Mrs. Marlowe had asked me to fetch water in the middle of the night so that she could have a refreshing drink when she woke up. I was only nine years old at the time, and I was used to falling asleep with my head on the floor because of the hard work.
I found it challenging to wake up early in the morning and do such a task.
But that was the least of it.
“I might as well scream; you probably can’t understand anyway.”
“If you make a mistake, you should know that someone dear to you will be hurt,” Mrs. Marlowe said in front of my older sister Marie and me.
“Annie, I don’t show mercy without a reason. And…”
“To effectively manipulate girls like you, you have to exploit guilt.”
Up until that point, I hadn’t understood why she was scolding Marie next to me.
It wasn’t until Mrs. Marlowe treated my sister harshly in front of me that I understood.
Mrs. Marlowe approached me as I held my fallen sister.
“Remember, Annie. If you make a mistake, this girl will be the one to suffer.”
Her seemingly kind smile was disgusting.
Fortunately, Marie didn’t die. In fact, she went out of her way to assure me that everything was fine. But having witnessed it all, I was anything but okay.
At such a young age, the experience was seared into my memory and made me Mrs. Marlowe’s loyal servant.
As Mrs. Marlowe’s maid, I did whatever she asked, whether it was menial tasks, manipulating the books, or engaging in covert actions to inconvenience other people.
The problem was that no matter how hard I tried, I still made mistakes, and sometimes things were just impossible.
Mrs. Marlowe’s husband, Mr. Marlowe, was a deputy to the Count of Sainte, who ran the underworld market.
Mrs. Marlowe also belonged to the faction that supported the underworld market. Of course, I was also involved.
Although I was only a witness Mrs. Marlowe’s activities, or greeting guests, I would occasionally come across a child running away. If they were strangers, I might have reported them to Mrs. Marlowe, but this child was from the same orphanage as me.
The child’s cries for help were so desperate that I couldn’t bring myself to stop her.
Instead, I decided to look away and pretend I didn’t know. Had the child been a stranger to me, I might have reported her to Mrs. Marlowe. But this child was from the same orphanage as I was.
Fate was not on my side, however, as the child was caught by a soldier running in the opposite direction.
Without hesitation he accused me of complicity.
Mrs. Marlowe smiled and asked me about it.
“Annie, I heard you pretended not to see the child.”
“P-Please, I didn’t, I didn’t…”
I didn’t even know what words I was saying at the time, but I begged desperately, using all the pronunciation I could muster.
I begged her to forgive me for my mistake.
“I think I have told you this before. When you make a mistake, the girl suffers instead.”
But Mrs. Marlowe was adamant.
Marie had a high fever and was badly affected by this incident. The doctor even said there was no hope and left, sticking out his tongue.
I held my trembling sister and begged her.
I couldn’t apologize; I couldn’t tell her that we were fellow orphans.
“It’s okay, Annie.”
Marie patted my head gently and gestured for me to stop crying.
“You did well.”
What did I do well?
“It’s not your fault. You’re a good kid.”
No, it’s my fault.
That day I promised myself over and over again. I promised that for Marie’s sake, and for my own, I would become strong and stop being helpless.
But I was never given the chance to make those changes.
Marie died a few days later.
She was already in poor health from malnutrition, and her weak body couldn’t take it anymore.
I begged her to live, not to leave me alone, but Marie left me.
After that I remained a faithful servant to Mrs. Marlowe.
I don’t know if I was tamed or if I had always been that way.
I never dared to defy Mrs. Marlowe, and I didn’t want to disturb the fragile peace I had found.
“Help! Help… Ah!”
“That brat! How dare he try to escape?”
I ignored the boy who had begged for my help, resulting in his death.
“That’s why this time…”
“A very big deal…”
I had secret conversations about illegal activities and followed Mrs. Marlowe’s orders.
All my actions came from that place.
Mrs. Marlowe seemed to enjoy this side of me.
Without question, I became her faithful servant.
And so, at the age of eighteen…
“Now that you’re of age, you may enter the palace. I will take you to the crown prince’s coming-of-age ceremony.”
It was the first time I went to the palace, but there was no excitement or joy. The same thing happened when I arrived at the palace.
When I arrived, Mrs. Marlowe immediately put me to work.
I never even set foot in the great banquet hall.
“Individual servants and attendants are not allowed in the banquet hall.”
“Well, then. There’s nothing I can do. Annie, wait here.”
I bowed my head and rested among the other servants.
Hours passed, and Mrs. Marlowe came to find me, looking somewhat pleased.
She wasn’t alone; she was accompanied by a sinister-looking middle-aged man.
I recognized the man at once. I had met him a few times when he visited the mansion.
Although our encounters were few, I remembered him vividly.
The way he looked at me sent shivers down my spine.
Each time we met, he would move his eyes up and down my body and lick his lips, a sight not easily forgotten.
“Annie, I need you to do something for Count Sorgen.”
I felt a surge of unease at her words.
I tried to deny it, but her next words shattered my hope.
“Count Sorgen feels he needs your services.”
Mrs. Marlowe glanced sideways at Count Sorgen and then extended her left index finger, waving at me.
It was a signal for me to obey without question.
“I owe the Count a lot, you know. We have to make you feel comfortable. Do you understand?”
“I appreciate that. I’ll remember my wife’s kindness.”
“You are most welcome. My lady hopes to please the Count. Well then.”
Mrs. Marlowe finished speaking and walked back into the banquet hall.
The maids around us looked at me with sympathetic faces.
Count Sorgen suddenly grabbed my wrist.
“I shouldn’t be dragged off like this!”
But I was helpless.
Count Sorgen’s grip was unexpectedly strong, and at this point it was difficult to go against Mrs. Marlowe’s wishes. I had always been submissive.
All I could do was summon all my strength and try to delay being taken away as long as possible.
It seemed that Count Sorgen was a little irritated by my actions.
He stopped walking down the corridor and pushed me into a corner.
“Well, there’s no rule that says we have to go to your room.”
My shoulder throbbed from hitting the wall, and as soon as I was surrounded, the Count began to remove his suit jacket.
‘I have to escape.’
At that moment I had no other thoughts, no worries or concerns. I was solely focused on this one idea.
As I struggled to stand up, the count suddenly grabbed me by the hair.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
I was knocked to the floor again. The Count approached me with a sinister smile.
A vibration rippled through the room. It was a powerful tremor, so intense that it wouldn’t have been surprising if the entire mansion had collapsed.
“What… What’s happening?”
Count Sorgen looked around in confusion. Another tremor shook the room.
The ceiling cracked wide open and looked to collapse at any moment.
When the bewildered count looked up, I realized that was my chance to escape.
With all my strength, I pushed the Count, causing him to stumble backwards. As I stood up and prepared to run, there was a massive explosion, and the wall I was sitting against collapsed.
“Who is that woman… Ugh!”
The debris of the wall engulfed the Count. The flames burned on, seemingly without fuel, as they consumed the fallen debris.
The only thing sticking out of the burning flames and debris was the Count’s hand.
As I remained frozen in place, a man I had never seen before emerged from the opposite side of the shattered wall.
He appeared to be in his early thirties, with jet-black clothing similar to mine. His every step caused one side of his cloak to flutter like a cape.
“Is he… an outcast?”
Still, the man didn’t seem small in any way. He exuded an aura of intimidation, and the closer he got, the stronger the smell of blood became, adding to the eerie atmosphere.
Accompanying him was a large crimson bird that resembled a fiery mass, adding to the unsettling presence.
“Kill them! Kill them! Kill them!”
Unidentified vibrations assaulted my mind, resonating loudly and causing my mind to fray. It was an unprecedented experience that felt like my very soul was being ripped away.
My instincts screamed, telling me that I was in grave danger.
“Kill them! Kill her!”
As I looked into the man’s eyes, I noticed something disturbing. His pupils were blood red, lacking focus, like those of someone who had lost his mind.
‘He’s going to kill me.’
It was an instinctive gut feeling.
“Kill her! Kill her!”
In sync with the echoing thoughts, the man slowly raised his arm and pointed directly at me.
Something hit me hard on the head. My vision blurred and swayed.
I didn’t lose consciousness completely, but my head felt damp and the ground beneath me was stained with my blood.
I wasn’t the only one on the floor. The man was buried under fallen debris as well, lying motionless with his eyes closed.
Curiously, the oppressive crimson bird that had circled him earlier was nowhere to be seen.
The deafening screams that had jolted me into action had also ceased.
A faint vibration emanated from the ground.
Soon, a group of people rushed toward us. Among them, a woman in a robe examined the fallen man and spoke.
“We found him! The traitor, Duke Belroc!”
Belroc, the Duke…? Was that the man?
But why would they call the Duke a traitor?
I tried to make sense of it all, my mind reeling.
An elegantly dressed young man appeared behind her.
Cautiously, I raised my eyes to see a blond man on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood.
They were all looking down at us.