As I headed toward Ashley, a man stepped in front of me, blushing all the way to his ears. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Bell.”
“Yes, my lord.” What came out of my mouth was cold and unenthusiastic.
Nevertheless, he didn’t give up. “You are truly as beautiful as they say. I—may I ask you for a dance?”
Ah, another poor young man drawn to Mary Bell’s glamorous looks. I was impressed by his bold request for a dance, but unfortunately, he wasn’t my type. I wanted to decline as politely as possible, but I knew my lips would twist my words. I apologized in advance in my mind.
“No.” As expected, I was forced to reply with a single, curt word. Turning on my heels, I lightly fluffed my hair, as though savoring my popularity.
“There’s no end to the young lords asking you for a dance, my lady,” Ashley said.
“It’s because the lady is so beautiful,” Maia chimed in. “But only a few are worthy to stand beside her.”
The two girls wouldn’t stop fawning over me and singing my praises. Afraid of the words that might come out of my mouth, I picked up a glass of wine without saying anything in return. Wasn’t it about time that Aria got here? The novel said she drew everyone’s attention upon her entrance, which I should have noticed. She must not have arrived yet. In the novel, Aria got lost in the imperial palace and took quite a while to get to the party—and wait, didn’t one of the secondary characters find her and bring her here? They should have met by now.
“Ah, I think the crown prince is about to leave,” Ashley said.
“A pity. I wanted to see more of him,” Maia lamented.
They sighed in disappointment. Looking up at the seats reserved for the imperial family, I could see that Prince Edville was indeed getting up to leave, escorting the empress, whose poor health gave her trouble in such crowded rooms.
In the novel, Prince Edville met Aria in the garden on his way back to the party, which meant that Aria would come through that door any minute now. I stared at the door.
“Why look, Lord Luce is here,” said Maia, pointing at a man entering by himself.
I knew him. He was Vante Luce, another secondary character. He was to bring Aria, who’d lost her way while coming to the party.
“And the lady with him is—oh, my!” Ashley let out an exclamation.
Aria entered just after him, and she was stunningly beautiful.
“She looks like an angel,” a lady nearby muttered, as though entranced.
It was true: straight-combed platinum hair and deep green eyes that sparkled more brightly than the emerald adorning my neck. Her lips glittered as though they’d been glossed with morning dew, and her cheeks were flushed with shy color. To top it off, she wore a pure-white dress with a graceful outline.
Seeing my gaze fixed on Aria, Ashley weighed in. “Well, she does look somewhat pretty, but she cannot compare with Lady Bell.”
“So mundane, without even any earrings or a necklace,” Maia added.
“Maybe she’s trying to get the attention of the men by looking pitiful.”
“She looks well past the age of a debutante. Has anyone seen her before?”
“She must be from some ruined noble household.”
They glanced to check if I was listening, but I didn’t care. All I could think about was how beautiful Aria was. What use were earrings or necklaces when your face was so dazzling? A few ladies clicked their tongues in pity when they saw how my eyes were fixed on Aria.
“My lady, would you like another glass?” A servant offered me another. I’d drained mine while staring at Aria.
“Ah, yes.” I took the wine and turned my gaze back toward Aria. She had already moved out of sight, but it wasn’t hard to spot her again because of the people gathered around her.
“Men,” Ashley said. “So typical.”
“So fascinated with the newcomer,” Maia added. “Even with the beautiful Lady Bell in the same room.”
I couldn’t care less what they were saying, but they were blocking my view of Aria. Having mistaken my desperate attempt to keep watching Aria for jealousy, Ashley and Maia attempted to make me feel better.
Please quiet down a little, ladies. “Be quiet. Get away from me.”
“My lady…?” they murmured anxiously.
I wasn’t jealous, and I didn’t want to cause trouble. I wanted to keep looking at Aria’s face. Gripping the glass tightly, I tried my best to get another glance. I stopped abruptly when the color of the wine reminded me of a certain part of the novel. In the novel, Mary spilled wine on Aria as if it were an innocent mistake, leaving Aria’s white dress stained with a purplish-red blot that spread across the bodice.
I freaked out at the thought. I shouldn’t be holding wine; it was like a bomb.
“This imperial wine tastes very nice.” I offered the glass to Ashley, who looked flustered. “Try a glass.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
As she sipped the wine with a bewildered expression, I clenched my fist. There. That was one dangerous scenario out of the way. Now I had to refuse any further drinks. I turned to look at Aria again with satisfaction.
May’s voice came out of nowhere. “Who are you staring at? Your next target?”
He must have thought I’d make trouble.
“Why aren’t you with your friends?” I replied. “I was under the impression that we don’t care for each other.”
To my horror, I noted a glass of wine in his hand. I had to get rid of such a dangerous object. “Put it away.”
“The wine. And it’s enough that I have to see your face at home. Get away from me.” I didn’t want wine anywhere near me right now. Please keep walking wherever you were headed.
He handed the glass over to a servant. “Are you insane? This isn’t the family mansion. Watch your mouth. You don’t want to disgrace the family name.”
“I spoke quietly, and I’d be fine with you gone. Mind your own business and go away.” Thank you for taking it away. But would you mind stepping away? I’m in the middle of something here.
His face reddened with rage. Sighing deeply to suppress his anger, he continued in a low voice. “If you’re going to behave like this, let’s go home. Then I’ll get out of your face.”
That’s a brilliant idea. Thank you! If we went home right now, there was no chance I’d bump into Aria. I seized the opportunity. “Then let’s go. Stop annoying me with such small matters.”
He sighed again, and I mentally thanked him. I was sure the pressure building behind my eyes was only my imagination.
I rose and was about to head out with him when an unexpected hand grabbed my wrist. “My laaady… Leaving already?”
“What is this?” I cried. “What are you doing?”
Ashley, drunk, had grabbed my sleeve and wouldn’t let go. Next to her, a flustered Maia was trying to pull her away, but drunk people tend to not be afraid of anything. Ashley clung to me despite the attention she was drawing to herself. To make things worse, she held a fresh glass of wine in her other hand.
“Lady Gardner, you’ve had too much to drink,” I said. “You should go now.”
“What? I’m perfectly fine. Lady Bell, don’t leave. Hic! The wine is good.”
“Let go of me,” I hissed. “Getting drunk at an imperial party? You’re embarrassing yourself. Let’s go home before you make a fool of yourself.”
Disconcerted, I tried with all my strength to make her let go of my sleeve. May, who had just suggested that I head home, simply stood there watching. I turned to him for help, but instead of getting her off me, he held back laughter with his hand over his mouth. I let go of Ashley’s hand and tried to calm her down.
She bumped into someone passing behind her and staggered.
“Ah, sorry.” I apologized without even looking.
“Huh?” She burped.
I looked up. The person behind her was Aria. What was she doing here already? Startled, I desperately pulled Ashley away from Aria’s arm.
Wine sloshed across my dress. Everyone nearby, including May and Maia, gasped.
I raised my hands, which were dripping with wine, in bewilderment. My dress was ruined.
“I’m so sorry, how can I…” Aria bowed her head.
I stood there gazing at the wine-splattered dress, unable to do anything.
“La—hic—lady, your dress… Urgh—” Ashley vomited and sank to the floor. This would make her an object of ridicule among high society for years, but I wasn’t in a position to worry about anyone other than myself in that moment.
“You—are you all right?” May asked, aghast at my soaked dress. He clearly regretted not dragging me out sooner. He must’ve imagined I’d be the one to make trouble if we stayed, not get dragged into someone else’s.
“Do I look okay to you?” I snapped.
I was a little wet but glad no harm had come to Aria. I wiped my hands with the handkerchief Maia handed me and bent to Aria. With her eyes brimming with tears, she seemed delicate and beautiful.
She tried to wipe my left hand, which I had missed, with the sleeve of her dress.
“Stop!” I wanted to respectfully decline her help but was forced to brush it away sharply. What are you doing to your white dress, Aria? My heart already ached at the few drops of wine that stained it.
More tears. “I’m sorry for ruining such a pretty dress. I’ll reimburse you somehow.”
“How are you going to do that? Do you even know how much this dress costs?” I had no idea how much this dress cost, but I was sure she wouldn’t be able to afford it. Her apologies tore at my heart. Even though I was the one covered in wine, she made me feel as though I should be the one reimbursing her for the tiny spots on her dress.
“… that being pretty is all that matters?” I found myself saying.
“Pardon?” she asked, confused.
“You think being pretty is all that matters?” I snapped. “Did you think I’d forgive you if only you cried in such a pretty way?” What I’d wanted to say was Don’t cry, Aria. There are plenty of dresses at Mary Bell’s mansion, so I’m okay. I’ll go home and wash.
But as expected, my mouth, which had been disobedient the whole day, had once again twisted my words into a remark so nasty and childish that I winced.