“Your approach is rather convenient,” Elise mused, her lips curling slightly. She gathered paper and pen, preparing to conclude her work in her own chambers.
Genovia’s interpretation of her actions prompted her countenance to chill. “How much longer can you maintain this composure?”
Elise strolled past Genovia, paying her no mind. Just as she reached for the office door, Genovia’s fingers tightened like a vise around Elise’s wrist, yanking her back suddenly.
Elise’s breath caught in her throat, and she let out an inaudible gasp. The grip on her wrist was far more forceful than she had anticipated.
“Don’t think you can dismiss me so easily, Your Highness,” Genovia chided, a triumphant smirk curling upon her lips. She pushed Elise against the wall.
“I know your little secret.”
“If you persist in such impoliteness, others…” Elise began, but Genovia cut her off.
“Why don’t we call someone over? Then I can fling open that door and share all your secrets with whoever walks in.” Genovia easily subdued Elise’s feeble resistance, extending her right hand. Elise’s eyes widened as she realized where Genovia’s hand was headed.
Genovia’s palm came to rest on Elise’s abdomen, feeling the firmness of the corset underneath. A shiver ran down Genovia’s spine.
“You claimed to be pregnant. But even if you can hide it on the outside, it’s impossible to be this flat.”
Elise blushed, an overwhelming sense of embarrassment washing over her as Genovia’s hand glided over her belly. She struggled to break free, but Genovia’s grip only tightened.
“I had a feeling it would come to this,” Genovia mused. “It was rather peculiar, you know. Would someone like Rezette Kyrstan truly fall for a woman? Especially a princess like you? Even stray dogs passing by would chuckle, I’m sure. Men typically prefer to admire their trophies from a distance, that’s the rule. Where did that instinct go?”
“Release me!” Elise shot a furious glare at Genovia.
“Shall I turn the tables on you, Your Highness?” Genovia’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper near Elise’s ear, laced with a cunning edge. “Why do you think His Majesty entertained such fantastical lies? Well, he still harbors doubts, which is probably why he dispatched me, but…”
Elise’s heart plummeted as realization dawned upon her.
Only now did she understand the true purpose behind the imperial decree. It had all been a ruse. This was the lady’s genuine mission.
The decree handed to the lady by the emperor served no other purpose but to surveil Elise’s well-being, to assess the condition of her body, to ascertain whether the emperor’s coveted heir was indeed growing within her womb…!
It wasn’t just Lady Petisson or the Rotiara staff whom she needed to be wary of. Elise’s web of deceit was so fragile that it could unravel with a single careless move from an unexpected intruder.
Genovia lightly tapped Elise’s navel area with her finger. “You carry yourself as though you’ve achieved a great feat when you haven’t even birthed an heir. If I were to jest about it upon my return to the palace, your head would be forfeit in no time.”
“What do you want?” Elise questioned, her voice trembling.
“What do I want?” Genovia chuckled merrily, her countenance so composed that it belied the biting words she used. “What I desire, my dear, is for you to cease your charade as the Grand Duchess, Elizabeth.”
“Why…” Elise began but was swiftly interrupted.
“Why look beyond Rotiara? This land has always been a part of our family’s dominion from the very outset. It was the price my father agreed upon when he aided His Majesty’s rebellion.”
Was Rotiara the real target all along? Elise felt a tightening in her chest. Genovia’s hand, still firmly resting on her abdomen, sent shivers down her spine. The once-bright eyes of the lady now appeared nothing short of menacing.
“So your aim was to secure a marriage with the Grand Duke,” Elise remarked. Since humans couldn’t demand land from a dragon, it appeared they were attempting to forge an alliance, even if it meant marrying into the family.
“Then go ahead and confess,” Elise struggled to maintain a steady tone, though her breath felt constricted. She was determined not to display any submission in front of this woman. She believed that shedding a single tear for someone who insulted her in this manner would be a futile endeavor.
“Confess to the Emperor. Tell him that everything was a fabrication, that there was never a child of the dragon… Instead of restraining me like this, return to your Emperor immediately!”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Your Highness. I apologize.”
“His Majesty desires the dragon. And you, Elise, the princess of Argan, have the highest likelihood of bearing the dragon. It’s regrettable,” Genovia explained, her hand affectionately stroking Elise’s belly. A shiver coursed down Elise’s spine.
“Then bear the child. It would be even more advantageous if you bore two or three. Quietly, as if you were invisible, you can continue to exist in Rotiara with your mouth sealed shut. In return, the position of Grand Duchess will be mine,” Genovia added, as if suggesting that Elise should simply exist as a pawn in the Grand Duke’s court. She offered a sly wink.
“If you’re not here, I’ll have to shoulder all the responsibilities of the heir, won’t I?”
Elise was left utterly speechless.