Conversely, if skepticism gripped him, the emperor’s trajectory was clear. The compass pointed to Van Yela’s capital, Rotiara. Anxieties over his sister, a vessel harboring the seed of the dragon, burgeoning within her womb, must torment him. In such a scenario, their focus should center on the borderlands between Van Yela and Rezette, a strategic path. Clarity seeped into Rihan’s gaze.
“Then, entrust that task to you. Did you preserve that nobleman’s life?”
“Of course. We’ve even extended mercy to those Ugel scoundrels implicated in the aristocrat massacre. They still hold utility.”
“As anticipated, you stand apart from our foolhardy youngest sibling. I shall leave this matter in your capable hands. Meanwhile, I shall continue my customary surveillance along the Van Yela border.”
“Agreed. Our mission is to ensnare the siblings before the year’s end and present them before our father.”
A contented smile finally graced Rihan’s face. He offered a chuckle as he affectionately patted his third brother’s shoulder.
“Very well then. Why not make a convincing tale for Grandel’s consumption?”
As another peaceful day unfurled in Rotiara, the castle hummed with activity. The clatter of pots and pans filled the air as the castle’s chef, Himmel, bustled about.
“Pick up the pace, everyone! Make sure those cakes don’t turn to cinder. And since His Highness avoids sugary treats, go easy on the sugar, cut it in half!”
“With cravings being common during pregnancy, I wonder if Her Highness can find anything to truly satisfy her desires. It’s a concern.”
“Seems His Highness shares the worry. He instructed us to prepare everything we possibly can. Hey, you over there, could you dash to the storage and fetch that jar of pickled pears we stowed away last month?”
The kitchen buzzed with activity. A directive had arrived to whip up a dessert for after the main meal in the study—a rare occasion. Considering the duke’s aversion to sweets, it was evident who the treats were intended for.
The princess had always remained elusive in the presence of the household staff. She had ventured into the castle just once last month, preferring to spend her days secluded atop the tallest tower. It seemed that the weight of impending motherhood had made scaling the towering castle a formidable task for her. Although her appearances before the staff were rare, the duke visited her chambers daily. With little else to go on, the staff could only speculate about her well-being, assuming all was progressing smoothly.
Yet, today marked an exception. She had journeyed to the duke’s study herself. An assortment of cakes, tarts, and pies, hastily concocted by the castle’s culinary artisans, adorned the plates before her.
Carrying a laden tray, the head chef, Himmel, made his way toward the study. His cheerful knock was met with a swift invitation to enter from within.
“Please, come in.”
“Absolutely, Your Highness!”
With an enthusiastic flourish, Himmel swung the door open, revealing the tableau inside. The room exuded tranquility. The duke occupied a chair by the generously open window, intermittently attending to the documents spread out before him. His quill moved at a steady, unhurried pace.
On the sofa nestled beside him sat the princess, her gaze affixed to the duke with wide, beseeching eyes. Though her stare held an unyielding persistence, Himmel couldn’t help but regard the duke, who was engrossed in his work and didn’t even blink in acknowledgment, with an expression tinted with resentment. The princess was silently urging him to join her, her eyes imploring him, yet he remained conspicuously indifferent. Himmel sensed that provoking tears in her enchanting eyes would inevitably yield consequences.
A gesture from Rezette prompted Himmel’s exit.
“You may leave. Elise, you can cease your gazing and finish your meal before retiring upstairs.”
“Alone?” Elise complained.
“I have a considerable workload tonight. I shall bring it to you later. However, do not wait till the break of dawn as you did yesterday. Ensure you rest.” The duke’s tone bore the same detached and monotonic quality he used with the staff.
“…Then let’s enjoy these together.”
“Sweets are not to my taste.”
“Then what do you enjoy, exactly? Moreover, is there anything you don’t find detestable about me?” The princess murmured softly. Her lips trembled ever so slightly, and her gaze flitted toward the duke before shifting away. The image of her appearing so crestfallen, lips pressed tightly as she cast her gaze downward, was a poignant sight, tugging at the heartstrings of any observer.
Reluctantly, the princess grasped a fork and sliced into a corner of the tart. Her action lacked elegance, but as soon as a morsel of the tangy lemon cheesecake met her lips, she began to eat with genuine zeal. Himmel, the head chef, watched her with a mingling of sorrow and pride reflected in his eyes, his gaze lifting involuntarily.
As her gaze eventually lowered, the duke observed her. A smirk graced his features as he witnessed her navigate the cake with an endearing clumsiness. He chuckled to himself, almost as if deliberately maintaining a distance from the diminutive, charming figure. Periodically, his intent gaze would settle upon her, akin to studying something minuscule and delightful from a close vantage point.