anyone
who looked would probably just see a servant of some house or other, out on some errand—and once I reached the city, I’d be entirely surrounded by such people, to the extent that I could blend in perfectly and even my own family wouldn’t have been able to pick me out of the crowd.
I looked at my attire. No one could think of me as anything above middle class. Confident in
my unassuming cream-colored dress, matching bonnet, and short lace-up boots, I strode briskly
along the cobbled street. I took wide, assertive steps, nothing like my reserved gait at social
functions. Maybe I’ll buy a chocolate crêpe and some roasted chestnuts at Chardin Square, then
walk along the banks of the River Latour. I could even wander toward the marketplace, or take a
gander at all the traders and newsstands on the shopping boulevard. I wanted to soak up all the
city atmosphere that I’d never have been able to see if I kept myself confined to high society. I
decided it might also be worth visiting my publisher to start discussing the next book.
See? I thought to myself. I can forget all this business about Lord Simeon and our
engagement, and go back to focusing on my writing. It’s just going back to normal.
Shrugging off my defeat and trying to embrace a happier mindset had something of an effect,
and I felt a little brighter already. I hailed the fiacre that was just driving past and set off into a
city soaked in autumn colors.
I had a grand time shopping and sightseeing, and at last I began to think about going home,
when suddenly a young woman approached me with a most unexpected question. “Excuse me,
but are you the young lady from House Clarac?”
I was taken aback. With some hesitation, I replied, “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure…”
She was relatively well dressed, in her twenties, and with an air that suggested she was the
servant of a high-ranking house.
“Apologies, I didn’t mean to startle you. I have a message from House Flaubert… or rather,
from Lord Simeon.”
My heart thudded in my chest. He sent a messenger? Why? Did he read my letter already?
He must have wanted to discuss the dissolution of our engagement right away. But even so,
why flag me down in public like this, I wondered? And how did Lord Simeon, or his messenger,
even know I was there to begin with?
She readily answered my unspoken questions. “My master is waiting nearby. He saw you
quite by coincidence and bid me ask if you’d join him. Will you accompany me to his carriage?”
This seemed quite remarkable. How can he have just happened upon me in all the commotion
of the city? The real city, no less—not a street the nobility tend to frequent. It had to be more
than just a coincidence. It was practically destiny! I began to think that Lord Simeon and I might
be star-crossed lovers after all. Spotting me in a vast crowd like that… It was surely the power of
All right, I didn’t really think that. If this had been a story, this would have been the part
where things heated up, where the reader’s heart started racing with all the romantic tension.
Obviously real life would never work out that way. Too convenient!
“Which carriage is Lord Simeon’s?” I asked, looking around for one that looked suitably
grand. She pointed to one that stood on the corner of a quiet street nearby, just barely visible
from where we stood, its end peeking out onto the main road.
I followed the young woman toward it. As we turned the corner, I saw that the carriage bore
no family crest and looked like it had been built to be inconspicuous. A single coachman waited
by the horses, with no sign of any other attendants.
“Please,” urged the young woman, opening the door and gesturing to it. I moved a little closer
and peered in. As I suspected, it wasn’t Lord Simeon inside.
I wasn’t born yesterday, you know. If Lord Simeon had sent a messenger, it wouldn’t have
been a lady’s maid, it would have been a male servant or a knight-in-training, right?
With a sharp shove, I was forced into the carriage. My legs were left dangling outside, but the
coachman hefted them up and threw me inside. Before I could get up again, the woman got in
after me and closed the door, sitting right beside it so I couldn’t try to leave. The carriage sped
off without a moment’s pause.
“Good day, Lady Marielle,” said the owner of the carriage, her voice brimming with scorn
and enmity. “What a pleasant surprise to see you here!”
I smoothed out my dress, which had become rather disarrayed, and sat down on the seat
opposite her. The servant took her place next to her mistress, whose lustrous blonde hair struck
an elegant contrast with her rose-colored dress.
“Good day to you, too, Lady Aurelia. I’m also rather surprised, I must confess. Are you a
frequent visitor to this part of the city?”
She pursed her lips. “Yes, I come here rather often to go to the theater. It’s also quite
diverting to look through the window and take in the bourgeois ambiance. To think that I’d see a
familiar face amongst the crowds! And in such unusual clothes. You almost look like a
commoner! Which suits you down to the ground, quite frankly.
“Your family must be rather unconventional, letting you walk around on your own without
even a maid to accompany you. Or perhaps that’s the norm for families of such low status? It
would be unthinkable for anyone in my circles.”
Then she laughed, a high-pitched “Ohohohoho!” that left me spellbound. She was the pictureperfect
villainous young lady.
It was incredible that she’d seen me by chance while looking out of the window. Spotting me
amongst the vast throngs of people… That had to be love! It was truly moving to realize how
much Lady Aurelia loved me!
Well, not quite. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin, aren’t they? Sometimes things
you really hate are that easy to pick out of a crowd as well. Like my mother and her sixth sense
Still, it was an impressive achievement on her part. I wasn’t even dressed the way she’d
normally seen me. Maybe hate binds people together even more strongly than love… Wait, that
sounds like something I can use! I longed to write that phrase in my notebook, but it seemed like
a bad time to try and pull it out.
“Well, are you just going to sit there with a vacant expression, or are you going to say
Oops. I was so captivated, I’d forgotten to reply. She looked unimpressed, her spirits slightly
“I must apologize,” I said. “I was distracted by your sheer perfection.”
“What?” she replied, confusion evident in her voice. “If you’re trying to win my favor with
empty flattery, I won’t fall for it.”
Empty flattery? Come on, I meant every word! It depressed me that she didn’t get it, to be
“Goodness, no, that wasn’t my intent. It was merely an expression of my admiration for you
as a fangirl.”
Now she was really confused. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“What I would like to ask is: why did you lure me into your carriage with a fabricated
message from Lord Simeon, and where exactly are we going?” I stole a glance at the scene
rushing past the window, but we turned this way and that, along streets that weren’t familiar to
me. We were racing along, but I had no idea where. Toward Marquess Cavaignac’s residence,
perhaps? But it seemed unlikely that she’d take me to the noble district.
Anyway, I’d asked what Lady Aurelia probably expected me to ask. She finally gave me a
self-satisfied snort of a laugh. “I thought I’d take you somewhere very entertaining! I think you’ll
be quite taken with it. I can’t wait to see your reaction.”
“Yes, I’m also rather excited to see how things develop. However, there is one thing I feel I
should tell you in advance.”
“Yes?” she said, after a pause. She’d furrowed her brow again. I suppose if someone’s that
beautiful, they’re still beautiful regardless of what face they make.
“I assume your aversion toward me is based on my engagement to Lord Simeon. If that’s the
case, you might want to be aware that I’ve decided to break off the engagement. I sent him a
letter about it this very day. I’m certain he feels the same, so I imagine it will be finalized quite
“What!?” she cried, her face momentarily blank in puzzlement. My word, I thought, when she
has a blank expression like that, and the harshness all disappears, she’s pretty adorable! There
we are, another one of Lady Aurelia’s hidden charms!
“So I don’t see that there’s any further reason for you to bear me such ill will, Lady Aurelia.”
The indignation returned. “Do you expect me to believe such poppycock? I’d understand if
Lord Simeon broke off the engagement, but why would you do it? It’s absurd!”
“Indeed,” I replied, “and in fact, I had no such intention. Unfortunately, one or two problems developed between us. He kindly arranged the situation so that I could save face in society by ending it myself, rather than Lord Simeon announcing it on his part. I’m sure it will be revealed
publicly in a matter of days.”
Lady Aurelia stared at me, eyes narrowed. Of course it was hard to believe at first. I wasn’t lying, however, or even bending the truth. I returned her gaze without losing my nerve for a second. A heavy silence filled the inside of the carriage.
At last she frowned, doubt still visible on her face, and spoke again. “If what you say is true, then it’s very good news indeed. If Lord Simeon were to waste his life with a dull creature like you, I’d find it quite intolerable. I remain skeptical, however. You might just be using it as a means of escape.”
“Oh, is this a situation I need to escape from?”
Good heavens! I thought. The thrill is too much for me. I never thought she’d go past idle threats and bullying to applying more forceful measures. It truly was like something out of a book. The only difference was, in a story, the heroine would have a hero to conveniently come along and rescue her, whereas I had to somehow figure this out on my own. I had to try and approach the scene with a level head, rather than just fangirling over it.
“Oh, silly me,” Lady Aurelia replied. “Yes, I said it would be entertaining, didn’t I?” A high giggle. “You may look nonchalant for now, but who knows how long you’ll be able to maintain your facade!”
Her face! I thought, my heart skipping a beat. Oh, the way it contorts with joy, like an animal toying with its prey! She’s just so stunning… A flower of evil, incarnate! Only someone with Lady Aurelia’s level of beauty and intensity could pull it off. If I tried to do the same thing, it would never work.
In my mind I was stirred up and breathless, but I kept it hidden and stayed silent. Finally, the carriage stopped in front of a building of some kind.
“Where are we?” I asked.
Considering how dark it was getting by this point, the street was surprisingly crowded. The atmosphere was quite unlike that of the legitimate shopping districts, however. This must be what they call a pleasure quarter, I concluded.
The street was lined with establishments that all had a distinct air of indecency. The mass of people walking by was made up overwhelmingly of men. The women that were sporadically dotted here and there looked like they knew their way around, you might say.
“We’ve arrived at a very particular venue,” said Lady Aurelia. “People come here to eat, take in some music, have a good time. Go on. This is our stop.”
The lady’s maid opened the door. The coachman was already in position outside, and he forcibly pulled me out into the street. Lady Aurelia descended after me.
“Are we visiting a brothel?” I asked, barely able to contain my excitement. “It’s like a dream come true!”
“A dream come true!?”
Oops. I got a bit too eager and said what I was really thinking.
“Oh, no,” I blurted out, “I mean, gentlemen come here to make their dreams come true.”
Smoothly does it.
I did my best to restrain my unbridled enthusiasm, but it was tough. There I stood, before a place I’d never been able to even approach, let alone go inside. A forbidden world.
“Don’t you worry,” she said with a giggle. “This is by far the most high-class locale of its kind in all of Petibon. The clientele is made up exclusively of noblemen.”
Petibon… Yes, I remember. That’s the name of the biggest pleasure quarter in the whole city of Sans-Terre. And we’re going to Tarentule, the best brothel in Petibon!? The one even the royal family is said to visit in secret—THAT Tarentule!? I wonder if Prince Severin will be there!?
“And I’m to work here!?” I cried, unable to constrain the thrill of adventure provoked in me by this place I’d only heard rumors of.
“I beg your pardon?” She arched her eyes skyward, and sneered derisively, “Well, if you really want to, I can ask them… But I doubt you’d draw many clients.”
True, I suppose. Put me next to all those incomparable beauties and I wouldn’t stand a chance.
No, look, I’m not saying I was disappointed, all right? Being forced into prostitution isn’t exactly a fairytale. I didn’t want it to happen to me in real life. Even if it did thrill me a bit, I understood the situation I was in. It was a relief that Lady Aurelia didn’t have quite such sinister plans.
Nope, I wasn’t disappointed at all. Not one bit. Nope.
Well, if nothing else, there was no point in collecting even the most perfect reference material if I couldn’t get home to write about it. Being forced to stay here and sell my body would be quite inconvenient.
But this made me wonder why she’d actually brought me here.
While we were talking, another carriage had stopped nearby. The young man who stepped out had a face I recognized.
“Good evening, Jacob,” Lady Aurelia called to him in a sweet, high-pitched tone. “Thank you for joining me at such short notice.”
As I thought, it was Lord Jacob, the son of Baron Morey. I’d heard he was one of Lady Aurelia’s most ardent followers. He always seemed very impressed with his own dedicated service to the one he loved, while others made fun of him behind his back for essentially being her errand boy, summoned and dismissed as she pleased.
This type of thing did come up once in a while as I casually gathered all the gossip I could.
Lady Aurelia and her hangers-on were rather frequent subjects of scorn and slander. Considering how much they liked denigrating others, I wonder if they knew how much the rest of high society liked badmouthing them in return.
“Lady Aurelia,” he began, “my golden rose! At your summons, I’d run to the very ends of the earth. Though I am but a foolish servant of love, I beg you, pray tell me your command this fair autumnal eventide. Anything you desire, if it is within my power, I shall answer the call.”
With passion lighting up his eyes, Lord Jacob delivered a speech that sounded like he’d cribbed it from a play. He clearly thinks VERY highly of himself.
“Thanks. What I’d like you to do is take this girl here into this establishment with you. I’d like you to give her a tour of the type of place that a respectable young woman wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to visit.”
Lord Jacob shifted his gaze from her to me, and all the passion vanished. In an instant, he wore an ice-cold expression, like I was less than a person, perhaps no more than a pebble on the ground.
“Who is this shabby-looking girl? She doesn’t look like she belongs anywhere near you. She can’t even be your maid, for you’d surely choose a more elegant maid.”
“Ohohoho!” she laughed. “Indeed, she is not. This is Lady Marielle of House Clarac. She went out dressed this way on purpose. She wanted to see how the other half lived, she told me.”
This story of Lady Aurelia’s was an attempt to further embarrass me, but it was actually remarkably close to the truth.
“House Clarac? Ah, yes.” Lord Jacob’s eyes grew colder still. To him, I must have amounted to mere refuse, polluting the space in front of Lady Aurelia.
“Since she put in all that effort, I thought I’d give her a helping hand. She deserves to see every aspect of society. I can’t go in there myself, of course, so I’d like you to accompany her.
All you need to do is have dinner and sit at a table for a while. In the public area, of course.
Don’t get a private room.”
In other words, Lady Aurelia’s plan was to send me into a brothel, make sure that I was seen by the clientele (including, no doubt, many noblemen), and thereby make me a source of malicious gossip.
For a young woman of noble birth to be seen entering a brothel would be quite a scandal.
Were it to be not only a rumor, but corroborated fact, I wouldn’t be able to show my face in high society ever again. Lord Simeon would break off our engagement instantly, I thought. Perhaps Lady Aurelia thought that even if I was lying about it already being over, this would be a fallback to ensure that it came true.
I quickly rejected that idea. She’d clearly asked Lord Jacob to join her here before she kidnapped me. Still, for her to notice me in the city totally by chance, then come up with a plan on the spot and execute it straight away… It’s wonderful indeed! She’s practically the model citizen of villains!
I tried to snap out of it. This wasn’t the time to be fangirling! And in fact, this plan was a bit of a letdown. To be perfectly honest, I was expecting more. Sitting me down in the brothel and letting other people see me? If that’s really the nastiest thing she can come up with, I guess she was raised a bit too well. Although, I mused, I’m also meant to be a young lady of good
upbringing. Why is it I can come up with much worse? It must be because I’ve read too many books.
It was comforting to know that I wouldn’t be subjected to the worst things I’d feared. Still,
Lady Aurelia’s plan had plenty of potential for ruining my life.
I wanted to see inside the brothel so badly…but I had to prioritize my safety over my curiosity.
I took a stealthy look around to see if I could escape somehow. That was when I spotted a rowdy bunch of men lumbering our way. Commoners—and already rather squiffy, by the sound of things. Their cheers and laughter rang through the night.
They soon noticed us too, and gave us their full attention. No big surprise there: fancy brothel or otherwise, a well-dressed man and woman having a chat outside the front door is going to catch the eye.
“Oi, are you some kind of princess, or what? You ain’t just a stunner, you look like the real deal!”
“That’s what you get with a joint like Tarentule. Even the girls they put outside to draw in the lads are proper good-lookers!”
“Forget this little baby boy, let me show you what a real man’s like. I’ll be the best client you’ve ever had!”
All of this was directed at Lady Aurelia, of course. Her lady’s maid was on the receiving end of a few comments as well, but my presence didn’t register in the men’s consciousness at all.
“Get away from me!” Lady Aurelia shrieked, recoiling from the men’s unwanted hands.
“Don’t touch me, you foul brutes!”
Lord Jacob leapt in front of her. “Be gone from our sight, baseborn scum! This fair maiden shall never be the plaything of such vile riffraff!”
He put on quite an impressive display. He stood firm, resolute, like the gallant love interest in a romance novel. His face shook with all his determination to keep Lady Aurelia safe.
“Buzz off,” said one of the men. Without even looking at Lord Jacob, he casually waved an arm and sent him tumbling to the ground with a thud. Lord Jacob groaned, his face buried in the cobblestones.
Well, he won’t be getting up anytime soon. That’s reality, I suppose. Love and courage aren’t enough to fix all your problems. Harsh, but true.
The coachman tried to save the young ladies as well, but he also suffered a blow and fell to the ground. Lady Aurelia and her maid both let out high-pitched screams. The men put their arms around them, and it looked very much like they would be dragged away against their will.
“No! Stop! Why is this happening to me!?”
Do you even need to ask? I thought. If you come to a place like this at night, of course something like this is going to happen.
Noble or otherwise, it’s not a good idea for a young woman to casually stroll into the pleasure districts. That’s just common sense.
I should probably have been counted amongst those young women, but the group of men still hadn’t even noticed me. I’d kept very close to the carriage, so perhaps I’d blended in with it and wasn’t really visible.
I started to think about sneaking away and calling for help, when suddenly—
“Hey! You there! What do you think you’re doing!”
—Help found us first. This rallying cry was accompanied by another band of men, swooping down on the ones who meant to abduct Lady Aurelia. Interesting. They’re dressed in normal clothes, but underneath, they’re definitely soldiers. They moved with well-trained finesse, not the lumbering strikes of amateurs. The drunkards were driven off in seconds. Crisis averted, Lady Aurelia began to cry.
“Are you unharmed?” one of the men asked. “You are the young lady of House Cavaignac, are you not? I must ask why you’d come to a place like this.”
“I-I don’t know!” she spluttered, drawing back in dismay. “I was just passing through!”
Clearly, being caught here hadn’t been part of her scheme. As it dawned on her that the plan she’d set in motion for me was now occurring with her as the victim, she hurriedly turned away, shielding her face.
She and her maid vaulted into the carriage. The coachman, who’d somehow got to his feet, also rushed back into position and set the horses in motion with a crack of his riding crop. The carriage sped off, leading a dumbfounded group of soldiers in their wake.
“Lady Aurelia!” bellowed Lord Jacob, who had also recovered somewhat. “My rose! Wait for me!” He spoke in a predictably dramatic manner, but having been beaten up and then abandoned, his presentation left something to be desired. Realizing that all eyes were on him, he made haste
toward his own carriage.
But his coachman had disappeared. A moment of searching revealed that he’d secluded himself in the shadows some time earlier, petrified of all the commotion.
“What in blazes are you doing? Get up at once!”
Seeing his master under attack and choosing to run and hide instead of helping did not seem like a wise career move.
Then the second carriage sped off as well, leaving me on my own.
It’s so mean that you’d just forget about me, Lady Aurelia. You can’t shirk your responsibilities as a villain! You’ve got to follow it through to the end!
There was nothing for it but to walk to wherever I could catch another fiacre, so I set off. At that moment, the men who’d come to help noticed that I was there. One put a hand out to stop me. “This way, please, my lady.” He accompanied his very polite request with a gesture toward a
carriage that stood nearby. I wondered when it had arrived. I certainly hadn’t seen it.
“Forgive me for asking, but…”
“You needn’t worry, my lady. Our master will keep you safe.”
With that, the soldier pretending to be an ordinary citizen led me to the carriage. I wondered who would turn up this time. I drifted along, lost in thought.
When the door opened, my eyes turned into saucers.
“Get in,” the man inside ordered sternly. “You shouldn’t be seen here.”
The soldier behind me hurried me inside as well, and I bundled myself into the carriage. I hesitated for a moment, overcome with nerves, but I was soon told to sit, so I gingerly took my place opposite my new host.
He let out an exasperated sigh. “Yours is a face I didn’t expect to see around here. I hope you intend to tell me what you’re doing in this neighborhood.”
Black hair, with dark eyes that glared at me. His appeal was entirely different from Lord Simeon’s, but this young man’s masculine beauty was a proud sight to behold.
The shock of the situation got the better of me, and I replied without thinking. “I might ask you the same thing, Your Highness. I never thought I’d happen upon you in the city at all, let alone in a dark corner such as this.” My voice grew more animated. “Are you here to visit Tarentule? Is it true, then? Even the royal family visits Tarentule, as the rumors say? Is there a particular lady of the evening that you favor? Will you tell me about her?”
“That’s the first thing you say!?” he shot back. “Why would you ask that, and why are your eyes sparkling!?”
I suddenly noticed that Prince Severin, too, was not dressed as he usually was. He wouldn’t have passed for a commoner, of course, but his attire was plain enough to suggest a mid-ranking noble, perhaps. It was clear at a glance that he was also trying to sneak about unrecognized.
Are you really in a position to judge me, Your Highness? However you dress up or dress down, your good looks and your distinguished nature will give the game away eventually. At best, I felt, his efforts would only be effective at a distance.
I rushed to apologize. “My deepest apologies, Your Highness. I let my curiosity get the better of me.”
“Even so, your questions were excessively forward! But never mind.” He cleared his throat and returned to his usual demeanor. “Time is running short, so I’ll ask you to explain all this later. In the meantime, follow me and stay quiet. Don’t do or say anything on the way.”
“Understood,” I said, confirming it with a deferential nod. The crown prince had spoken, and I couldn’t disobey.
The carriage moved only a short distance before it stopped again. At His Highness’s urging, I got out.
We were right in front of the entrance to Tarentule.
I could hardly breathe. The forbidden flower garden was right before my very eyes.
Enchanting music could be heard coming from inside. It even smelled good. The entrance was built in the style of a noble manor, and there were no bustling crowds nearby to disturb the elegant atmosphere. A well-dressed man in the style of a butler even came to greet us.
His Highness, who had already marched on ahead, shouted back at me, “It’s just the front door, there’s no need to be quite so moved. Hurry up.”
What? I thought. I’m allowed to…go inside!? Here I go, then! My first step into an unseen world!
I stepped onto the red carpet laid out across the corridor’s marble floor. It absorbed the sound of every footstep. I kept pace with the prince, following behind him, my heart pounding in my chest. But where are all the beautiful women!?
We proceeded without encountering a single other soul. The corridor was lined with doors on either side, and our guide opened one on the right. From the left I could hear the faint sounds of music and laughter, but from the right, nothing. We walked along an empty passageway and climbed several staircases, arriving at the third floor.
“This way, please,” said the guide once we reached a secluded chamber. “Your guest has already arrived.”
Is this some sort of secret rendezvous!? I’d heard there were establishments in the city that offered this kind of service, but I’d never have expected Tarentule, of all places, to be one of them. After all, it was so full of alluring courtesans that the gentleman’s eyes would surely be drawn this way and that, away from the lady he’d invited here!
I was a ship, thrown this way and that by the waves of surprise and emotion that crashed into me, over and over and over. I followed His Highness into the room, and it was as magnificent as I’d imagined. A glistening chandelier hung from the ceiling. Below was a couch with a gentleman sitting on it.
The man stood and greeted His Highness with a bow. The latter replied, “Sorry I’m so late. I picked something up along the way, you see.”
“You’ve no need for any manner of apology, I assure you. You’re slightly earlier than the time we agreed upon. This ‘something’ you picked up—it’s that charming young lady you have with you?” He chuckled. “I can’t imagine who’d have dropped her.”
He turned to face me, his demeanor calm and refined. I saw in his elegant features that he recognized me. “Good evening, Miss Marielle. Quite an unexpected place for a reunion, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“It’s good to see you again, Ambassador Van Leer. So you’re His Highness’s ‘guest’ here tonight.”
The person waiting for His Highness inside the room was Vissel’s new ambassador. I was so sure it would be a beautiful young lady, but imagine that! An illicit rendezvous with a refined older gentleman! Certainly not the twist I’d been expecting, but not outside the realm of reason.
A dashingly handsome younger man with an equally handsome older man, why, that’s just another classic pairing!
It also neatly sidesteps any concern about wandering eyes. I guess any woman, no matter how beautiful, is outside their range of interests.
“Why do I have this distinct feeling that you’re misinterpreting the situation?” asked His Highness after a pause, glaring at me with a faint look of discomfort. Oh my, was it all over my face?
“I occasionally hold meetings here, when they’re of a highly confidential nature. Keeps away the prying eyes, you see. That’s all. We each enter separately, appearing to all the world as normal clients, then we meet here, where we know the staff can be trusted to keep their customers’ secrets.
“This goes without saying,” he continued with a decidedly casual air, “but keep your lips sealed when it comes to anything you see or hear tonight. Even your family mustn’t learn about any of it. If you go blurting it all out, it won’t just be you who is silenced—permanently—but everyone in House Clarac. Is that understood?”
“Of course, Your Highness. I won’t say a word to anyone, I swear it. And tonight I’ll just be a silent guardian, watching over the two of you as you spend this time together.”
“For our MEETING!” he said through gritted teeth. “That part is clear as well, yes? Our meeting? To discuss politics?”
I wasn’t sure why he’d become so anxious all of a sudden, when I’d promised him my silence in a properly forthright manner. Did he feel so unable to trust me? I do have some discretion, you know. I understood that I couldn’t use any of this as material for my novels, for example.
“First of all, however, we’ll talk about you. What on earth were you doing in this part of the city, in that sort of garb? And the pair that were with you… Aurelia Cavaignac and Jacob Morey, wasn’t it? What were you doing with them?”
As he spoke, His Highness placed me in a chair in the same manner that one would handle a kitten, then took a seat himself. Though it felt odd to be talking of such things in the presence of a foreign ambassador, I started to explain the particulars of what had happened to me that day.
It was common knowledge in society that Lady Aurelia had a tendency to bully anyone she disliked, so His Highness was not especially surprised. He was shocked that she’d employ quite such a malicious scheme, but he was equally shocked that I’d gone out on my own, so you might say it was six of one, half a dozen of the other. Ambassador Van Leer didn’t open his mouth at all, but I did see a smile creep up at the edges of it as he listened.
“Bloody hell,” said the prince at last. “I’d understood you to be so reserved that you were too reserved, a plain girl with no distinguishing features. Today you seem to be chock-full of surprises. All this after you turned Simeon’s face a ghastly pale color with your letter!”
“You know about the letter?” I asked.
“I gather that he told a servant to let me know as soon as any communication arrived from you. Report came to the palace directly from House Flaubert. This is why Simeon couldn’t accompany me this evening, you realize. Given how hard he was trembling, he’d no doubt bang
his hand and foot on the corner of the table at the same time, which would only make him more agitated. Then his glasses would fall off… Fat lot of good he’d do me in that state.
“I sent him off right away, insisting he go and see you. I can’t suppose he found you, since you’re here.”
“Indeed, he did not. I left the house as soon as I’d sent the letter.”
His Highness let out a deep sigh, heavy with exhaustion. He rested an elbow on his chair and pressed his fingers to his temple. There was something strangely coquettish about that pose. It set off my fangirl sense just a tiny bit.
“Why did you tell him you wanted to break off the engagement?”
I tilted my head. Oh. “You know about that as well?”
“Simeon wasn’t merely out of sorts, he was out of his right mind. Of course I asked him what you’d written. What reason do you have to be dissatisfied with him? Well, perhaps it’s not so astonishing. He’s a flawed man, I’ll grant. He’s known as a skilled tactician, but in all honesty, he’s so intensely serious, he can’t adapt to anything outside his purview. He gets confused by the
simplest things sometimes. He’s really not as fine a catch as he looks.”
I nodded along as I listened. Yes, Lord Simeon is a very serious fellow. I’d thought so since the engagement, but I confirmed it by talking to the Captain and his subordinates. Within the Royal Order of Knights, Lord Simeon is known as an excessively serious person.
He was most certainly the cerebral type. Everything he did, he did with great ingenuity and resourcefulness. However, even though he strove to work in a very serious manner, he was always fair to other people, and had consideration for them even when he was being harsh. His men had great affection for him. Even as they complained about him, calling him the Demon Vice Captain, they always wore a smile.
The image I’d had of Lord Simeon before wasn’t entirely accurate. It had something of a discrepancy with who he really was. When I found out he wasn’t the brutal, black-hearted military officer I had imagined, I thought I’d be disappointed, but strangely enough, I wasn’t. If anything, it gave him a new kind of appeal. He was like the opposite of a dark horse.
Appearances can be deceiving…but it feels good to be fangirling over the real thing!
Only a kind person like that would arrange things so that I could break off the engagement
first, rather than just doing it without warning from his side. It was very thoughtful of him.
Although I suppose it was still a bit mean-spirited to bear down on me so relentlessly without saying a single word.
“But he’s damned trustworthy as well,” His Highness continued. “No worries about him straying from the beaten path, as it were. He’s not crafty like that. Once he’s married, he’ll save himself for his wife. No funny business with other women. And even if he can be set in his ways,
he’s far from a tyrant. He wouldn’t be a rotten husband who keeps his wife under his thumb. As long as you don’t go completely overboard, he’d allow you a certain degree of freedom.”
One after another, His Highness gave arguments in Lord Simeon’s defense. It seemed odd, however. Why was he going to such efforts to excuse Lord Simeon’s flaws? How was this relevant?
“Every word you speak is quite true, Your Highness. I have no complaints about Lord Simeon’s character whatsoever.”
“Then what in blazes is the problem!? Trouble with your future mother-in-law, is that it? I know for a fact that Earl and Countess Flaubert have raised no objections to the match. All details aside, they’ve been concerned for a while that their son might never get married. They were thrilled to learn of your engagement.”
How odd, I thought. His Highness seems so sure that I must be the one with the problem.
Lord Simeon can’t have told him that he’s the one who has a problem with me.
I mulled over how I could express this to the prince. I glanced at Ambassador Van Leer. I’d rather not say anything too embarrassing in front of an unrelated party.
I said plainly that Lord Simeon had reacted with some anger to my appearance at the duke’s gathering. I said nothing about my writing—instead, I related that he couldn’t possibly tolerate a fiancée who was brazen enough to go to a party on her own despite being engaged. Since then, I explained, he hadn’t come to see me even once, which was his way of condemning me in an indirect way, rather than telling me directly. Naturally, he was silently urging me to withdraw from the engagement myself for the benefit of my social standing, and understanding this, I’d
sent the letter—
With every word I spoke, His Highness’s mouth fell further and further open. I understood how he felt, but he didn’t need to deride me like that. I’d made a small mistake in attending the party, but I was still a rejected fiancée in a state of heartbreak. I had feelings.
The ambassador, meanwhile, shrugged his shoulders, stifling a laugh. Clearly, something was very amusing. He turned to face away from me, gripped the arm of his chair and shook softly.
How mean! I thought. But what’s so funny about me breaking off my engagement, anyway? Or is he just the type to laugh at anything?
“I have no words,” said His Highness at last, half sighing as he spoke. His face looked somehow drained of all energy. “He hasn’t been to see you since that night? Not even once?”
“No,” I replied.
“He hasn’t even sent a letter?”
“Neither a letter, nor any other message. He did send me something else, every single day, but I took it as a sign that he was urging me to break off the engagement.”
“Well, what was it?” His Highness asked, seemingly quite perplexed.
I didn’t know what to tell him. Explaining why roses had taken on that meaning would mean telling him all of my secrets. Lord Simeon might tell him anyway, I thought, but I still couldn’t confess to it myself.
A silence fell across the room. At that moment, a knock came at the door.
One of His Majesty’s guards entered. I didn’t recognize him, but I was fairly sure he was a knight of the royal guard.
“Your Highness, the Vice Captain is here.”
“Send him in.”
“Right away, Your Highness.”
The knight walked away briskly. When the door opened again, Lord Simeon entered.
He said nothing, but the beautiful eyes behind his glasses fixed themselves directly on me.
His usually faultless hair and uniform were slightly disheveled, perhaps because he’d hurried to get here. No doubt he’d be very angry to learn how I’d embarrassed myself in front of his master and a foreign ambassador by behaving so indecently while our engagement was not yet formally
dissolved. He said nothing at first. He only stood there and stared at me.
Then he cleared his throat and placed himself between me and the others. “I want to talk to you alone. Let’s use the next room.” He pointed to a door on the opposite side that led to a connecting room.
Only then did he notice His Highness’s presence. With a start, Lord Simeon lowered his eyes and head. “Your Highness, I must apologize for my presumption.”
“Worry not. Talk for as long as you need to. Just be sure to clear up this little
Urged on by His Highness, I stood. As I delivered a hurried attempt at a curtsy to His Highness and the ambassador, Lord Simeon ushered me along into the neighboring room.
But as soon as he entered, he froze and looked on in shock. There in the center of the room stood an imposing-looking bed with a canopy, large enough for three people.
Aha! I thought. So this is where people do the deed! First a little food, a little drink…and then they come in here for a little bit of this, a little bit of that. This room had no bright lights, only a few small lamps dotted about. The dark space felt tantalizingly shady. The curtains that hung from the canopy were a classy yet sultry shade of purple. I bet there are times when a man
spends long hours lying on this bed talking about love, only for the woman in his arms to turn around and ask for money and gifts…
“Marielle, what are you doing?”
Lord Simeon’s voice cut into my daydreaming. Oops, I thought. I’d been stroking the bedsheets while observing the pattern on the curtains. Oh, and the pillows smell so good.
“It makes me nervous, that’s all. Do you come here often, Lord Simeon?”
“I-I-I’m only here for work!” he stuttered. “I’ve only ever been here to escort His Highness!
Not with any other intentions!”
“I hear the three most highly prized flowers at Tarentule right now are Olga, Isabelle, and Chloe. Have you ever met them, Lord Simeon? Which is your favorite?”
“How do you know any of that!?”
How indeed! I even knew that Olga had brown hair, Isabelle had red hair, and Chloe was a blonde.
Just because I’d never been here before didn’t mean I hadn’t heard plenty of gossip. I was praying that I’d one day get a glimpse of these women in person.
Lord Simeon brushed his bangs away with his hand, let out an exasperated breath, and repositioned his glasses. “I hardly know where to start. I might as well ask what you’re doing here, first of all. Of all the places to take refuge, it’s baffling that you’d end up here.”
“It’s rather a long story. Perhaps it’s better if you ask His Highness about it later.” It would be quite a burden to have to tell the same story again, after all.
Lord Simeon scowled, but nodded. “You’re right, of course. That’s not the most important thing right now. What I’d really like to ask you about is why you want to break off the engagement. Why, Marielle?”
He stared at me with dampened eyes. I cocked my head in confusion. You’re the one asking me?
“What is it that’s so intolerably wrong with me? I just don’t understand women’s feelings. If I did something to hurt you without realizing, please, tell me what I did. I’ll do better, I swear it!”
I tilted my head so far, it practically fell off. I heard the words, but they made no sense whatsoever. What does any of this have to do with…anything!?
I thought Lord Simeon had lost all affection for me. Now it turned out that he thought I’d lost my affection for him? But how did he get that impression? I don’t understand!
“So…” I began warily. “You didn’t want the engagement to be canceled?”
“Me? Why would you think that?” His eyes widened and his eyebrows shot up.
I must confess, seeing how handsome and imposing he looked with that dramatic expression on his face made me enchanted by him all over again. “I suppose there’s no use in hiding it any longer, so I’ll just confess. You…know my secret, don’t you?”
“Your secret? That you write novels, you mean?” A very frank answer on his part.
“And they’re published under the name Agnès Vivier? Not that I’ve been in any doubt about that.”
“How did you find out? It’s true, in any case. I’m Agnès Vivier. You find it disgraceful that a well-bred young woman would write and sell popular fiction, I’m sure.”
“To make matters worse, I attended the duke’s party on my own, despite our engagement.
You must have thought me not only disgraceful, but entirely lacking in self-control. That’s why you were so angry with me, isn’t it? I’m so sorry.
“Since then, you haven’t invited me to see you, or sent any letters or messages, but sending me a rose every day was a clear message that you knew about my writing. That you wanted to break off the engagement. Only, you knew that if you ended it yourself, I’d face all kinds of vicious rumors. People would assume I’d been unfaithful. So you silently encouraged me to be the one to withdraw—isn’t that right? The match was far better than my rank deserved to begin with, so this way, society would accept it as a matter of course.”
His mouth fell open too as he gawked at me. Now it was his turn to tilt his head in confusion.
In fact, as I spoke, his head had gradually tilted to such an angle that I wasn’t sure it could ever return to its original position. That’s how deeply bewildered he seemed to be.
At last the words “How did this happen?” escaped from his throat. A vague croak, not even directed at me, but formed without conscious awareness on his part. He pressed on his forehead as if to keep himself steady, and stood deep in thought. Finally, reading his face, I realized for the first time that there might be some possibility that I’d misunderstood his intentions.
“Am I mistaken?”
“Entirely mistaken!” he cried. “What on earth led you to that conclusion!? All right, I’ll confess that the way I behaved that night was regrettable. I had a narrow-minded view of the situation. I didn’t listen to what you said, because I was thinking about something else, and…I was sulking. For reasons of my own.”
“Sulking?” I replied.
“A-a-and as I said, I regret the whole thing!” he stammered. “You did nothing wrong. I was simply in a bad mood, and I apologize. True, you went to a social gathering on your own, but so what? What problem did it cause? None at all. I’d have preferred it if we’d let each other know our intentions beforehand, but I’m certainly not angry about it.”
“Oh,” I said at last. This was quite a surprise. It turned out Lord Simeon was actually quite accepting.
But then, why did he look so sullen that night? He said it was for a different reason, but what could possibly cause Lord Simeon to sulk like that?
“What I regret most of all is not coming to see you since then. I can’t apologize enough.
Work has been so busy, you see, and… Well, no, that’s only half the story. The truth is, meeting you felt…difficult, somehow.”
“Because we’d parted on bad terms that night?”
“Exactly. And I’d realized one or two things, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep my composure the next time we met. I thought it would be easier if I waited until I’d calmed down, but on the contrary, it just became more and more difficult.”
I nodded. Yes, that’s a feeling I know well.
If you have an argument, it’s better to apologize and make up as soon as possible. If you wait until you calm down, you’ll end up waiting so long that it just adds to the awkwardness.
Julianne and I had a falling out a long time ago. It was all my fault, and I instantly regretted it, but it took two months before we made up, and that was only with my grandmother’s help.
Since then, we’ve always tried to apologize and make up as soon as possible after any argument.
Thinking back to that, I more or less understood where Lord Simeon was coming from.
Things were uneasy between us, and that was still playing on his mind, but not to such an extent that he’d want to break things off. He’d sent me a rose every day as an attempt to apologize. He hadn’t been trying to silently torment me after all.
Oh dear, I thought. I completely misunderstood.
“I’m so sorry, it seems I was laboring under a grave misapprehension. I was so sure that the roses were meant to impress upon me that you knew I was an author, that there was no use hiding it.”
In response, Lord Simeon’s face became a picture of misery. If his men saw their Demon Vice Captain looking like this, I imagine they’d be quite surprised.
But I was surprised, too. He’d lost all his intensity, and the man that remained was somehow adorable. But I’d better keep that to myself! I felt a strong stirring in my chest.
“It saddens me greatly that you took it that way,” he said, haltingly. “I just thought you liked that sort of thing.”
A pause. “You wrote about it, didn’t you?”
“Oh. I suppose I did.”
I mean, yes, I did write that in one of my books. It was a whole story where she finally found out who’d been sending the roses, and she realized he loved her and had been watching over her all along, so eventually they get together after all kinds of ups and downs and misunderstandings.
And…he was just copying that? That’s all? But he didn’t keep his identity secret—he put his name to every delivery. Why wouldn’t I think he had different intentions? …Right?
I can’t believe his reason for sending me roses was so pure and wholesome. I’m so sorry, Lord Simeon! Sorry I thought it was a cruel scheme to chase me down and corner me!
I definitely couldn’t tell him that I preferred violets and lilies-of-the-valley to roses.
“Well, I…” I began. No more words came from Lord Simeon, who was hunched over, crestfallen, so I started to reply while still arranging my thoughts. “I’d like to say thank you, first of all. And I’d like to apologize again for my misunderstanding. But does this mean I should
understand that you don’t wish to break off the engagement?”
“Yes,” he murmured, nodding. “I’ve never even considered that, not for a moment.”
“I don’t intend to stop writing my novels, you know.”
“That’s quite all right. I’ll grant it’s nothing we can reveal to the public, but on a personal level, I don’t see any issue. I told you already, didn’t I? I enjoyed your books very much. If the stories had all been silly nonsense I might think differently, but when I read them, there was nothing that made me uncomfortable. Quite the opposite—there were many aspects of them that left a deep impression on me.”
Lord Simeon’s attitude had gone beyond acceptance and straight into godliness. That he’d not only allow me to continue writing, but look upon my books so favorably, was quite remarkable.
They were books written by a woman, about women, for women. For a man to have such a high opinion of them was a pleasure I could never have dreamed of.
Does this mean Lord Simeon has a bit of a feminine side as well? No wonder it looks so perfect when he and Prince Severin are standing side by side—
“Marielle?” he interrupted, waving a hand in front of my face.
Oops. I’d slipped into the world of my fevered imagination again.
In my emotionally charged state, I inched closer to Lord Simeon. “Thank you so much! Next time I’ll write something based on you! You don’t mind, isn’t that right? And can I pair you with a black-haired gentleman?”
“Pair me? In what sense!?”
Suddenly, behind me, laughter burst forth—not one laughing voice, but a collection of them.
“Did she really say that? I love it!”
“There goes the image of the cold-blooded knight! What a riot!”
“You lot! Stop that!” cut in Prince Severin.
“But you’re laughing too, Your Highness,” came the reply.
The ambassador laughed as well. “Ah, to be young again! It brings a smile to my face!”
“Less a smile and more a belly laugh, wouldn’t you say, Ambassador?”
“Oh, not at all,” he replied. “And I definitely wasn’t thinking about who that black-haired fellow would be based on.”
“I feel a need to object on an official, diplomatic level,” said the prince. “Just to ensure that this little misunderstanding doesn’t cross international borders.”
“I think it’s great!” came another voice. “I adore that kind of thing!”
“There’s nothing to adore!” the prince replied, frantic. “No kind of thing is going on!”
It seemed the door, which I thought we’d closed behind us, had slipped open at some point. It was more than only one or two figures that I could hear jostling just beyond it.
Lord Simeon and I stood in stunned silence for a moment, then subtly moved a step or two away from one another.
“No need for you to peek in and whisper about us in such a vulgar manner,” said Lord Simeon, turning toward the door and flashing that menacing smile of his—beautiful but deadly.
“Surely you’d rather come in. We’ll gladly welcome you.”
Wow! I felt breathless all of a sudden. There he is. The brutal, black-hearted military officer.
My exact type. Oh, Lord Simeon, you’re so wonderful!
He noticed me staring at him, my chest heaving. He coughed to clear his throat, and then his expression returned to normal again.
Then, right in that very spot, he got down on one knee. Before I had time for any thought except sheer surprise, he took my hand in his and lowered his head.
“Allow me to propose to you again, Marielle. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
I screamed inside. My heart raced for quite a different reason than before. It was like we were in a story, and this was the romantic climax. Still spellbound by the kiss he bestowed on my hand, I nodded my assent.
“I would love to. There’s no one I could ever fangirl over more than you. Please, let me stay
by your side and watch you forever and ever.”
He paused for a moment. “…Absolutely.”
Hmm. Did his answer seem a tiny bit unsure there, or am I imagining things?
Before I had time to ask, the people lurking outside the door came piling in.
One practically shrieked, then said, “What a moment to witness!”
“Lord Simeon’s so cute when he’s with his fiancée!”
“You’re so right! It’s so much fun seeing a man that’s such a tough nut to crack get so
Oh, I thought, realizing who it was. Oh!
It was them. The Three Flowers of Tarentule had charged into the room.
My eyes were drawn directly toward their pale white breasts. How audacious, to wear
necklines that are cut so low! Such abundant cleavage… I’m dazzled!
The dreamlike seductresses crowded around us and pressed into us.
“Such coarse manners,” Lord Simeon grumbled. “Don’t you ladies have any sense of
“You’re the one who said to come in, Lord Simeon!” one replied.
“Precisely!” said another, the one with red hair. “And more importantly,” she said, cupping
my cheeks with her hands and turning me toward her, “is it true that you’re Agnès Vivier? The
Velvety soft hands. A scent so sweet, my heart beat faster still.
And her cleavage. Right in front of my face.
“Y-Yes,” I murmured, barely managing a nod.
All three of them squealed with joy.
“Incredible! Agnès Vivier, in the flesh!”
“I have ALL your books! My favorite is Love’s Castle in the Mists!”
“I never knew they were written by such a cute little lady! Will you give me your autograph
Swarmed by the three beauties, before long I was separated from Lord Simeon. He stood
across the room, where Prince Severin and Ambassador Van Leer had each put a hand on one of
his shoulders to console him.
I could hardly choose where to look. On one side of the room, astoundingly beautiful women.
On the other side, gloriously beautiful men. What pure bliss. I’m in paradise. They’re all so
dazzling, I’ll go blind!
“Are you…” I began, my voice full of nerves. “Olga, Isabelle, and Chloe, by any chance?”
“Gosh, you’ve heard of us?”
“Of course!” I replied, picking up speed. “You’re the Three Flowers of Tarentule! I’ve been
longing to meet you, more than anyone else in all of Sans-Terre!”
“What a thing for a young noblewoman to say! We’re just prostitutes, you know.”
“Just prostitutes!? You’re anything but! You’re known for being exceptionally skilled and
well-educated ladies! And you’re not tied to any contract—you’re career women, carrying out
your work with pride! You’re not products that can be bought with mere money, but heavenly
angels that refuse to lie with anyone they don’t take a fancy to, regardless of how often they
plead or how many gifts they give you! And even amongst such heavenly angels, you’re the
pinnacle! You’re true goddesses!”
“Again, how do you know any of that?” said Lord Simeon somewhere in the distance. But I
couldn’t give him my attention, not when I had these goddesses before me. I was mesmerized.
What a magical day, I thought to myself. Lady Aurelia gave me a taste of how it feels to be a
protagonist, and Lord Simeon and I resolved our misunderstanding and made up. We’ve
resumed our engagement, and beyond that, I no longer need to keep my writing a secret from
him. And beyond even THAT, I got to meet the three people I’ve been most longing to meet!
I prayed that this wasn’t a dream. That this night wouldn’t fade away like an illusion.
While the Three Flowers and I swelled with joy at meeting our kindred spirits, the men’s
group stood at a distance and talked quietly.
“Simeon, I know it’s rather late to be asking, but are you sure you want to marry…all that?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” he replied after a moment’s pause.
“Capital. As long as you’re happy, I shan’t raise any objections. Still…”
“Personally, I think it’s an excellent match,” said the ambassador. “Life with her will never
be boring, you can be sure of that.”
“With all due respect, Ambassador, I’m not sure it’s any of your business…”
“A man and a woman need a certain degree of tension between them. It keeps things exciting.
Life is long, so you should take the time to enjoy it.”
“You do have a point,” Lord Simeon replied awkwardly.
Two months later, Agnès Vivier’s new bestseller was published, a tale of antagonism that
blooms into romance, with a touch of intrigue for good measure. Its reception was rather
positive, I must say. The Three Flowers of Tarentule thought it was fantastic as well.
“That’s all well and good, but I have to ask about those two men. They seem awfully close to
one another, don’t they?”
Lord Simeon read the book as well, which made this release even more memorable. We sat
beside each other as he asked me his questions.
“They’re the male love interest’s best friends,” I replied. “Sorry, what’s your question?”
“I understood that much. It’s just that there seems to be a peculiar kind of…tension between
“Oh, that’s for my best friend, and everyone else who secretly shares her predilection. I can’t
write about it too directly, you understand. This book is aimed at the average woman, so I
mustn’t lean into it too much. Just enough to create the suggestion in the reader’s mind.”
“But if you could write about it directly, you would!?”
“Not personally, no, but such books do exist. I’ve just borrowed a new release from Julianne,
in fact. Would you like to read it?”
I held up the book, but he refused it by way of burying his head in his hands. I suppose a
man’s never going to be interested in that kind of book. Not unless they’re actually that variety of
“In any case, I wouldn’t raise a fuss if it were just that you’d introduced those elements. It’s
the strange sense I have that I recognize the people you’ve depicted.”
I chuckled. “Goodness, who could they be? I didn’t give them black hair and blond hair, so
it’s a complete mystery.”
“So they are based on us!? Why did you have to present us this way!?”
“How to explain it, exactly… It’s a classic pairing, you could say. So much so that readers
might even find it trite and uninventive. It’s certainly not specific enough for them to guess who
the inspiration was.”
“I’m relieved to hear that,” he said, glowering. “But those who know will still know. You
absolutely must not write a sequel! Please, whatever you do!”
He put a hand around my waist, drew me into a tight embrace and held me close.
The distance between us seems to have shrunk lately, I thought. We never used to sit
to one another. We’d always sit separately, facing each other from our separate chairs.
Reading all those stories aimed at women must have been quite an education for him, I
decided. It made me glad that he wasn’t letting our engagement stay as a mere political
arrangement. He was putting in every effort to build a loving relationship with me.
I have to put in every effort as well. I’ll strive to be a good wife, fully dedicated to my
Without stopping my writing at all, of course!
The response to those two side characters had been greater than I imagined, and my editor
was begging for a sequel. Should I do it? It would make Julianne so happy, and it would be so
enjoyable to write…
I looked up at him, and his scowl softened. He returned my smile with one of his own. I
rested my head on his broad shoulder.
Perhaps I should go back to Tarentule and have the ladies teach me the best techniques for
getting what I want.
He brushed aside a few strands of my hair, then leaned in and kissed me. Still giddy, I started
making plans in my head. I already knew tomorrow would be great fun.
I want every day to be great fun. I hope we’ll live a happy life together—today, tomorrow,