Authors: Marian Tee
“Yes.” Charles’ tone was harsh as he remembered the day he had found the infant Soleil, looking half-starved to death.
And even then, she wasn’t crying,
“Thank you,” Ilie said quietly, “for looking after my heartkeeper.” He stood up, and when the older man came to his feet as well, Ilie bowed. “I am in your debt, Baron.”
“You have nothing to thank me for. She and her sisters have given me a reason to live.” Charles hesitated. “If she will have you, I think you’ll be a good match for my daughter. She’s always been too selfless, too practical. She needs someone---”
“As selfish as I am?” Ilie asked drily. “Is that what you’d like to say, milord?”
Charles gave the marquis an innocent look. “Your words, milord.” He took his pocket watch out. “You should get going, milord.”
And so he did, Ilie chafing at the need to use a carriage when he could so easily turn into his wolf form and get to ANEX within minutes. But since he was in Asphodel, he was forced to play it safe and take into account human limitations.
It was over an hour later when he made it to ANEX, which stood for
Academie Nu Exista.
Its name literally meant ‘the school that does not exist,’ and for all intents and purposes, ANEX was indeed an invisible entity. Its existence was one of the kingdom’s best-kept secrets, and it was only because he was part of the Duke of Brimstone’s Galeré that a half-demon like him knew of its existence. All other forms of demons were held in dislike, even those who had managed to stay in the light.
Considering his heartkeeper was trained in ANEX, was it the reason why she had never made herself to known him? Would she rather die a mortal than chain herself to a demon like him?
Three days later, Ilie Marcovici was almost completely convinced that the woman destined to be his heartkeeper was leading him on a merry chase. It was like she had sixth sense where he was concerned, and she was able to stay two steps ahead of him.
When Ilie had visited ANEX, it was to learn that she had already left for a mission with her recruits. He had followed her to the field, only to find out that the mission’s location had been changed, and of course their whereabouts was classified information. And because he had been speaking with an ANEX official, Ilie hadn’t bothered using compulsion to get the boy to talk. Even if he did succeed, and he would have, the political consequences would have been disastrous.
The next day, he had attended every ball possible, having learned that she was the Toast of the Season. Surely she had to be in one of those parties?
But no, she had not attended any of them, and he found out later on that she had sent her excuses to every hostess, pleading an oh-so-painful headache.
And now, here he was, in Asphodel’s tourism office, a place the marquis normally avoided at all costs since this was often where the world’s most spoiled brats congregated.
The footmen stationed outside the building, having recognized the crest on the carriage, hurriedly threw the doors open and stood at attention.
Soon enough, the marquis was on his way, and the footmen almost gaped when the powerful-looking nobleman nodded at them before striding inside.
A Chalysian noble, acknowledging their presence! It was unheard of! It was fantastic, and the footmen felt fit to burst with excitement.
Wait until they finish with their shifts
, the two thought excitedly, and they’d be telling everyone who cared to hear.
The Marquis di Lunare had nodded at them. It was a story they would tell their children and grandchildren, and oh, how popular they’d be.
Inside the tourism office, pandemonium among locals erupted, having realized who was in their midst. Their excitement was contagious, and the tourists in the lobby asked excitedly about Ilie.
It was all bothersome and even deafening, since otherworlders like Ilie Marcovici possessed senses a thousand times more sensitive than those of humans.
He walked straight to reception, saying, “I have a meeting with Lady Fleur Orpheline. Where may I find her?” He was lying, of course, but he knew the reception wouldn’t even consider verifying his claim. In their kingdom, noblemen were always right.
The bespectacled secretary stammered her reply. She was unable to think straight, having never imagined she’d come face to face with the Marquis di Lunare. And oh, he was so much more seductive than how the papers described him.
As Ilie turned towards the stairs, all the women in the lobby followed him with their starry-eyed gazes.
The second floor of the tourism’s office consisted of several classrooms, partitioned with glass walls to allow for spectators. He located Lady Fleur in one of them, and with his heightened hearing, Ilie had no problems listening in as his heartkeeper’s youngest sister oriented the tourists about Asphodel.
“Hello, everyone, I’m Lady Fleur Orpheline, a volunteer here at the tourism office. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you to our city.” She gestured to her dress, saying, “The first thing we’ll discuss is our mode of attire, which as you can see is probably not what most of you are used to. This is a non-negotiable aspect of your visit to the kingdom, but I hope that instead of seeing it as a prohibition, you’ll think of it as an opportunity to experience our culture.”
he thought. No wonder she was considered to be the communications expert.
“Prior to boarding the ferry, you were scanned for any modern communication devices. Please know that even if you were able to find a way to sneak your phone in, it still wouldn’t work here.” She gave them a charmingly sheepish smile, saying, “Let’s just say the signal’s extremely bad.”
One of the tourists raised his hand. “I have a question.”
,” Fleur said sweetly. “As the daughter of a baron, I’m to be addressed as ‘milady.’ Of course, I’d rather you say
Fleur, The Prettiest Girl in the World,
but---” She gave the tourists a pretty little shrug. “We must learn to cope.”
Her audience laughed.
She looked expectantly at the man who spoke earlier.
An infatuated look on his face, he said obediently, “I have a question, milady.”
Fleur clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, that’s wonderful!” She rewarded him with a smile and then shared it with the rest of the tourists, murmuring, “I hope you understand that you won’t mind we’re all so formal here. Again, it’s all a matter of perspective. If you will, just pretend you’re like Alice, and you’ve fallen into a rabbit hole that’s transported you to the land of fairytales.” She did a little twirl, and the skirts of her pink gown twirled around her.
Ilie looked at the tourists, and he was amused and impressed to see everyone had fallen under her spell.
The orientation ended twenty minutes later, and Fleur was the last to come out of the classroom. She curtsied upon seeing him, murmuring, “Good afternoon, milord.”
He bowed. “Good afternoon, milady.”
An older woman came forward then, and Fleur introduced her to Ilie, explaining, “Miss Margaret is my companion.”
Ilie greeted the other woman pleasantly, and Miss Margaret let out a girlish giggle.
Fleur snapped her fan open and covered her mouth so she could grin. Miss Margaret was normally prudish, but she had suspected her companion would be no match for the marquis’ seductive airs.
And she was right
, Fleur thought, grinning again. Wait until she told Soleil about this.
She glanced at the Marquis, asking cheekily, “Are you looking for my sister?”
“Will you tell me where she is?”
“Of course.” Mischief danced in her eyes as she added, “But only if you tell me something first.”
Ilie had to smile. “Are you actually trying to blackmail…
Fleur let her eyes go wide. “I have no idea what you’re saying, milord.” She gestured to the stairs. “Shall we? The tourism office has a beautiful garden at the back.”
And so they walked, and while surrounded by tourists and workers, they restricted themselves to pure pleasantries.
But when they reached the garden, with Miss Margaret walking a small but proper distance behind them, Fleur asked flatly, “Will you have other women even when my sister’s your heartkeeper?”
Ilie choked. He had
expected that at all.
Fleur looked up at him, her gaze serious. “Soleil was fifteen when she first saw you.”
He was stunned. He’d never imagined she had known about him for that long.
“You weren’t alone though.” Fleur’s lips were compressed. “You were with…” Her voice lowered, and she looked behind her shoulder to make sure her companion wouldn’t overhear her. Satisfied, she looked back at the marquis and said darkly, “You were with a…
Ilie flushed as Fleur’s words painted an unbecoming portrait of himself. He could just imagine how his heartkeeper felt, having seen him with another woman.
“I deeply apologize for that,” he said stiffly.
“You should say sorry to her, not me.”
“I will most assuredly do that as soon as you tell me where she is.”
She shook her head. “Not so fast, milord. You haven’t answered my question yet.”
He gazed at her thoughtfully, his head cocking to the side. “You appear to be the sensible sort, milady.”
“I’m sensible,” she agreed, “but not as smart as Aurora or as practical as Soleil.”
“Good common sense is all I need,” he assured her. “You are aware of how heartkeeping works?”
“Just what most people know,” she answered.
“Then you know, milady, that heartkeeping doesn’t necessarily mean two people being in love with each other?”
And your point, milord?”
“Fidelity is not a requirement of the union.”
“Then she won’t accept you,” Fleur said without hesitation.
“You sound so certain of this.”
“But you also mentioned your sister being practical.”
“That’s mostly a front,” Fleur said with a shrug. “She’ll kill me for saying this, but really…” Her voice lowered into a confidential whisper. “Deep down inside, my sister is the biggest romantic of all.”
.” Somehow, he could not picture the extremely lethal leader of
Les Trois Belles Lames
as a romantic.
Fleur nodded vigorously. “She’s always dreamt…” She paused. “Actually, forget that. I think that would be drawing the line, and Soleil’s never going to talk to me if I let that one out.” She looked up at the marquis, wondering what the right thing to do was.
They had always known who Soleil’s heartkeeper was, and she and Aurora had teased their sister all the time about the marquis being the opposite of Soleil’s ideal man, which was someone gentle and scholarly.
She almost snorted at the thought.
She was absolutely not going to allow her sister to end up with someone so boring.
Fleur bit her lip. She did want the opposite of tedious for her sister, but the marquis seemed a bit too much. He was a rake, a wolf, and a demon. He was dangerous, in every way. Did she really trust this man to look after her sister?
“Milady,” the marquis murmured.
She carefully wiped her face clean of any expression, asking, “Yes?”
“I can promise that I will do everything
to hurt her, and this I swear on my honor as one of the Galeré.”
She said slowly, “Alright.”
Seeing the apprehensive look she gave him, Ilie said mildly, “I’m no monster, milady.”
“Oh, but you are, milord.” Fleur’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Everyone is, next to my sister.”
Ilie’s hired carriage parked a few feet away from the cake shop, allowing him a generous view of the establishment and its patrons. Old rose damask graced the walls, its intricate floral patterns complementing the scrollwork on the ceiling and the elaborate design of the carpet.
The shop was near to full, but he found her easily enough, seated alone in one of the tables, enjoying a slice of cheesecake while reading a book of poetry.
The biggest romantic of all,
Fleur had said.
Ilie frowned. He had thought the girl was lying, but maybe not.
With his power cloaked and the hired carriage giving him anonymity, Ilie had all the chance in the world to feast his eyes on her, and so he did, his gaze roaming over her ever so slowly.
Her hair was a mass of elegant curls arranged on top of her head, with a few locks let loose to frame her heart-shaped face. Her eyes were the brightest shade of blue, like the skies of Ciel. And her lips were small and shaped like a rose---
Ilie imagined those lips under his, and lust uncurled inside him, heating his blood.
Soleil Orpheline was his heartkeeper.
No one else’s.
Possessive pleasure flooded him at the thought.
He had known about the possibility that she existed, of course, but he had not let himself hope. He had been roaming the world for over nine hundred years. He had thought he had seen it all and believed that he had missed his chance.
His gaze drifted back to his heartkeeper. She was dressed in a gown of lilac silk, and he scowled when he noticed how low the neckline was, revealing more than a hint of her generous bosom. Those beautiful big breasts were
, and he was determined the day wouldn’t end until she knew this, too.
He saw her turn the page of her book. Her eyes widened a moment later, and a blush of pink touched her cheeks.
Was that really poetry she was reading
, he wondered, intrigued.
Leaning back against his seat, the marquis crossed his arms over his chest and considered his options. If she truly was a romantic, then he had to do things by the book and court her with the full works – flowers, chocolate, and other trinkets, escorting her to parties and inviting her for a walk in the park, the likes.
She would appreciate that, wouldn’t she?
She probably would, but the problem was, that was not Ilie’s style at all.