Initially, I thought the letters were written in blood. Taking a closer look, however, it was red chalk. Touching it left red dust all over my finger. “I didn’t know they made chalk in this color.”
“That’s your first thought?” asked Lord Simeon, exasperated, as he kindly wiped the red dust from my finger. He took a good look at the handkerchief he’d used, then returned his attention to the lettering on the wall. “The handwriting’s the same as on the threatening notes, I see.”
“Yes. It seems implausible that anyone could have written it just by copying an example.”
That might have been possible for a short phrase, I thought, but with a message this long, the differences would have been obvious. It’s clear that this was written by a confident hand.
Lord Patrice had left before dinner and wasn’t currently in the manor. Assuming that hadn’t been an act—he wasn’t secretly still there after all—it was impossible for him to have written this.
I sighed. “I suppose my guess was mistaken.”
“He’s not our only suspect,” Lord Simeon replied. “Quite a number of people would have sufficient motive.”
“But we are limited to the people who are here at present. Which means…it might have been written on Lord Patrice’s behalf, by a servant who’s skilled at writing? He could still be the mastermind after all.”
“If so, we’d easily be able to find out who wrote it simply by asking all the servants to write something and comparing their handwriting. Then it’s only a small step to find out who asked them to do it. I doubt the perpetrator would behave so carelessly.”
He did have a point. The letters were quite distinct, so investigating based on that would have turned up the answer immediately in that scenario. But then, what possibilities are left?
I was staring at the wall, my head tilted, when Lord Cedric returned, holding a bucket. “Well?” I asked.
He shook his head. “It was Anne who prepared the room before bed. I asked her, but it seems she saw nothing out of the ordinary at that time.”
“Is that particular maid able to write?” Lord Simeon asked.
But Lord Cedric shook his head again. “She can write her name, but that’s all. She’s from an agrarian background.”
Lord Simeon nodded, as if he’d expected nothing else. Lord Cedric came over to us and put
the bucket on the floor. “Do you mind if I clean it off already?”
“Go right ahead,” said Lord Simeon.
“Let me help,” I said, putting my hand out, but Lord Cedric gently put his own out to block it.
“Thank you, that’s quite all right. I’m used to cleaning up this sort of thing by now. There’s no need to sully your delicate fingers.”
He knelt down and took my hand softly, almost as if he was about to kiss it. Above him, Lord Simeon coughed loudly.
Lord Cedric let go of my hand and picked up a washcloth. He made short work of cleaning the wall. He really is used to this, I thought. The red letters besmirching the walls were wiped away in a flash, leaving no trace.
But even if he was born a commoner and is used to doing his own housework, it makes for a lonesome spectacle. Does he really have to borrow cleaning implements in secret and take care of this on his own without even summoning one servant?
“Lord Cedric, are you sure it wouldn’t be best to at least talk to Earl Pautrier or Lady Monique about this, or the butler at least? There’s no need to stay quiet in the face of such vicious treatment.”
He considered my suggestion for a moment, then let out a small sigh and shook his head. “No, I’d much rather not. If my grandfather learns of this, he’ll probably scorn and reprimand me for being so helpless. I’m also very eager to avoid letting my grandmother fret over this. And as of now, I don’t even know to what extent the servants truly accept me as their master.”
I had no idea what to say in response to his cold words. So that’s how he looks at this situation. Is that the kind of environment he finds himself in? One that encourages him to think that way? Perhaps he really does have absolutely no one here he can trust. That must be why he asked us total strangers to help him.
“I must ask both of you to keep this to yourselves, as well. If word spreads of this, it will only lead to embarrassment.”
“We’ll do that,” said Lord Simeon, “but let me ask you one thing. I’d like to know how you feel about this.”
Lord Cedric was confused by the question, but in all honesty, so was I. Is it really necessary to ask that?
“How I feel?” he replied.
“I’ll rephrase the question,” said Lord Simeon, speaking in a neutral tone—with neither sympathy nor censure in his voice. “Are you absolutely set on inheriting the earldom? Is it something you want to do, no matter what? Look at the kind of harsh treatment it’s invited. It’s clear that this is not a comfortable place for you to be. Do the social status and fortune have so much appeal to you that you’d stay the course regardless? I’d like you to tell us honestly what
your thoughts are about all this.”
His approach was one very suited to his job, which involved confirming the truth. Some might have found it emotionless, but it was probably easier to answer the question when it was posed this way rather than mixed in with a lot of empty platitudes.
With newfound comprehension, Lord Cedric replied, “I have no intention of giving in to the threats and leaving. I’m well aware that people see me as being after the fortune, but I still can’t let myself be beaten by such underhanded tactics. It’s true that I was raised a commoner. My mother was a working-class servant, which means I’m of a birth that is in no way suited to the rank of earl. It’s not that I particularly yearn to inherit the title. Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s only that my father was so concerned about the house he’d abandoned, right up until the end.”
Lord Cedric looked toward the window, his face full of memories of people he’d lost. “He had a strict father, and a mother who did what her husband said. His older brother was the successor, the pride and joy, while he himself could hope for nothing but being adopted into some other family as a son-in-law. My father found this environment unbearable, and that’s why he escaped it, but doing so still left a deep scar in his heart. He often called himself one of life’s losers. He would continually tell me that I mustn’t let life defeat me, that I should never run away, no matter how painful things become. I feel I’m not only here for myself, but also so that I can fight in my father’s stead.”
He looked back at us, and though his eyes were placid, they appeared to house an unshakable will. “A grand series of coincidences led to me taking this leap into a place that might as well be a different world for me. Still, I want to accept this. It’s my life now, and I’ll take it on. I want to overcome the challenges without running in fear, so that I can stand in front of my parents’ graves and hold my head up high. I want to be acknowledged by my grandparents in place of my father. Those are my honest feelings.”
Lord Simeon paused for a moment, then nodded. “Understood.” He put an arm around me, and at his urging, I started walking out of the room with him. “There’s one more thing I’d like to mention,” he continued. “As far as possible, you should try to avoid being alone. In particular, don’t let yourself be caught unawares in a place where others aren’t around to see. As for the threatening notes and the writing on the wall, we’ll continue to investigate on our own.”
“All right,” said Lord Cedric. “And thank you once again. Oh, hold on a moment! Miss Marielle, I almost forgot.” He dashed over to a cabinet and brought back a box with a ribbon around it. “For you.”
“Thank you most kindly,” I said, accepting the sweets. “There’s something I’d like to tell you too, incidentally, and that’s not to worry too much. There are people in the world who are full of ill intentions and malice, but there are plenty of kind people as well. I believe that human
relationships are like a mirror. People who are friendly and cheerful see smiles reflected back at them as well. As long as you never lose your sincere and honest nature, I’m certain that you’ll meet people who reward your kindness.”
There. I’d said everything I possibly could to reassure him. As I spoke, a smile had steadily formed on his face.
“I’m so grateful for your words. I believe that one such person has appeared already.” “Two, in fact.” I smiled up at Lord Simeon.
Lord Simeon said nothing, but he replied with a nod, at least.
We left Lord Cedric’s room together and walked along the corridor, where we encountered Lady Monique, walking toward us with quiet footsteps. Although she noticed us, she didn’t attempt any conversation, and merely gave a slight bow as she walked past.
I casually turned back to look, and observed that Lady Monique’s eyes were focused intently on Lord Cedric’s door. Her expression was far from calm—in fact, her eyes were very dark indeed.
Now that I think about it, where was Lady Monique after dinner? We haven’t ascertained that at all.
We reached the guest bedrooms, and Lord Simeon opened his door. I bid him good night and was about to return to my neighboring room, when he forcibly pulled me into his room.
The instant the door was closed, he pointed to the box in my hand. “And that is…?”
I showed him the shop name engraved on the lid. “It’s a box of sweets. He said he was just passing by so he bought some as a present.”
He paused. “I see.” How odd. He’s turned completely sullen again. His cold gaze is unbearable—I’m a little scared. “Especially for you?”
“To show his gratitude, he said. He was buying some for Countess Simone, so he just decided to buy some for me as well.”
Without even asking, Lord Simeon took the box from me. At first it looked as if he was just checking the inscription, but then he untied the ribbon straight away.
He opened the lid and looked inside. Ten chocolates, round and each the size of one mouthful, were arranged neatly inside. The specialty bonbons of this particular shop.
I cried out. “Are you starting to eat them without me? That’s so rude!”
He held the box above me at a height I couldn’t reach with my hands, then began to enjoy the bonbons on his own. “Hmm, they do seem to be ordinary bonbons.”
How mean of him! I want to eat them too! This shop’s reputation was such that its sweets always sold out immediately, so it would have been hard to get more even if I wanted to. “Give me back my sweets!”
“There don’t seem to be any irregularities, but I’ll keep them, just in case.”
“Irregularities?” I exclaimed. “What irregularities!? You’re just making an excuse to have the bonbons all to yourself. I didn’t realize you had such a sweet tooth. All right, we can each have half the box. I was planning to share them with you anyway.”
“That’s not the issue here. If you’d like some bonbons, I’ll gladly buy some for you. Just let me take these ones.”
“But why? They were a gift from Lord Cedric!”
With a sullen look, he closed the lid and left the box on a nearby table. Then he put an arm around my waist and glared down at me. “You seem to be very supportive of him, but I’d ask you to keep a levelheaded attitude. It’s better not to trust him too much.”
“In what way, specifically, do you think he’s not worthy of trust? Is it that he says he’s had an interest in history and art since before all this, but he showed no interest at all while we were in the collection room? Or perhaps that he’s fiercely determined not to back down in the face of these threats, yet he’s put all the burden of solving the issue on us?”
At this, his well-formed eyebrows shot up. “You’ve thought about this more seriously than I expected.”
“Why, what did you expect? Observing other people is my main pastime and also what I use to earn money. It’s a highly trained skill.”
“Oh, indeed. So it is.” He looked up at the ceiling and exhaled. “But in that case, shouldn’t you be a little more understanding of…”
But he simply looked at me again and said, “No, nothing. In any case, since you’ve noticed it as well, I might as well mention that something doesn’t seem quite right about Cedric. It’s all in a manner whereby you’d never notice unless you observed him very closely, but it reminds me of a performance, as if he’s skillfully keeping himself restrained to this level. A normal person, with no ulterior motive, wouldn’t behave like that.”
“There have been a few times that he made me wonder as well,” I replied. “But then, people do have all kinds of different thoughts and ideas. We can’t expect Lord Cedric to be entirely open with us about every aspect of his life. It’s perfectly normal to keep one or two things to himself, isn’t it?”
“It is indeed, provided the things he’s keeping to himself are entirely harmless. I’m only suggesting that, given the circumstances, we should remain on our guard with him as well.”
I could understand Lord Simeon’s unease, but I still wondered if it was really necessary to be so wary of Lord Cedric. I couldn’t help but have my doubts. “You seem to have had some ill feelings toward Lord Cedric right from the moment we met him. Do you not feel that if you put aside your assumptions and preconceptions, you might have more trust in him?”
“Do you not feel that your excess of sympathy for him leads you to overlook some points that it would be better not to overlook?”
Stalemate. For a moment, we stood and glared at each other. It seemed unlikely we’d find any agreement here. Our opinions were entirely at cross purposes.
Lord Simeon apparently had the same thought. The tension in the air dissipated in an instant. “In any case, please don’t forget to keep your distance from him. Don’t allow yourself to get too close.”
“I wasn’t especially planning to get close to him anyway,” I said with a reluctant nod. However, there was one way in which I would not yield to him. Casually keeping watch of Lord Simeon’s movements, I found my chance and leapt to the table, grabbing the box of bonbons.
Lord Simeon raised his eyebrows. “Marielle!” Clearly, he hadn’t expected me to do that. “They were for me!” With the box in hand, I ran away from Lord Simeon.
Sadly, though I won the battle, I was about to lose the war. The doorway’s behind Lord Simeon. At this rate, he’ll grab it back before I can make my escape!
I decided to preempt this by opening the lid then and there. This is no time for proper conduct, I decided. Lord Simeon broke the rules first!
I took a bonbon and brought it toward my mouth. Almost there, almost there—but no luck. He grabbed my hand and used my own fingers to put the bonbon into his mouth.
My fingertips felt a soft, warm sensation. For an instant, they were tickled by something wet. My face blanched. Wh-What is he…doing with…my fingers?
With them still right by his mouth, he looked down at me with his piercing light blue eyes. A numbness spread from my fingertips and swept through my entire body. He didn’t let me go. I was acutely aware of his breath as it hit my fingers.
Without saying a word, he took the box from me again, as I stood petrified, unable to resist, or indeed to do anything but stare like a fool.
Then he began to eat all of the remaining bonbons.
As he threw them into his mouth, one after another, all I could do was utter a faint whimper. His cheeks bulged out like a squirrel, then he vigorously chewed them all.
Isn’t he supposed to be dashingly handsome? There’s nothing elegant or beautiful about this at all!
The sensuality I’d felt mere moments ago had been dashed to pieces.
Then he pressed a hand to his mouth and groaned. “Too sweet…”
I looked up at him with no sympathy. “You are rather a fool, Lord Simeon.”
The box had gone from mostly full to completely empty in seconds flat. No matter how delicious they are, eating ten bonbons in one sitting is never a good choice. One’s mouth is sure to be left with an irritating sense of cloying sweetness. Serves him right for having them all to himself!
He rubbed his stomach, a look of severe discomfort on his face.
“Eyes bigger than your stomach?” I asked.
He grunted. “I never want to see anything sweet again for the rest of my life…” “Well,” I said, turning on my heel, “you’ve made your bed, now you can lie in it.”
I stormed out of the room. For the remainder of that night, I refused to forgive him. Liqueur bonbons are my favorite, and he didn’t let me have a single one. How dare he? How DARE he!?
A grudge over bonbons is a heavy grudge indeed.
The next day, still bearing animosity toward Lord Simeon, I decided to leave him behind for now and devote myself to investigating further on my own.
I donned an outfit that I’d borrowed from Natalie, my own maid, then pulled my hair back into a tight bun and covered it with a white cloth. As a finishing touch, I put on a freshly laundered apron. No one could have possibly looked at me and seen anything but a mere servant —the perfect disguise, if I do say so myself. In all honesty, I feel that it suited me more than a noblewoman’s dresses anyway.
A maid’s clothes will fit into any noble residence to a fairly natural degree, and fortunately enough, this particular manor’s female servants wore exactly the same clothes as those worn in my own. I was able to blend in flawlessly.
I employed my special skill—blending into the scenery, becoming like air, pushing my lack of any presence to the limit so that no one noticed me at all—and used it to overhear conversations between the servants.
“For pity’s sake, those selfish, ungrateful sisters!” spat one of the older maids, a terrifying scowl on her face. “We’re already rushed off our feet trying to get ready for the party—only two days away!—and they keep asking for more, more, more. It’s one thing after another with those two! And guess what it was this time… They wanted to decorate the manor with flowers, so they asked me to go and cut some immediately. Do they realize what time of year it is!? I told them they were greenhouse flowers and they wouldn’t be ready for the day after tomorrow, and one of them accused me of “back talk” and started throwing books! Very high and mighty considering they’re country girls with no noble rank at all!”
It seems the Le Comte sisters are trying to have everything done according to their say-so, with little thought for the circumstances of the estate around them.
A younger serving girl gleefully added her own fuel to the fire. “They’re after Lord Cedric, you know. It’s so shameful, they make no effort to hide it at all! They drool over that other gentleman, the one who’s staying as a guide. I’m sure at the party, they’ll also be putting their desperation to find eligible husbands front and center. But who’d want nasty women like that? No one, that’s who!”
Conversations among servants did tend to be like this. Naturally, there were things they could say to one another that they’d never dream of saying within earshot of their masters.
“They asked me to go digging through one of the guest’s wardrobes!” said another. “You know, that girl, uh…what was her name again? The young noblewoman who’s come to stay. They told me to find out what dresses she’s brought with her and report back to them.”
“Oh! I heard about this!” said one more. “They tried to make fun of her, but they were left with egg on their faces when it turned out THEY were the ignorant yokels with outdated fashion sense! Apparently that really got on their nerves. They want to put on airs, but the truth is, they don’t know a thing!”
In fact, it turned out that I was to gain a detailed knowledge of the sisters’ clothes, rather than the other way around. Thanks to the barbed words that continued to be exchanged between the servants, I became exhaustively familiar with everything they wore, from head to toe. Still, even in the midst of their judgmental comments, it was clear that these women had a keen interest in fashion. They also spoke of the sisters having brought a lot of jewels with them. Presumably they were very eager to impress at their high society debut in the city.
“I’m sure Lord Cedric would refuse to marry either of them. He’d be better to go for that
young lady, the guest. She doesn’t make a strong impression at first—I can’t even remember her face—but she doesn’t put on airs or come to us with unreasonable requests. She’s just a nice girl
who’s not too much of a handful. That’s the kind of wife he should go for.”
Goodness, I thought. It’s not just the elderly who are fond of me, but servants as well. Although for the reason to be that I’m “not too much of a handful” did make me feel somewhat like they were treating me as a plant or an animal.
“Right, but she’s already engaged. And the party will be full of attractive young ladies, so there’s no need for Lord Cedric to just make do with whoever’s already on hand. He’ll be able to pick and choose.”
“But think about his upbringing! All those young ladies from noble houses are so snooty and pretentious. Do you think they want HIM as a marriage partner?”
“I wonder how much that really matters. Noble families make a big song and dance about that kind of thing, but in the end, Lord Cedric’s the heir to an earldom, isn’t he? So marrying him will make you a countess, right? Who’d complain about that?”
“Yeah, he is the heir…for now. His relatives have a few things to say about it. People like Lord Patrice who keep trying to convince the master and mistress to change their minds.”
“I wish it was all just words,” said one servant in a hushed tone, “but…I was there when a plant pot fell toward Lord Cedric while he was out walking. I saw it.”
All eyes fell on her.
“What are you talking about? I haven’t heard about that.”
“It was about a week ago. He was walking by the eastern side of the house, where not many people go. I was in the corridor on that side so I looked out and saw him every so often. Then a plant pot fell toward him from up above! Luckily it didn’t hit him, but why did something like that fall from there in the first place? It was pretty shocking!”
“Yeah! Who’d even put a plant pot somewhere like that! It’s not safe! …So where did it fall from, anyway?”
My ears pricked up. They continued chattering away while washing the dishes, and I contributed so that I could listen in without being noticed. They were so absorbed in their gossiping that they didn’t realize I was an outsider. I had better be exceptionally careful that I don’t break any plates. Oh, this one has such an adorable pattern with little violets!
“The balcony on the second floor, I reckon. There are decorative plants inside the room, and sometimes they’re moved outside to the balcony so the sun will catch them. Not that they’d normally fall down from there, though. Who’d ever put any of them on the railing?”
At this question, everyone shook their heads in disbelief.
“No one would do a silly thing like that! Even a child would know how risky it is!”
“If it’s just to catch the sun, there’s plenty of space on the balcony without using the railing! But does that mean…they dropped it on purpose? They were trying to hit Lord Cedric!?”
“I’ve been wondering that myself.”
All of them spoke in a whisper, as if this were the most closely guarded secret. However, their voices were also loud enough that anyone in the room could easily hear them. It seemed their curiosity took precedence over their concern for Lord Cedric’s safety.
“That was a pretty busy day. Lots of other relatives here, I remember. I think any of them could have done it.”
“Ooh, that’s a scary thought. You’re saying someone wants to get rid of him?”
“When a fortune like this is at stake, I bet lots of people would come after him. Lord Henri died without any children, so they were all hoping they’d have a gold mine falling into their laps. Then along comes this grandson out of nowhere. Very frustrating, I’ll bet!”
“So who do you think it was? I say Lord Patrice is the most suspicious. He’s the one who always seems angry about the whole thing.”
“I don’t know, have you seen Lord Guillaume when he starts ranting about Lord Cedric? He gets a pretty frightening look on his face.”
“But Lord Patrice is clearly after the fortune! I see him sometimes, just standing outside the collection room and staring at the door. He’s got this look in his eye, like he wants it all for himself. Even though he can’t get in—the door’s locked of course—there have even been times he’s stood there rattling the doorknob. It’s truly wretched, I tell you.”
“Those greedy sisters seem to have sticky fingers as well. They’ve been stealing the mistress’s brooches and rings. I’ve seen them stashed away in their own jewelry boxes. I was worried I’d be accused of thieving them, and that would be JUST what I need… So I told Jeanne, but apparently they’d given some excuse about just borrowing them for now! I can’t believe that —are they asking the mistress to lend them something different every day!? Maybe they don’t teach nobles that if you sneak something away without asking, that’s called stealing.”
“Speaking of which, Lady Morin’s had sort of a suspicious look on her face and all…”
Thus followed a stream of comments, none of them flattering, about the behavior of various relatives who’d been visiting the manor. You might be wondering why all these nobles had carelessly let themselves be seen acting suspiciously, but in truth, there was nothing odd about it at all. Having servants at a noble residence is a matter of course, and the larger the family’s fortune, the greater their number grows. If a maid is working nearby, they have a tendency to ignore them, seeing them as merely part of the scenery. Although you’d think that if they were visiting another house, they’d know to be on their guard and not do anything suspicious.
I hope my own behavior isn’t attracting too much attention. The servants at my house are used to my eccentricities by now, but I’d do well to be on my guard while I’m visiting someone else’s house. I should ensure that no one sees me writing down things that I’m fangirling over, for example.
Equally, I was grateful to have this opportunity. There were mountains of intriguing tidbits
wherever I looked.
I kept listening, scrubbing a dessert knife as if it were a sword. Amid the sea of voices sharing secrets and critical comments, a lone young woman chirped up with, “I’m wondering about Lady Monique.”
Another servant nearby screwed up her face and gave a cry of disbelief. “The young mistress!? What would she ever do? What difference does it make to her who the heir is?”
“You’re not wrong there,” replied the one who’d suggested the idea, “but I’m starting to think it’s not Lord Cedric himself she doesn’t like, but anyone who’s going to be the heir.”
“What do you mean by that?”
This was a new and intriguing suggestion to me as well. I listened intently.
“The young mistress is in a bit of a bad spot, not having any children. It must be quite awkward for her that whoever the heir turns out to be, they sort of jump in front.”
“Hmm, yeah. I do see your point.”
“She’s feeling quite uncertain, I reckon. She’s lost her own position. Have you noticed how her face has been like a thunder cloud ever since Lord Cedric arrived? I’m worried about her. She must be tormented by thoughts about all this, day and night.”
“The master’s not exactly kind and gentle to her, after all. And the mistress doesn’t do much to stick up for her either.”
“Lord Henri was the only one who did, wasn’t he? And he was so good, he didn’t even have a bit on the side. What a shame that he died so young!”
“It’s a tragedy, that’s what it is. If only Lord Henri was still here… But if Lord Cedric died now, someone would come to take his place, wouldn’t they? I doubt it would make a difference to the young mistress. She’s not in the line of succession either way.”
I reflected on what I’d seen the night before. Lady Monique had walked past Lord Cedric’s door and glared at it with a dour expression. I hadn’t seen her with anything resembling a cheerful face since the moment I’d arrived.
I wondered what would happen to her in the future. Will she be allowed to simply stay living here, with this house? Or will she be forced to return to her original home? Such occurrences are far from unusual. If a husband dies and leaves his wife without children, the widow is left in quite a weak position. Even if their in-laws are cruel to them, they’re in no position to defy them, nor is there anyone they can call on for support. It’s fairly common for them to choose to return to the comfort of their parents’ home.
Which is all well and good for people who don’t feel too strongly about the situation, but matters might not go so smoothly for someone who’s built up a great deal of dissatisfaction and resentment. The more I thought about Lady Monique and the mournful look on her face, the more it stood out to me.
As I stood there making a glass sparkle flawlessly, a shout came in my direction. “You there! Take these to the banquet hall!” A large basket was placed in front of me, filled with tableware that had been cleaned.
Well, I have no choice but to play the part. I added my one final glass, then lifted up the basket. My word, it’s heavy. I do hope I can manage this. It’s a long way to the banquet hall.
“Stand up straight! What are you bending over for? You’d better not drop that basket! If you break anything, that’ll be YEARS of your wages gone in a flash!”
I stifled a groan. For something this heavy, wouldn’t you ask a man to help? With an intense degree of effort, I carried the basket out of the room.
As I left, I heard another brief exchange. “Who was that, anyway?”
“Huh. I have no idea.”
I climbed from the kitchen downstairs to the first floor and proceeded in the direction of the banquet hall. I encountered quite a number of servants along the way, but not one of them offered to help—rather, I was met only with looks that suggested this was my problem, not theirs. But perhaps it’s not that they’re cruel and heartless. In all likelihood, a servant is expected to be able to deal with this weight. It was only with this new first-hand experience that I began to understand just how hard a servant’s job is. I’ll have to show mine a bit more gratitude when I get home.
Not far now, I thought, but my arms were already at their limit. I was about to take a momentary rest to prevent myself from simply dropping the basket on the floor, when suddenly all the weight mysteriously disappeared from my arms.
Thoroughly taken aback, I looked up. The one holding the basket—with a look of vexation— was Lord Simeon. “What on earth are you doing?”
“Well done, Lord Simeon. I’m impressed that you realized it was me.” I rubbed my arms and breathed a deep sigh of relief. My muscles are definitely going to be sore tomorrow.
“I was wondering where you’d gone, so naturally I…” He paused. “Marielle, did you bring those clothes with you?”
“Of course. Do you think I’d just come to stay here without making any plans in advance?” He let out a deeply exasperated sigh.
“I mean it, though,” I continued. “You did very well to notice me.”
“I am used to noticing things. I draw on my experience of spotting insects in the forest.”
Insects? Intriguing. Did he used to collect insects as a hobby? “But I’m somewhat impressed with you, as well. You’re able to blend in artfully wherever you go. If you were a man, I’d encourage you to become a secret intelligence operative.”
“A secret intelligence operative! Now that would be most delightful. How exciting! I’m quite certain that’s my calling. Won’t you employ me?”
I groaned beseechingly. “Then I’ll just have to ask the Captain…oh, or perhaps His Highness!”
“No, I tell you! And you had better not ask the Captain. I fear he’d find it a very entertaining idea and hire you for real!” As he ranted, Lord Simeon continued to carry the basket on my behalf. I do find that aspect of gentlemanly behavior to be quite wonderful.
But as soon as we entered the banquet hall, I received a loud telling-off from the senior maid who was managing all of the preparations. “What were you thinking, letting a guest carry that for you!? You’re bringing shame upon the master’s house!”
“I’m so sorry,” I whimpered.
“It’s quite all right,” said Lord Simeon. “This was my fault. Speaking of which, she’s actually —”
“No, please allow me to apologize,” said the senior maid. “These young girls are so rash and careless! I’ll let her have it later, I promise you that. I can only hope you’ll see it in your heart to forgive us.”
“Truly, it’s not a problem, only—”
“And you!” she yelled, turning her attention back to me. “Put that basket over here and go down to get the next one this instant! And if this happens again, I’ll have the mistress give you the sack!”
“Y-yes, ma’am!” I said, dashing off in the direction of the kitchen downstairs. “I’ll be right back!”
I heard Lord Simeon mutter under his breath, “How does she play the part so naturally?” Then he followed me a little ways out of the room and called after me, “Marielle, be back before lunchtime!”
After three trips back and forth, my arms were left thoroughly defeated, so I crept away and put my usual attire back on.
Being more than a little worn out, I went to take a brief respite in my room after lunch. To my surprise, Lord Cedric knocked at the door. “You must forgive me for my excessive insolence in asking, but if you’d be so kind, I have a favor to ask of you.”
“What might that be?” I asked.
“I have need of a dance partner while practicing. The party is only two days hence, and I fear I still have no confidence whatsoever.”
He made the request in a charmingly awkward manner. I nodded with a smile, and the two of us made our way to the music room. Ensuring that we left the door open this time, we held hands and rehearsed the steps.
“You’re much better than you think,” I told him. “I don’t think you’ll have any problems at
“I wish I could be so certain. I’m constantly worried about when to take each step, and the more I think about it, the more tangled and clumsy my feet become.”
“You seem to have already memorized the movements perfectly, so you just need to stop thinking so hard about it and allow yourself to be carried by the music. Your partners will also have plenty of experience on the dance floor, so you needn’t worry.”
This would be much easier with music, I thought, glancing around the room. A considerable number of instruments lined the room, including an impressive-looking piano. How irritating that I can’t play and dance at the same time.
But then it occurred to me: Doesn’t Lord Simeon play the violin? Perhaps I should ask him.
“My, my, you seem to be enjoying yourselves.” As we were dancing in silence, the figure of Lord Patrice had appeared in the doorway. He positively spat out his mean-spirited words.
So, the man of many rumors is here once more. I wonder if his visit today is part of another attempt to persuade the earl to disinherit Lord Cedric.
“You’ve made quick work of charming the ladies,” he continued. “Your lack of discretion seems befitting of your inferior birth. Nonetheless, I find your taste in partners to be…rather peculiar.” He turned his cool gaze on me. “Evelyne and Suzette have far more appeal. I wonder why he’s set his heart on you, instead? Aha, perhaps a commoner would feel daunted by young ladies with beauty and charm. In that sense, you are far better suited to him.”
“Your words are entirely unbecoming of a gentleman,” Lord Cedric replied with an unusual degree of fortitude. He stepped forward as if to defend my honor. “If you must make insinuations about me, you could at least refrain from dragging her into it.”
“Putting on airs again, I see. What’s so wrong with simply stating the truth? I’m doing no more and no less than that.”
“Miss Marielle is a kind individual with a clear sense of fairness and justice. You have no cause to slander her as you have.”
“Ah, I see what you mean. She does seem the type to get overly familiar with the common folk.”
“Overly familiar!? We were practicing my dance steps!” cried Lord Cedric. “I’m not used to them yet, so she agreed to help me as a favor.”
But no matter how much he protested, Lord Patrice stayed the course and continued mocking him. He erupted into a particularly scornful laugh. “Quite the pretext for spending all afternoon together. If it were me, though, I’d be entirely dissatisfied with such an unappealing dance partner. Would that I were so easily pleased!”
“I’m quite happy for no one else to find my fiancée appealing,” came a smooth yet somehow dread-inducing voice. Lord Patrice turned around in surprise and saw Lord Simeon behind him.
“For you to be dissatisfied only means that I’ve no need to challenge you to a duel.” A hint of a smile bloomed on his face.
There it is! That beautiful smile, soft and tender but with an intense coldness to it! That’s my Vice Captain! I’m fangirling so hard, I could die! If only he had a riding crop in his hand, he’d be perfect!
“Or did both of you forget that she and I are engaged?”
Lord Patrice fell over himself to try and explain. “No, not at all, I, you see… I was just about to tell him how unpardonable it was to behave so intimately with someone else’s fiancée.” Such a barefaced lie! Not that the atmosphere between Lord Cedric and I was anything like that, regardless.
“I see,” Lord Simeon replied. “So you were just the older relative, giving a healthy warning.”
“Y-yes, precisely! I wanted to caution him against any behavior that could lead to House Pautrier’s esteemed name being dragged through the mud!”
“An admirable thought indeed. If he’s in such dire need of a woman, I believe there’s a place that specializes in them. What was it called again? Ah yes, Tarentule. You could tell him all about it.”
“How dare you imply such—”
“Now, what was the name of the particular young lady there you have a fancy for?” He looked at me as he asked.
This is ALL information he heard secondhand from me! I replied, “Eugenie, I believe. With curly black hair and a beauty spot above her lips, yes? I hear she’s very alluring indeed. As one might expect, you’re a man of discerning tastes, Lord Patrice.”
“What? How do you…? What!?” Lord Patrice trembled so hard, words could barely escape his lips.
Lord Cedric looked from him, to me, then back again, completely stunned.
I continued, “Since Tarentule likes to keep its accounting practices very clear and requires payment up front, no one with a light wallet can even get past the entrance. For you to visit so often, Lord Patrice, you must be very well-off indeed. And you even hand out impressive gifts, like…a necklace made of giant black pearls.”
“H-how on earth do you…?” said Lord Cedric, just as taken aback as Lord Patrice by this point.
Lord Simeon was, no doubt, thoroughly rankled beneath his placid smile as well. Alas, that was the limit of my knowledge. The ladies of Tarentule never divulged their clients’ secrets. I only knew about the necklace because I’d caught sight of it by chance. It had been left out, accompanied by a card from the sender.
Such discoveries weren’t a regular occurrence, so Lord Patrice appeared to be quite afraid of
how much else I might know. He blurted out an excuse and made a quick exit.
I beamed at Lord Cedric, who was still dumbfounded.
“In the end,” he said at last, “I was the one who needed someone to come to my defense. I’m grateful to both of you. Grateful, and apologetic.” He lowered his head to both of us, smiling bitterly. “The timing of your arrival was impeccable, Lord Simeon.”
“Didn’t I tell you that we’d keep watch from a distance? Though it seems I was ultimately the
only one who kept my guard up. The two of you appear to have been having a grand old time.” His blunt statement of displeasure took the smiles from both my face and Lord Cedric’s.
Really, now! There’s no need to be quite so sullen! “Well,” I began, intending to defend myself.
“If you have that much time to waste, I suppose there’s no need for concern about any of this business after all. Let’s go, Marielle.” As he put an arm around me and moved to push me out of the room, I grew slightly flustered. “Wait! We haven’t finished our dance practice!”
“I don’t recall promising that we’d cater to his every whim. For him to ask you a favor that could just as easily be granted by a member of his family does not speak well of his character.”
But despite my protestations, he continued pushing me out of the room with great vigor. Amid the sounds of my own distress, I heard a quiet giggle behind me. I instinctively looked behind me at Lord Cedric, but his face was one of pure dejection. Did I only imagine hearing laughter? After all, it would be a little strange for him to be laughing in this situation. Lord Simeon appeared not to have noticed anything. He didn’t turn his head for a moment, and merely continued on his warpath. I had an odd feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but in the end, I didn’t say anything.
Only when we had returned to the guest rooms did I raise my objections to Lord Simeon again. “Your words just now… You went too far!”
“When? At which point? You’re being far too kind to a man who’d use dance practice as a pretext to try to seduce someone else’s fiancée.”
“You’re reading ill intention into a situation where none exists. Lord Cedric wanted to practice dancing. That’s all.”
“And you’re giving the benefit of the doubt when it’s far from justified. You need to be more aware of your own position. For you to blithely accompany any man who asks you to spend time with him makes you look rather lacking in discretion, doesn’t it?”
I sighed deeply. How am I to convince him when he refuses to see sense? “Lord Simeon, try to think about this logically. Do we live in a world where gentlemen are lining up to seduce a lady like me? You’re being thoroughly paranoid. If he had his heart set on seducing a woman, he’d surely have asked Evelyne or Suzette.”
He paused for a moment, about to speak, but instead he looked me up and down, appearing to
be deep in thought. All the while, he muttered things to himself like “I suppose, but…” and “Well, no, because…”
Inside I screamed, You don’t need to spare my feelings! You can say it to my face. I’ve long since accepted it.
At last he said, “Don’t you find it rather sad that you would say something like that about yourself?”
“Not especially,” I replied. “It’s the truth. I don’t mean it in a craven or submissive way. People are all unique—they have their own characteristics and their own tastes. Observing those differences is what brings joy to my life. It’s my raison d’être. I, too, am just one of many unique individuals. Don’t you find life much more interesting, knowing that such variety exists in the world? I also consider myself extremely fortunate—ecstatic, in fact—to have been rescued from a lifetime spent alone by meeting a man with eccentric enough tastes that he’d propose to me and provide me with such a happy engagement.”
“Well,” said Lord Simeon blankly, lowering himself into a chair, “I’m glad that you find the situation so agreeable.” He pulled me by the arm and sat me down next to him. “I suppose I do have rather strange tastes…”
“I honestly believe that you do. I have no idea what terms my father could have offered you, but they were clearly convincing enough.”
“Terms?” he asked, looking at me and furrowing his brow. His cravat was slightly crooked, so I straightened it for him. Yes, I thought, he’s a good man, day in, day out. Though I’d be fangirling over him far harder if he was wearing his royal guard’s uniform.
“I can’t imagine my family was able to offer much, of course. We’d be unable to provide any kind of a substantial dowry. What could have seemed like a substantial enough benefit that you would agree to this?”
He paused a moment. “I don’t follow.”
“Whatever it was, it’s made me very happy indeed, but for you, it’s surely an engagement with very little profit in it? It’s quite a mystery to me. Where is the appeal?”
For another moment he said nothing. The ridges on his forehead grew ever deeper as he stared at me. I may love his smile, but his frown is strangely wonderful as well. Spellbound, I returned his gaze.
He pressed a finger to his temple. “And I am to understand that this is how you see the situation?”
“Well, yes. How else would I see it?”
His expression became intensely strained. Then, all of a sudden, his body came alive. With
one vigorous motion, he moved intensely close to me. “Marielle, there’s something I need to tell you!”
I squealed inside. His face was so near to me, so very near. His handsome features were right before my very eyes. The pressure was so intense. His broad shoulders were on the verge of landing right on top of me. It left me breathless. I was suddenly very aware of the immensity of this man’s body. The Vice Captain… How imposing he is. I’m so giddy, I fear a nosebleed might be on the way. There’s just one thing… Only one way in which this doesn’t fully satisfy me!
“Lord Simeon, if you’re going to bear down on me like that, please, please do it with a riding crop in your hand!”
“…What!?” He froze in a position that was just on the edge of knocking me over.
“I’ve always thought this, but when you hold a riding crop, it perfects you! It completes the picture of you as a black-hearted scoundrel! That one brutal prop that adds an impeccable finishing touch!”
“Who cares about that!?” he said, rapping me lightly on the head. And that tiny motion was enough to make him fall on top of me.
I struggled to breathe. H-he’s…heavy… He’ll crush me… “Lord Simeon, your frame is…proving quite burdensome…”
“I must say, my tastes might be entirely too eccentric.” All the energy went out of him, and he let his entire body weight rest upon me.
I didn’t know men were this heavy. He is really, truly about to crush me. “H-heavy…”
“Where do I stray from the path? Is it purely that my preferences are too far out of alignment? It must be that. Yes, indeed, that must be the case. What else could it be?”
“Lord Simeon?” I asked, struggling to breathe. “What was it you wanted to tell me?”
“You think to ask that only now? It hardly matters anymore.” At last he lifted himself off of me, and I took a series of deep breaths. I felt rather like an ant that had just been stepped on.
He at last returned to his normal sitting position and watched with tired eyes as I put my hair and dress back into order. He sighed. “What am I to do?” Anguish appeared on his face, and that, too, had something of a sensual effect on me.
But what did I do to cause this? Did I say something wrong? Were the negotiations with my father really something that had to be kept a closely guarded secret at all costs? “Lord Simeon, does Father have something on you? Something compromising?”
“It’s nothing like that. And I’d prefer not to talk about it any further.”
Having forcibly cut the conversation short, he turned to face away from me. I tugged at his jacket.
“Lord Simeon, I have some new information. When I was listening in on the servants’ conversations, something stood out, and—Lord Simeon, listen to me!” But even as I called to him, he wouldn’t turn around. The Demon Vice Captain, known for his intimidating presence, was pouting like a child…and it seemed that recovering his good humor would be quite an ordeal.