“—The representative for His Majesty the King, His Highness the First Prince Bernhard von Richter Van Ilsestein has arrived!”
The voice of the chamberlain resounded forth, and a powerfully-built man entered the audience hall.
The First Prince Bernhard, first in line to the succession of the throne, was a great man in the prime of his life, and he was wearing formal dress; a magnificent mantle, and an austere military uniform. He took part in the war seven years ago as an officer, and he had a scar inflicted on his right cheek as a badge of honour.
After taking a bow facing the empty throne, the First Prince then turned around to face the audience gathered in the hall. Men and women of all ages bowed their heads simultaneously in response.
Even Maria, who took pride in her carefree and freewheeling ways, bowed in reverence.
The rapid technological revolution had also changed politics, but it would be the greatest folly to assume that everything had. Throwing away all of the tradition that had been built up would mean that the nation had regressed into a prideless, disorderly mob.
Maria bore feelings of dislike for the privileged class of old, but even so, for the ‘symbol’ of tradition, the royal family—she also felt that it was vital for them to undergo rapid change to adapt.
(I guess I feel this way precisely because of Lyle, eh.)
Maria continued with the ceremony even as she talked to herself inside her mind, and before Bernhard, the representative for the king standing before the throne, a tall and lean man stepped out.
“…I, Levenkron Zest, have come to receive an official appointment from His Majesty the King to succeed the Margrave title.”
“It has been tough on thee, ‘new’ Margrave, Levenkron Zest. As the representative to His Majesty the King, I hereby recognise thee as the successor.”
As the First Prince proclaimed, the audience’s whispered speculations mingled with their applause.
“Good morrow to you, Your Highness.”
“Ah, Miss Maria.”
During the banquet after the ceremony for succession, Maria immediately greeted Bernhard. Recognising her, the scarred prince smiled brightly.
In private, Maria addressed the First Prince by the nickname of, ‘Your Bearness’. With his burly body and his ingratiating smile, indeed, he gave off the impression of a plush bear.
“You’re representing your father today, eh?”
“‘Twas unreasonable, but I asked to take his place. I wanted to give Your Highness my greetings, no matter what.”
“‘Tis no greetings, but a business negotiation, am I wrong?”
Bernhard conversed with Maria friendlily, and she returned a broad grin.
“For today, it’ll only be greetings. After all, I’ve done nothing but be indebted to you, Your Highness.”
“Not at all. The same goes for me, to your predecessor, Lord Highline. If I could even repay a little of that, I would feel much more at ease.”
With his good-natured speech mannerisms, combined with his outward appearance, the two-fold effect gave him an ‘unprincely’ impression.
After amusing herself with a brief exchange of words, Maria departed from there. It was good enough that she managed to speak with the First Prince, busy as he was. There were still others that she had to give her greetings to.
“—Congratulations, Your Excellency, Margrave Levenkron Zest. I am Maria Highline.”
“Look who we have here… I thank you for your kind words.”
The leading man, the new Margrave, Levenkron, thrust his cane onto the ground and stood up. He was not yet twenty, yet his hair was already streaked with white. He looked to be poor of health, from the pallor of his face.
Levenkron did not look like a head of an old and distinguished military family, but he was still of the Zest family’s lineage. As the previous Margrave Zest—his younger brother had gone missing, his succession was a hurried affair.
“You have my utmost gratitude, for allowing a lass such as myself to act as the representative of Viscount Highline. I offer my best regards to you, the new Margrave Zest.”
“Thank you. Please pass my thanks along to your father, as well.”
Said Levenkron, as he smiled. It was a smile which gave off a feeling of transience.
Maria assured him that she would, and as she turned about fleetingly, the frail young man plopped onto the chair, as though having used up all his strength.
(…It’s a heavy burden he bears.)
The previous Margrave Zest—Levenkron’s younger brother, Vilhelm Zest, briefly flashed across her mind, and Maria felt sympathy for him.
A month ago, Maria had fought against Vilhelm Zest. Though he withdrew at the end, remembering his meticulous scheme and godlike combat abilities still made her tremble.
Her true motive this time was to check out the successor of the previous Margrave Vilhelm Zest, who brought up nothing but bitter memories… but the wariness that she had earlier had vanished.
The authority of feudal lords, along with Ilsestein’s feudal system had been invalidated—provincial nobility had been reduced to wealthy families which simply owned land. Even though he had the authority to bear a title, had suffrage as an advocate of tradition—even though he was a member of the ‘High Council’, a Parliament of Nobility, the burden on Levenkron Zest’s frail, thin body was heavy.
“Has Sir Levenkron yet to marry?”
“Leaving behind a bloodline to succeed the rank of Margrave is also a splendid duty.”
“Is that so? How about I introduce my daughter, in that case?”
“Oh, is the gem on your ring amber? Was it yielded from your lands? It looks to be of high purity.”
While stroking the amber ring he wore on his finger, Levenkron kept up his smile.
The lands belonging to Margrave Zest had concentrated veins of amber. With the prevalence of steam engines powered by Amber Reactors, amber was an essential form of fuel. The amount of profit that could be potentially gained from the trade of amber was unfathomable. And so, they swarmed around the new Margrave, who seemed like he’d be susceptible to cajolery, attempting to win his favour and put themselves in an advantageous position.
(It is indeed hasty to decide that a political marriage would be the best way to go about this.)
Maria understood the advantages of a political marriage, but she thought it was counterproductive to use a person of talent and then throw them away.
“…That’s only if their daughters are capable themselves.”
“What might you be speaking of, Miss Maria?”
“No, it is nothing.”
Maria answered, a perfect smile on her face. The surrounding young noblemen merely went, “Is that so,” and did not pursue the matter.
(…So are these guys, all just a bunch of fools.)
They probably thought that they would be able to spend the rest of their lives without worry if they could marry the only daughter of the Highline Foundation.
(Have they forgotten that the nouveau riche Highlines are merchants by nature?)
Her smile was hidden by the feather fan she carried. Well, if they think me the same as those noblewomen who believe that it is their goal in life to compete in the amount of dresses they own, then I’ll wring them dry for the lesson I’m going to give them. Maria smiled, thinking of how it was a golden opportunity.
Those who turned about, recognised the owner of the humble yet somewhat commanding voice and hastily gave way. The young man who stepped out in front of Maria placed his hand to his chest and bowed; he was the very model of etiquette.
“I believe this is our first meeting, Maria Highline. I beg your pardon for my impoliteness.”
“—What a thing to say, Your Highness Alberto.”
He was Alberto von Reingeld Van Ilsestein.
The Second Prince of Ilsestein, tentatively third in line to the succession of the throne. The young prince with dull blond hair gestured towards the terrace in the hall and smiled.
“How about a little chat, Miss Maria?”
She could not possibly refuse an invitation from royalty. While thinking that it was such a pain,
“It would be my pleasure.”
His practiced hands were placed around Maria’s waist, and he led her to the terrace.
(W-What I’d give to beat him up right now…!)
The prince wore a facade of being a lady’s man on the outside, but to Maria, he could only be just ‘another man’. She was completely spiteful of the fact that he had just arbitrarily touched her waist.
Desperately, Maria suppressed the urge to raise her fist.
“Are you enjoying yourself?”
“There is no way I would enjoy myself.”
As she spoke with an unassuming air, she broke away from the Second Prince’s hand with a fluid motion.
“The VIP of today is His Excellency, Margrave Levenkron Zest, y’know.”
“His Excellency the Margrave, huh.”
With a wry smile, Alberto looked at the hall from the terrace.
“Right from the very beginning, due to his weak constitution, the younger brother Vilhelm was the one to inherit the title. It’s simply too heavy a burden for him to bear. It is an unfortunate thing when someone unfit has to bear the burden of something ill-suited for him. For the person himself, and for the people around him.”
Maria felt like she could see the logic behind the Second Prince’s suggestive words.
“The same goes for the nation—don’t you agree, Miss Maria?”
“His Highness Bernhard is a splendid man.”
“So he is. I fully agree with you on that.”
“And as such, would you not say that Ilsestein is blessed to have him?”
“What should I say… he is a splendid person indeed, but he is a man of the military, very much so. My elder brother still dearly misses his late wife, and has yet to look for a new love. My niece, the only daughter, due to reasons of poor health, does not show herself in public. There are even rumours of her having passed away. As a successor to the royal family, I wish that he’d be a little more self-conscious of the situation.”
“I do not understand such complex matters. After all, it is the job of the men to handle politics.”
“Oh my, it’s unthinkable that you are the Maria Highline from the rumours. Ever since my ancestor, Her Majesty Queen Ilsa had revived it, the royal family of Ilsestein has continued with equal rights among both men and women. Would it not be a natural trend for women to make progress in society then?”
Maria was secretly impressed.
—What a considerably progressive way of thinking the Second Prince has, provided he was actually serious.
The current king suffered from poor physical health, and rarely took part in politics. Various speculations about the nation’s future were already spreading about, beneath the surface.
(In all honesty, it was brought up twice or thrice… I suppose there was no way they could ignore it any longer.)
Maria had to think and probe the situation thoroughly. Firstly, she had to determine whose side she should stand on, the First Prince’s or the Second’s.
(He seems to have an interest in me, so first I’ll try and get something out of the Second Prince… as much of a pain as it may be.)
Having her time with Lyle cut short was depressing for Maria.
(There’s also that thing about being a tutor. Which brings to mind, how did that turn out for Lyle, I wonder.)
“Did you say something?”
“No, ’twas nothing.”
Maria glossed it over with a perfect smile, at Alberto’s doubtful expression.