She should be sleeping for the early day ahead, but her mind wasn't cooperating with Amelia. She wasn't sure how much Ayland knew or if he was just teasing her, but it troubled her that the news of her accepting Alexander's proposal might've already been known to others.
If it weren't for the siblings who interrupted them with a plate of food they got for her, she could've asked further. But after they were finished eating, the other villagers insisted that she and the prince, as well as her companions, join them for the last dance of the night. She didn't want to disappoint them, so she obliged and thought she'd ask after the dance. But since Ayland doesn't have a vast energy reserve, to begin with, dancing vigorously on top of riding for hours to Sunall exhausted him greatly. He was already feeling lightheaded even before the dance ended and had to excuse himself to rest.
"I only told Mr. Vance and my ladies-in-waiting," she murmured as she stared at the wooden beams of the room in one of the guesthouses lent to them by the chief. "Ancel knew too, but I'm sure that none of them would betray me and mouth it to others. It must be from Alexander's side."
The duchess turned to her side, annoyed.
How could he be so careless as to let others know about it when he knew exactly what would happen if it reaches the emperor before they've decided on what to do if he does?
Speaking of which, her advisor knew beforehand too. And thinking ahead, if his advisor knew, it wouldn't be a surprise if Duke Mulford knew too; and maybe a lot more than she could think of. The duke better has a good reason for all of this.
Could the news already spread somewhere else without her knowing? There's a rumor going about it in her duchy. It won't be surprising if other places have reached it too. After all, words fly with the wind
Amelia buried her face on the pillow in the last attempt to comfort herself and let out a short scream of frustration.
Morning came, and the roosters didn't fail to wake up everyone. Before Amelia could open her eyes fully, Arabella was already knocking on her door. When she didn't answer after the second series of knocks, her lady-in-waiting opened the door with the key given to her by one of the village elders who kept the guesthouses livable.
"Are you okay, your grace?" terror stamped on the lady assassin's eyes.
"I'm fine," the duchess grunted as she pulled the blanket over her head. "I want to sleep for a little longer."
"You can't. We can't stay here for long, or we would be behind schedule. We need to be at Prince Ayland's mansion before lunch. You can rest then there."
"But he's already here. It's not like we have anything scheduled for today anyway." She reasoned, turning her back to her lady-in-waiting.
"Yes, but you wouldn't want to burden the village, right? They're currently cooking up a feast of a breakfast for us. If we stayed longer, we'd only be an inconvenience even if they tell us otherwise. Just think about it."
Well, there wasn't really that much thinking to be done. It was, as Arabella said. Prolonging their stay would only make the chief extend his hospitality unnecessarily. They could just take whatever's leftover from breakfast to have something to eat on the road.
Upon realizing this, Amelia whined and turned in bed before finally deciding to open her eyes. She sat down and looked annoyed at Arabella, whose smile mocked her. After a few stretches, Arabella helped the duchess with her cloak. She left Amelia for a while, and a few minutes later, two missuses excused themselves and entered the room with a bucket in each hand of freshly drawn water from a nearby fall.
"The cold would force you to wake up," her lady-in-waiting noted, and she threw a glare at her.
But Arabella was right. The cold water from the falls was what she precisely needed to get her worries checked. It did not just wake her straight up, but it also cleared her mind.
At best, with Alexander's reputation, most people would brush the news of their engagement as nothing more than a rumor. There's no reason for her to fret at something that people have no solid basis for.
Yes, there's no point in losing sleep at something she couldn't control. What will come will come, and that's the only time when it's necessary for her to worry her head off.
Amelia nodded as she looked back at her reflection in the mirror, drying her hair. When she was done wiping down her body, she walked out of the bathroom draped in her cloak. Arabella then helped her with her change of clothes—a clean pair of the same style and kind as the one she wore yesterday.
When she was finished, she permitted her lady-in-waiting to leave so she could freshen up too. Amelia then picked up her sword belt from the nearby table and secured it around her waist.
"Good morning," the duchess jolted to find the young prince in her doorway behind her.
"Go-good morning, Brother Ayland. I hope you slept well…."
"I did. Thank you for asking. How about you?"
"Uhm… likewise. Thank you for asking."
"Good. Come outside. The village prepared an early breakfast and some takeaways for us to bring." Amelia smiled warmly at the prince who offered his arm.
Linking her arm with the prince again, Amelia squinted her eyes as soon as they were out. In the center of the village was a long table with different kinds of meat, greens, and fruits. The children were out too, running, playing, and yelling; some were tolerated, others were scolded. Amelia couldn't help but smile at the scene. Since it was already nighttime when they arrived, only the adults were at the bonfire.
After saying her greetings to the village chief and others that came to help prepare the food, Amelia went ahead and greeted the kids. Since she's been forbidden to roam by herself, she hasn't been into any of the institutions that she supported; most of them catered to children and the elderly.
"I should visit them when I get back…" she murmured to herself.
"Did you say something, duchess?" Ancel asked when he passed behind the duchess, holding the bags they had with them yesterday.
"No, it was nothing. Just remembering some things that I haven't done in a while." Amelia showed a curt smile, both her hands behind her. "Are you preparing the saddle?"
"Ah, yes. But this is the last one." Amelia nodded and watched her knight walk away.
By the time the sun's rays were complete, Amelia, Ayland, and the others mounted their horses and thanked the chief for their generous hospitality. The young prince also promised to bring additional supplies with him next time and that he'd try to bring someone to teach the younger kids to read.
"I didn't know you do that kind of charity aside from your research, Brother Ayland," Amelia said as they started riding out of the village and through the mountain route.
"It's not really charity. It's more of a… responsibility?"
"It's the duke's responsibility to look after his people. You're neither the duke nor going to be the next one." Amelia said, pouting. She never liked the current duke of Bruiles. The duchess only saw him thrice, the last being in the Gathering, and he always had an air of arrogance around him. Saying that he's a descendant of a former emperor makes him a level higher than the other rulers. In fact, he's just some kind of lowly being. One of the reasons that Bruiles' currently being considered a duchy centered in medicinal research and advancement was his predecessors, with a huge part from Ayland, who earnestly followed in their footsteps.
Though it's a bit of a gloomy thought, it was a good decision that Ayland's living by himself now. There's no point in him living in a palace that barely recognizes his efforts just because he was the youngest—and he was rather sickly when he was younger—son.
Noticing Amelia's sudden change in mood, Ayland said, "If I don't help them, who will? They're citizens of Bruiles, and I'm still one of Bruiles' princes. It's partly my responsibility to help them." the prince smiled sweetly at the duchess and Amelia felt slightly embarrassed. Still, his view of the duke wouldn't change no matter what anybody told her—even Ayland, and he understood that.
But what the prince told her had some weight. Yes, it's their responsibility as the ruling family to do whatever it took to help their people. Even if it's stepping into fire and back.
The ride to Ayland's mansion would've been a lot faster if not for the numerous stops they made at his request. Amelia even helped him gather some fascinating floras that could only be found during the autumn season. Even Ancel got interested in it, saying that it would greatly help him in the future.
Of course, what Ancel meant was that it would greatly help him with his assassin work, but Ayland thought he wanted to venture into researching medicine, so he talked non-stop about the different properties and uses of diverse floras. Sir Lewis looked back at the duchess as if saying that the prince should be less talkative and a lot more vigilant. But Amelia just awkwardly smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
There's no stopping Ayland when he gets in his zone.
Fortunately, the trip was uneventful. No one ambushed them, no one fell sick, and no one had any sort of accident. When they were almost at the forest entrance, the young prince pointed at his mansion at a distance.
It was bigger than all the houses surrounding it and stuck like a sore thumb amidst the relatively small town. Leading the way, Ayland turned left and through a thick shrub. Past it was a faint trail that the prince said he often used whenever he's sneaking in or out of his mansion in the wee hours of the night.
Following the prince, Amelia and the others finally reached the wall of where his fenced mansion stood. The group dismounted, and Ayland led them further ahead to what seemed to be some sort of workshop. Looking side to side, the duchess noted Ayland push two points on the wall, which triggered something, and a door opened.
The lady-in-waiting gasped, and so did the duchess.
"A hidden door is a must-have, don't you think?" Ayland humored them, but the others were too amused to say anything.
"Let's leave the horses here. I will have some servants of mine bring them to the stables later." The others only nodded in response and proceeded to follow the prince inside.
As it's almost time for lunch, there was barely anyone at the courtyard aside from servants running their errands. From the workshop, Ayland casually strode out, but instead of going through the entrance, he led the duchess and the others to the back of his mansion, where a man who looked no older than the prince greeted them.
"This is Gregory Millys," the prince said, standing next to the man, "He's my secretary. He usually manages the mansion when I'm not around."
"Which is mostly all of the time," the man turned to face the prince, with probably one of the most charming smiles Amelia has ever seen.
Though it was a light remark made by Gregory to make them feel at home, only the duchess giggled, and the rest just bowed their heads accordingly.
"Ah, you must be tired and famished from all the travel that you did. Please follow me to the guestrooms."
Arabella and the duchess were given a single room with two huge beds at both sides and a longer-than-usual dresser between them. At the foot of their beds were cushioned bedroom benches that doubled as storage trunks for their personal things.
Once they've settled in, Arabella went ahead and helped the duchess out of her clothes and her hair bun. The water was already drawn when they arrived, so the duchess could have a quick bath to wash off the dust and dirt from traveling; the lady-in-waiting did so too. But since they only carried light necessities with them, both ladies came out in tucked-in cuff-sleeved blouses and fitted trousers paired with the same muddied shoes they wore from when they left Osmea.
"I apologize for dressing inappropriately. I didn't think that we'd arrive at your mansion this early." Amelia said when she met with the others in the dining room.
"It's okay. There's a lot of small shops and boutiques here at Dirmond. I am sure we can find you some clothes later."
"Yes, and thank you, Brother Ayland. That's perfect since I might have to meet with your father tomorrow." Amelia sounded disinterested, but the prince just giggle, "Not visiting would seem disrespectful."
After desserts were served, Amelia asked her knights to leave the room and take a rest. Though they insisted that her safety was of utmost importance, she commanded them with an even authoritative tone to leave. Even Ancel and Arabella were dismissed, much to their surprise.
"Arabella, now," Amelia demanded again when the lady assassin refused to come with her brother. She noted that Arabella looked as if she's about to snap, but fortunately, she granted the duchess what was asked of them.
Alone with the young prince, Amelia leaned back on the chair and sipped the remainder of the fruit wine in her glass.
"Do you really need to dismiss your knights and lady-in-waiting?"
"I have to dismiss them so that dismissing all your servants would be easier. I don't mean to be rude, but I'm not out of the woods yet until I found out who tried to kill me. And of course, for my own safety, I need the information about what happened to me as confidential as possible." Ayland nodded understandingly.
"Well, you have a point," the prince said after he wiped his mouth with the table napkin. "Okay, so… after much researching and extensive reading, I found out that the plant used for the poison given to you was from a weed known as Neetlelm."
"Neetlelm? I don't think I've heard of that one before."
"Because it's rare to find it in Creador. It only grows in tropical climates. One has to be extra observant to spot them as they look just like common weeds. It's fairly easy to counter the poison, but since the effects were faint, it usually takes the victim a while before realizing it. And when they do, it's usually too late."
"So are you saying that I've been poisoned for a while but only felt it recently because it already accumulated in my body?"
Ayland turned his head to the side and caressed his chin. He stayed silent for a few seconds, thinking, which only made Amelia anxious.
"I don't think so. For you to be able to feel better after just one take of the antidote that your lady-in-waiting gave you proves that it wasn't the case. So…" Amelia leaned on the table with her fingers intertwined.
"So, it's either whoever gave it to you as someone who wasn't knowledgeable about the poison. As it's a rare poison to use, the people who tried to do this to you might not be as familiar to it themselves and used it like some regular poison—that or you just got extremely lucky, Lia."
"Lucky? I almost died." Amelia scoffed.
"Yes, lucky. Your poison immunity's not a joke, you know. You're not going to die with just a Neetlelm," Ayland kidded, but he straightened right away when he saw that Amelia was serious. He cleared his throat before continuing, "With it, you wouldn't even feel like you've been poisoned. But you felt it right away, right? I can't specifically explain why that would be the case since there's a ton of theories as to why, but what I can tell is that you're lucky—like some kind of divine intervention of some sort."
Amelia scoffed as her eyes narrowed at the wine glass that the young prince kept on twirling.
Ayland further explained that Neetlelms were abundant in a particular empire overseas, and the roots were the most poisonous. A teaspoon of its sap could take roughly four dozens worth of the plant's roots—but that also depended on the size of the roots. It also loses its effectiveness in about a week after being processed; that's why people who opt for it have to use it for a while before taking a toll on the victim's body. Unprocessed, the roots could be viable for at least two weeks at most if submerged in a unique solution, but the process of transporting it would need a lot of planning and wide-ranging research.
"In short, it's not something that you find in the, let's say, in the black market?" Amelia asked, even curious than she was earlier, and Ayland nodded.
"It's not widely available to us, plus it's such a weak poison that it would be a waste to spend just preparing it. Not to mention that a speck of impurity and the batch's, poof; gone, unusable. There are a lot more varieties of poison out there that could guarantee the same effect or instant one."
"What's the effect of Neetlelm in the long run?" the duchess asked, and Ayland shifted from his seat. He didn't know if he should look up or down or to the sides.
"From what I've read… it's shortness of breath, hallucination, changes in mood, short temper, and impulsiveness, to name a few. A faster heart rate and a heavy feeling on the chest were also listed—the same as the ones you felt, but it doesn't really affect a person much."
"So it's not a poison to kill someone, but more of a poison that would make someone kill themselves?"
"Technically, yes and no." Ayland stood up from his chair and went to the glass window to play with the curtain tassels. "It's more of… like a poison that would deem you incapable of ruling your own duchy. Which, of course, since you couldn't think straight, you might end up killing yourself, or someone would be forced to kill you."
The duchess looked at the white ceiling with faint outlines of whatever artwork of the same color was embossed on it. She held her own hand and comforted herself by tracing out a circle on her palm.
Inhaling sharply, Amelia closed her eyes and kept her head low enough that she's already staring at how much mud was actually on her shoes.
It was too much to take in.
Everything was—the poisoning, the boy she was a force to kill because of it, Neetlelm; what else? Her engagement? The emperor?
Amelia let out a long sigh.
If the goal of whoever poisoned her didn't want her dead, but only crazy enough to be incapable of acting her duties, then that person might really want to take over her duchy. Her aunt's husband was the only person she could think of at the moment. He has the money and the connection to bring over a rare plant from who knows where and process it.
But as the youngest prince of House Robina said, it needs to be taken for a while to be effective enough. If it was Watsons, he should've done it years ago, but he didn't.
So why now?
The duchess let out another sigh and lifted her head. She straightened her back and stood from her seat. When Ayland saw this, he hurriedly went beside Amelia to offer his arm, which the duchess accepted immediately.
The door of the dining room opened, and outside, Arabella and Ancel were waiting.
"I think you need to rest now so you'd have the energy to roam the shops later." The prince said as soon as they're through the door.
The duchess showed a curt smile and curtsied before leaving with the Whitt siblings.
The way back to the guestroom was just a short trip from the dining hall, but Amelia took it slow and looked at every painting they passed by. Though in truth, nothing registered in the duchess' mind. The massive paintings along the hall looked like blank canvasses to her. The way she saw herself, she's just trying to walk as her mind tried to formulate different situations and solutions.
'What if Alexander tried to win me over then poison me so that he'd have the duchy to himself?"
'No," Amelia answered her own question. Even she doesn't believe that Alexander could do that to her. And for the first time since she last saw the duke, she thought how nice it would've been to have him near so he could straighten up any misunderstandings in her mind and reassure her.
It's becoming hard for her to justify him and his intentions, especially when people who came to know about their relationship always gave her something to doubt with.
A long sigh left the duchess as she stood with her hand on the knob of their room.
"Duchess…" Arabella turned around from sorting their things in the storage trunks. "Is everything alright?"
Amelia stared at her blankly but later told her what Ayland found out about the poison. Repeating it somehow made it seem more evident to the duchess. Though the reason still bothered her, Arabella has given her a short opinion about it, but it still doesn't add up.
"I think you should rest, duchess. It will clear your mind. You're tired from all the travel…."
"I guess you're right. Wake me up in an hour or two. We still need a new set of clothes for later and for tomorrow."
"Uhn…" her lady-in-waiting sounded in response.
The bed felt heavenly when she sat on it. Amelia took off her shoes, then unbuttoned half of her blouse, revealing the satin chemise inside, and laid in bed with her back towards Arabella after she grabbed a pillow to hug.
"Oh," Arabella was about to lay in bed too, but then the duchess turned around to face the ceiling, "Brother Ayland said that based on the books he's read thus far, there's one place that Neetlelm grows abundantly because of their weather. But it would take a week or so of sea travel to get there, might be longer if the sea were rough. Considering the timeline for the viability and effectivity of Neetlelm, it seemed impossible to transport it from there to here without losing its value."
"Or they could transport it raw and process it on the ship when they're almost here." Amelia blinked fast and turned her head to face her lady-in-waiting.
"But they don't know the sea's current. They could be stranded somewhere."
"Well, it must be a risk they're willing to take." Amelia's heart pounded against her chest. She swallowed nothing but air as she returned her gaze to the embossed design on their room's ceiling. She placed her hands on her torso as she laid motionless for minutes, trying to internalize what the lady assassin enlightened her—but rather than enlightened, her mind grew darker by the second.
"Also," Arabella spoke again, and the duchess quickly turned to face her. The way her lady-in-waiting sounded didn't seem too confident, "Though I hate the duke for stealing you away…" the duchess followed the lady assassin's movement as she sat at the edge of her bed. "Of all the duchies in the empire, it's House Clement who has a lot of dealings overseas. And with his control of the port, no one would ever question if someone traveled with a crate full of Neetlelm. As you've said, a teaspoon of its sap would need dozens of roots."
Amelia stared at Arabella. What she said had some weight on it, but if that was the case, there's no way that Mr. Vance wouldn't know about it—even Arabella. She's aware of his discreet capability as a former knight and her father's trusted secretary; for sure, he already has some spies look into it. And the mere fact that he had her aunt's husband investigated intensely was because even Mr. Vance thought he was behind it, not someone else.
"I don't know," the duchess answered, "Uncle Vance would surely have it investigated if that were the case. And it would come up in Brother Ayland's report, but even he was surprised about it being the choice of poison."
"Where did he said it came from again?"
"I think it was… Pradour?"