The familiar gentle light purple hair that cascades beautifully on his back has now changed with maturity. Sir Thais or rather Captain Thais still wore a warm smile on his face. Shoulder length hair comb over to the right and the white military coatee in gold trimmings suit him to perfection. The maids peeking from the drawing-room door were giggling nonstop with blushes on their cheeks.
Sterne could have appreciated the looks of this dashing knight if only he wasn't kneeling so stubbornly in the middle of the drawing room!
"You ladykiller. Still notorious with women as ever?"
His face slightly turned red after her remark. "My lady, it's been a while since we saw each other but you are still as merciless as ever. Please do not say such things. I am no way playing with women."
"You're not?" Sterne turned to the girls at the door and gave a meaningful smile.
"If you say so."
"Ah, you never change." She laughed merrily seeing how he splendidly give up. "You know I, I came because I worried about you. I'm your knight no matter what."
"Oh, a courtesy call after three years. Hmm... what do I make of that?"
His head sank lower.
"In all these years I wondered where could my knight have gone to? I thought you got swallowed by the forest, but it seems you did not as I heard you stayed at the garrison for further training. I could only imagine how hard that is."
Captain Thais remorsefully bowed his head, down on his knees, it seems that he has no plans of getting up soon unless he grows calluses. Does she look like she's bullying an adult here? The little lady's eyes went to the girls and inquired.
They shook their head before scurrying away while giggling.
"Lady Sterne, I broke my vow and did not personally inform you of my return here in Aurea. I am ashamed of--"
"You did great, Captain."
"I'm prepared to resign on my post and return as your-- what was it?"
"You did great." She repeated on his flabbergasted face. "All I want is to see you safe and here you are. No vow was broken at all."
"My lady. You're being too lenient."
"What, do you want me to change my mind? Ahh, enough of this. Get up now, I'm sure your knees are aching. And that resignation thing, don't you dare! Do you hear? Fulfil your duty to the kingdom, be the kind of knight you want not because you feel obligated to stay beside me."
"But I am--" He stops himself short with a deep breathe. "As my lady wishes."
"It's been a while, isn't it?" Sterne gestured the seat across hers, and he sat down obediently. "I heard you have successfully conquered the eastern barracks and now has a number of followers under you. I still have not congratulated you for that." From inside her pocket, she took something out and handed it to him. "You dropped this."
Captain Thais held out his hand to receive a shining gold token. He stared at it for seconds before looking at her.
"This is mine." He said. "I've been wondering where it went."
"Ah-huh. I figured you unknowingly dropped it inside the Sleeping Forest. A few months ago when I went there for a subjugation I happen to pick it and it saved my life."
Sterne then told him bits and pieces of the incident. Captain Thais only heard about what happened from his father when he stood as jury for the Iron Bulls trial. He wanted to come as well that time but he was forbidden to leave his post. He worried for her endlessly thinking about the people on her side. Will they be able to protect her? In the end when she said that even without him, something from his person somehow managed to save her made the young captain smile.
"I'm glad you are safe." He said clutching the token.
"Why wouldn't I be? I had an earful of reminders before going in but let's not dwell on that, I want to congratulate you."
The parlour maids poured tea, placed pastries on their plates and then left quietly.
"It is enough that my lady is aware and appreciates my humble efforts. If I may say so boldly, it truly delights me to see how much you have grown Lady Sterne." He said with a solemnly but then unwisely added. "I'm sure His Highness must have been captivated by your charms."
She was in the middle of swallowing the tea when he decided to sputter unnecessary flattery choking her to tears. "S-Sorry, what were you talking about, captain?"
"You were called upon by His Highness, isn't it?"
"No, no about the charms thing?"
He tilted his head on the side ignoring her disgusted grimace. "You know his Highness already has unofficial candidates for marriage but to call on you must mean that he was curious about you."
Recalling Prince Irvin's foolish laughing face made Sterne roll her eyes up. Curious yes. Charms? Absolutely no. It's already a blessing he did not run away to the farthest end of the castle after seeing her true colours. But they somehow got along, strange…
"It's not what you think it is." She had to pour water before the embers turn into a bonfire.
The things they talked about must remain between them. He made so much effort to keep the conversation private after all. Sterne could afford another secret, after all, she has a mountain load of them, also because a person's future and safety are at stake. They must protect Maelys so she could only answer Captain Thais vaguely.
"But my lady, your visit to His Highness will trigger a series of unpleasant events. I fear you will get caught up in it."
"I'm prepared." She met Captain Thais' worried gaze. "I know that my presence must have reached the candidates' ears by now, amazing how a simple courtesy call could stir a whole city. Crown Prince also knows the effect of his action, and he has prepared himself to the upcoming aggressive approach from them."
"You two seem…" Again he stopped himself short and shook his head instead. Lady Sterne has grown finely, even her words were mature and well thought.
"Enough with your conjectures. We get along. Now, how about you--"
"How about you include me to the conversation as well?" An irritated voice cut in.
And just like that, the warm reunion came to an abrupt halt. Sterne almost forgot that the God of Pestilence came as well and he is there… seated in the main corner on a wide-winged chair looking at them like a brat catching his favourite playmate with another. Earlier, when she arrived from the Royal Castle, Sterne found that not only Captain Thais came to visit but Royce, like a malevolent spectre showed up as well.
Dressed in his satin stockings and cravat, brocade blue coat, and suit complete with a top hat and a sour face. He looked like a proper young lord from an esteemed family. His imposing presence ate up the splendour of the whole drawing room.
Solis cleared his throat and whispered. "Young Lord, must you be so fierce?"
His gold and jade mounted walking stick tapped the floor. Royce looked at the two people in front of him, hating the harmonious atmosphere making his grip on the stick tighten.
"Oh, you're here. I almost forgot."
Damnit! You even have the gall to voice that out? Unbelievable. He eyed Sterne reproachfully. She looked at him blankly. The two combatants stared at each other to death. Sparks flew enough to burn eyelashes but none of them wants to withdraw. Until…
"Aiy, why did you come by the way?"
Solis heard the faint shattering of his lord's confidence. The little lady jabbed a little too hard causing his heart to break in pieces. It may be unintentional but the damage was delivered mercilessly.
"Lady Sterne," Solis jumped to the rescue and handed a card.
Reading through it, her face froze in the middle. "Carnelian Auction House and Golden Leaf Hotel, these two are businesses under Asteraceae Conglomerate?" She looked at her other two visitors for confirmation. "Oh!"
"Now you know." Royce snorted, haughtily angling his chin up. "I came because you obviously forgot we had an arranged meeting,"
Err, what does he expect her to do? She's already shocked enough, will it change anything if she began buttering him up? Isn't it a bit too late for that? Plus, she knows all too well that once she shows weakness Royce will only take advantage of her momentary concession and press in his demands.
"Well, this is quite a surprise." She whispered. "I'm sorry. It wasn't my intention not to show up that day. I came but a little complication happened."
Assuming that he did not know about the incident she can only offer a sincere apology.
Does Royce know? Of course, he does. He can flip over the skies and knows each secret hidden at every crevice. He heard all the accounts from his people from start to finish. He didn't plan to act like an ogre here, he truly came to check on her but this sudden situation rubbed him wrong for some reason. Who would have thought that upon his visit he would run into her former knight? Worse, he had been jilted to the side like a worn glove. What's with this, isn't she a bonafide tomboy? A hoyden?
"Forget it." Royce waved his hand. "The matter you told me back in Nachtwald. We'll talk about the details later, we could have finished it if only someone wasn't so impatient enough to pack their bags and leave the territory without saying goodbye."
Her ears were brutally bruised hearing his tirade. "How would I know you're the owner of these companies. You're clearly a child."
Royce heard her mutterings and instantly flared up. He tapped the walking stick so hard it almost poked a hole in the floor. "If you can manage Omnia and own a share in Golden Leaf, how is it that I can't own an entire business empire?"
Her mouth twitched. Tsk, what a sassy boy. If she could only demand back all the time she spent worrying about Golden Leaf's ghost owner and Asteraceae. She was in the middle of moping when it hit here. Wait a minute!
"When we met at Nebel City you already knew who I am? Then you came to Nachtwald, you also clearly knew who I am then why did you not…"
Royce nearly jumped to his seat, he felt all the hair on his body stood from their roots to the tips as he noticed her grey eyes slowly darken like gathering storm clouds. Yikes.
"Run?" Solis jokingly suggested.
What the hell? As if he wasn't fretful enough.
Captain Thais looked at the two fighting like cats and dogs then smiled wryly. In his long stay in Nachtwald, he never once saw the little lady lose her temper to this degree. He silently murmured a prayer for the boy who incurred Lady Sterne's wrath.
At a certain tea party…
"My, how lovely you have grown Lady Regina." A wiry woman with dark purple dress greeted the girl with light pink hair. Her lips are smeared with rouge and she smells strongly her nose is turning itchy.
Filthy. Why did father invite her again?
The Stolz garden is filled with guest today. Regina's aunt, Lucretia, organized the event in a hurry. The mansion is located at the north Promenade Street an hour and a half carriage ride from the Royal Castle sitting at the heart of the city.
Nobles daughters and sons were scattered about the luxurious garden with the purpose of mingling while the adults sit and discuss more serious things.
"Good day to you, countess." Picking up the edge of her gown Regina curtsied to the woman and pasted a lovely smile.
"I hear that Duke Vallis is having a tea party as well the day after tomorrow. Will you be coming, dear?"
Regina looked at the voluptuous lady wearing a dark green dress sitting on her left side. Her low neckline pressing to her bust so hard the mounds are in serious danger of spilling out.
"If aunt is coming as well, after all, I needed a chaperone." She said gently.
"We are coming of course," Lucretia said with her pale green eyes narrowing behind a black feathered fan. "It's been a while since you mingled with your fellow candidates."
"Oh, you and Lady Bernice are closer in age I remember."
Bernice, the daughter of the Duke of Vallis, same pedigree and age. Knowing her, she might have invited the merchants' daughters as well to get to know them better. Her tactic is to watch all her rivals carefully for their strengths and weaknesses under the guise of camaraderie. In just a few years she has built a nice relationship with them. Quite tedious, in her opinion. Regina thought that she is having enough trouble to move by herself, what more if she's flocked with numerous people.
This unplanned gathering was caused by the appearance of a certain girl. The adults could not sit still when the news broke out that she caught His Highness the Crown Prince's fancy. Even if she garnered his attention, how important is the girl to be invited directly to the Royal Castle?
"Gray-eyed with deep blue-black hair. Her strong colours are quite unique." She heard one of the boys her age who claimed to have caught a glimpse of the girl.
"To me, Lady Regina is still the prettiest."
Her eyes narrowed. The fact that is being defended by a thin, buck-toothed boy did not make her feel better at all. The one praising that stranger is the youngest son of Marquis Wisteria, Andrej. Today she was fortunate enough to receive a reply from the three big ladies, one of those is the mother of Andrej, the Marchioness Wisteria, and her bosom sisters the Duchess Lanze and Marchioness Aquila. Heaven knows that gaining the approval of these three is as difficult as gaining the stars, let alone approaching them. In order to get close to those ladies, she planned to befriend Andrej first.
From the very beginning, Andrej hasn't shown any interest in acknowledging her. Among the young masters here, he is the one with a lot of promise. It's just that, getting on his good side is quite a task. Not even her status as the number one candidate moved him and he only pays attention to her when it is absolutely necessary. Most of the time Andrej ignores her presence. Now a pressing issue is at hand, she needed to hurry securing her position.
Does he really find me that insignificant? That can't be.
She is well-liked by everybody. Young Master Andrej, she heard he doesn't like conformity. Truly a person of his own. But suddenly, there he is avidly talking about another person.
"Elder brother Thais was assigned to be her knight three years ago."
"The Captain of the Eastern Knights Barracks?"
"Yes. He said she is excellent with the sword and horseback riding, and already on her way to becoming the first female Swordmaster. I thought brother was exaggerating but I saw her in the park once."
"She goes to the park?" One asked.
"She does, almost every day you know. She rides her horse and does some light exercise. And get this, she wears breeches. It looks really fearless."
Unable to continue eavesdropping, Regina decided to show herself. She made sure she wore an appropriate expression, she slowly peeked from the pillar. The five children quieted and looked her way.
"Who's wearing breeches?"
To the boys, she widened her eyes and bat her eyelashes slightly.
"She's a lady from the Duke Nachtwald household." Lloyd Bragg informed with a fawning smile.
Ignoring the other boy, she turned to the other side. "Is Young Master Wisteria familiar with her?"
"Not yet." Andrej answered unperturbed, his gaze bland with no hint of flattery unlike the other four beside him making Regina wonder if her smile held no effect to him.
She leaned closer wearing an astonished expression. "A lady wearing breeches? It must have looked lovely but I'm afraid that cannot be allowed, did you know that?"
The young Wisteria only shrugged. "It looks good on her though. Besides, I think it's practical for horse riding."
Regina's smile faltered. "You see, that is not the proper attire for a lady. Is it because she came from the country that she did not know the proper dress code? She must refrain from doing so unless she wanted the adults to get cross."
"Hmm, who cares if she's wearing breeches or whatever. It suits her that even Beau of Aurum Chronicle drew a sketch of her person. It's good, so what?"
How are the others going to retort when Regina herself has already clamped her mouth shut? At first, she thought that they shouldn't hold high expectations from a strange girl who doesn't even have a drop of fashion sense. Feeling vexed, she turned her back and walked away. Andrej did not give her any leeway at all and just continue to blabber on. Adding more insult to the injury when she caught sight of her father sneaking to the back of the mansion with a woman in his arms.
No doubt he is going to the house farther ahead. Her hands balled into fists when she saw the clothes she's wearing. That wasn't a guest, but a temporary maid! When she saw that no one was around she let out a furious scream and kicked the plum tree repeatedly.
That whore, that whore! Do they ever stop seducing my father?
Die you ugly slut! Just die.
Her Aunt Lucretia came catching her in the middle of her fit. Seeing her beautiful face contort menacingly her heart froze in fright. She hurried to the girl's side while glancing left and right worried that others may suddenly witness the scene.
"Dear, what happened?"
Regina cried out. "Father! Father is with a filthy woman again."
Lucretia looked stunned for a few seconds then recovered. "You must have been mistaken, he will not do that. Not when there are a lot of guests around."
"Oh, he did. I clearly saw him, and they went to the drying shed." She stabbed a finger to the direction of the said place as if it was a putrid contaminated place. "Wasn't he the one who suggested this gathering? If not for the Hallowed Ones I might think he intentionally did this so he can invite that harlot in!"
Lucretia crouched down and cupped her tender face with her ice cold hands. "Let's… let's calm down first, shall we?"
She continues to coax the furious girl, if not, how are they going to explain her sudden disappearance and change of mood?
"You must not let your emotions run wild like this especially when there are guests." Lucretia chides softly.
Her chest swirled with suppressed anger but in the end, Regina could only listen to her aunt. Nodding her head seem to have given Lucretia a peace of mind.
"I know how you hate it but you must endure. I will take care of it for you because I am on your side. Remember?"
She nodded weakly. "Y-Yes."
"Let me talk to your father, okay?"
Lucretia then smiled down at her sweetly. This aunt came here a few months ago to be her official chaperone, her own mother's younger sister who bore the same beautiful features. The only difference is that she has a tiny mole under her chin giving her an allure exclusive only to her. How she wished her own mother could show at least a quarter of care her aunt shows.
"I won't let some wretch ruin my beloved Regina's day." She crooned, hugging the little girl lovingly as her light green eyes glinted sharply as it looking at the direction of the drying shed.