Rezette did not know how the princess found out about Van Yela’s desire for a successor from the Grand Duke, but it was a fact that the emperor was eyeing his successor. Buying a few more days might have been a good idea, but it was too late. Imperial officials were coming and going, and her lies would soon be exposed.
To Rezette, Elise’s thinking was in the realm of desperation from beginning to end, and there was no point in lying for just a day or two.
Elise’s spine stiffened as a voice, cold as ice, sliced through her hunched shoulders like a razor-sharp knife. “I knew you were ignorant of the ways of the world, but this is beyond comprehension,” Rezette Kyrstan spat.
Elise’s grip on his sleeve weakened, and she hung her head, resigned to the duke’s ire. “I never said I wouldn’t help you save your life, but I would have risked everything and petitioned Your Majesty, revealing the secret of Argan, the treasure, the mythology surrounding the dragon—anything to keep you alive.” The duke’s condescending tone became increasingly threatening, and Elise shuddered in fear.
“Even if I were to sell my dignity and self-respect, I cannot sell my country,” she whispered, her voice trembling. “My younger brother and our people died to protect Argan. I cannot betray their sacrifice for one life. Even if that life is mine.”
“Then have you considered that it would be more honorable for Argan to die with pride?” Rezette sneered.
Perhaps it would have been better for her to accept her fate and perish with dignity, Elise thought. She had no power to change the world, and there was no hope of restoring the fallen kingdom or gathering her scattered people.
But as long as she lived, Argan remained a symbol of hope. And so she fought for it. Besides, there was no point in dwelling on spilled words. When she revealed that she carried Rezette’s child, she saw the emperor’s greed.
Elise’s voice was barely audible as she spoke, her throat clogged with emotion. “Remember that I am Argan’s direct descendant, Your Majesty,” she said, her eyes steady on the duke’s face. “And remember the kind of people Argan’s nobility are. Though I am not a magician like my brothers, I have not said that I cannot use magic. I am different from ordinary women.”
Rezette’s eyes narrowed, and Elise braced herself for his response. “If you could handle even a little magic, you wouldn’t have come to Van Yela so willingly,” he said, his tone icy. “I have no desire to embrace a woman who has no control over herself.”
Elise’s lips parted to respond, but she stopped herself. She realized how unkempt and disheveled she looked, her clothes tattered and her face streaked with sweat and tears. Her neck burned with shame.
“I will give you time to reconsider,” Rezette said. “But know this: even if you buy a few days or months, you will eventually regret not dying quickly and cleanly.”
Elise remained silent, knowing that there was nothing left to say. “I have no regrets,” she said softly. “There is no other way for me besides you.”
Rezette said nothing, and the attendants appeared to escort Elise away. Rezette realized they were there on Noyer’s orders and bit his tongue in anger. He turned to leave without a word, and Elise watched his retreating figure with a heavy heart.
As the attendants led her away, she swallowed in despair. There was nothing left to do now but wait for her fate to be decided.
* * *
“Is it true, Rezette?” The emperor’s question was sharp as a sword when Rezette entered the audience chamber. Noyer’s eyes bore into him, convinced of his own assumptions.
Rezette wanted to deny it vehemently, to swear on his honor that he had never touched the princess, not even with a fingertip. But memories of shared moments flooded his mind, making him hesitate.
He had indeed shared a bed with her, but nothing more. He couldn’t deny it without risking the princess’s reputation. Rezette missed his chance to speak, and Noyer’s accusation hit him like a slap.
“You did it!”
“It’s not what you think,” Rezette tried to explain.
But Noyer interrupted him, “You would have denied it without hesitation if it wasn’t true. Your hesitation confirms my suspicion. You two were alone together from Van Yela.”
Rezette’s head whipped around to face Ruben, who jumped up in surprise, his nervousness palpable.