“If you don’t do it all today, it won’t be a big deal. You aren’t feeling well, so there is no need to force yourself, Your Grace.” Orpé insisted.
“That’s enough now Orpé! How can I clear my schedule because I’m hungover? I cannot do that!” Erna snapped, feeling self-pity.
Orpé stared at Erna for a moment and with a hint of defiance said, “Duchess, no one will blame you for taking a break.”
“I won’t clear my schedule!”
“Yes, as you wish. You will have a late lunch. My memo might not have arrived at the correct place, so I’ll go and see if it did indeed get there.”
“Okay, and one favor please, could you bring some cold water on your way back?”
The assistant nodded to signal she’d heard Erna and then left the room. Her face was grim as she was heading to the kitchen. I think she should rest some more.
Erna would say she was fine, even if her assistant recommended her to rest, she was stubborn like that. Erna had no days off. The maids in the Grand Castle had one or two days off in a week, and there wasn’t a single day when she didn’t tend to her trainee wizards, nor did the lights ever go out in her room. Before meeting her, Orpé hadn’t liked her.
Orpé’s hometown was Hessenguard. So, naturally, she didn’t welcome a Grand Duke or Duchess who was a conqueror from abroad – she favored the deep-rooted legacy of Hessenguard. When Erna had first asked her to work for her because she had the qualifications as a wizard, although she had been happy to leave her maid status, she hadn’t been thrilled to work with Erna so closely. That conversation about being in the same space with someone you couldn’t stand… that was her story.
She had hidden her true feelings from Erna, and they had spent a lot of time together as a trainee and trainer. After a while, Orpé had figured it out. Erna, who had thought she was a scarecrow who did whatever the Kingdom of Haband told her to do, had made a face like she’d seen the most terrible thing in the world whenever a letter had come from Haband.
On top of that, Orpé had thought Erna would ignore the Hessenguard Council, but she had attended meetings with lawmakers and respected their opinions as much as she could. Even when deciding on policies, she had chosen one’s with Hessenguard’s best interests in mind and had given less to the two kingdoms. And, she had tended to her political affairs every day with no break while still educating her trainees as well. Erna had worked so vehemently for Hessenguard that Orpé questioned if she were a human! Before Orpé knew it, she had begun following her wholeheartedly, regardless of her underlying dislike of her. When the beasts attacked, she flew off into the woods, pretty much glued to Erna’s side. Orpé had gotten so used to being with her.
Recalling their conversation, she pondered about who Erna hated. Naturally, someone came to mind right away: none other than her husband Kalion. People outside the Grand Castle didn’t know this, but at least everyone here knew that their relationship had been on the rocks for years. They were never on the same wavelength, or worse… perhaps there was more to the story. Orpé smiled bitterly. Can it be so?
How could Erna step up to the plate and get acquainted with such a man? Seeing that the two weren’t close, it was hard for Orpé to even imagine it was Kalion. Then, who is it, she thought curiously.
While Orpé was still wondering over who Erna was talking about, she heard a familiar voice calling her.
“Orpé!” Cedric bellowed. It was Kalion’s assistant calling her name.
“Oh my! What is it, Cedric?” she said, startled.
Unlike the extremely rotten relationship between their respective masters, Cedric and Orpé were quite close. It was because they had to pay as much attention as possible to prevent the two – who hated running into each other – from crossing paths in the Grand Castle. However, Erna and Kalion knew nothing about the fact that their assistants met and chatted often, let alone that they tried their best to not let them cross paths.
“What were you daydreaming about so deeply that you couldn’t hear me calling you?” asked Cedric.
“Oh, I had something on my mind. The duchess is acting particularly strange today.”
“Lady Erna too? The duke is also odd today.”
“What’s wrong with Lord Kalion?” she probed.
As soon as Orpé asked, Cedric, shrugged his shoulders and replied, “He usually wakes up on time in the morning and meets his trainee knights, but he showed up very late today and smelled like alcohol. He doesn’t usually drink. Stranger than that, he asked my opinion about whether I could live with someone I hated.”
“What? Lord Kalion asked you that too?”
Cedric made a surprised face when he saw the shocked Orpé. “How could… Then Lady Erna asked you the same question too?”
She nodded with a serious look on her face. “What in the world? Do you think they could have met last night?”
The two lifted their heads and gazed at the couple’s room in the middle of the Grand Castle. The heart of the castle had gone untouched for ten years. Then, the idea crossed their minds that maybe this year, finally, the empty room would be used by the couple.
That night, Erna stood at the door to the couple’s bedroom. She took a deep breath and then slowly exhaled, but that did little to alleviate the frustration she still harbored. She was hesitant to enter and took another deep breath, trying to clear her mind. They hadn’t spoken for too long this morning as she was too hungover to concentrate and they’d both agreed that they couldn’t make a successor in the mindset they’d been in. They decided to meet again after thinking of a way to put up with one another.
Erna glanced at the clock on the wall, it was now 10:02 p.m. They were supposed to meet at 10:00 p.m. but she’d spent two minutes hesitating. She knew that Kalion was a man who moved in a timely fashion, to the point where it was quite scary.
He’s already here. She just knew it. If she was late, he would frown upon her with a look that scolded her for being such an imbecile who couldn’t keep a promise. When Erna thought of that face, she suddenly choked up. Then, she hurriedly opened the door and rushed inside. Sure enough, Kalion was sitting on the emerald-green sofa, just like yesterday. The only thing different was that there was a thick stack of documents on the table where the alcohol had been.
“You’re late,” he said matter-of-factly.
Erna didn’t respond to his cold words. Because just like he said, she was indeed late, albeit by only two minutes. It would hurt her pride to tell him that she had hesitated upon coming in, not to mention she was scared of how he’d react to that admission.
Erna looked around the room. As expected, the flowers in the vase had been changed, and the blanket, which she had rolled in like a caterpillar and wrinkled in the morning, was neatly laid out now. The fireplace had been cleared of wood that would have turned to charcoal last night, and new logs were burning.
Erna scanned the room, as if it were unfamiliar, for a place to sit down. The only choices left were a single sofa at the tea table by the window, across from the sofa where Kalion was sitting, and the bed. Wondering where she should sit, she balled her fists and decidedly took the first step. She felt awkward, walking like a stiff wooden doll, her shoes clanking loudly on the floorboards in the silent room. She sank into the sofa opposite Kalion, relieved to have reached it. Kalion’s eyes squinted as she sat down.
“So, you are ready to try?”
It was the first time Erna had ever come into proximity to him of her own accord. And yesterday had been the first for Kalion. Leaning back on the sofa, she folded her arms and relaxed her face. It was a very soft and comfortable sofa, but at this moment, it felt as if it were covered in long, pointy thorns; making Kalion’s stare feel even more intense. But Erna fought through the feeling of discomfort.
“Try what?” she asked, feigning ignorance.
“What we discussed this morning.” Kalion said as he set the paper he was holding down on the coffee table and looked her up and down. “For us to stand each other?” he asked.
“Yes, that. I received some advice…”
Those words made Kalion’s eyes turn fierce and he rudely interrupted her, “Don’t tell me you have been going around chit-chatting about this.”
“Don’t be ridiculous? Would I do such a thing? I’m sure you are aware that I have an assistant named Orpé. All I did was ask her as she passed me by in the hallway.”
Kalion closed his mouth at the word ‘assistant’ because he had also casually asked his assistant Cedric the same advice.
After talking with Erna in the morning, he had returned to his room and sat in a daze for a long time. No, he had not been drunk. He’d just had a lot on his mind. Then, by the time he had come back to his senses, it was much later than the time he normally went out to do his activities. How could he have lost track of time like that? He was furious with himself as he hurriedly ran out to meet his team of knights.
Cedric had greeted him with a fuss and worriedly asked, “Lord Kalion, is everything okay? We were getting concerned and I was about to come and check on you.”
Kalion didn’t ask, but on arrival, he’d seen Cedric chatting away about something that’d happened between last night and this morning.