Elise found herself somewhat flustered by the sudden announcement. She had been going about her usual routine, starting her day with breakfast on the tower’s top floor and immersing herself in the intricate practice of magic circles, a newfound daily habit.
With an air of resolve, Rebecca Petisson entered the room, causing Elise to hastily flip over the paper she had been working on, concealing the intricate drawings from prying eyes.
“Your Highness,” Petisson’s tone was stern, and Elise discreetly attempted to gauge whether Lady Petisson had caught sight of her drawings. But Petisson paid them no mind, her focus fixed on more pressing matters.
“Lady Irrien is in the drawing-room.”
Elise was taken aback. “Already?”
“She arrived a little while ago,” Lady Petisson explained with a hint of exasperation. “She brought a missive from His Majesty, so I had no choice but to admit her to the drawing-room.”
“I see.” Elise accepted the news calmly, though she couldn’t help but wonder what had prompted this unexpected visit. Lady Petisson, however, had more to add.
“She’s a young lady of twenty-three this year,” she continued. “For the past few years, His Majesty the Emperor has strongly recommended her as a suitable match for the Duke of Kyrstan.”
“The Duke?” Elise’s curiosity piqued.
“Yes,” Lady Petisson confirmed. “Lady Irrien’s family has been quite enthusiastic about it as well. As soon as she came of age, they even sent a marriage proposal.”
“…And?” Elise prompted, her curiosity piqued.
“The Duke flatly refused,” Lady Petisson revealed, her tone carrying a hint of exasperation. “But it seems she hasn’t given up yet, or perhaps she nurses a grudge from that rejection. Every year around this time, she graces Rotiara with her presence. And, she always carries an imperial decree with her, so there’s no excuse to refuse her visit.”
“I see.” Elise couldn’t help but feel an odd sense of foreboding settle within her. Rezette Kyrstan—there seemed to be an abundance of women lingering beneath the roof of this castle, despite his apparent disinterest in them.
Elise responded with a hint of pointed curiosity, “By the way, what about the women His Highness took in beneath this castle, as you mentioned before? You said he had no choice but to accept the women the Emperor sent or that he couldn’t turn them away.”
Lady Petisson’s voice rose slightly. “What?”
“You did tell me that, didn’t you?” Elise persisted. “That the Emperor sent women, and the Duke had no choice but to accept them.”
A flicker of realization crossed Lady Petisson’s features as Elise continued to probe. “Are you planning to accept the title of Shadow Duchess as it is?”
Elise’s eyes held a knowing glint. “Seems like the lady herself coined the term. Technically, it’s not entirely incorrect.”
Lady Petisson’s voice softened as she explained her stance. “I don’t know how Your Highness perceives yourself, but as long as I’m here, I cannot bear to see the mistress of Rotiara being treated in such a manner.”
Ah, it all made sense now. Regardless of her personal feelings, this prideful chamberlain held a deep aversion to any blemish on Rotiara’s reputation, which she had worked tirelessly to uphold.
And Elise understood. Though she might not particularly care about the Duke’s honor, she recognized that a lord’s dignity was inseparable from Rotiara’s standing in the world. In the intricate dance of politics and pride, a delicate balance was maintained, and the castle’s reputation hung in the balance.
“Alright, we can’t keep the guest waiting, so I’ll go down now,” Elise declared.
With discreet grace, she crumpled the paper adorned with intricate magic circles and slid it into a concealed drawer. Rising from her seat, she accepted the unexpected role of Rotiara’s hostess, a position she had never envisioned herself in. Elise had always been accustomed to being the one received, not the one receiving.
The mirror briefly captured her attention, reflecting her simple cream-colored dress and a delicate lace shawl that adorned her form. It seemed too plain for welcoming a guest, especially one as refined as Lady Irrien, who undoubtedly possessed both beauty and grace.
“Perhaps I should change,” Elise mused aloud, contemplating the notion of altering her attire. She had no desire to overexert herself, but she understood that her own beauty could sometimes be a formidable weapon.
Lady Petisson, however, interjected with a firm objection. “No, there’s no need to dress up. You look perfectly fine as you are. It should be more than sufficient.”
Elise weighed the chamberlain’s words, her thoughts flickering with uncertainty. Lady Petisson was not one to offer insincere compliments. If she insisted that Elise appeared fine, it was likely the unvarnished truth. Still, Elise couldn’t help but notice Lady Petisson’s occasional glances towards her pale cheeks.
For a moment, Elise contemplated touching her own cheek, fully aware of the power her beauty held. But Lady Petisson’s unwavering insistence prevailed.
“No need to dress up,” Lady Petisson reiterated. “You don’t have to. It should be more than enough.”
Reluctantly, Elise trailed Lady Petisson out of the room, her heart aflutter with unease and curiosity. As they stepped into the drawing-room, a scene of quiet sophistication unfolded before her.