THE DUCHESS GAMBIT
- House Dreyar -
(in which a friendship and an alliance is forged)
“This is Freed.” was how the Duke introduced the young man to her. “I am not fond of sharing him, but I will do so with you. Feel special yet?”
Lucy did not know how to respond to that. Her breeding dictated that she bow her head, smile genially and humbly wave the remark off. To make herself smaller, to pretend that she was less intelligent than she actually is and thus could not hear the obvious sarcasm in his voice.
But she knew her breeding would not stand much against Laxus Dreyar. The Mad Duke. Owning a whole duchal house at only twenty years old with neither predecessor nor heir, the only one left in his immediate family. The man was known for being rebellious, eccentric and unpredictable.
And what- who was she? Lucy Heartfilia, all sixteen years of her noble education, good manners, social graces and prestigious upbringing already cemented into her being… and she still did not quite know how to handle the man before her.
So she risked honesty.
Because Lucy may be inexperienced and innocent, but she was not naive, and she knew that if she tried lying, he still would have seen through it.
“I feel confused, My Lord.” she said. “Perhaps if I knew more about… Lord Freed, and why there is a need to ‘share’ him with me, or why you have invited me over, I might understand enough to feel special.”
At this, the Duke shrugged as if to say ‘Fair enough’ , a smile tugging on the corner of his lips. He glanced at Freed, who had been quietly standing behind him through the whole exchange.
Freed himself bore an unreadable expression, lips drawn to a thin line. Lucy wanted to study him, to know more so she wouldn’t be so clueless, but it was unsettling to look directly at the man because he was looking right at her in turn.
All she noted was that he wore plain clothes - more fitting of a clerk or secretary than a noble. There was a sword on his hip even though he did not look like a swordsman. His hair was long and tied back behind his head. At any other time, this would identify him as a University scholar, but she knew scholars took pride in their status and almost never went without their black scholar robes. Lord Freed was not wearing scholar robes.
As if he could read her mind, he spoke up then. “Not a ‘Lord’, milady. Please do call me Freed.”
“Oh.” Lucy blinked. So he was not a noble. “I apologize for misunderstanding.”
“No offense taken.” came the curt answer.
“Anyway,” the Duke said again, after observing the exchange of formalities. “You’re wondering why I invited you to come over, correct?”
Lucy nodded, poise and manners back in full swing. “Yes, if you may be so kind as to enlighten me, My Lord.”
“I take it you know about Fullbuster’s ball next week.” he said. “Do you need an escort?”
She couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. “I do not… need one, I believe.” - because she really didn’t need an escort. She was Duchess Heartfilia. However young she was, she was entitled to come to events alone and no one was allowed to question her. Not that she was being prideful - it was only a fact.
He seemed pleased at the answer. “Very well. Do you want an escort, then?”
His mood made her brave enough to dare ask, “Are you volunteering, My Lord?”
“Indeed, I am.”
“May I ask why?”
“Because I want to.”
She knew then, that she wasn’t getting any more than that. But still - “May I think about it?”
“Of course.” Laxus said.
“Thank you. I am flattered by your… invitation.”
At that point, only her impeccable manners were holding Lucy back from standing up and pacing as she tried to make sense of the Duke’s words.
“Think nothing of it.” the Duke shrugged, then checked his pocket watch and stood up. “Now I have a meeting with Clive. I must go.”
Lucy also stood up, suppressing the urge to tell Laxus how rude he was being, leaving a guest in his own house without ceremony. “Uh-... It was-... Thank you for having me-”
“No, you aren’t leaving just yet.” he said, stopping her mid-curtsy. After a short pause, he asked, “Do you like flowers?”
She only blinked. “I-...? Yes, My Lord, I do-”
“I just had my garden made over. You should take a walk, smell the roses. Freed will take you.”
Now she was at a loss. “But-... I, uh-”
“You can ask him anything. He will provide an answer.” he said, looking at her directly. Then with a small challenging smirk, he added, “And I do mean anything .”
Lucy looked from the Duke to the other man, and back to the Duke. “Of… course, My Lord.”
“Believe me, you’ll enjoy his company more than mine.” Laxus said, letting Freed help him into his coat. “Everyone does.”
Lucy simply resigned to not saying anything at all. She clasped her hands in front of her in a neutral gesture, and fought to keep her face straight as she watched Laxus press a short kiss to Freed’s cheek before leaving.
"I'll see you later." were his last words, hardly audible.
Both Freed and Lucy waited for a moment after the Duke closed the door behind him.
Freed was the one to break the silence. “He is terrible at getting his point across.”
Lucy looked at him.
She knew how to talk to… non-nobles. To commoners. Of course she did. She talked to her lady-in-waiting and secretary and servants and butler all the time. But nothing could have prepared her for an awkward moment alone with Mad Duke Dreyar’s… someone. A person who addressed her so casually and did not seem to mind that she just saw him kissed by his master (lover?).
“I am very sorry, you must be really confused. He does that. Please let me start over.” Freed said. At this, Lucy squared her expression again and looked at him expectantly. “Welcome to Dreyar Manor, Duchess Heartfilia. My name is Freed, I mostly handle the Duke’s affairs and schedules. Now that Her Grace is Duchess, I believe you are looking to familiarize yourself with the society in the Hill."
She regarded him calmly, and did nothing but nod.
"My Lord intends to start a… friendship. With you, milady. As both heads of a duchal house.”
At this, Lucy raised her chin slightly. “If his intentions to gain my friendship were so honest, why did he leave me with his secretary?”
At this, Freed let a small smile slip. “Oh, that is exactly how you know that he takes someone seriously, you see.”
Her brows furrowed at this. “How so?”
“He told you, didn’t he? He never shares me.”
Dreyar Manor’s gardens were a thing of beauty, indeed. Lucy was glad she took up Freed’s offer to take a walk in the place. Roses and asters and peonies and daylilies filled the sprawling green. There were two gorgeous fountains, several trees for shade, with tables and chairs placed under them. It reminded Lucy of some of her beloved country estates. Her gardens there were well taken care of. The ones in the Heartfilia Manor she resided in this city isn’t as extravagant as those.
Lucy had asked Freed if what Laxus said was true: Was she really allowed to ask anything?
“Yes.” he had said. “Anything at all.”
"Even about you?"
"Even about me."
By now she understood that there was no point holding on to formalities with her current company. It was clear that neither Duke Dreyar nor his mysterious companion heeded to the Hill’s concept of hiding behind pleasantries.
“How old are you?” was her first question, to test the waters.
“Eighteen.” - two years older than her. Two years younger than the Duke. All of the secretaries Lucy had met were at least in their mid-twenties, and those were still considered awfully young.
“And you are Duke Dreyar’s secretary?”
“But you have a sword. Are you a swordsman?”
“You and him… you’re…” she paused for a while, fighting a lifetime’s worth of courtesy lessons fit for a ‘respectable young lady’. “Are you friends?”
He seemed slightly amused. “Yes.”
And before she could think to stop, she asked, “Does he kiss all his friends?”
This time, he was definitely amused. “Sometimes, when they want to be kissed.”
“You are lovers, then?”
He reached out to gently caress a beautiful rose. He cupped the flower in his palm, but didn’t dare pluck it. Perhaps it was because of the thorns. “Sometimes, when we want to be.”
Lucy, a young teen with a fondness for romance novels, let herself be momentarily distracted by this. She knew she should be asking about why the Duke wanted to escort her to the ball, but she just couldn’t help but ask.
“How did you meet the Duke?”
“I came from Magnolia.” Freed said, honest and open. He paused for a second to gauge her reaction. She was surprised. She must not have expected that someone under Dreyar House’s employ came from the City’s most troubled neighborhood. 'Troubled' in this sense being a kind word to use. “We met there, and became… friends. Shall I tell you the details?”
“I-...” Lucy paused, fiddling with her hands for a while before stopping. “No. No need. Thank you, for telling me.”
She was curious, but it also sounded… intrusive. Maybe another day. When she actually felt worthy of such private information.
Finally, she remembered what she really wanted to ask the Duke, or in this case, his mostly-secretary - “Why does Duke Dreyar want to escort me to the ball?”
“Like I said, he wants to be friends. I know it does not sound like him, but that is the truth.” - a pause - “He also has plans for you.”
At this, Lucy’s head snapped up sharply, looking at her companion. “What sort of plans?”
She was only sixteen - her father’s death was still a fresh wound, barely starting to heal after four months - but she knew what being Duchess Lucy Heartfilia meant. It meant that she was the youngest head of the four duchal houses of Crocus, and in turn the most inexperienced, having lived most of her life sheltered in the country. It meant that, if it came down to politics, she was an easy target for manipulation. Her man of business, Capricorn, had told her this much, even though she already knew.
If Duke Dreyar was trying to get into her affections and good graces so he could manipulate her into bringing Heartfilia House down-
“Worry not, milady. ‘Seduce-and-swindle’ is not his preferred strategy.” Freed said, immediately cutting off her suspicions. Under his breath, Lucy thought she heard him add, 'He has someone else doing that for him, anyway.'
“Then what is his preferred strategy?” she asked.
“Well, it’s… ‘friendship-and-honesty’ , if we should call it something.” Freed rolled his eyes at the idea. “He wouldn’t say it, but I know he has decided to help you.”
“Help me? How? With what?”
“He understands your situation. He became Duke Dreyar at eighteen. And if you would recall, it was not his choice to be so.”
Lucy tried to recall what she knew about the man. Laxus took up his title when his grandfather died two years prior. His father had been disowned and was nowhere to be found. He became Duke Dreyar at eighteen, a young heir with more money and property in his hands than he’d known what to do with. The other Dukes were Silver Fullbuster, Jiemma Orland and Jude Heartfilia, all experienced businessmen and noble lords.
(And yet, for the past two years Dreyar House has maintained its glory, even surpassing Fullbuster and Orland. Young Laxus Dreyar may have gained the title of the Mad Duke because of his bold decisions, rebellious remarks, general disregard of protocol, eccentric parties and ‘worldly’ tastes… but his house was currently the richest it has been in decades. How did he do it?)
Now Lucy was in the same situation as Laxus had been two years ago. Lucy hated to admit it, but as much as the other nobles respected her right to be Duchess (she was Jude’s only heir, after all), they still all treated her like a foolish child to be coddled.
'Sweet, young, innocent Lucy Heartfilia - oh, someone console the poor thing, she lost her only family and surely she is at a loss on how to maintain her estate by herself!'
If only her gentle nature would allow her to talk back...
Laxus, however, on the number of times they had faced each other in noble gatherings, had treated her as he would treat any other Duke or Duchess. Like an equal. It flustered her at first when he asked about business. She struggled to provide the right answer. She knew it, of course, but she was not used to letting people know the fact. She managed in the end, and he looked satisfied most of the time.
When she looked up at Freed, she could see that he was also pleased that she seemed to have put together the facts so quickly.
“Duke Dreyar wants to help me get used to being head of my house.” she said, careful, knowing that this innocent little stroll through the gardens with the Duke’s most trusted confidante could very well be a test. “Because he knows how this situation feels like?”
“Very good, milady.”
“And what does Duke Dreyar get out of this?”
“Would you believe me if I said ‘entertainment’ ?”
Because Lucy saw no reason to pretend to be anything less than honest, she said, “Yes, but I would think that is only part of the reason.”
Freed seemed very pleased, this time. “I can see why he likes you now.”
She blinked. “You didn’t before?”
“I was thinking he was simply being dramatic, sentimental… again. He is very much both of those, you see.”
“Really?” - she asked, genuinely confused. Pragmatic, proud, boastful, grand… she would describe the Duke as those words. But she did not expect him to be… dramatic and sentimental?
“Yes. Look. I once mentioned my favorite flowers and he re-made this whole garden to fill it with them, so that I’ll stay in this house more often. He actually told me so. That was… only last month.”
“Oh.” - a strong argument. She did not bother to counter.
“But then he told me that you’re intelligent and sharp-witted. He has taken to observing you for a while. Finally, he said - forgive my language, these were his very words: ‘Someone needs to teach Lucy Heartfilia how to not give a fuck about what those boring old men will say. It pisses me off that she has to act dumb to please them.’ .”
Lucy didn’t stop herself from gaping. “He… he d-did…? Say those…?”
Freed shrugged. “When I expressed doubt, he said maybe I should see for myself, so I agreed to show you around.”
“And you just told me all of this?”
“He kissed me in front of you. Milady, that means he isn't planning to keep you in the dark about anything."
"Except telling me all this himself." Lucy frowned, not seeing any reason to hide her disappointment now that it was all out in the open.
"I know. He is terrible, as you can see."
They had reached one of the picnic tables under a tall tree. Lucy took a seat. "How about you?" Lucy asked curiously. "You take care of his affairs, as you said. What do you think of all this?"
"I trust his judgment." he replied. "I think a partnership with House Heartfilia would benefit House Dreyar."
She fell silent, looking out at the gardens.
"And, if I may say so," Freed started, meeting her gaze when he turned towards him. "I think I quite like Her Grace myself."
At this, the Duchess let out a smile - a real one, this time. "My friends call me Lucy, you know."
"Duchess Heartfilia has accepted my offer to escort her to Fullbuster's ball." Laxus announced, handing the perfumed letter to Freed when the man walked towards him.
Freed only scanned the letter's contents, briefly appreciating the elegant handwriting before handing the paper back. "And now?"
The Duke's lips curled into a pleased smile as he reached out to pull the young man towards him by the waist. "How would you like a trip to the docks?"
Freed frowned slightly, looking up at him. "Already?"
"You told me she seemed like a romantic. Surely, she would love this one."
"Because you loved it so much when you were her age?"
"Freed. What kind of sheltered sixteen-year-old refuses a call for adventure?"
Lucy looked at the man standing by the fireplace in her study as she tried to make sense of what he had just told her. "An… adventure. You say?"
"Yes, I believe that was the message." Freed replied. "What do you say? We shall dress like the common folk, you can watch the ships dock and the traders lay out their newest goods, buy anything you want? If we stay until nightfall, the Alvarez merchants have a custom of inviting all guests into their celebratory bonfire. Their food, for one, is delectable."
The Duchess looked down at the documents on her desk shortly before she turned back towards the man.
"How good are you with that sword?" she asked, eyeing the weapon on the man's hip.
"I've won every duel I fought for Dreyar."
"The Duke is coming?"
"I believe he is already there.” - then he rolled his eyes. “He's been obsessed with how they make their chocolate, with the spices and such. He must be chatting them up by now."
She bit her lip before standing up. "Well, then. Let's not keep him waiting."
The following week, during the Fullbuster's ball, Duke Dreyar arrived with Duchess Heartfilia in his arm.
She had always been a center of attention, especially after gaining her title, but this time, escorted by the Mad Duke, and her gown adorned with feathers, stones and silks no one in the Hill had seen before, all eyes were on her.
"I think I understand now." she whispered to the Duke's ear.
"What could you be talking about, Duchess?" the man replied with a hint of amusement in his voice.
"You parade me around in new fashions because you know everyone will ask me about them, and I would have to tell them they were gifts from you."
"Does this not work for both of us?" he asked, feigning innocence. "You get to be pretty and set a trend, I get to be nice and sell imported goods."
She frowned slightly. "This is how I should manage and represent Heartfilia House? I am to accept presents and always look pretty?"
He only cupped her chin to make her look into his eyes. "Exactly. Now, smile." he said. "You are surrounded by heads of houses and their heirs. You are the youngest of them all. They believe you sweet and unassuming. That, Duchess Heartfilia, is a weakness until you make it a strength."
Lucy realized the meaning of the Duke's words. The Hill would see Lucy Heartfilia as young, fickle, quick to try the newest fashion and trend like any young lady her age. Unconcerned with boring business and her estates, she would indulge in telling her peers about her newest purchases, the latest gifts from suitors.
Noble ladies and their daughters would pay good money to follow her lead, to match her style.
The Middle City merchants would be happy to sell their wares to accommodate the Hill's wants.
And these merchants were part of the Dreyar House's trading company.
As of the past week, Heartfilia also held a share in it after a discreet business agreement.
"I did find it enjoyable, shopping for these feathers and designing this gown." she said.
“Of course.” Laxus shrugged. "What is the point of all this fancy bullshit if you don't have fun?"
She found that he was right, after all. Freed had told her that Laxus wanted to ‘help’ her. She had thought it was as simple as escorting her to events to make her feel less awkward, or to support her when she finally decides ‘not to give a fuck about what boring old men would say’ (his words, not hers).
But no, this was more than that. He was actually teaching . With lessons .
And this was lesson one. He had not asked her to change . She didn’t have to. He was showing her how to use what she had at her disposal - her status, age, connections, charm, history - to play the game and best it.
Because she had always been a good student, the Duchess smiled.
It was three months into her friendship with Duke Dreyar: they came to events together, he took her to watch a play in the theatre a few times, and she confided in him when she was at odds with how to handle certain things in her household. She was beloved by her servants and business advisers, but they still second guess her competence and subsequently, her decisions. She couldn’t find it in her heart to blame them for it; she was only sixteen, inexperienced and in mourning.
Duke Dreyar had given her a few more lessons after the first one.
“Take advantage of how they see you. They think you’re sweet and charming. So charm them.”
“Do you mean to say I should smile and bat my eyelashes?”
“Why not? You say they hesitated when you asked them to negotiate this new business deal you came up with?”
“Yes. They must think I’m being whimsical, or biased, following some trend that caught my eye. But I know it’s going to work out-”
“So bat your eyelashes.”
She frowned. “How will that help?”
“They think you’re eager to try this because you’re young. Naive. Prove them right . They like to be right, those old bastards.”
“Again - how does that help?”
“You ask them again, this time when they say no, look sad and childish and say ‘pretty pretty please’ like the spoiled teenage girl you are. They still say no, complain to your friends because what are you to do? These friends are their daughters, no? More girls complaining, this time in their own house. Just make them cave in, they’ll think it’s just to humor you, but they will do it anyway - so you still get what you want.”
“I am not a spoiled teenage girl.”
“No, you’re a pretty sharp thing with an eye for business. But they don’t know that.”
“So you’re saying… I use what they know against them. I also use what they don’t know against them. How do I know I’m pushing the right decision, though?”
At this, Laxus put down his pen and stared at her. “Jude taught you very well about how to make good business decisions, but its seems he forgot to teach you to be confident enough to go through with those decisions.”
Lucy looked down. She still missed her father very much. “Did the late Lord Makarov teach you? To be confident in your choices?”
She did not miss the slight tremble in his lips before he replied. “He didn’t. He was quite the same as your father. Taught me the theory, didn’t give me time to practice before I was thrown into the real thing.”
“I just remind myself who my teacher was.” he answered. “You either think they taught you well so you’re good enough, or they taught you well so you wouldn’t want to disappoint them. Either way, you’ll push through because the alternative is doing nothing and that is certainly not what they taught you.”
Lucy found herself smiling lightly. “You give very good advice, My Lord. I wonder why people think you’re brash and rude.”
He scoffed. “What did I just tell you? That’s how they see me, so I use that to my advantage.”
“So…” she thought about it. “They believe you wouldn’t care about their opinion anyway so they let you get away with risky choices, believing it won’t be their loss, it would be your downfall in the end. You prove them wrong when the choice ends up being a profitable one.”
He went back to the documents by his table. “I knew you were a quick study.”
“Why, thank you.” she said pleasantly, picking up a cup of chocolate and taking a sip.
“By the way, I’m throwing out a party on Thursday.”
“It’s at Magnolia House. You should come.”
It took all her will to not choke on her chocolate.
And then… surprise of surprises - Lucy liked the Magnolia House.
Granted, she was apprehensive at first.
“M-Magnolia-... The party is at your house in Magnolia? You actually stay there?”
“Yes. Very often. I actually like that place better than this one.”
“But-... Isn’t-... Magnolia is filled criminals and… and… many other… worldly… vices.”
He only gave her a smirk. “Well. Everyone thinks I’m a bad influence on you. It’s about time I live up to my reputation.”
She could tell he enjoyed terrifying her, so she asked Freed to intervene, telling the secretary that she wasn’t so sure she’d want to spend time in Magnolia.
Freed had only raised an eyebrow before laughing lightly. “I understand why you have your qualms. But Lucy, please trust me when I say you are going to love it there.”
She didn’t believe him. How was he so sure? How did he know her so much? She spent majority of her time conferring with Laxus, Freed either tailing them or off on his own business. She had learned that he spent most days of the week in University (and he was a scholar after all, he just didn’t wear his scholar’s robes when at home ) - he was studying law. Because of course, he was already Dreyar’s swordsman and secretary and man of business, why would he not also be the house’s lawyer? It was amazing, really.
Either way, his wit and intelligence was as sharp as his sword, so maybe Lucy did not have to wonder so much about how he managed to know her so well.
Duke Dreyar was her… friend... now. He would not send her anywhere unsafe, right?
So she came to Magnolia, her carriage armed with twice the number of guards than usual.
Freed and Laxus told her she was welcome to stay at Dreyar’s Magnolia House anytime. She arrived five days before the party, to get settled, and partly to get away from the Hill. Yes, she could easily run away to one of the Heartfilia country estates for a while to get a breath of fresh air away from the gossiping, hovering nobility and business advisors… but she had been feeling particularly… vindictive? Rebellious?
She had been pleasing people left and right lately, being perfectly sweet and charming and pretending to be shallow and transparent . It was working wonders, so she did not necessarily think it was a bad strategy. But it got tiring sometimes. Maybe if they heard she went to Magnolia, it would add an air of mystery to her. Something about her that they didn’t know or understand. She liked that concept, somehow.
So there she was.
The exterior of the house was not so strange, really. It was the biggest house in Magnolia, of course, but it would look considerably simple if compared to the other houses of the noble families on the Hill. There was no sprawling garden and the front yard was utilitarian at best. The iron-wrought gates were not very fancy, but still a standout in the neighborhood it was in.
One could argue that it looked more like a fancy mansion of a rich merchant instead of a noble’s. But maybe that was better? Less show of wealth, less encouragement for thieves. After all, Magnolia was a den of thieves and pickpockets.
While Lucy did not remark much on this, the interior of the house was another matter altogether. The receiving room was a grand hall with a high ceiling and almost no furniture save for some side tables, couches and divans pushed to the walls. There was a wide and tall window letting in the bright afternoon sunlight. There were no curtains.
“We are honored to welcome you to Duke Dreyar’s Magnolia House, Duchess.” said a kind-looking old man who Lucy hasn't met before. He did not indicate who he was, but Lucy assumed he was a butler or housekeeper. “Master Laxus asked us to pass on this note.”
Lucy accepted the small folded piece of paper and read the contents.
There was only one line: ‘Make yourself at home.’
That was Laxus, indeed.
The man apologized for the state of the house (“We are in the middle of cleaning up and preparing for the party, if you would excuse us, My Lady.”) and then introduced her to an attendant who would lead her to her guest quarters. She graciously thanked the man before she and her entourage ascended the grand staircase that led to a wide second-story landing.
From there, it was a labyrinth. The hallways had a curious layout, she noticed. The rooms were unevenly sized, there were more corners and turns that she would have preferred, and some staircases that seemed very randomly placed. It was... strange. Different. Eccentric.
It fit the Duke's reputation, somehow. Maybe she should ask him for the story behind the house.
The quarters she was led to was a personal suite, a spacious guest bedroom with an adjoining sitting room, as befitting of someone of her status.
"Do you know when the Duke is coming down?" she asked the attendant as soon as her two lady's maids, Virgo and Aries, started setting her bags down.
"M'afraid I don't know when the Duke is comin', m'lady." answered the attendant, a boy who didn't look any older than her. He looked scruffy despite his pristine uniform, and was clearly putting in effort to speak formally. Maybe he was still training? "Though Master Freed sent word that he'll be here soon, plenty of time before supper."
"Ah, that's all well then, thank you." she said pleasantly. "We'll just get settled here for now."
"Will that be all, ma'am? I can ask to send up some tea and snacks."
"Maybe later. Would the Duke mind very much if I explored the house until Freed arrives?"
"Oh not at all, m'lady! Milord told us to let you do as you pleased."
By now, Lucy had grown familiar of the way Laxus gave flippant orders to his servants. It always entertained her to hear his quips, so she said, "He did, you say? His exact words?"
He scratched his head and looked bashful. "You'd have to excuse me, uhh… he said, 'Let her knock herself out, just don't let her burn my house down' ...?"
She simply chuckled and shook her head, and then dismissed the boy.
Leaving her maids to unpack, she explored the rest of the house.
She found that she absolutely loved it, simply for how it was so strange and different from the noble estates she was used to. But there was also… something else.
Besides the peculiar layout and staircase placement, the rooms that were left open for her to take a look into were spacious. Not that they were bigger than other Hill mansions' rooms - the rooms here were actually smaller than she was used to. But the sparse furniture and wide windows that let sunlight in gave an open, bright ambiance to the rooms.
The furniture themselves were still fancy, but not as much as the Hill mansions. Some even notably out of date.
There were books everywhere, left carelessly in tables and shelves that looked odd placed in some of the hallways.
The decor, however. Lucy would admit she was charmed by them. The decor was most curious and… unconventional, again. Paintings were sparse and there were no family portraits, but mostly stylized fantasy, abstract, or scenery, all from artists whose names she didn't recognize. Only very few of them had fancily-carved frames. Same went with the statuettes, pots, vases and sculptures that were left in various areas to adorn the walls and corners. Unknown artists, strange concepts, ranging from whimsical to outlandish.
And the library! It was filled with titles she didn't quite recognize. Most of them looked new - philosophy, science, art and fiction novels. The old and worn ones were all educational references.
She was there skimming the library shelves when a second set of footsteps joined her.
"I see you've found our strange little collection."
Lucy stopped to smile at Freed. He had his hair down, and was donning a black scholar's robe. It was the first time Lucy was seeing Freed the Scholar, it was usually the Secretary.
"I must admit, I am curious." she smiled back. "I don't recognize most of these, and I love books!"
Freed shrugged. "Most are very limited edition. Some of them even the only edition."
She blinked. "Does Laxus commission writers to write books for him?"
"Not exactly. The writers write what they want, and seek his patronage. All he does is fund printing and binding, and he always keeps one for himself."
"I did not know he liked reading so much."
"Oh, he mostly leaves that part to me. You see, Laxus is a dragon." Freed said with a small smile on his face. "He hoards."
Lucy had long since decided not to question how things worked between the Duke and his companion, so she changed topics. "This house is quite… bizarre, too. But please don't take offense! I only meant that I haven't been in a house quite like this before. Your hallways are a maze."
Freed nodded indulgently. He started walking along the shelves, fingers tracing the spines of the books, looking for a specific title. "That's because this house was not originally Dreyar's. This place used to be a block with several houses, mostly apartments, standing side-by-side. Laxus bought the whole block and I guess he did not want to destroy built houses so instead, he just… carved a path to connect the walls and made them all into one."
The strange layout, the lack of a large garden or a formal courtyard, differently-sized rooms… they made sense now. If several houses were refurbished to one big mansion, with not much thought to its appearance and minimal changes to the structure… then that should explain the maze-like corridors and the randomly-placed staircases.
"He built it shortly after becoming Duke. Most of the furniture are Dreyar's old ones, out of fashion or too old. Then we just filled it with things we acquired or liked but couldn't keep in the Hill because it clashed with the fancy decor. Most of the time, he prefers this place to the Hill mansion, actually."
"I can see why." Lucy answered.
The Dreyar's Hill Mansion was elegant, expensive, furnished to the latest fashions and the finest adornments. A show of wealth, boasting Dreyar Family's success and status.
Magnolia House was, Lucy felt, more personal. It was for Laxus only, and perhaps Freed, since he seemed perfectly at home wherever Laxus was. She wondered, idly, who else had been invited to this house. Everyone in the Hill knew that Duke Dreyar had a house in Magnolia, but no one ever seemed to give a detailed description, because the very few that had been there kept their silence.
Freed had picked a book. It was an art book, filled with carefully-colored illustrations, graphs and maps. She failed to catch the title, but Freed nodded to himself as he browsed the contents.
Then Lucy almost lost her footing when something - someone? - whose head only reached a couple of inches above her waist, ran straight into her.
It was a little girl - in a messy rumpled dress and patchwork apron. The child was followed by two other children - one boy taller, one shorter. They looked too ragged to belong in such an elegant place, but they didn’t seem to mind as they were busy arguing.
"Ah! I'm very sorry, M'lady Princess!" the girl exclaimed, staring up at her in shock until one of the boys tugged at her braid.
"Idiot, princesses are called Your Highness, not Milady!" said the boy.
"You're both stupid, we got no princesses here 'cause they're evil wizards!" argued the other boy.
"No, they're not, the wizards are the evil ones!"
"A princess can be a wizard!"
"Oh really, who told you?"
"Doesn't matter, she ain't a princess 'cause she's a Lady! Ma told me!"
"Aren't all princesses ladies?"
Lucy just watched them all in fascination, bickering among themselves while trying not to look at her and also trying to apologize and bow.
Meanwhile, Freed only sighed. "You three, are you forgetting where you are?"
All three kids froze and instantly stood to attention, looking at Freed and swallowing. "W-We're sorry, Master Freed!"
"So? Where are you?"
"The library, Master Freed!"
"What's our rule for the library?"
"T-To… to keep quiet..."
"Good, now do it."
Freed then gestured towards Lucy. "This is Duchess Lucy Heartfilia. She will be staying with us for a while."
All three turned to the young woman and bowed.
"Sorry for being rude, M'Lady!"
Lucy, bemused, only smiled slightly. "It's no problem."
"She is a guest of the Duke, so you better behave." Freed said sternly. "Aren't you three supposed to be downstairs?"
"We… it was… a game… Master Freed." the tallest boy said lamely.
"Well, the library is off-limits for games, you know that." Freed scolded, then his expression softened. "But since you little troublemakers are already here… Might as well-… Do you want to run an errand for me?"
"Will be honored to go, Master Freed!" the shorter boy said.
Freed nodded approvingly before moving to one of the desks pushed to the library walls. They followed him eagerly. Carefully, he wrapped the book he was holding into a parcel, and then grabbed a small piece of paper and wrote something on it before addressing the tallest boy.
"You know where The Hand lives?"
"Miss Levy, sir?” the child replied. “Near the butcher’s? I know it, sir.”
“Good. Deliver this book and message to her.” he handed the package and note to the boy, then took out a handful of coins. “Here. Buy some treats for yourselves, but be careful not to spoil your dinner.”
The children looked ecstatic as they accepted the items, then bowed quickly before running off again.
“And mind the pickpockets!” Freed called after them.
“Yes, sir! Thank you, Master Freed, sir!”
Freed finally turned back to talk to Lucy and smiled as he answered her unspoken question. “Children of our staff. They come and help their parents here sometimes, but you know children. They get distracted.”
Lucy nodded, but her smile went tight. She knew children. She had been a child - she was still a child in many ways - but noble children were raised to walk prim and proper, never to run in the halls much less in the library. They never ran errands, much less received coins for it to buy themselves a snack. She remembered sitting on the country estate’s window seat, watching the farmers’ children running around the fields and laughing together.
“They look very cheerful.” she remarked softly. “Laxus doesn’t get angry that strangers’ children run in his house’s halls, though?”
At this, Freed rolled his eyes. “If he were here, he would be running down the halls after them. And they’re... not exactly strangers, to us.”
Lucy raised an eyebrow, but before she could say anything, Freed had already diverted her attention again.
“Anyways, shall I show you to his favorite place in this house?”
“...is it his bedroom?”
A considering pause, followed by a shrug. “No, but close enough.”
The idea Lucy had about Magnolia house being the Duke’s personal, private sanctuary was confirmed when Freed led her to a lavish, spacious suite. It was a study, small library, lounge and sitting room in one.
It was nothing fancy, but compared to the other rooms in the house which were practical and formal, obviously meant for receiving guests, this suite was, more than anything, something private.
By the fireplace, the lush divan looked worn but comfortable. There was a velvet robe draped carelessly over the backrest. There was a low table filled with haphazardly-placed documents and trinkets. The floor by the fireplace was a nest of blankets and large fluffy pillows over a soft fur carpet. There were small stacks of books and more papers all over the room including the pillow nest. More books were in the shelf pressed to a wall. The mahogany desk was cluttered. There was a pillow on its matching chair, a coat on the armrest. Only a select few figurines and vases, a large painting, and a grandfather’s clock served as the room’s decor.
The room was a mess, as if by design. It was made for long nights staying up working or reading or lounging. It was free of pleasantries, and overly casual.
Lucy could already see Laxus lounging in that divan, complaining about his day, Freed sitting amongst the pillows and books, smile indulgent.
Maybe that was why she wasn’t all that surprised when Laxus unceremoniously entered the room, spared Freed and her a fleeting glance, and then collapsed on the divan.
That didn’t take too long.
“Fuck, I hate people.” he mumbled against an expensive pillow.
“We know.” Freed snorted, then walked over to stick a searching hand under Laxus’ heavy form, sternly informing the man that he was ruining a first edition printing of Freed’s favorite book so would he please just cooperate like a normal person just this once?
Lucy only smiled to herself, plopping down on the nest of pillows on the floor and picking up the nearest book to study it.
“Is dinner ready yet?” she heard Laxus ask.
“Laxus, I might be the help, but I’m not the cook.”
“Then help me by telling me when dinner is going to be ready.”
“In an hour, I think. Do you want me to tell them to hurry up?”
“Nevermind, I’ll just take a nap.”
Yes, Lucy thought. This was their favorite place, indeed.
Over the next few days before the party, Lucy slowly let herself settle in the strange house. It was quite the experience, being a guest without any of the usual rules and pleasantries expected of her status. All Freed told her was to ‘tell us if you want to have lunch and dinner in your room, save the staff some trouble’ . She found that she didn’t want to do that. She simply joined them in the dining hall, since Laxus also decided to stay in the house for the rest of the week, save for some important business meetings held on the Hill.
She learned more things about Duke Dreyar and his company in her four days here than in their three months of slow friendship.
Laxus was, surprisingly, pleasant (or his equivalent of pleasant) in the mornings. Freed was the one who had the tendency to be irritable any time before nine.
Freed wore his hair down when in University, and he tied it up when he was at home, or working on his secretary duties.
Laxus would indulge the staff’s children in a game or two when they were around. Lucy was surprised when she walked along a hallway once and met Laxus chasing down a scruffy child while a tiny girl rode on his back.
His laughter was disconcerting, but infectious.
Freed and Laxus both liked to stay up late by the fireplace in Laxus’ sitting room. Lucy had joined them most of these nights. Freed continued his University work on the low table. Laxus was like a King lounging in his divan, either reading a book or listening to Lucy and Freed’s idle chatter. Lucy felt comfortable enough to lie back comfortably against the pillows on the floor as she browsed through books, stopping to read whatever interested her.
Sometimes, he shared experiences he had while dealing with other nobles in the past. Whenever Lucy asked a question, he would look annoyed, but he would answer anyway. It was like a casual lesson, ‘How to Deal with Stuffy Nobles’ is what he would have called it, probably.
The art in the house - paintings, sculptures, vases and pottery by unknown artists - were actually bought by or gifted to Dreyar House. Freed told Lucy that most of them were by poor artists who sought the Duke’s patronage. They thought him more ‘approachable’ because of his house in Magnolia, compared to other nobles in the intimidating Hill.
She discovered that Laxus also knew how to handle a sword. Most noble sons and lords only knew the basics and their own swords were usually only for decoration (that’s what they have swordsmen for, after all) but Laxus actually liked sparring. She was thrilled when the man allowed her to watch him and Freed train in one of the rooms of the house. Freed was an excellent and experienced swordsman, and it showed with how the usually proud Laxus Dreyar listened intently to his instructions as they practiced.
They weren’t lovers , in the classic sense. Lucy now understood what Freed meant by ‘Sometimes, when we want to be.’ that one time she asked about it. Their relationship was simply intimate . She always saw Laxus ask silently whenever he touched Freed - usually only a request to move closer, a short touch or a fleeting kiss, and never in the lips. Freed never asked when he touched Laxus, who always seemed to relax upon contact. She felt like there was a story in there, but she did not mind not knowing.
When they got like so, comfortable and melting against each other, sometimes she looked away, feeling like an intruder. Sometimes, she couldn’t take her eyes off them.
They caught her watching once, and Laxus merely looked annoyed. “What?”
She was growing used to Laxus’s moods. “I just like seeing you not grumpy, is all. It’s almost surreal, at times.”
“Mm.” Freed hummed, running a hand through the Duke’s hair. “I do like it better when you are not scowling.”
“Well, get used to disappointment.”
“I already am. Why do you think I’m still here?”
Lucy laughed, Laxus scowled and Freed pressed a kiss to his furrowed brows.
Lucy learned that the old man who welcomed her to the house on her first day was called Yajima, and he was an old friend of the late Makarov Dreyar. He had been a trusted aide and retainer of the family but had since retired the past few years. The old man had been living off his pension by himself when Laxus offered him residence in the Magnolia House so he would have company.
She came by this information one quiet afternoon when both Freed and Laxus were away and she found the old man drinking tea by himself on the house’s only balcony. He had invited her to sit down, and with nothing better to do, she joined him. Yajima was good company - it didn’t take long for small talk to turn into an interesting conversation.
“Oh, but you must forgive me, sir! I thought you were a butler or a housekeeper when we first met! I completely misunderstood-”
“No worries, My Lady.” the man waved it off easily. “I was a housekeeper, way back when.”
“You welcomed me so warmly! You didn’t have to, but you did.”
“Ah, who would pass up a chance to talk with the Duchess Heartfilia?” he said, smiling a humble smile. She returned the gesture, and when he moved to pour himself more tea, she quickly stopped him to do it herself. “I have to admit, My Lady. I was eager to meet you because I had been curious about who the young master had invited.”
“Oh? He doesn’t invite many people then?”
“He does, actually. He would welcome guests, he would invite people for parties, luncheons, dinners… But very rarely does he invite anyone to stay.”
Lucy considered this before replying. “I presume you know him very well. Why do you think he chose me?”
The old man took a sip of his tea, then put down his cup. “I have known the young master since he was an infant. I have watched him grow to the man he is now. I cannot say for sure that I understand his reasons, but I can say this: he may strike you as proud and cold-hearted, and you are right. He was raised to be proud, and to not show weakness. He also knows this, but he does know when to open up, to let people in. He is an excellent judge of character, and if he trusts someone, he must think they are worth it. Master Laxus is never one to think twice about doing anything as long as he thinks it is worth the risk.”
The young woman only nodded. It wasn’t a complete, concrete answer. But it made her appreciate this new relationship she was growing into.
“Forgive me if I am asking too many questions.” she said then. When the old man only waved it off obligingly, she continued. “I am curious. I get the feeling that this house is special. A refuge of sorts for the Duke, if I may say so. He is very comfortable here and I can see everyone else is. However, I’ve always been told that Magnolia is a dangerous place. Why here, of all places?”
“Ah, that I know something about.” the man said with a chuckle. “The young master hates the nobility. And you should know, Duchess, that no sensible noble from the Hill will casually come down here to Magnolia, knowing its reputation.”
Lucy blinked. “That’s it? It’s a strategic location? He built a house here to keep out people he doesn’t like?”
“That is the most obvious answer.” Yajima shrugged. “But know that he has been at home in this place even before he built the house here. You see, in one of the apartments that used to stand here - that is where he lived with young Freed.”
“Oh.” - suddenly it made sense. The familiarity… Why Laxus was so confident and secure, why he seemed to know everyone in the neighborhood.
“He was - is still - rebellious. He used to disagree with the late Duke, with Makarov, quite often. When he was around… seventeen? Eighteen? About your age. He left home. Freed was his best friend, and gave him a place to stay, right here. Master Laxus learned Magnolia as no other noble did before. He told me he had been happy here.”
“It seems to me like it’s a person and not a place behind that happiness.”
“Maybe so.” a nod. “But there are more reasons, ones that I feel I cannot express as they could. You should ask him. He always answers.”
She loved that about the Duke. “He does.”
“If you find it in you, you should explore more than the house.”
“You can’t mean... go outside?”
“The Duke told me you are a lover of adventure.” he chided good-naturedly. “Magnolia has a reputation, yes. But I have learned that it is simply a community with its own set of rules and traditions. It is not all dark and dreary here. Otherwise, I’d have retired in the country.”
The man laughed lightly, and Lucy considered his words as she looked out into the cobbled, patchwork, uneven streets of Magnolia.
Not long afterwards, she found Laxus doing chores.
The Duke Dreyar. A noble heir of a proud house. The blood of the Old Kings and Queens in his veins. Perched atop one of two tall ladder being bossed around by one of the house staff as he helped another worker install curtains for the wide window of the front hall.
“A little to the right! Higher, higher - there. There, splendid! Thank you for helping us, Master Laxus!”
He nodded. “There’s a spot here that needs dusting. Throw me a towel, madame?”
“Oh, right away! Here you go.”
“Should we have the frames repainted soon?”
“That sounds reasonable, My Lord.”
Lucy could only gape, but was distracted when Freed walked by with a group of helpers, all of them (including Freed) carrying linen sheets obviously intended for the tables.
Freed only noticed her when he scanned the room looking for something.
“Good afternoon, milady. Can you kindly hand me the bag of pins, please? It’s right there on the table behind you.”
Lucy realized then that she had never been asked, ever , by an employee or helper, to do anything for them. Yes, there was her governess Aquarius and her tutors, but those were lessons. Getting a bag of sewing supplies for the helpers decorating a hall for a party? Never - perhaps because such a task was beneath a heiress or a duchess.
It was such a silly notion.
So she picked up the bag of pins, headed towards Freed and handed the item to the young man.
Finally, she decided not to let her stay with these people go to waste.
“How can I help?”
She had learned this: Magnolia house was not simply a house made of stone. It was a nest of sorts, made up of things Laxus and Freed had picked for themselves, carefully twined together to secure them a soft place to land.
She contemplated at this for quite awhile.
Heartfilia Mansion felt cold without her father, even though her servants and retainers treated her warmly and with love.
Dreyar Mansion, while it has more people milling about, was a place that was distinctly not hers. A place for formal afternoon tea and business meetings with Duke Dreyar.
Magnolia House felt, to Lucy, like a warm blanket, draped over her by strong arms.
For this, for the comfort it brought her, she loved Magnolia House.
The house was one thing. The party was another thing entirely. She’d been to parties before, of course. Well. More like balls and formal gatherings. But some parties. There was dancing and mingling and drinking. It was loud and could be overwhelming with all the people moving around, but she always held her ground quite well. There were careful rules and decorum and expectations but she knew very well how to navigate in.
Laxus had even complimented her, once - “You’re good at being perfect, eh? Never change.” It sounded a bit condescending, but she knew him enough by then to take the remark as a compliment.
This party, however, disoriented her.
It was not to do with the masks. She was prepared for that, she’d also been to a masquerade before. It was not the number of people - there were plenty of people, yes, but she was used to that, too.
It must be the colors. The lights were dimmed and everyone looked so colorful. It was the patchwork clothing of Magnolia denizens, but somehow brighter, made fancier and gaudier. Attires were not the classic, clean fashion of the Hill, but the bold, bright and daring of Magnolia.
It took her aback while she descended the staircase escorted by Laxus. The man seemed to be the only one not wearing a mask. He welcomed everyone in his curt, uninterested manner, and did not seem to think it fit to introduce her.
“Go.” he told her then. “Enjoy.”
For someone with such a presence, he disappeared into the crowd too easily.
Maybe it was also the noise. Laughter was unbridled, conversations almost never hushed, people singing along to the band, dancing without a set rhythm. It was louder and much more chaotic than she was used to.
And the guests… well, it was safe to say she did not expect to recognize anyone seeing as it was supposed to be a masquerade… but they were obviously not from the Hill, she could guess that much.
“Lucy.” Freed’s voice behind her took her attention. And of course he wasn’t wearing a mark either, although his hair fell to cover one eye, and there were rhinestones and painted swirls around the visible one. His hair fell freely over his shoulders.
She let out her breath. “Freed, you look… dashing, and incredible and- might I say, unique?”
“Thank you.” he said with a smile, then eyed her delicate pure white dress and the feathered and jeweled mask that covered her eyes. She was an image of almost angelic purity. “You look divine.”
Lucy only smiled and did a playful curtsy. “I figured the Duke would want someone divine in his arm as he made his entrance.” then she frowned slightly, looking around. “Though he still left me.”
“He has some guests to attend to.” Freed shrugged. “But let me tell you - on a party like this? The Duke isn’t the most interesting company.”
She raised her eyebrows beneath her mask. “Oh?”
Then Freed offered his arm and as soon as she took it, he leaned down slightly to whisper on her ear and indicated to certain spots in the grand hall. “See those people over there?”
“That man with the ridiculous feathered hat that makes him look twice as tall-”
“-and his company.”
“Artists. Painters, most of them. Two are sculptors.” he said with a small smile, then turned slightly, pulling her with him. “The ones sitting by the tables, gambling? Novelists and philosophers, all of them. Probably debating fact versus fiction.”
“That crowd near the iced cakes - actors and playwrights. There should be poets here, too- Ah, there they are. Those ones by the divan. I think those two they’re discussing with are musicians.”
Lucy was surprised. She had never been in the company of people like these before. Artists and poets and actors and musicians were good for entertainment… but for mingling with? There were considered too much for her noble lady sensibilities. What with their radical views and worldly dialogue.
She would quote Laxus on this: ‘Bullshit.’ They were interesting, imaginative people, and she couldn’t wait to talk with them. Were there rules for that here, too? There seemed to be none, as she saw both ladies and gentlemen, old and young, mixed perfectly well with the groups Freed pointed out, all of them looking confident and enthusiastic as they discussed.
“The Duke invited all these people?” she asked Freed. She had thought the reason why she did not receive a formal written invitation was because she had already been asked personally and was staying in the venue anyway.
“Not exactly.” Freed said. “It was an open invitation for anyone.”
“Oh… but they are all from the city?”
“Most from the Middle City, some from Magnolia, and-” at this, he looked at her seriously. “-we want you to enjoy, but do keep your wits about you.”
“W-Why? Is there something wrong-”
“Nothing to worry too much about. I’d just have you know that some of the guests here are from the Hill.”
Lucy paused. There were nobles here?
Then again, maybe she shouldn’t be surprised. Officially, in the Hill, Duke Dreyar was the Mad Duke, avoided by his peers, and Magnolia is the hive of crime and criminals, death and debauchery. No proper noble associated with the Duke outside business and pleasantry. No proper noble went to Magnolia at all .
However, since stepping out from her father’s careful protection, she had started to hear more things. There was no one to stop her from hearing whispers among other people her age. Some nobles - mostly the young sons and lords, would sometimes go to Magnolia for the thrills. They were both very brave and particularly foolish. Dares, most of them.
Lucy was a noble herself, so she could understand the desire to run off, escape duties for a while, to a place where there were less restrictions and expectations. The idea of this party must have seemed very appealing to some of those secret rule-breakers, with the masks promising anonymity.
“I’ll be careful, then.” Lucy finally told her companion. “Thank you for telling me-”
She was cut off when someone very casually stepped into their two-person huddle. “ -Freed! My favorite person! Looking gorgeous tonight, I’d say!”
“I’m only your favorite when I have coins in my pocket, Bixlow.” Freed rolled his eyes at the tall stranger who wore a colorful jester costume, complete with a little cape and a hat with bells. His mask was a comical half-smiling, half-frowning face, held up on the end of a stick.
The man slipped the mask off his face to show Freed his pout. Lucy was surprised to see the tattoos on his face above his nose and between his eyes. “No, that’s not true. You’re my best friend.”
Freed shook his head, then looked back at Lucy. “This is Bixlow, uh-”
She blurted out the first name that came to mind. “Iris.” she said, curtsying. “Nice to meet you, Lord Bixlow.”
“Oh-ho, she called me a Lord!” Bixlow grinned, resting an elbow on Freed’s shoulder as only old friends did. “If only I was, Milady Iris. Ah, what a pretty name...” then he leaned forward. “Where’d you get it?”
Lucy stepped back, frowning. “W-What do you mean?”
Freed sighed and pulled Bixlow back. “Do not scare her, she’s-”
“-the Duke’s guest, I know.” Bixlow chewed on his lip, considering. “Awfully young though, is she? Milord bored again? Is she a muse or somethin’? Wait, he doesn’t need a muse, he’s not an artist- And he doesn’t like ladies much-”
“No.” Freed said before the man could ramble further. “He has simply taken a liking to her. That’s all.”
“Hm.” Bixlow considered it, then shrugged, smiling a more friendly smile towards Lucy this time. “Well, Duchess. It is nice to meet you. I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay in Magnolia so far.”
Freed rolled his eyes again while Lucy spluttered. “I-...! How did you-...? Who-”
“Don’t fret, milady. I know most everythin’ going on ‘round here.” Bixlow said, waving his mask around dismissively.
“He’s the town gossip.” Freed added as an explanation.
A startled gasp. “Darling, you wound me! I’m only a businessman, who keeps up with my customers’ chatter!”
“He has a tavern in town.” Freed continued.
“I am actually here on business!” Bixlow insisted, then withdrew to offer his hand to Freed. “May I have this dance so I have the opportunity to whisper some very useful things to your beautiful ears?”
Freed snorted, but took the hand anyway. “Stop trying to charm me, it never works.” Then he cast a smile at Lucy. “Go and… mingle? They’re very interesting company. You would not be disappointed.”
Just like that, Freed was whisked away as well.
She took a moment to process what had just happened, who that very… obnoxious person should be. Bixlow? It was a strange name for an equally strange man. She recalled the whole exchange in her head…
Then she set that aside as something to think of for another day, and set off to socialize. She could do this - she simply should... forget most noble pleasantries ingrained in her instincts but remain pleasant. Appear interested in the conversation. Carry herself well. Do not give her name away, as much as possible.
...and it was. Surprisingly. Very simple, indeed.
As she wandered towards a corner of the room near the divan, where more people had gathered than the last time she looked, a man lounging on the plush sofa suddenly sat up and loudly declared, “O, My Lady in White!”
She paused, startled, looking around before concluding that she was the Lady in question. “Y-Yes, My Lord?”
“Where could your wings be?” the man continued, and before Lucy knew it, he was waxing poetic about her beauty and grace, very much drunk, but impressively articulate.
It was an experience.
His company corrected him in some of his grammar. Several times, he flailed vaguely, thinking of an appropriate rhyme, and people would suggest, he would accept or reject, and then ask someone to come up with the next line. Then…
Then it turned into some sort of game.
Lucy didn’t know how she got pulled in, but she found herself sitting on the divan’s armrest and sharing laughter and ideas with this loud group of poets, artists and singers, who didn’t seem to know who each other was, but all talked like old friends. Old, drunk friends.
The poets were proud of their works, enunciating dramatically, no doubt already somewhat drunk. The musicians sang their lines, and people laughed when they went off-tune. One novelist suggested a story idea, and Lucy nodded excitedly. When they saw her light up, they discussed what the plot could be. Philosophers slipped in bits of wisdom here and there. An artist described a potential scene worthy of a painting and a playwright argued that it was a better fit for the stage.
And an hour later… she would not be able to say how things ended up like so, but somehow someone was sitting on someone’s else’s shoulder, and then actors were forming some sort of human pyramid, and then falling over like children.
She had never laughed so honestly and carefree in her life.
When their little crowd settled down slightly, she excused herself to get a drink, but someone offered to fetch it for her. Who was she to refuse? She only smiled and nodded at the young man, who quickly left to accomplish the task.
“Oh, this is sad. I must go.” said the girl who had been sitting beside Lucy and adding witty commentary to the gathering for the past hour.
The girl was almost a head shorter than Lucy, body lithe, her gown a simple make but looking gaudy in its bright orange, black and white glory. Some of her blue hair had escaped the complicated updo her hair had been in while they were enjoying the game. She had seamlessly fitted herself in the crowd and Lucy had enjoyed sharing fun remarks with her.
She smiled at Lucy. “This was nice. Let’s do it again? The Duke does like his parties.”
Lucy nodded, returning the smile. “Of course! Lady-... Ah, you don’t have to tell me-”
“Levy. And I’m no Lady, just a Miss.” the girl replied easily. Her name faintly rang a bell in Lucy’s mind, but perhaps that was just her. “I don’t think I have seen you around before. You are new, aren’t you?”
“Yes, you might say that.” Lucy answered, sheepish. “I’m Iris.”
“Well then, I hope to see you in the Duke’s next event, Iris.”
Her gaze followed the girl, Levy, as she made her way through the crowd. She came across Freed on her way and Lucy watched as the two greeted each other with smiles and a friendly hug. It was a short talk, probably a polite exchange of pleasantries. Freed kissed her hand before they parted, Levy easily disappearing into the crowd.
She should ask Freed about the girl sometime. She seemed like a very nice person.
It was then that the young man who volunteered to fetch her a drink returned. Lucy smiled graciously. “Thank you very much-”
As the stranger handed the glass to her, he whispered, “Lucy?”
Lucy froze, looking up at him.
He exhaled slowly, “Oh, God. It is you.”
Lucy pulled her lips into a thin line and narrowed her eyes, taking in what she could of the stranger. Pristine, expensive-looking white suit with black lining. A black mask, adorned with what looked like snowflakes - raven hair and the facial features she could take in really brought to mind-
He swallowed before answering. “Yes.”
This was a surprise. Gray Fullbuster! In Magnolia? She would never have thought of it before.
Lucy grew up getting to know Gray during countless meetings at noble gatherings, family dinners and luncheons. After all, he was the only son and heir of Duke Silver Fullbuster, a good friend of her father. Fullbuster and Heartfilia were Duchal Houses like Dreyar. It stood to reason the two families had kept close ties to each other. Thinking back on their relationship, perhaps Gray was the closest person she had to a childhood friend.
Bracing herself, Lucy took a sip of her drink first before looking away from his studying gaze. “W-What are you doing here?”
“Attending a party-... You’ve been away- You ran off to this place ?”
“The Duke personally invited me to attend, and stay here if I wanted to.” she said, standing up and accepting his wordless offer to dance, to have some bit of privacy as they talked. “And you?”
“I... “ a groan. “I went with Cana.”
“Cana. Cana Alberona?”
“The very one.”
She didn’t even know Gray knew Cana Alberona. The young lady had a… reputation. Most of her peers avoided the young woman almost as much as they avoided Duke Dreyar. They did not have to try so much. Cana was rarely ever in the Hill. Lucy had never even talked to Cana before, had only seen her in an event, once, and had been both too worried about her image and too intimidated to approach.
“You escorted her?” she asked her companion.
A snort. “She doesn’t need an escort. She just thought I was too… uptight. Boring, she said. And then, she-... This is stupid. She dared me, to come with her here. And I was foolish enough to indulge her.”
“Oh…” she thought about this, then looked around, as if it was that easy to spot Cana Alberona in a hall full of people. “Where is she now?”
“She disappeared with a boy-... and a girl. An hour ago.” he stopped himself as he shuddered a slightly.
That was the reputation she heard about. She was often described as ‘shameless’. An illegitimate child of a noble, who did not feel any shame in her parentage, and who welcomed herself to the society but very rarely followed their rules. Cana Alberona was notorious. People often discredited Gildarts for indulging and doting on her, and had he been a man of lesser status, surely he would have been openly condemned.
“Lucy.” Gray started again, catching her attention. “Can I ask you to do something?”
She looked up at him. “What is it?”
“Can you not tell my father about this?” he asked, voice low and hesitant. “And I won’t tell anyone at the Hill about you, either.”
Lucy considered it. She and Gray had been in the same position, once. They were both sole heirs, who looked up to their fathers, and were raised to be perfect noble children. They had been fond of each other for years, so much that there had been a couple of times where their fathers seriously considered arranging their marriage.
It would be easy to assure Gray that she would keep this little indiscretion a secret. It wasn’t like he came to cause or look for trouble. Nobody has to know. As for his side of the bargain, however…
“Why would I tell your father?” she laughed lightly. “You are a dear friend, Gray. Your secret is safe with me.”
He smiled gratefully. “Thank you. And I promise I would not tell-”
“Oh, please do.”
This time her smile turned mischievous, “I am here in Magnolia upon my friend Duke Dreyar’s invitation, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the party. I am not going to hide this fact from our other friends in the Hill.”
To his credit, Gray did not seem to question why . Lucy expected him to shake her and ask her what the Duke said or did to her. Maybe to ask her if Laxus had threatened her or something else as vile, and even offer his help. She knew that over the past months, some rumors have already started about her spending so much time with Laxus Dreyar. But Gray knew better. He knew she was less naive than she really let on.
He only asked, “Do you truly mean that?”
Gray only took a breath and nodded once. “I cannot say that I like this, Lucy. But it is your decision.” - then he added, “Duchess.”
Upon receiving the title, Lucy had been thinking of her short friendships with other nobles her age. She had already prepared herself to slowly step back from people she knew she wouldn’t really get along with. As Duchess, she wanted to connect with people who could aid her in business.
She was happy to think that Gray was one of the few she had planned to keep close.
“Oh, but there is something else you can do for me.” she finally said.
“What is it?” he asked, tone curious.
“The next time we cross paths with her, introduce me to Lady Alberona?”
It was well into the night when Lucy was able to catch Freed again. She found him sitting on a chair on the corner of the room, enjoying a slice of lemon cake.
“Lucy.” Freed greeted. “I see you’ve been enjoying your night?”
“Ah, very much.” she smiled, and plopped down on the footstool he wasn’t using, her gown billowing around her. “Laxus has the most delightful guests.”
“I met a Miss Levy. You seem to know her?”
“She’s a good friend. She did mention meeting an interesting Lady Iris.” - and after a thought, he said - “I should introduce you properly sometime. You could use her services.”
“Services? What does she do?”
“It’s better if you see for yourself. I promise I’ll take you to meet her one of these days.”
She nodded, filing the information away as she always did. “Did you know that Gray Fullbuster was in attendance?”
A smile, and Lucy knew the answer.
“...and Cana Alberona?”
“Oh, she is one of the regulars.”
This somehow did not surprise her.
Lucy only nodded as she folded her hands in her lap and looked around.
Royalty had long been abolished in Fiore, but Laxus looked like a young King from where he was sitting on a grand-looking chair that could very well pass for a throne.
But who he was sitting with , that made Lucy frown. “Hey, Freed?”
Freed swallowed a bite first before prompting, “Yes?”
“Laxus told me he does not like sharing you.” she started.
“He did. And he truly doesn’t.”
“But it is okay for you to share him?”
Freed looked at her first before he followed her gaze to where Laxus was sitting. He chuckled upon seeing that Lucy was frowning suspiciously at the breathtakingly lovely woman sitting on the Duke’s lap and whispering into his ear.
The brunette did not have a mask - after all, it would be a shame to hide her beautiful face. She wore a beautiful green dress that hugged her figure and showed off a generous cleavage. Her arms were wrapped around the Duke’s neck, and his hand rested on her waist. Every now and then, he would say something that would make her laugh, and then she would whisper in his ear again.
“That’s Evergreen.” Freed said.
Lucy turned to him. “Evergreen? The… The actress Evergreen?”
“Yes. You haven’t seen her before?”
“No, I haven’t had the chance to watch a play of hers, but I’ve heard of her. They say she’s excellent on the stage.” she looked at the scene again. “She’s… is she involved with Laxus?”
“If by involved, you mean he is one of her main patrons, and she does certain favors for him… then yes. She is very much involved.”
Lucy frowned, hesitant. Would she want to hear this? Still - “What… what favors?”
Freed shrugged. “You see her whispering right now?” - a nod - “Those aren’t sweet nothings. They are intimate details about a noble who had been causing some problems for Dreyar lately.”
Lucy surprised herself with how fast she was able to switch from resentment to curiosity to excitement. “A spy?” - and then something else clicked - “Like… like, that Bixlow person?”
Freed laughed. “Bixlow is not who I’d call a spy, although I think that is also in his array of skills. Bixlow is an informant. Evergreen is - yes - a spy, might be the term. You should know how much power a womanly charm could hold. They’ve been under our service for quite some time now.”
Lucy nodded vigorously, as if it was another one of Laxus’ lessons. She turned back to where Laxus was now the one whispering to the brunette’s ear. Evergreen was nodding, her red lips curled into a smile enough for anyone even slightly inclined to swoon. Suddenly it explained why Freed did not look the least bit bothered by someone else too close to the Duke.
“And to answer your original question,” Freed said, “I’m about as fond of sharing Laxus as he is of sharing me.”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “So... not at all?”
A chuckle. “Not at all.”
After the party, as the staff was busy cleaning up in the grand hall, Lucy found herself wandering to Laxus’ suite after changing out of her gown and letting her hair down.
Laxus lounged on the divan, gazing boredly at the fireplace while Freed sat on the lush carpet by his feet, sleepily reading a book. Lucy tucked herself on the other end of the couch, a quiet observer.
None of them felt like going to bed yet.
Lucy wondered what Laxus was thinking about, with a face frowning so intently like that. Freed didn’t seem to notice - or if he did, he preferred to leave his master to his thoughts.
He revealed them, eventually. “Lucy.”
“Unless you fall madly in love with him, do not marry Gray Fullbuster. Elope with Alberona first before you do that.”
She blinked. “P-Pardon?”
“You’re sweet on him, aren’t you?”
“I’m fond of him, we grew up together and he was always nice to me.” she said. “I am not... sweet... on him. Not like that.”
He only hummed nonchalantly.
“What were you thinking, telling me that, anyway?”
“That kid is going to take over after Silver. You’ll lose your house if you marry him, is all.”
“Oh.” she finally said, understanding. “There’s no cause for concern, then. He is already too much like a brother to me.”
He was silent again after that, and the only sounds heard were the crackling of the flames in the fireplace and Freed turning a page of his book.
She knew she should just lie back and finally rest, but Lucy could never really keep still in these moments, still too restless from the day’s events to go to bed. She thought about it again, the people she met, the ideas they all shared-
“Laxus?” she asked softly. Laxus slowly turned his head to look at her.
Proper etiquette would be for him to at least ask ‘Yes, Lucy?’ but proper etiquette was never a concern for Duke Dreyar. And anyway, Lucy’s mere presence in the house, at a place and time like this (and in her nightgown to boot) was hardly proper in the first place.
“Is magic real?”
Freed looked up this time, blinking up at her, and then looking at Laxus.
“Why are you asking that, of all things?”
“Something I heard while talking to some historians earlier. They mentioned the Old Kings and their Wizards, and debated about what the old stories described as magic.”
“And why are you asking me, of all people?”
“You’ve been to Alvarez.” she said. “To Vistarion. You once went with your grandfather to visit, right?”
He thought about it for a while. “I was ten.”
“You don’t remember anything?”
“Their Prince breathes fire.”
“Real fire?” Lucy’s eyes widened in wonder. “Fascinating.”
“You believe me?”
“Why not? Are you making it up?”
Laxus opened his mouth to speak, but he looked down when Freed gently leaned his head against the side of his leg. The young man didn’t say anything, but his lips quirked in a smile. Laxus frowned. “Not you too.”
“Of course him too.” Lucy insisted, and shifted just a tiny bit closer. “Do you remember others?“
“Yes. A bit.”
Laxus sighed, then reached down to stroke Freed’s hair. Then, he told them.
Lucy woke up late the next day. As she moved to ring for her lady’s maid, she saw a folded piece of paper on her bedside table.
You looked so peaceful. We did not want to wake you.
I have to get back to University and Laxus has business on the Hill this morning,
so by the time you read this we must have already left.
We hoped you enjoyed your stay and the festivities.
See you on the Hill.
She smiled, recalling the light-hearted after-party conversation she had with Laxus and Freed. Laxus had stories about the empire across the sea. They were mostly minute information, details his ten-year old self found interesting enough to hold on to, but with Freed’s knowledge of foreign affairs and traditions, they were able to paint a nice picture of the other land for her.
Lucy remembered feeling sleepy in the middle of it, tired and comfortable then-
She was pretty certain she had memory of Laxus carrying her to her room.
She would have to thank him for that, but somehow she felt that he would tease her for it.
No matter. He was the one who invited her to stay, and stay she did, and he had been, despite all her previous worries, a gracious host.
And maybe she could tease him back. After all, he did tell her to learn from him...
After taking a bath, dressing up, heading down for brunch and packing up, it was the old man Yajima who was there to see her off.
“I look forward to having the pleasure of your company over tea again, Duchess.” he said with a friendly, fatherly smile.
Lucy smiled back, and took a sweeping, lingering look at the grand hall, now mostly devoid of traces from the previous night’s festivities.
“As do I, good sir.” she replied, and meant every word. The man bowed slightly and the Duchess gave a graceful curtsy before she turned and made her leave.
As her carriage drove away down the cobbled streets, she looked out the window to see the gates of Magnolia House closing behind them.
It had been a most delightful week, and she looked forward to her next visit.