✧The Wealthy Man’s Effort and Sincerity✧
“You don’t resemble the same person who sold his daughter to me. Since I last saw you, you must have undergone an abrupt change of heart.” Bastian said skeptically, tilting his head.
Duke Dyssen hastily retorted, “Th-that was only a mistake I made in a stressful circumstance,” having second thoughts about his scathing remark. It wouldn’t be prudent to embarrass the captain Klauswitz, by acting rashly. Since he was well known for being reticent.
“Had I not shown mercy, the events of that fateful night at the gaming table would have taken a far different turn,” Bastian spoke with confident ease about the subject. Meanwhile, Duke Dyssen was filled with unease, discomfited by the direction of the conversation, which was far from what he had anticipated. Just then, the tea server appeared, interrupting their discussion.
Regaining his breath, Duke Dyssen took a moment to survey his surroundings. The tea server approached with the grace of a ghost, effortlessly pouring the steaming liquid into delicate cups.
Their uniform, made of the finest material, spoke of their high rank among the serving staff. It was clear that they were part of a family of great power and prestige, far removed from the tarnished reputation of a mere antique merchant’s household.
The garden was a wild tangle of neglect, yet if one looked closely, the signs of once meticulous care were still visible. Amid the overgrowth, ancient trees and rare blooms could still be found, a testament to the discerning taste of the former owner. It was whispered that the mansion was acquired by the antique dealer in a debt settlement from an aristocratic family who couldn’t repay their loans.
These parasites were like a filthy rat, spreading their contagion and eroding the world’s order. The noble names that had built and protected the empire, its long history and traditions, were being ruined by these scoundrels, much like Duke Dyssen himself.
As they passed by the stately mansion, surrounded by verdant trees and adorned with a grand old fountain, Duke Dyssen’s eyes wandered back to Bastian sitting across from him. The imperial officer’s uniform, adorned with medals of distinction earned in wartime, and the opulent townhouse located in the heart of the capital all spoke of his elevated status. Had Duke Dyssen not known of Bastian’s true origins, he would have easily believed him to be a scion of a prominent family yet, like a rat playing at royalty among the ruins of a lost kingdom, Bastian’s true nature was revealed.
“Why don’t you use that sharp tongue of yours to tell the emperor how you won Odette in a back alley gambling den? If you lack the courage, I’ll do it for you. Your newfound reputation will be buried in the mud by dawn.” Duke Dyssen spat out his animosity with biting words. He would have preferred a more sophisticated approach, but when the grandson of an antique dealer flaunted his arrogance, Duke Dyssen was left with no choice.
“Suit yourself.” Bastian said nonchalantly as he took a sip of tea, his voice echoing in the darkening purple evening. “Is my reputation worth risking over such a trivial matter? It’s no big deal if it gets tarnished.”
“Ha! So the reputation of a hero is so easily sullied? At the end of the day, you can disguise yourself all you want, but your roots will always show.” Despite his taunts, Duke Dyssen’s hands were soaked in cold sweat. In effort to conceal this, he redoubled his efforts.
“So you presume to preach me about honor?” Bastian sneered, flicking the remnants of his cigarette. His piercing blue eyes held the chill of a serpent’s gaze, sending shivers down one’s spine.
“You may have the emperor’s backing, but I am Odette’s father, and I alone have the say in her fate. No matter what the emperor desires, you will need my blessing to lay claim to her.” Duke Dyssen’s voice rose in righteous anger, fueled by a fierce determination to protect his daughter by all means and ends.
Duke Dyssen had learned that Bastian was captivated with Odette. The whispers he gathered from his sources all confirmed the same tale, a scandal that had spread like wildfire through high society. What he saw and heard echoed this, a tale both intriguing and shocking. He knew all too well the power of love’s sway, for he too had once been lost in its foggy haze.
It was a vexing insult to say that Duke Dyssen had attempted to take advantage of Princess Helene. If not for that, he would have abandoned his wife when she lost her status as an imperial princess. The fact that they had their precious diamond of a daughter, Odette, prevented that naive love from being totally worthless, even though they may have been better off in hindsight.
“I have the right to wed Odette to another person if I so choose. Odette will be far more suited to a more sophisticated and exquisite family, even if they are a little less wealthy, than you. You are nothing but a vulgar brat, even if you are a hero who is acclaimed.” Said Duke Dyssen.
Bastian tilted his head and grinned sarcastically, when he heard Duke Dissen’s bluff.
“Then, why wait until now to wed your deserving daughter?” Bastian queried.
“I was merely being cautious. Had our family’s circumstances not taken a turn, Odette would have been wed to the Empire’s most renowned family, perhaps even a foreign royalty, destined to become a queen.”
“Oh, I see,” Bastian nodded.
“So, to be worthy of my daughter’s company, wouldn’t it require a display of effort and genuine commitment?” the Duke proposed.
“Effort and genuine commitment,” Bastian repeated with a smirk. “You really mean money, don’t you?” And with that, Bastian exposed the Duke’s true intentions.
“So, I’m getting to the point,”
“I won’t be giving you anything.” Bastian interjected with a confident and dismissive tone. “If you wish to marry your daughter off to someone else, as you mentioned, it’s your right as a father. I’ll honor your decision. However, currently, the Emperor has his sights set on Lady Odette, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
He gave a casual shrug, his response taking the Duke by surprise.
“Whether you want to see her become the hostess of a prestigious family or a foreign queen, it’s up to you, but if you want to keep that dream alive, you better consider all your options carefully.”
“Wouldn’t it be a shame for your daughter’s reputation to be tarnished by rumors of her association with a lowlife like me?” Bastian scoffed, the smirk on his face growing wider with each passing moment. “But for me, it’s just another tale in the making.” He leaned in, his words dripping with venom. Duke Dyssen’s eyes widened in disbelief as Bastian continued his relentless attack.
“If you play your cards right, I’ll return your daughter to you unscathed. Just like that fateful night at the gambling house.” Bastian took a long drag from his cigarette, his blue eyes piercing into the Duke’s.
“How dare you… how dare you…” The Duke stammered, his anger boiling over. But Bastian remained unfazed, exhaling a plume of smoke into the air.
Bastian gently rose from his seat, his movement fluid and graceful like always. He flicked the remains of his cigarette into the ashtray, then nonchalantly adjusted his hat. “For a more refined conversation, I recommend you seek an audience with the Emperor,” Bastian said coolly, offering a respectful nod before turning away.
Duke Dissen’s curses echoed behind him as the man regained his senses and smashed a nearby vase in anger. But Bastian remained unfazed, his strides purposeful and steady as he vanished from sight. He never once looked back.
As the nanny drifted into slumber, Isabelle breathed a sigh of relief. The sleeping pills had done their job, even though she had only taken a fraction of the dose, wary of any unintended consequences.
She reached under the bed, retrieving the tightly wrapped package she had kept hidden. Within lay the carefully gathered garments of the maids, collected piece by piece over the course of many days. She couldn’t simply wait for her fate to be handed over to Belov. The sense of helplessness fueled Isabelle’s resolve.
Isabelle was set to handle the situation on her own. She got sleeping drugs, pretended to be intoxicated, and hid from her nanny and servants. In the course, she discovered important information during this little period of freedom, including the maids’ tea break, a young maid’s approaching vacation, and the frantic movement of supply carts. These tiny nuggets of information served as her stepping stones to optimism and helped her get closer to her objective of meeting her beloved Bastian.
She must meet him.
Isabelle made a pledge and quickly changed into new clothes. She made sure to place her pillows and cushions underneath the blanket to give the impression that she was sleeping.
When she was ready to flee, Isabelle approached the window with caution while pressing the brim of her simple straw hat. The nanny was still sound asleep while lying in a large chair.
The other maids who drank the drugged tea with the nanny must have experienced the same thing that Isabelle believed.
“Forgive me, nanny” Isabelle whispered, pressing a soft kiss to the nanny’s weathered cheek. “Please understand me.” Her heart ached with a blend of sadness and determination, but she willed herself to keep her tears at bay.
This could be her final opportunity to break free, and she refused to spend the rest of her life filled with regret. With swift movements, Isabelle stuffed the money and jewelry she had carefully set aside into the worn bag of the servant. She had gathered enough supplies to last her for a sufficient amount of time, though.
Isabelle frantically rummaged through her possessions, searching for anything of value to help fund her escape. She desperately wished she could have procured more valuable trinkets, but her limited mobility had made it near impossible.
With a heavy heart, she carefully placed the few items she had managed to gather, along with a heartfelt apology note, into her worn satchel. She hesitated for a moment as she gazed upon the glittering engagement ring from Prince Belov, but with a determined heart, she left it behind. She wouldn’t let anyone, not even the prince to blemish the pure love she had for Bastian.
Her heart pounding with excitement and nerves, Isabelle tightly clutched her bag and approached the bedroom door.
It was now 11 PM, and the back gate of the Summer Palace would soon be opening. This was her only chance, the moment she had been eagerly waiting for, and she wasn’t going to let it go.