Chapter Twenty Three: Souls made of Envy
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“Ophelia, my dear,” Duke Wharton welcomes me with his kind smile as I sit on the couch.

“Thank you for having me today Duke,” he follows my steps and faces me after resting his body on a small divan.

“I heard about what happened from Mace... How are you?” his hand grabs a teacup placed on the wooden table.

“I’m alright... I am grateful for your concern,” I smile politely as the Duke started to look worried.

“I am relieved to know that but... How are you feeling about your sister? Have you tried talking with her?” I already knew that he wasn’t referring only to my physical state. I don’t know how far the information has spread but taking into consideration that there were a lot of nobles present, it is only natural to assume that everyone knows about Amanda’s actions.

“Duke... No...” I straighten myself and look into his eyes confidently, “Father, during my stay here I was treated as an individual, something that never happened in the Criswell’s mansion so, in my eyes, the Wharton’s are my only family,” Edgar's eyes widen in surprise. 

“Ophelia...” he gets up and sits beside me, “I hope you will excuse my momentary selfishness dear,” he then hugs me kindly. He was so warm and I felt like my body was melting, I never received this type of love from Duke Criswell so, being treated like an actual daughter, was something new.

“It is alright father,” I hug him back gently. A couple of minutes pass and Edgar Wharton places some distance between us once again. 

“You see, I’ve always wanted to have a daughter but sadly my wife passed away before being able to make my wish come true... I couldn’t bear getting married again so I raised my kids the best that I could, I didn’t want them to miss anything but... I’ve always had an unfulfilled dream, lingering around,” I could hear the small cracks in his voice as he spoke, “Several years ago I went to the Criswell’s mansion with Terrel and when I saw you I thought how blessed your father was... That’s why I arranged your marriage with my son.”

Even knowing that the beginning of my tragedy was created by this man I couldn’t help but pity him. A man whose dreams filled his heart, a man whose kindness blinds his soul. A pure and naive man that was betrayed by the greed of status and power.

“I remember everything, the way you were poorly dressed and how the maids looked at you... Ophelia... I wanted you to be loved as the precious soul that you are and not neglected,” he continues while holding me tightly, “I would’ve never thought they would try such a horrid thing... If I did I would’ve...”

“Father, stop blaming yourself. You are not to blame for the ink in another’s one’s heart. I may not be your child but, to me, you are more of a father than what my own blood ever was," I reassure him and feel some water drops on my shoulders.

“I’m glad to know child... If you ever need anything, whatever it might be, tell me... Let this selfishly foolish old man help you with anything he can,” he was aware that I could never be his daughter but, even then, he wished to believe in such truth. 

"Yes, thank you," I pat his back slightly, and after some long minutes pass he places some distance between us. I understood he needed to work and so I excused myself. I didn't want to take more of his precious time. 

The wooden door is closed behind me and I lean my back on it. My chest felt heavy as I recalled Edgar's words over and over again. My eyes became teary as I realized how much I had missed this warmth, this love. 

I loved my mother but, part of me desired to never have been born a Criswell in the first place. Perhaps, if I had been a part of this family instead things would've been completely different.

'If...' as I walked in the halls I felt a sense of loneliness embrace me. I knew that wishing was only for fools but I couldn't bring myself to forget about these desires, even if they were absurd.

 

“I’m sorry milady,” a servant bumps onto me but quickly apologizes. I quickly regain my composure realizing who the man was.

‘A rat with manners is it?’ I grin as I see Gilbert Averton. He was alone, walking around like a cockroach as his gaze avoided mine. Seeing how nervous he was I understood that something was afoot.

“John is it?” I smile kindly, “Be at ease, it was my fault as well. Are you feeling alright?”

“Yes milady, thank you very much for your concern,” he bows down politely.

“I’m glad to know... I heard you asked for a day off tomorrow, are you going to town?” I place my hands on his arms and he looks at me confused at this caring side I was portraying. 

“Yes milady, I will be visiting my family,” he responded awkwardly white scratching his messy brown hair.

“I understand... You should take them some flowers in my stead, consider it as an apology gift,” his eyes widen at my words.

“Milady that’s...” he didn’t know what to say. Looking at him, confused and conflicted, I understood he was doubting my words. Maybe he thought I was trying to find an excuse to beat him again or to abuse my power in any other way. 

Several minutes of silence pass but I continue to smile warmly, anxiously waiting for his reply.

“Please, make sure to accept them, it would make me sad if you didn’t...” I insist once again as I portrait a sad look. I wanted to play with him more, to push him more into feeling this anxiousness he never once felt, struggling to understand who I was and what I wanted.

“But milady...” it was clear he was still insecure regarding my intentions.

“I will be so sad that I could die if you...” as I was about to finish my sentence I see Gilbert’s eyes sharpen and his suspicious rose at the meticulous choice of words, “Will you accept my gift?”

“If you insist milady,” he smiles coldly and bows.

“Well then, have a rest of a good day and...” I turn around and right before I leave, I proceed, “...make sure to take extra care when meeting your family...” I glance at him and grin, “...you never know when it will be the last, so make sure to enjoy it to the fullest.”

He continues smiling politely but I could see that he was containing his true feelings after hearing my threat. Gilbert was controlling all of his muscles to stop into place since he didn't want to ruin his plan. 

He decides to remain quiet and then takes his leave hurriedly. A sweet sense of pride flew by me as I realized this game of hide and seek was more amusing than I originally thought. 

 

✽ ✼ ✽ ✼ ✽ ✼ ✽

 

「 Some hours later 」

“Olivia, go fetch me some writing material,” she obeys and takes her leave as Ivy combed my hair. 

“Are you writing a letter to someone milady?” she smiles politely while intervening. I glanced at her from the mirror but she looked unbothered, almost as if asking this was something trivial, without any ulterior motives. 

'Should I use this opportunity then...?' I grin understanding this was a good moment to evaluate Ivy's true purpose at the mansion. 

“Yes, I’ll be writing a letter to Lord Layton Verne,” I answer making her eyes widen with surprise before glimmering with anticipation.

“Lord Layton? Are you two friends milady?” she sounded extremely curious as to how far our relationship went. 

“We aren’t but I need to return something I borrowed from him...” she smiles warmly before creating a long and thick braid with my hair. 

"What did you borrow milady?" I noticed that her way of speaking was cautious and calm, almost as if she was testing her boundaries. 

'Is she trying to see how far can she go...?' a cold smile appears in the mirror and Ivy becomes slightly troubled. 

"Nothing of importance Ivy, I just intend to repay his kindness," I ended up speaking louder than usual, making all the remaining maids whisper among themselves, "Isn't that what we all should do?"

“Of course milady!” at my remark she understood that this was how far she could go before receiving a warning. 

Truthfully it didn't really matter if Ivy knows I was intending to grow closer to Layton Verne or not since, at the end of the day, the Verne's were never loyal to the Criswell's. I can dare to say that both of them despise each other, but, even then, Duke Criswell thought that the Marquess's large wealth could be useful and so, without a second thought, they made a deal. 

Marrying me to Layton Verne had been nothing but a filthy scheme of the Duke. He needed more money and so he was going to milk the Marquess dry. At the same time, the Marquess intended to become a Duke by title, even if he wouldn't be able to own a Dukedom. Overall, both parties had nothing to lose, a win-win situation with very low risk and high rewards. 

"I am hoping this matter won't leave this door, my dear maids," I speak obnoxiously loud, warning everyone to keep their mouth shut. 

'This should be enough, shouldn't it,' I knew I couldn't provide Ivy with accurate information but the only thing I needed was a name, nothing more, nothing less. Meeting the Duke will be the deciding factor: if he mentions Layton if because someone from this group exposed the information I so gracefully provided them with. 

These ladies, who wish to raise in status and gain more power, will always try to climb their way up, no matter the cost or who they have to step on and I am just a tool to be used for their greed. 

 

In this kingdom, the commoners believe that with money comes power, and thus, the easier way to achieve it is through marriage. That is the main reason why the majority of the maids, even during work, try to tend their manners and act gracefully, just like a young noblewoman would do. They intend to gain favor from the nobles, however, marriage with someone as low as a commoner is extremely rare. Nobles only see commoners as working dogs or the comfort in one cold night in the warm bedsheets, nothing more, nothing less. 

Contrary to the poor, most noble families have a different way of thinking: they believe that with strength comes power, however, the truth is nowhere as harsh. They have realized that money is a materialistic thing, something that comes and goes as it pleases, and thus, they concluded that one with strength can have all the power they need. This was all due to Alyssa, the Queen that took over the kingdom's affairs after the King's sudden illness. That is the main reason why the crown can't move carelessly around the noble families since the majority of them are creating armies to protect their titles and their heads. 

Of course, all of them are wrong. One doesn't need to be filled with strength or have rooms filled with wealth in order to have power since, in the end, they are all humans, dying as easily as rain in Frosting. The true power lies in the knowledge one has and how one uses it. That is the main reason why Alvin Criswell is able to stand firm against the other Dukes, with more manpower and wealth. It wasn’t luck or even a gift given at birth. It was education and sickening ideals.

 

“Milady, your writing materials, as you requested,” Olivia places the quill and paper on my desk and I swiftly get up. 

“Leave,” they obey my order and I sit in the wooden chair. The wind was blowing hard, making the loud sound of the leaves rattling rather obnoxious.

‘Well then... Lord Layton... I hate to know you are hiding from me little puppy...’ part of me was frustrated that he didn't attend the tea party since that was supposed to be another opportunity to get closer to him but I wasn't disappointed. 

I know what type of man Layton is. I’ve always known and because of that, I was already expecting his lack of reply and presence. He despises social events since he is always secluded by the nobles and aristocrats and he prefers wasting his time with his lover in town. This was something I couldn't change. 

‘Should I invite him for tea...?’ a silly thought ran through my mind but I quickly gave it up. I was aware that inviting another nobleman to my fiancé's house could bring up suspicions of having an affair, at least in Terrel's small brain. At the same time, I also knew that Layton would never come since he doesn't fancy these types of meetings.

Part of me was aware that I couldn't push that man since he doesn't deal well with pressure but I needed to get closer to him. I needed to make him leave this kingdom, whether he wanted it, or not. 

 

✽ ✼ ✽ ✼ ✽ ✼ ✽

 

「 Ophelia's memories, 2nd Life 」

“Ophelia Criswell, you should be ashamed of yourself!” the rough voice of Marquess Verne echoes in his dusty study room. His light brown hair is beginning to show the fruits of age while his dark chocolate eyes were surrounded by the accumulation of sleepless nights.

“What do you mean? I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I-...” this was all too sudden. I just woke up and now I’m being yelled at by my father-in-law. 

‘I couldn't even...' I bit my bottom lip as I realized I didn't even have time to change into proper clothing. The butlers in the room glared at me, giggling and whispering painful words as if they held more power and influence than me. I focus my attention on James Verne 'What is wrong with him?’ this was my first time seeing such a side of this man.

“You foolish, boring girl. My son just eloped! And with some merchant girl for that matter!” he throws a letter at me right before beating his hand on the wooden desk. My body flinches at the loud sound created and my hands trembled. 

I was scared. I didn't want to read the letter. I didn't want to face this reality. 

Slowly, I open it and notice several blurs on its writing, almost as if Layton was consumed by the guilt when writing it. 

 

[Father,

I hope you will forgive me. Several years ago I met Luana and, even if you told me to forget about her, I can’t bring myself to. I know you never thought of me as your own son but please allow this selfish human to do the only thing he ever asked of you.

Please don’t search for me and take care of my wife.

Layton Verne]

 

It was a small letter but no matter how you read it, you could feel Layton’s pained emotions. This didn’t come as a shock to me, in fact, I was merely counting the days for this to happen. 

I didn't know he had a lover but I knew how uninterested in me he was. After our wedding, I waited hours in the room, sitting in the bed, waiting for him to come but he only appeared at dawn. He looked at me confused as to why I hadn't given up and left or even tried to sleep. He then proceeded to lay on the bed, far from me right before falling asleep. I had been completely ignored. 

Several weeks passed and one time every seven days I would go to his room but nothing could be done. Some days he wouldn't come, others he would just sleep and others he would just look at me, pitifully with those beautiful hazelnut eyes, without saying anything. 

 

It was not long after I realized he actually had a lover: a merchant's daughter called Luana that barely managed to get by. They had been involved for several years but the Marquess didn't give Layton his blessing. Even then, I accepted their relationship and didn't try to intervene. 

I knew that my feelings for Layton were never meant to be. The memories of my first life still burned vividly in my mind. Terrel's touch, Terrel's face, everything was too clear. I couldn't bring myself to care for him, as the majority of the noble ladies tend to do once they are married. 

 

Eventually, James found out that I had not been deflowered yet, and thus, on one cold Hunting night, Layton came. He reeked of alcohol and his face was filled with bruises from his father's beating. That's when I knew we were going to do it. 

Layton's eyes glared at me with a mixture between pity and disgust as he found himself conflicted. As we were doing it, he didn't speak but I could feel the tears coming from his eyes, portraying the pain he felt for both of us. Besides our breath and the sharp sounds coming from the bed, nothing else could be heard. Half an hour passes but he couldn't bring himself to enjoy this, in fact, it was almost as if it was pure torture. 

After that, his father stopped bugging him for a while but, once in a while he forced him to have sex with me. Every time Layton appeared beat up, I knew what it meant. Even then, he never managed to finish the job, leaving the Marquess even more frustrated. I was aware that he wanted heirs with Criswell's lineage and thus he continued to force Layton into despair. 

 

I didn't really care who he slept with or who his heart belonged to, however, I always hoped we had built a relationship of mutual respect since we were both nothing but people stuck to their lives, without any possible escape. But, as I read this letter, I understand that I was nothing but a foolish believer. There was never a "us" in the first place. 

 

“This is all your fault! How am I supposed to become a Duke like this...!” the Marquess grabs a jar and throws it on the floor. A piece of it cut my cheek as it bounced off, creating a small red line that followed the rules of gravity. My body began to tremble as I was reminded of the beatings Terrel used to give me. I didn't want to go through the same pain again. 

“But Marquess I-...!” as I was about to attempt to explain myself his cold glare almost pierced my skin, making me swallow my words in a blink of an eye. 

“I don’t want to hear you. Go to your room. You are not allowed to leave until I order you too... filthy bitch, take her away!” the servants bow and grab my arms strongly. 

"Marquess, please...!" I struggle to get out of their reach but it was in vain. I quickly see the wooden door being closed right in front of my eyes. 

“Find him! He couldn’t have gone far! Find that bastard! I swear I’ll mince him into shreds next time I see him!” the Marquess yelled followed by several loud sounds. He was so enraged that he was breaking several objects inside. 

Even then, with the distance, his screaming soon turned into silence.

“Let me go! I have to talk to the Marquess...!” I fought as the young butlers opened my room's dark door.

“Shut up, did you really think you were wanted here? The Marquess only took you in because you are the Duke’s daughter, you cursed child... You have no saying here,” they both glared at me right after pushing me onto the floor, making me fall abruptly.

“You’d do well to remember to keep your thoughts to yourself, girl” the other man states right before closing the door on my face. I was once again confined and alone, without anyone in sight.

‘Why is this happening...? Why is this...? Why...?’ tears flew down from my eyes as I realized that this was nothing but a broken record with a different musical piece inside it.

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