Chapter 26

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How many years has it been? Although communication lessened after graduating from school, Ana seemed to recall contacting Lucia at least once a year. However, this was the first time they met, and they had been communicating directly since then. 

 

Remembering that Lucia’s family was in the finance business and were based in the southern commercial city-state of Ikiranche, Ana sent a reply accepting the invitation. She was eager to meet an old friend who had come all the way to the capital and wanted to discuss Eliza’s matter with her. She also wanted to know about the disadvantages and dishonor that banks impose on defaulters.

 

Ana remembered from Edward’s response that part of the debt Lanten had incurred was owed to the Kostanza family. Of course, Lucia shouldn’t know it was about Eliza’s matter.

 

“Oh my, Ana. You’re here!”

 

Lucia, now known as Baroness Azar, a junior baroness in the capital Katisha after her marriage, was greeting her. It was the result of the foreign meeting that she married her husband, who was from the imperial family of the empire.

 

Did she say she already had a daughter? Ana was surprised by how different their lives had become since their girlhood. It seemed their lives had been somewhat predetermined.

 

Ana smiled nostalgically after a long time. “Hello, Lucia. When did you arrive in the capital?”

 

“Not long ago. How long has it been?”

 

Lucia’s black, high-combed hair contrasted with her neat white teeth and green eyes, which sparkled when she laughed. Her exotic Ikiranche accent mixed with Imperial language and the lively demeanor of a commercial city’s upper-class citizen was both different and the same as in her girlhood. But the Anais that had mingled with Lucia back then was quite different from her present self.

 

Those distant times nine years ago felt so remote. She was young, naïve due to her innocence, and foolishly unaware of the passion that would eventually overtake her, just a simple, innocent girl. She pretended to be mature, but looking back, she really knew nothing.

 

Some might miss their innocent days, but Ana wasn’t sure. After a painful growing up, the world post-pain differs in meaning. Mixed with complex thoughts at the reunion with a childhood friend, Ana could only smile.

 

“I heard you became a mother. It’s late, but congratulations.”

 

“You already sent wonderful gifts. I remember your generosity.” Lucia spoke cheerfully.

 

She then cozily hooked arms with Ana, asking about what had happened since and how she had been, and she talked about how cute and lovely her daughter was growing up. Feeling somewhat relaxed by the unchanged treatment from her girlhood, Ana soon found herself interested in listening to Lucia’s stories.

 

Shown into Baroness Azar’s townhouse, Ana exclaimed in admiration, praising Lucia’s artistic sense. “The garden and furniture are fantastic. It must have taken a lot of work. Managing the house this well despite not often coming to Katisha! You must have an excellent butler.”

 

Praising the household management was a substantial compliment for a hostess. Remembering Lucia from their schooldays, who couldn’t even tidy up simple clothes without a maid, it was a compliment of surprise for Ana.

 

Managing and commanding employees to take care of the interior of the mansion was not an easy task. Preparing for social gatherings, ensuring that they are not to be ridiculed by guests, changing curtains, carpets, and interior according to seasons, managing gardens for fresh flowers for the table, and ensuring the cook’s skills are at least decent – all were essential. Even if all these were perfect, a mistake by the maids or servants would immediately damage their reputation.

 

Power and wealth, from the imperial family to great nobles, judges, gentry, and local lords, are all a chess game in the upper echelons, and socializing is an extension of that. Even if someone rose in rank through military merits, the hostess’s poor behavior and socializing can undermine their reputation and influence.

 

Conversely, a dignified businessman winning fierce trade rights battles due to influential friends is too common a story in Katisha. Those who see noblewomen as merely beautiful flowers with nothing to do clearly don’t understand reality. All politics, economy, and culture center around socializing. Without the means to connect talents and networks in each field, the Empire would creak like an unoiled wheel.

 

Moreover, marriage, the union between families, was the most critical event determining the upper class’s visibility and influence. Without salons, balls, and tea parties hosted by noblewomen, how would young men and women of prime age even socialize?

 

Ana valued noblewomen who led their homes and families well and wanted to remain good friends. Even if there was a childhood favor, being friends and remaining close in Katisha’s social circle were different matters. Therefore, her recent praise was more than just words.

 

Lucia, glancing around discreetly, smiled at the pleased Ana. “I’m glad you like it.”

 

Suggesting they have tea, Lucia pulled Ana along, and Ana thought Lucia’s response was very much like that of a noblewoman of Katisha.

 

“So, how is your handsome husband?”

 

But shortly after tea started, Lucia revealed her old, uninhibited way of speaking. Ana, not used to her direct manner after so long, was momentarily startled but soon laughed.

 

“How would you know without even seeing him?”

 

“How could I not? There’s so much gossip! Not just the noblewomen here but also in my hometown. Didn’t he visit Ikiranche as the head of a delegation half a year ago? The Padisyah (daughter of the ruler of Ikiranche, an honorary title) saw your husband and blushed as red as wine, even knocking over a pudding bowl. You should have seen it!”

 

Not surprisingly, Ana could imagine that scene. Even after he became her husband, she had witnessed similar situations in Katisha’s social circle. It didn’t stop there. Although publicly hushed, the social circle, where secret lovers and affairs were common, also had those who sent discreet advances. Ana just lifted her teacup with a smile.

 

“Isn’t it funny? I always knew you would find a decent match, but I never expected you to catch such a fine man. I’m really envious.”

 

This too was a common remark for Ana. The look in Lucia’s eyes and the hidden meanings behind them were also familiar. Ana couldn’t help but feel the difference between the beautified memories of youth and reality.

 

“My dear Lucia, you too have a devoted husband, a lovely child, and your father’s wealth and influence. I heard he trusts you enough to assign important tasks. That’s remarkable.”

 

Lucia smiled at Ana’s gentle praise but soon scoffed. “You’re still so kind. But you’re wrong. My husband is cooperative but not devoted. And I am the same. My father just enjoys testing which of his children is more capable. The only thing I have is my Monica.”  Her eyes lit up with intense maternal love as she mentioned her daughter’s name.

 

Ana then sincerely said, “A child is indeed the most precious thing.”

 

“Speaking of which, haven’t you had any news yet? You married quite early. With your husband’s distinguished family, there must be pressure for an heir.” Lucia casually touched on a sensitive topic for Ana while fiddling with a fork and cake.

 

Of course, no emotion was shown on Ana’s porcelain-like face. “Well, if God is gracious, we will be blessed soon.”

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