“Who is coming?” Elise inquired, her head heavy from nightmares that had plagued her since Rezette’s departure, not even lifting her gaze from her breakfast.
“Irrien,” came the response. “Lady Irrien of the House of Irrien.”
“Lady…?” Elise admitted her lack of knowledge about the noble houses of Van Yela. The Kyrstan name was well-known across the continent, but beyond that, she was unfamiliar. Her time as the princess of Argan had spared her from the intricacies of politics and diplomacy.
“Irrien, Irrien…” Elise murmured, trying to recall something from her memory.
“Irrien of Norella,” it suddenly clicked.
When it came to the most renowned regions of Van Yela, Opel, the capital city, took the top spot, followed by the sacred haven of Rotiara and then Norella.
Norella, nestled along the eastern coast, had been under the dominion of the House of Irrien for generations. The lower course of the Tene River, which meandered south of Rotiara, wound its way through Norella and eventually merged with the Caris Sea. This natural connection intimately bound these two regions, serving as the vital crossroads for trade routes that spanned north from Grandel and south from Norella.
In the grand tapestry of Van Yela, if Rotiara was its lifeblood, Norella was the keeper of its wealth. The destinies of these two lands were irrevocably intertwined.
Elise grasped the implications immediately. “Seems like there’s something to discuss with the Duke.”
Ivetsa’s expression shifted strangely. “Well, it’s just that…”
Elise raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“Oh, no, it’s nothing. Since you’re aware that there’s no owner present and he’ll be back soon, don’t worry about it.”
However, Ivetsa’s response was not the only odd occurrence. As Elise traversed the corridor beneath her bedroom to calm her restless heart following Rezette’s departure, she overheard the maids on the other side of the winding path engaged in a hushed conversation.
“They said Lady Irrien is coming?”
“I heard that. She always visits Rotiara around this time every year.”
“But now that Her Highness the Princess is here, why…”
“Is she coming even more so? I thought she might skip this year, that Lady Irrien. It seems she hasn’t given up the position of Rotiara’s mistress yet…”
The whispered words carried an undercurrent of intrigue, hinting at secrets and machinations lurking beneath the surface.
The sun stood high in the sky when an unfamiliar carriage rolled to a halt in front of the castle gates, casting an air of mystery over the scene.
“Why have you come again?” Rebecca Petisson, her expression marked with irritation, cast a wary eye upon the unannounced guest who had graced Rotiara with her presence. The vivacious noblewoman, her meticulously arranged ice-blond hair playfully tied up, raised her head confidently.
“Just delivering the inevitable message, Petisson,” the newcomer declared with an air of nonchalance, her eyes gleaming with an undisguised self-assuredness. “How have you been all this time?”
A subtle twitch in the corners of Lady Petisson’s eyes betrayed her unease. The woman standing before her was none other than Genovia Irrien, the illegitimate daughter of Duke Irrien, the closest confidant of the Van Yela Emperor.
Duke Irrien had played a pivotal role alongside Rezette in the coup that had secured the throne of Noyer. Consequently, he shared a close and influential relationship with Emperor Noyer himself. Genovia, his daughter, enjoyed the emperor’s trust as well. It was no wonder, given her unique personality, that Lady Genovia commanded respect even within the high society of Van Yela.
“Has it not been merely a month since His Grace returned to Rotiara?” Lady Petisson inquired, her voice laced with a thinly veiled curiosity. “Is there a particular message for His Majesty?”
Genovia chuckled, her laughter carrying a hint of mystery. “Why would there be anything of the sort? Is that woman here?” She gestured languidly toward the turrets, lifting the brim of her hat adorned with delicate flowers. “The Crown Princess of Argan? Her name was Elizabeth, wasn’t it?”
“She is now the Duchess of Rotiara,” Lady Petisson asserted firmly, her tone carrying a hint of admonition. “Be mindful of your titles, my lady.”
Genovia merely waved her hand dismissively, her eyes dancing with mischief. “Don’t be so uptight, Lady Petisson. Stop treating me like that. We’re on the same side now.”
Lady Petisson raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Aren’t you also wary of that woman they call the princess?” Genovia leaned in closer, her voice laced with conspiracy. “Weren’t you always on edge, worried that the Duke might bring a woman with him? An enemy’s enemy is a friend, you know.”
With a wink that seemed to suggest she held all the secrets of the world, Genovia continued. Lady Petisson chose not to respond, unwilling to taint the moment with bitterness toward the seemingly naive young lady.
“Tell me about the decree. I will convey it to His Grace,” Lady Petisson suggested.
Genovia’s laughter tinkled through the air like wind chimes on a gentle breeze. “Do you think a mere chamberlain receives a decree? Don’t joke, Petisson.”
“His Majesty is away,” Lady Petisson explained patiently. “He has instructed that all communications to Rotiara are to be directed through me and Alfred Bercan. It’s always been the case.”
Genovia’s bright green eyes widened, and she playfully shifted her gaze between Petisson and Alfred. Her gaze held a mischievous glint, as though she had uncovered a hidden truth.
Soon enough, Genovia burst into cheerful laughter. “Haha, there you go. He’s treating her as the Duchess in name only.”
Lady Petisson was taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“With the Duchess Consort, who wields authority nearly on par with the Duke’s, would His Grace leave her behind and entrust important matters to a steward and a chamberlain?” Genovia chuckled, her laughter filled with amusement. “I guess His Grace won’t be assigning her the role of Rotiara’s mistress anytime soon.”
Silence lingered in the air.
“Well, trusting the fate of Rotiara to the Argan Princess, that’s a big risk. His Grace is wise.”
Almost in perfect harmony, Alfred and Petisson suppressed a muttered curse that threatened to escape their lips. They reined themselves in, fully aware of the treacherous dance they were participating in. Genovia Irrien had a talent for wielding her father’s brand of sarcasm like a weapon. She could steer a conversation in a particular direction, then abruptly strike at its weakest point, leaving her interlocutors struggling for words.
The lady raised an eyebrow, her playful tone cutting through the tension like a blade. “Are you planning to keep these envoys who bear decrees from the Emperor waiting outside like this?”
Alfred hesitated, his composure momentarily faltering. “I will have you escorted to the reception room for now.”
With her irritation thinly veiled, Lady Petisson turned away, leaving behind the faint scent of tension that had permeated the room. The door to the turret, which had remained firmly shut since the Duke’s departure two days ago, now stood wide open.