“Were you perhaps at the library yesterday?” Tholin asked, dry coughing.
“I beg your pardon?” Lia responded, feigning confusion.
“So, that is…” he said, trailing off.
“If you have nothing else to say, I’ll be off,” Lia said, stepping to the side.
His hand darted out, grabbing her arm, he asked, “Do you perhaps have a sister? Someone unknown to us?”
Lia anticipated the question and quickly responded, saying, “I only have a brother, as everyone knows. I would appreciate it if you didn’t make unfounded accusations.”
Lia knew that the Count was a weak, sniveling man, and would not confront her with such a question again after she had been so openly hostile towards him. With this, she took her leave.
Eyes cast down, as to avoid any unwelcome attention, she walked through the crowded room. A pair of dress shoes appeared in front of her. Recognizing who they belonged to, she bowed gracefully, not missing a beat, saying, “Greetings, your grace.”
Silence met her greeting. She lifted her eyes to meet his cold ones. Indecipherable. She couldn’t begin to imagine what he was thinking.
Unbidden, his words from the previous day flashed through her mind, “Despicable Canillian Vale.”
Tired of him and his cruel words, she gave him a bitter smile and continued on her way.
As she entered the building, she heard the chatter of over-excited students gossiping.
“Have you heard? The principal has left the Academy?” a dark-haired student excitedly said to her friend.
“I heard it’s his health, he needs to take time to recover,” her friend responded.
“I’m not so sure. I’ve heard rumors that the Duke had something to do with it,” the raven-haired girl said in a conciliatory whisper.
Jolting to a stop in the middle of the hallway, Lia’s heart sank, finally coming to rest in her toes.
Blurting out, “He’s really gone?” Lia asked, interrupting the girl’s conversation.
“Yes, he left this morning. We assume he annoyed the hire-ups. There is no other reason for him to have left in such a hurry. We think it might have been Duke Claude Eddie annoyed; The Duke has never made it a secret that he doesn’t like the principal,” the girl informed Lia.
“I heard a rumor that the Duke hates Eddie because the principal hurt one of the Duke’s servants,” her friend chimed in.
“I heard it wasn’t a servant….” the dark-haired girl said conspiratorially.
Abruptly, Lia turned and walked away from them, her thoughts in turmoil. She desperately tried to come up with a reason for his departure that didn’t involve her. At a loss, she couldn’t come up with a single one.
Hot and flustered, her breathing was labored. She just wished that the dark blue fingerprints marking her wrist would disappear.
“Duke Claude will be escorting you again today,” Marilyn said, her voice husky.
Looking at the modest dress she was to wear, Lia nodded her head in resignation, saying, “I’m sorry to inconvenience him again.“
“Not at all. But I must admit I am a little jealous, he seems to pay more attention to you, even though we are to get married soon,“ she said, a playful smile gracing her face.
Forcing a small smile onto her face, Lia pointed at the brown wig, the one she had worn last time. However, Marilyn, paying no heed to Lia’s wishes, got out the honey-colored wig instead, stating, “This suits you better. “
“There you go,“ Marilyn said, exclaiming quietly, “You have very feminine features, you can easily pass for a woman.“
Lia felt a moment of fear. Did she suspect anything? Was the other woman going to expose her?
Unaware of Lia’s fears, Marilyn fetched something out of an ornate box. Approaching her, the woman handed a glowing blue ornament to her.
“A gift. It will protect your heart,“ Marilyn said, pinning it to the left of Lia’s shirt, over her heart.
Still terrified that her secret would come out, she gave the other woman an icy stare, declaring, “Just because I don’t look like a conventional man, doesn’t mean I’m not one.”
Departing, Lia walked towards the gardens. Under a canopy, she saw Claude del Ihar sipping from a cup of tea, his countenance darker than usual. She wondered what had put him in such a bad mood this time.
As he spotted her, she was conflicted. She could not decide whether to avoid him, or pretend nothing had happened.
While mentally debating with herself, her feet carried her ever closer to the Duke.
Noticing that he wasn’t alone, she recognised Prince Wade as well as Ian sitting at the table. At her approach, they all three stood, greeting her.