“I can’t do this. Just throw me into a den of bandits instead. I’d rather die than do this.”
Anna’s sharp tantrums had reverberated through the castle walls for the past several days. Her hysteria had only grown more extreme as the days went on. Anna threw her tantrum as she kicked around her feet with a blue silk dress wrapped around her body and her golden tresses were rolled up in delicate metal curlers. This was her way of rejecting the arranged marriage that the newly crowned king, Cayden, had ordered with her entire being. Hot tears poured out of her sapphire eyes, so blue that they seemed to glow, like rain. The cheekbones of her lovely face, lovely enough to move the heart of any man, were jutting out because she had refused to eat her meals for the past several days.
“How could you sell me off to a lousy, common-born noble—I absolutely cannot go. I won’t! Haven’t you heard the rumors, Father? The rumors of just how lowly his origins are? Regardless of how much the world may have changed, it’s dreadful just imagining that I’ll have to breathe the same air as that bastard. Please don’t marry me off to a stupid brute who knows only how to slaughter like a butcher!”
Anna screamed indiscriminately at her father, Viscount William, who looked back at her with a look of annoyance on his face. Standing next to him was her mother, Jocelyn, who looked exactly like a slightly older version of Anna, wiping away her trailing tears with an expensive lace handkerchief.
Viscount William’s body language became all the smaller and shabbier before Anna’s incredibly bold protests. The king’s orders had taken a similar toll on the Viscount, as he had hoped to marry off his beautiful daughter to the king. Alas, the Viscount had sided with the previous king, Ducaine III, during the civil war and had no choice but to obey the current king’s orders if he wanted to survive. Cayden, who had risen to the throne after emerging victorious from the civil war, had granted Eli, a man of common birth who had displayed the utmost valor and had saved the newly crowned king’s life on multiple occasions, the title of a duke and had simultaneously ordered that Viscount William’s daughter, Anna, be wed to him. Wedding Anna, a noble, to Eli was the king’s way of solidifying the legitimacy of Eli’s new rank.
Anna now had to go to Eli in a week’s time for their wedding. Her vehement protests had only grown more extreme as that deadline drew closer.
She turned to her father with her tearstained face and coldly declared,
“I’d rather die. I’d rather hang myself and die if you truly mean to marry me off to him, Father!”
“No, Anna. How could you say that you wish to die after all we’ve done to raise you? We dislike him as much as you do. But our household will be wiped out if you don’t marry him—so what else can we do?”
Jocelyn said with tears mixed into her voice. Still, Anna turned to William and strongly protested her fate again.
“You’re supposed to save me even if it means offering the king our entire fortune. You have the ability to do that, Father. Is the estate and this old, decrepit castle so important to you that you must even sacrifice me to protect it?”
However, the corners of Viscount Williams mouth curled up, revealing that he hadn’t the slightest intention of giving up his wealth and his noble rank. It was only natural for him to sacrifice Anna, the eldest of his five daughters, for the sake of the household. It was obvious to him that his domain would be washed away in a bloodbath if the king or Eli ever learned of the extent of Anna’s protests. The last thing he wanted to do was to invite disaster when he was already in a situation where he had to protect what remained of his fortune.
“I have plenty of sisters, do I not? Send one of them instead. Wouldn’t that be enough?”
“But Anna, your sisters are far too young. How am I supposed to marry off children who haven’t even reached the age of ten? The rest of us can live in peace and comfort if only you bear with this. Won’t you change your mind?”
“No, I can’t agree to that. Please don’t send Anna away, even if it means abandoning everything else like she said. I beg of you. I’ll cry myself to death if you send Anna away.”
Viscount William pulled impulsively at his moustache when Jocelyn took Anna’s side and made her ardent appeal. His barely suppressed rage had begun to boil. His troubles stemmed from the fact that they had spoiled their daughter too much as they raised her.
The Viscount glared at his wife and daughter with a sharp glint in his eyes. Jocelyn quickly held her breath when she was met with his glare. She knew better than anyone else that her husband would do anything to protect his wealth and title. Marrying Anna off to Eli was but a trivial matter to him. Anna knew of her father’s temperament as well. However, she couldn’t bring herself to back down without a fight like Jocelyn had because she felt that she was as good as dead if she married Eli.
And so, Anna plopped down where she stood and turned on the waterworks. Her tears had always been effective. Anna’s tears had always managed to pull at others’ heartstrings in the past, possibly because of her slender frame and renowned beauty, and she cried as sorrowfully as she could even now.
But things played out a bit differently this time around. Viscount William had started to grow irritated. He continued to pull at his mustache in a temper as his body began to tremble. He stared down coldly at Anna with eyes as emotionless as glass beads for a moment before abruptly turning around upon hearing something behind him. He had even forgotten that a maid had been present in the room for a moment because Anna had been making such a fuss. He saw the maid’s back as she fed logs into the fireplace. Her hair, which spilled down to her shoulders, was strawberry blonde. Then, Viscount William turned to Anna and opened his mouth as a brilliant idea flashed in his mind.
“All right, I understand. There’s nothing more I can do if you’re prepared to die before marrying him.”
“Truly? Father, do you mean it?”
“Yes. We’ll have this child go instead.”
Anna and Jocelyn turned around at the same time. They simultaneously understood what Viscount William was planning as soon as they saw the tired maid feeding the fire in a crude and frayed grey muslin dress.
“I can’t possibly marry off my precious daughter to a mere commoner. You must marry someone much better than him instead. Our household will flourish even more that way.”
“But won’t she be found out immediately? One look at her will make it obvious that she’s not Anna, so what time could she possibly buy us? Not to mention that the king won’t take kindly to this if he finds out.”
Viscount William grew furious upon hearing Jocelyn’s worried words.
“Then what would you have me do instead? Are you saying that we should hand over everything we own to the king for disobeying his orders and live on the streets? Our daughter is childish and immature while her mother walks around like she’s living in a dream—so what brilliant idea could either of you possibly come up with? Do you think that everything will work out as long as you start crying without a single thought in your head?”
“Then what more are you saying we should do?”
Viscount William looked between his dull-witted wife and daughter and spoke to them in a low, but cold, tone.
“Anna will enter the monastery with that child and teach her proper etiquette for a week before sending her off to Eli dressed as Anna. And we will say that our daughter has fallen gravely ill in the meanwhile. If she’d found out, we can simply say that we only sent that child over to deliver news that Anna is bedridden from her illness and that she, a bastard, lied in order to climb the social ladder.”
It was truly a bold and daring proposal. Viscount William hadn’t shown even the slightest bit of hesitation despite that the girl in question was still in the room.
“If, by chance, she runs away or reveals the truth, we can simply have her killed.”
Jocelyn ignored the awful contents suggested by his words and instead bristled up at the mention of the word, “bastard.” There were already three bastard children of Viscount William’s living in the castle. At first, she had thought that they were simply newly hired maids and only learned that they were her husband’s bastard children afterward. Viscount William cleared his throat for a moment upon seeing the glint in Jocelyn’s eyes, which seemed to ask, ‘Then is she another one of your bastards, dear?’ before he continued speaking.
“Eli is but an ignorant commoner, so it’ll take some time before he figures it out. And let me also make it clear that she isn’t my bastard. She’s just some maid I bought for cheap at some market somewhere, so don’t make any pointless assumptions.”
Anna remained entirely unaware of the war of nerves that had broken out between her parents and expressed only her delight at the fact that she had avoided having to marry Eli by clapping with a smile curling up to her ears. Viscount William had proposed an excellent idea just as she had thought that she would do absolutely anything as long as it meant that she wouldn’t have to marry Eli.
“I will teach her, Father. That child doesn’t even reach the bottom of my feet, but she’ll suit Eli well. A maid is the perfect match for a piggish brute of a duke like him. But Father, one week simply isn’t enough time.”
“What’s the difference between teaching her for one week or for one month when it’s possible that she’ll die as soon as she meets Eli?”
“You do have a point. It appears that I must call in Lota. Lota! Lota!”
A crafty light spread across Anna’s face and she smiled so broadly that you would have never known that she had ever been crying. She called for Lota loudly.
In a chilling voice, Viscount William commanded the maid before him, Edna, saying,
“I’ll have your tongue and eyes ripped out if you ever speak of this, bitch. Even if you escape us, Eli will kill you himself if you ever speak to him of this. Understand? And you’re done here—go work somewhere else.”
When Edna nodded quietly and left the room, Viscount William began to formulate the specifics of his plan with his wife and daughter.
Edna walked over soundlessly to feed the fireplace in the next room while covering her face, stained with dirt and bruises, with a towel. She covered her ashen face with both hands and froze up as soon as she entered the room. The conversation that she had just overheard replayed in her ears. The plot to deceive the king and duke. Edna murmured to herself as she stood alone in the room.
‘Not only are they going to risk someone else’s life in order to escape their own troubles, but they’re also cooking up a scary plan to deceive the king and duke—they must be insane.’
Everyone in the castle already knew that Viscount William would brave any storm if it meant keeping his fortune and title. But never even in her wildest dreams had Edna thought that he was so short-sighted as to think up of such a reckless plan.
Edna paled even further. They were serious. Their plan was already as good as started. Even if they didn’t end up carrying it out, there was no way they’d let her live now that she’d heard about it. Edna clenched her old and frayed clothes with her face as pale as a sheet. But just then, the thought that she might be able to stop living as a maid, that she might be able to escape from this place, began to fill her mind.
Edna, too, had heard many rumors about Eli. He was said to be a devil of a man who never hesitated to order the cruelest of punishments on anyone he didn’t like. Edna was scared and frightened. But, she understood that going to Eli could be the better choice for her, now that she would be killed even if she stayed here.
Just then, she heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the door. Edna took a few quick breaths in succession and forced her frozen body to move, but the pail holding the firewood slipped out of her still-stiff fingers. Lota, the head maid, slammed the door open and began to speak as soon as a loud clatter echoed throughout the room.
“Look at you. I just knew that you’d be standing here like an idiot again. I’m tempted to whip you something good right now, but the Big Miss is asking for you, so go see what she wants.”
“How many times do I have to tell you not to talk back? Just do as you’re told. Ugh, you smell. There’s a stench coming from you that make me feel like my nose’ll rot off. You may be young, but you’re so lazy that you’re utterly useless.”
Edna’s face was entirely covered with bruises. She had gotten into a scuffle with Gilbert, one of the head knights, in order to protect her body as if she was some kind of noble’s daughter. And she hadn’t even blinked an eye even when she had been beaten all over. Edna’s arrogance did not sit well with Lota at all. She didn’t like Edna’s unparalleled clumsiness in her work, as if she’d never worked a day in her life before coming here, or the dumb, unfocused look in Edna’s eyes, either.
Edna moved to Anna’s room after she had picked up the fallen pieces of firewood one by one.
Anna scowled when she saw Edna enter the room with her head bowed low.
“Do you even bathe? I can smell the stench coming off you even from a distance. It makes me feel like my nose will rot off.”
“Enough. It seems like I’ll have to have you take a bath before I can teach you anything. I can’t stand to be in the same room as you because you smell so bad. Lota! Lota! Hurry up and come in here.”
When Lota entered the room, so quickly that she must have been waiting just outside, Anna jerked her chin at Edna and coldly said,
“Take her outside and bathe her in hot water.”
“Pardon? Bathe her, you say? I could just have her bathe in the pond……”
“Do you really think all that grim would come off her with just that? Bring her back to me after you’ve scrubbed her down so hard in hot water that her skin is raw.”
Head Maid Lota glared daggers at Edna out of the corner of her eye before aggressively taking the latter by the arm and dragging her outside. She was curious as to why Anna had suddenly told her to bathe the girl, but she could not figure it out no matter how hard she tried. And neither was she in any position to question Anna about it. So, with little other choice, Lota dragged Edna outside and, feeling that the luxury of hot water was unworthy of the maid, washed Edna in ice-cold water and scrubbed her down until her skin was red and raw.
Edna clenched her teeth and endured the pain of what felt like her skin was tearing apart. One corner of her heart was gradually growing more comfortable. That she would be sent to Eli was as good as written now that they had decided upon it. There was nothing she could do about it when faced with the reality that she had nowhere to go even if she ran away. Naturally, she would be killed once it was revealed that she was not Anna, but at least she wouldn’t have to starve for a few days before then. She would also be able to be free from the fear of getting raped, albeit only temporarily. Edna grit her teeth as she thought of the golden opportunity that offered her the chance to escape the fear of hunger, flogging, and rape that she had endured these past two years, even if only for a little while.
Lota, who washed the girl in what could only just barely be called a bath by continuously pouring cold water over her was utterly exhausted. Still, Lota grabbed Edna by the chin and twisted it around to get a better look at the girl’s face while thinking that she was rather presentable now that she had been washed properly. She couldn’t see the color of Edna’s pupils, as the girl did not have her eyes open all the way, but she found that the girl’s once hidden body was very nice in figure.
“I always wondered why the knights raised such a fuss trying to sleep with you when you smelled so badly, but now I see it was because of your figure. Men these days……. Now, go.”
Even as she hurled insult after insult, Lota threw the girl a set of old but clean clothes and smacked her across the back. Edna bit her lips and hastily put them on. Then, she ran into Gilbert when she ran out into the hall as if to run away. Head Knight Gilbert’s eyes slit like a snake’s when he saw Edna fresh out of a bath and wearing clean clothes. Edna tried to avoid him and quickly make her way up to Anna’s room. However, Gilbert blocked her path and moved to grab her breasts with his uncouth hands. When Edna took a step and just barely evaded his reach, Gilbert pulled her into his embrace by her still wet hair. A sharp scream immediately escaped Edna’s lips.
Anna stepped into view the moment Gilbert began moving his hands to grope Edna with a treacherous smile on his face. Anna sneered upon seeing Gilbert standing in the hall with Edna trapped in his arms and coldly said,
“Gilbert. Let go.”
For a moment, Gilbert looked back at Anna with a look of displeasure on his face. Anna, however, immediately raised her eyebrow and rebuked him sharply.
“What’s this? Are you trying to disobey me right now? I said let go.”
Edna quickly ran up the stairs to stand by Anna’s side the very moment that Gilbert relaxed his grip, and Anna took the girl back into her room. Anna had already changed into her street clothes, as they had to leave the castle soon, and smiled in satisfaction upon looking over at Edna. However, Anna saw the fresh bruise on Edna’s newly cleaned face and coldly asked,
“What’s with your face? Were you beaten again?”
Anna, too, knew from the maids’ gossiping of how Edna rebelled in order to avoid having to sleep with the knights. She had also heard that Gilbert had been relentlessly waiting for a chance to get the jump on Edna these past few days. Anna looked back at Edna with pity and began thinking aloud.
“You really are a child who doesn’t know how to make life easy for yourself. To think that you’d do this to your face when all you had to do was sleep with them. Whatever shall I do with you? I suppose all I can do is hope that your bruises fade within the week. Now, let’s go. Hurry up and hold my things.”
Anna had packed her things while Edna was bathing. Rumors would spread if she taught Edna and sent her off from the castle. And so, she planned to move to the monastery, send Edna to Eli from there, and lay low there for a while.
They absolutely required the monastery’s assistance if they wanted to successfully have Anna and Edna switch places. This was why Viscount William had reached back into his hidden safe, pulled out a few gold coins, and stiffly poured them into a pouch. The Viscount, who prided himself for his fast calculations, had no doubt that more opportunities would open up for the household through Anna as long as they survived their current crisis.
Once he had completed his preparations, Viscount William solemnly announced to all who lived in the castle that Anna was to cleanse her mind and body at the monastery. Anna bid her parents her tender farewells with crocodile tears pouring from her eyes. Edna climbed into the carriage after Anna had done the same whist still in tears. Jocelyn kept up her act and cried an ocean’s worth of tears until the carriage had travelled so far that she could no longer see it, and Viscount William quickly left his seat as if to show that he could no longer bear the pain of bidding farewell to his daughter.
“She was being so stubborn about it, but she’s leaving in the end. Even Milord, as cunning as he is, couldn’t predict the late king’s defeat. But gracious, he was still able to keep his life and title in exchange for one of his daughters. Thank goodness that Miss Anna still has some filial piety left in her, even if she was stubborn about it at first. We were all almost chased off the land.”
Lota shamelessly muttered quietly to herself. Then, yet another maid opened her mouth to speak.
“But why did she take Edna with her, of all people? Didn’t Miss Anna hate Edna? She would always starve Edna or have her whipped for the smallest things, so why her?”
Upon hearing the maid’s words, Lota wickedly murmured,
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? She’s taking Edna with her to torture her. She’s going to take out her frustrations on the girl. I suppose Edna’s a bit pitiful, now that I think about it. But it’s much better than one of us going in her stead. Miss Anna’s temper is something fierce.”
Convinced by what Lota had said, the other maids began to clamor about how pitiful Edna was to have been dragged along as a sacrificial lamb.
“She’s actually quite pretty, as far as looks are concerned, but I don’t know why she’s so stupid. I can already see just how many times she’s going to get herself whipped.”
“That aside, but did you see the color of Edna’s eyes? They were this mysterious brownish color that’s hard to describe with words. It even looked like there was a bit of gold mixed in them.”
“That’s ridiculous! They were basically just rotten fish eyes when I last saw them. They were a dull black and she couldn’t even focus them properly.”
“No way. But they were gold when I saw them?”
Lota cut off the maid’s conversation once and for all when they began quarreling about the color of Edna’s eyes.
“Shut up. Why are you so curious about the color of Edna’s eyes when she’s already left? Now, let’s go back and prepare for dinner. A few of you will start by cleaning Miss Anna’s room, since we never know if she’ll change her mind about going off to get married—as capricious as bubbling gruel, that one. Viscount William will have us all flogged at once if he sees us like this.”
At Lota’s direction, the bickering maids all returned to their respective work one by one with looks of discontent on their faces. As Lota had said, Viscount William was the type of person who would whip the maids and more if he caught them prattling about like this.
Lota suddenly recalled how she had washed Edna earlier. The fact that the maids were stirring up such a fuss about the color of Edna’s eyes only meant that no one in the castle had ever taken a proper look at the girl. There probably wasn’t a single person in the castle who had known how nice Edna’s figure was because she always covered herself in loose and shabby clothing. Even Lota would have remained entirely unaware if she hadn’t bathed Edna earlier that day. For a moment, Lota wondered why Edna never washed herself properly. There was no way that she hadn’t kept clean on purpose in order to protect herself. After all, there was no way that Edna could have thought up of a plan like that. In any event, Lota would be able to sleep at night without having to hear the blood-chilling sounds and screams of Edna getting beaten for the meanwhile.