Lady Irrien was comfortably seated, cradling a delicate teacup as if she were in the sanctuary of her own home. Her eyes, like keen sapphires, locked onto Elise as she entered, and there was a momentary pause in her speech.
“You finally grace us with your presence, the hostess of Rotiara…” Lady Irrien’s voice trailed off, her gaze slowly sweeping up and down Elise’s figure as the princess walked gracefully towards the sofa.
Elise donned an unpatterned navy coat dress with a loose-fit silhouette, an attire unremarkable in its simplicity. Yet, her resplendent silver hair cascading in abundant waves and her meticulously sculpted facial features seemed to eclipse the plain dress. It was as if her intrinsic beauty rendered the attire inconsequential.
Lady Irrien, who had been scrutinizing Elise with an intensity that momentarily robbed her of words, suddenly erupted into laughter, her mirth ringing through the air.
“Indeed, they speak of you as the beloved princess of Grandel,” Lady Irrien mused aloud, her words perhaps intended as an inner reflection. “You seem every bit deserving of that title. Most impressive.”
Was she conversing with herself? Elise couldn’t help but find it odd, especially considering that Lady Irrien remained seated, unfazed by her entrance.
She doesn’t rise even as I enter…
Sitting with a poised demeanor, Lady Irrien gracefully raised and lowered the brim of her hat as she extended a greeting.
“I am Genovia Irrien, the youngest daughter of Duke Irrien,” she introduced herself, her voice carrying an air of refined elegance. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Your Highness.”
“Yes, nice to meet you too,” Elise replied politely.
“What did you say?” Lady Irrien’s elegant brow furrowed, as if caught off guard by an unexpected response. “Nice to meet you?” she repeated. Her voice carried a touch of incredulity, as if she had encountered something beyond her expectations.
Elise shifted comfortably onto the sofa, making herself at home. With practiced swiftness, Ivetsa materialized with a fresh cup of jasmine herbal tea.
“Welcome to Rotiara, Lady,” she extended the courtesy.
Elise clarified her intent. “Since it’s considered impolite for the host to leave the guest unattended, I thought it appropriate to pay you a brief visit. You needn’t worry; it won’t be an inconvenience.”
But Lady Irrien’s rejoinder hit with the force of a revelation. “You still believe this place to be within Argan’s borders, Your Highness?”
Elise’s words seemed to have struck a chord, and Lady Irrien’s lips curled in an amused smile. “You must have thought that, being something of a blank slate, you could disregard the hierarchical customs of Van Yela, am I right?”
“Are you suggesting I should adhere to proper etiquette?” Elise’s brow furrowed slightly, grappling with the implications of Lady Irrien’s words. “I thought that when someone enters but remains seated, it’s an unspoken signal that we can dispense with the formalities.”
“If I’m mistaken, please don’t hesitate to correct me,” Elise continued with a hint of amusement. “Adjusting isn’t a difficult feat.”
For a moment, there was a tense silence. Then, unexpectedly, Lady Irrien burst into laughter. “Ah, you’re quite the fascinating individual, aren’t you?”
“Lady Irrien, please lower your voice,” Lady Petisson intervened.
“Your Highness, you should still be in a period of adjustment. You are aware of that, right?” Lady Irrien’s words flowed, carrying with them a subtle reminder. “Besides, this also aligns with the status hierarchy of Van Yela.”
Elise conceded with a hint of irony, “Well, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. I am the Duchess, after all.”
In the brief pause that followed, Genovia delicately wiped away a tear that had welled up in her eye from her earlier bout of laughter.
“No matter how noble the Irrien family may be in Van Yela,” Genovia mused, her tone playfully teasing, “they can’t hold a candle to the Duchess of Rotiara. Very well, Your Highness. I shall adhere to proper etiquette.”
With a grace that bespoke her upbringing, Genovia elegantly rose from her seat, her fingers and waist bending at the perfect angles, showcasing the precise formality of Van Yela’s etiquette. Yet, her demeanor still retained a mischievous edge, her gaze dancing with wicked amusement.
Pushing a scroll she had placed on the table towards Elise, Genovia offered, “It’s a decree from His Majesty the Emperor. Since the Duke is absent, I suggest that the Duchess reads it in his stead. My visit today was solely to deliver this.”
Elise nodded her gratitude. “Thank you.”
“Then,” Genovia continued, her tone courteous, “would you allow me to stay in Rotiara for a while until the Duchess can confirm the matter and provide a response? Even the delivery of this letter to the Duke and obtaining a response is an imperial decree.”
Elise found no cause to deny the request and signaled to Lady Petisson, “We shall accommodate you, Lady Irrien.”
“Could you arrange the room I usually occupy?” Lady Irrien inquired, her request straightforward.
“I will make the necessary arrangements,” Elise replied with a sense of curiosity. It seemed Lady Irrien had been to Rotiara Castle on more than one occasion, even possessing a designated room here. It made her wonder about Rezette Kyrstan’s generosity toward this woman.
Well, he was generous with me too, Elise mused inwardly, her thoughts drifting to the Duke’s tenderness, particularly toward beautiful women. She recalled his parting words on the morning of her departure.
“Ensure the medical records are kept up to date and left in the office daily. Have a sleep draught ready in case of nightmares. Restful nights lead to better days. And…”
The question arose unbidden: had he been equally attentive to other women? How had Lady Irrien, who actively sought a marriage proposal, fared in his care?
Why does she keep coming to Rotiara every year without fail?