The promised dinner was held in a room a short distance from the banquet hall, a place reserved solely for the blood of the Agnus family.
Joshua approached the door and pulled it open before the old butler had a chance to say anything.
“Yo-Young Master Joshua!”
Joshua was too occupied to hear the old butler. The first thing he saw through the open door was a middle-aged beauty with piercing eyes and arched brows. And next to her:
“Joshua?” Lucia was startled by Joshua’s sudden appearance. Vanessa, at the table’s head, and Chiffon, next to her, didn’t seem bothered.
“You’re Joshua, right? Is this the first time you’ve seen something like this?” Vanessa greeted him with a grin, but Joshua didn’t reply.
“Young Master Joshua, you stand before the lady of the Agnus family. Be courteous.” Chiffon scowled at him.
Still, Joshua remained silent.
“Young Master Joshua!” Chiffon exclaimed.
Joshua’s eyes snapped onto Chiffon for a moment, and his body quaked with shivers.
What kind of eyes does that boy have? Chiffon’s throat quivered. Before those eyes, all pretensions of etiquette were blown away; nothing was left but primordial instinct.
“Shouldn’t you say your greetings, Joshua?” Lucia looked him up and down with a worried expression.
“I am Joshua von Agnus. I greet the Duchess.”
Vanessa twitched. Was he disrespectful? No. She was bothered by the way he used the name “Agnus”. However, the Duchess recovered quickly.
“I heard you’re departing for the capital shortly. I was a little worried since I feel like I’ve never properly gotten to know you.”
“—Arcadia? Are you talking about Arcadia, Duchess?” Lucia’s eyes flew wide open.
“Just call me ‘Sister’,” Vanessa said.
“Oh my God, how dare I—” Lucia stuttered with a confused expression. Both were Duke Agnus’s mistresses, but their standings were as different as heaven and earth. Vanessa, descended from the noblest blood in the Avalon Empire, and Lucia, nothing more than a maid; in any other situation, it would be unthinkable to even look each other in the eye.
Vanessa’s demeanor made Lucia feel ashamed. She’d never treated Lucia so well before.
“You haven’t heard anything yet?”
“The Duke said he’d take my younger sister1 and Joshua with him when he returned to the capital.”
“Ah, what exactly do you mean?”
“Joshua is a Knight.” Chiffon stepped up to fill in the holes.
Lucia stared blankly at Joshua.
“This is a sore spot for me, because it looks like I never invited anyone to dinner… Don’t you think I’d be such a jerk to leave you like this?” Vanessa grinned.
“My, Duchess, don’t say that.”
“You called me that again.” Vanessa furrowed her brows.
“Please accept my apologies for neglecting you. If there is any lingering ill will, it is my wish that those feelings be laid to rest.”
“There are no grudges! You’ve been so gracious to extend this hospitality to us!”
“Thank you!” Vanessa clapped her hands together with a bright smile. “Please prepare the table as soon as possible.”
The door opened, and platters poured in one by one.
“Is your seat uncomfortable?” Vanessa asked Joshua. “ You haven’t looked this nice in a long time.”
“It’s quite inconvenient.”
Vanessa was puzzled by Joshua's immediate answer.
“Young Master Joshua!” Chiffon couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“Do you want to die?”
Chiffon flinched like he’d been bitten. His hand instinctively dropped to his belt.
This! His cheeks flushed. The implications of being chastised by this youngster—!
Alarm bells rang in Chiffon’s head as the energy around Joshua’s body thickened. Chiffon prepared to draw his sword.
Swordsmanship isn’t something you acquire just by growing up. Only the talented can learn it. So…
Cold sweat trickled down Chiffon’s back like he was facing down a B-Class Knight.
Joshua seemed completely centered, like the emotions of other people meant nothing to him. It seemed as if he was in control of his life, somehow.
“Seeing as you’re ready to draw your blade, it appears Sir Chiffon has a short temper—”
Joshua ground to a halt when he realized who was there. Chiffon let out a long breath like he’d been scrubbed clean. Vanessa grimaced, and Lucia looked annoyed.
If they’d been left alone…
“Stop it, Sir Chiffon,” said the Duchess.
“What impoliteness is this, Joshua?” said Lucia.
“Sir Chiffon, may we speak for a moment?” Vanessa locked eyes with Chiffon.
“I understand, Your Highness.”
Vanessa rose gently and turned to Lucia.
“Wait for just a moment,” said the hostess. “You can eat first.”
“Ah…” Lucia didn’t have time to reply before they walked out the door.
“Joshua, what’s the matter with you? What do they mean when they say you’re going to the capital? What about becoming a knight—?”
Lucia came to an abrupt halt when she saw the genuine remorse on Joshua’s face.
“Should I wait until later to hear what happened?”
Lucia cocked her head curiously.
“For the time being, I hope you’ll trust me.”
“Joshua?” Lucia was confused by Joshua’s stern expression.
His eyes were more frigid than they’d ever been.
Vanessa turned around once she’d gone some distance from the dining room.
“Sir Chiffon, what are we going to do?”
“Stop blaming others.”
“My apologies.” Chiffon bowed.
“I’m not sure why you’re acting so cruelly, Sir Chiffon.” Vanessa glared at him with poisonous eyes. “You’re fighting a small child.”
I remember the first time I saw that boy. From the depths of his heart, rage swelled. Animosity, without reason. He didn’t understand that emotion until now. Isn’t this envy?
I don’t want to admit it, but I couldn’t help myself. Damn it. Chiffon chewed his lip. An unbelievable talent, superior to his beloved master, and a profound sense of dignity that draws people in.
“Don’t be influenced by irrational feelings,” the Duchess said. “If you wanted to see good things, you may be out of luck.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those things just arrived yesterday,” replied the Duchess.
Chiffon stared wide-eyed at her.
“Gari” was a well-known poison among the knights. It was a pure white powder that was nearly tasteless and odorless, even to the highly developed senses of knights.
Gari might work.
“Even for a mere best, the last road is a comfortable one,” Vanessa said as she made her way slowly back to the dining room. “Knight? Arcadia? It’s not even funny. I don’t think a bug could be better than him.”
Vanessa’s smile was as cold as ice.
“This time, don’t make a mistake.”
“Have you been waiting for us… Was I holding you back? I’m ashamed we—”
“It’s just so cozy!”
Vanessa flashed a bright smile at Lucia’s reply before looking at Joshua.
“I offered Sir Chiffon some harsh advice; I hope you’re satisfied by it as well.”
Vanessa sat down and examined the food set on the table. Peculiarly, extra food was placed in front of Lucia and Joshua—Vanessa's intentions were, of course, hidden within.
“Sister Lucia, I hope your seats aren’t bothering you or your child?”
“Not at all! We’re fine.” Lucia spoke loudly, as if unsure of herself.
“I’m thrilled!” Vanessa smiled. “Thank god. I was afraid my sister would despise me.”
“That’s impossible,” said Lucia. She leapt to her feet like a frightened rabbit.
“I’m serious.” Vanessa covered her mouth bashfully. “I want to get to know my younger sister a little better.”
Although I wasn’t criticized openly, I had to sleep with one eye open for years. Lucia was greatly moved. It was only natural she would feel reassured by the first warm words offered to her.
“Shall we eat, then?”
Lucia nodded brightly.
“Wait.” The voice filled the dining room, instantly capturing the guests’ attention.
Joshua’s lips curled into a tiny smile.
“Before we eat, I’d like to express my regret. I had no idea there was a deeper meaning, and I was oversensitive.” He rose from his seat and bowed. “Please accept my heartfelt apologies.”
“All is well.” Vanessa seemed perplexed but smiled and nodded. Lucia, too, was smiling.
“It appears my young mind has accumulated useless poisons,” Joshua continued. “I don’t think my elder mother thinks like I do. If we’d known ahead of time, we would have prepared something ourselves—”
“It’s not too late.”
Joshua grinned widely at Vanessa’s reply.
“I appreciate you saying that, but you reached out first—” Joshua pointed at the table. “I can’t accept this kind of treatment from you.”
“Hey, Joshua, what do you mean?” Lucia shifted uncomfortably.
“Mother, it appears my elder mother is overly concerned about us. She only receives a small portion of the food, while we have so much.”
Indeed, delicacies were piled high in front of them. Vanessa’s cheeks flushed with unease as Joshua continued to push her.
Joshua drew an angelic smile on his lips as he pressed the attack home.
“Elder mother, I hope we can all enjoy our last dinner together.”
For the first time, Vanessa’s perfect smile cracked.
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