Elise struggled to finish her meal within the half-day given by the duke. She could barely manage a few spoonfuls of watery porridge after vomiting everything she forced down earlier.
“It might not taste good, but you still need to eat it. Your stomach must be weakened from not eating much while being imprisoned,” Yvesa said, concernedly.
Elise refrained from correcting her and decided to finish the meal as best as she could. Even in Argan, clear stew or porridge was the most familiar food she had.
Afterwards, she calmly organized her plans for the future. Surviving and saving her life did not mean that everything was resolved. She had passed a hurdle, but the real challenge was ahead.
The duke returned in the late afternoon, and Elise was sitting in the reception room, working with her pen. She quickly stood up when he entered. The duke looked at her with sunken eyes and asked, “Are you feeling better?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Elise replied.
Elise drew in a breath as Rezette sat across from her.
“Your Majesty, I am alive now because…”
“I need an heir.” Rezette cut her off, his tone curt and to the point. “The Princess speaks the truth. The pressure to produce a successor is both tedious and troublesome. If I can eliminate the Emperor’s control in one fell swoop, then it’s not a loss for me either.”
Elise remained silent, waiting for him to continue.
“Perhaps, you could be my solution, Princess.” Rezette’s voice was now dry and business-like, as if the outcome was already decided. “You are a direct descendant of Gallian, a hero who defeated a dragon. I am a mixed-blood, inheriting the blood of that same dragon. Maybe you can suppress my unpleasant nature.”
“I believe I can,” Elise murmured.
“In that case, there’s no need to take dozens of innocent women. All I need is one woman who can withstand me and my bloodline.”
Elise listened, her heart pounding with every word.
“Since things have come to this, I will take the succession from you, and you will save your life,” Rezette concluded. His voice remained as cold as when he had callously dismissed her plea. If anything, it now sounded even more subdued.
“It is unfortunate that the Princess had to share a bed. However, the physician has been bribed, and he will continue to attend to the Princess both here and in Rotiara.” The duke spoke in a detached tone, as though he were recounting someone else’s affairs.
“I understand,” Elise replied.
“Conventionally, we should have a meal together right away, but given the circumstances, it may be difficult to proceed according to protocol.”
Elise nervously clasped her fingers together. While she knew they needed to discuss their future, she never expected it to result in immediate marriage. Moreover, there was something else she needed to address before anything else.
Elise seized the brief pause in Rezette’s words to nervously bite her lip.
“T-Thank you for accepting my unreasonable proposal.”
“You don’t have to thank me. Don’t think of it as an act of mercy without a price,” he replied icily. “This is simply a contract marriage. We will use each other by mutual agreement.”
His piercing green eyes bore into her, taking in her tense posture and stuttering voice with a hint of amusement.
“Wasn’t this what the Princess wanted as well?”
“…Yes,” Elise answered, taking a deep breath to steel herself. The frigid gaze that met her own, the complete absence of warmth in his voice, and the barely perceptible change in the air around them were all a direct result of her own actions.
Elise steadied her breathing, knowing that she had no choice but to face the reality of her situation. I am prepared, so everything will be okay.
“Half a year. Can you do it?”
His gaze was sharp, cutting through her like a knife. She was frozen, unable to move as if she were a helpless prey caught in his trap. The pain in her lower back intensified, but she gritted her teeth, refusing to show any weakness.
“Half a year, until the harvest festival.”
She had already braced herself for this ultimatum, knowing that it was the most she could ask for. The Emperor was closely monitoring the succession of Rezette, and Elise couldn’t escape his watchful eye even if she left for the Rotiara territory.
If she failed to conceive in the given time, it would only raise suspicion and put her in danger.
Thus, she had no choice but to bear this man’s child within six months.