The prince of Ugel and his entourage had gathered for a victory celebration, but the merriment was far from joyful. Not just Rezette, but even the emperor and empress, along with all the members of the nobility, felt a sense of discomfort. The barbaric behavior of the conquerors was tasteless and vulgar, with one table dominated and littered with dozens of empty glasses. No noble would have wanted to be treated as if they were equals, even if they were part of the same Northern Alliance.
For Rezette, who was used to being treated with disdain, the situation was nothing new. He was the hero of the victory and could not excuse himself from the celebration, but his mind was elsewhere.
I’ve been far away for too long, he thought.
“Rotiara, a land of lush fields and warm sun, lay just south of the bustling metropolis of Van Yela. It was renowned as the granary of the north, a title that came with its own set of challenges. Despite its fertile soil and favorable climate, managing the estate was no small feat.
When he was first granted the title, he had sought out a small plot at the northern edge of Van Yela, a place where he could escape the prying eyes of the empire. Yet the emperor had other plans. With a flick of his wrist, he gifted Rezette the land of Rotiara, placing it firmly within the grasp of the capital.
With the weight of the estate on his shoulders, Rezette was plagued by weekly reports and the emperor’s ever-watchful gaze. At the slightest hint of mismanagement, the emperor would descend upon Rezette with a barrage of criticism and demands.
But as Noyer said, an absent landlord was better than no landlord at all. If Rezette could only find an heir to take up the mantle of Rotiara, perhaps the land could be managed with a little more leniency.”
With Noyer’s nonsense, and after fifteen years as Grand Duke, Rezette had mastered the art of crafting flawless reports. Yet, despite his hard work, the territory had been left untended for nearly a year, and upon his return, he knew he would face a barrage of work leading up to the festival of harvest.
Rezette had planned to make a brief stop in the capital, a mere three days of respite before departing for the demanding lands of Rotiara. But as he gazed out the window, one thought consumed his mind: the execution ceremony of Princess of Argan.
Rezette wavered for a moment, unlike the previous week when he was decisive. This time, he felt unsure whether he should go see her or not. These pointless worries were consuming his time and energy. He thought to himself that she must be a woman with a wealth of hands-on experience, which made him feel even more uncertain.
“So, my lord of the brother country. Do you really not want to take care of the princess of Argan?” As if reading Rezette’s mind, the prince of Ugel, who was sitting across the table, shouted loudly. “It would be interesting to bring her here now, don’t you agree?”
“The princess’s execution is set for two days hence,” Noyer replied with a forced smile, hiding his dissatisfaction. “You may return with her head as a trophy, if that is your desire.”
This was a clear warning to back off. Rezette observed as Yanok Sihat let out a string of curses.
The prince had been exhibiting an excessive fascination with the princess for several days. Was he not satisfied with witnessing her public execution in the square? Perhaps he yearned for something more than just her body? A beautiful face, a delicate and enticing form, or maybe even a hint of magic that might linger within her?
Rezette shot a piercing gaze at the man. Yanok Sihat had taken advantage of the busyness of the banquet to slip away unnoticed. Due to his excessive drinking, his walk was unsteady and wobbly.
He was headed to the prison to see the captive princess, with ill intentions in mind.
“Your Highness, where are you going?” Ruben asked, confused, as he watched his superior abruptly rise from the table. Rezette ignored the question and strode out of the banquet hall without a word.
* * *
Elise was jolted awake by the sound of unsteady footsteps. Every muscle in her body ached as she lay on the rough stone floor. Her hood, which had remained over her head since her imprisonment, obscured her vision.
With a shake of her head, the hood fell back, and her eyes met those of another. Bloody, yellow-rimmed and bloodshot, the gaze set off alarm bells within her. For a moment, the man seemed taken aback by her features illuminated by the moonlight. His dark eyes reflected her frightened face, but for a moment, the corner of his mouth twisted into a grotesque smile.
Abruptly, he stretched out a hand through the bars of her cell, as if in admiration. Elise shrank back in fear, for she instinctively knew who he was, even though she had never met him before.
Yanok Sihat, the fourth prince of the Ugel Kingdom. The man who had come to take her away three days ago.
“Even the emperor is handsome, but it seems he’s not worth mentioning.”
He thrust his fur-covered hand through the iron bars, and Elise gazed at him with disdain. “Don’t touch me,” she said. Her pride did not allow her to be intimidated by her enemy.
He greedily scrutinized her, while Elise struggled to maintain her composure.
“Are you really that powerful?” he asked.
“What?” Elise replied, confused.