Their gazes met simultaneously. Barbaric. Pretending to be noble. Andra immediately turned her head. She had no time to confront Dustin Airak in this place. Just facing him felt dirty, to begin with. The very idea of Airak going for a stroll was unprecedented. Would the sun rise from the west tomorrow?
With that thought, Andra tried to pass Dustin.
“I heard some interesting news.”
Andra halted her steps, turning to look back at Dustin. His face appeared tidier than usual, with his hair neatly swept back, and even the black bow tie was in place, making it awkward. It was strange considering Dustin’s usual disheveled appearance, with his tie and top button undone.
“Seems like you’re aiming to settle in the capital now. Is becoming the imperial family your goal after all?”
“And what does that have to do with Lord Airak? You seem surprisingly interested in me. Haven’t I told you to mind your own business? Don’t worry about me.”
Andra retorted coldly, pondering inside how far the rumors about Lady Venetolia and herself had spread. Considering that even the Airak who were insensitive to rumors, knew, there was a high chance that everyone in the capital would be aware. It seemed like the attention she would receive during the ceremony would be significant.
“It’s just too noisy. How can I ignore it.”
“Don’t prattle just because of some rumors. Besides, there’s no place for Lord Airak to intervene here, anyway.”
Dustin’s face stiffened a bit. He didn’t like the fact that she, from the East, treated him who was from the North like an outsider. Was she planning to become a capital figure no matter what others said?
Dustin swallowed a forced chuckle. He wondered how long that attitude of hers could last.
“Do you really think that way? That I can’t intervene?”
“Ha, Lord Airak himself?”
Andra openly ridiculed Dustin. Dustin Airak in the social circle? What a ridiculous notion. The reason why Airak couldn’t easily set foot in places other than the North was their weakness in social circles.
Originally, the entire family was made up of ignorant and barbaric individuals. There’s no way they could endure the social world where people could laugh on the outside while stabbing others in the back with a knife.
In reality, even Dustin in front of Andra, who attended important events as the family’s representative, quickly fled during events, leaving within an hour.
So, Andra, who didn’t want to clash with him, would attend the event leisurely. That way, she could avoid Dustin nine out of ten times. Occasionally, that one encounter became a problem, but it was bearable.
“In that case, I’m curious. How will Lord Airak debut in this social circle? Do you have a plan behind those words?”
Andra spoke with a mocking tone. In response, Dustin hardened his expression even more. He was still irritated by Lady Avelin, who treated him like a blockhead.
He felt like he wanted to break her attitude, believing she can have anything she wants if she sets her mind to it as she had grown up sheltered. Does Lady Avelin even know what failure is? Well, it’s obvious what’s inside the head of a girl who grew up receiving nothing but favorable treatment.
“Whatever you become, good luck. I can’t bring myself to say I’ll cheer you on. I don’t even know if it’s worth it.”
Contrary to her words, Andra put on a fake, friendly smile, and Dustin wrinkled his forehead as if to say he’d seen through it. He laughed coldly.
“How about Lord Airak start hiding his expressions? Such honesty doesn’t get the treatment of even a dog. They might mistake you for a dog that rolled down from the North.”
With those words, Andra moved on, intending to return to the room.
Watching Andra’s figure walking away, Dustin turned his head.
When Andra was no longer visible, he turned and found a little eavesdropper who had been listening to his and Avelin’s conversation.
“Come out. If you don’t come out on your own, I can drag you out.”
With his firm voice, a woman in a blue dress emerged from the corner. She brushed off the grass stuck to her dress and stretched. She seemed shameless for eavesdropping on others’ conversations.
Dustin kept his mouth shut at the sight. He knew who the woman who walked up to him was.
“Did I disturb you, Lord Airak?”
“I see you remember my name.”
It was Stephanie, the second daughter of the Jewelie family, who attended the coming-of-age ceremony today. Stephanie with her braided hair neatly tied up, sniffled in the cold air.
“It’s already chilly. The temperature in the capital drops abruptly if you let your guard down. Should’ve worn a shawl when coming out.”
“What do you want to say?”
Dustin frowned at Stephanie, who kept spouting unnecessary words.
In fact, since a while ago, Stephanie had been annoyingly following him, pretending to take a stroll and eventually sneaking into the garden. He was about to ask her why she was following him from a hidden spot where no one could see. Nevertheless, he ended up meeting Andra Avelin here.
Regardless, since Stephanie was the one who caused this unwelcome encounter, Dustin was not fond of the woman in front of him.
“Hoo, great. Since I’m cold too, I’ll be direct with you.”
Smiling brightly, Stephanie continued.
“If you join hands with me, I’ll help you defeat Lady Avelin.”
“So, yes or no?”
* * *
The official coming-of-age ceremony began with a spectacular fireworks display.
Amidst the crowd that came to exchange greetings, Andra maintained a polite smile, keeping an eye out for when Lady Venetolia would appear at the ball. She had to attempt a conversation with Lady Venetolia.
Andra had already had a good discussion with Ansel on this matter.
‘Lady Venetolia will likely hand over her position to you… but Andra, don’t relax too much. Lady Venetolia is currently in a very sensitive state. That’s why she hasn’t given you any attention.’
‘Because she doesn’t want people to know that she is terminally ill?’
‘Yes, Lady Venetolia wants people to remain unaware that she is terminally ill until she leaves Ishur. Currently, only a very small number of people know this fact.’
‘Nevertheless, I have to try talking to Lady Venetolia, right? Regardless of her wishes, I must take her position.’
‘That’s why I’m telling you not to relax. Don’t provoke Lady Venetolia’s emotions. She might change her mind suddenly.’
Ansel had warned Andra many times about Lady Venetolia. Not to disturb her emotions. To bow down and comply with whatever she desires.
Of course, Andra had no intention otherwise. Lady Venetolia was an extremely important figure. In Ishur at present, there was no one with more significant power than her. Even compared to the imperial children, she held a higher position.
‘Her Majesty values her more than her own children…’
In fact, Lady Venetolia was the most cherished individual by the Emperor throughout Ishur. Whether it was out of regret for the sacrifice made by her late brother Eden. Maybe a sense of obligation for Eden’s achievements, the Emperor had surrounded Lady Venetolia in care since childhood.
In a sense, Lady Venetolia was like an unnamed princess. So, anyone could guess the extent of her power.
‘Provoking Lady Venetolia’s emotions is equivalent to provoking Her Majesty’s emotions.’
Ansel insisting that Andra understand Lady Venetolia’s emotions was likely for this reason. Even if they had made a deal through negotiations, if Andra disturbed Lady Venetolia’s emotions here, it would likely reach the Emperor’s ears. In that case, instead of keeping promises, there might be inquiries or even restraints.
Therefore, Andra had been tense since earlier.
‘I’m getting nervous…’
While still greeting people, Andra continued to observe the hall. Coming inside, there was not Lady Venetolia she had been waiting for, but the sisters from the Jewelie family were visible.
Stephanie and Leona. The two sisters looked similar as one would expect, but there was a distinct difference in their impressions, allowing Andra to distinguish them easily.
Leona had a plump and a rounded impression, while Stephanie had a lean and sharp appearance.
Stephanie Jewelie, in particular, was the person Andra needed to be wary of today. At that moment, Andra’s gaze met Stephanie’s. Stephanie greeted Andra with a smile, nodding her head slightly. Andra, in turn, smiled back, pretending everything was normal.
Fortunately, their interaction ended there. Stephanie was soon surrounded by people who came to greet her, making it impossible for her to continue the exchange.
Ansel called Andra, who had momentarily been captivated by Stephanie. When Andra quickly turned her head, she saw a middle-aged woman approaching with a rich, flowing dress. Andra greeted the woman according to etiquette.
The middle-aged woman, in turn, extended her greetings gracefully.
“It’s nice to meet you, Lady Avelin. You’ve become a lovely young lady since we last met. Congratulations on your debut at this coming-of-age ceremony.”
“Andra, let me introduce you. This is Count Aventchester, the owner of the vast vineyards of Avents.”
Vineyards, huh? The Count laughed, covering her mouth with a fan. Andra quickly understood what Ansel meant by vineyards.
It was a reference to the grape fields of Avents, not far from the Southern region and relatively close to the capital region. And the wines produced there were considered luxurious, fetching high prices each year.
“I’m Andra Avelin. The Avents 34-year-old wine you sent as a gift was enjoyed with my family. Thank you so much.”
“Did you like the taste? It’s one of my cherished collections.”
The Count chuckled. Andra understood why Ansel had personally introduced her to the Count. Although a noble from the South, the Count held a favorable opinion of Avelin. In other words, she was someone who could share information with Andra to counter the Jewelies.