“Are you frightened?” Genovia’s laughter echoed through the room. “Has reality proven to be harsher than your dreams? But dreams, my dear, must often be shattered,” she said, a hint of amusement in her voice.
Elise struggled to find her voice, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I… I know too…”
“Hmm?” Genovia raised an eyebrow.
“I understand, I’ve lived through things like that as well…” Elise’s voice trembled as she spoke.
No one could have imagined an uncertain future quite like Elise had. Ever since her home had been reduced to ashes that fateful night, she had been haunted by the worst-case scenarios that could befall her. Surviving in Rotiara had been a daily struggle, and she never forgot that she was constantly on the brink. Each hurdle she crossed only revealed another obstacle, and each mountain she climbed led to a thorny path. In some ways, her painful and uncertain childhood had been preferable. Back then, if she gave up, it would have meant the end. But now, despite her desire to give up, she couldn’t simply throw her life away. Elise felt the crushing weight of the life she had been burdened with, day by day.
“You don’t need to threaten me like this,” Elise muttered, her voice trembling. “Just go away, please.”
Genovia lapsed into silence, her hand that had been caressing Elise’s shoulder slowly retreating. As soon as Elise broke free from Genovia’s grasp, she hastily pushed her chair back, creating an unpleasant scraping sound against the floor.
“You’re quite fragile,” Genovia remarked, a touch of mockery in her voice. “If I were to threaten you three times, you might actually wither away.” Elise hung her head, struggling to catch her breath, unable to offer a reply.
Genovia continued her taunts, her tone dripping with disdain, “How did you ever decide to marry a dragon with such feeble determination?” Her words carried a heavy dose of scorn.
To Elise, Genovia remained a puzzle, more confounding than Rezete Kyrstan or Lady Pettison. Were all Northerners like this? Did people raised in harsh environments naturally exhibit such cruelty? She longed for the warmth and tranquility of her home.
Genovia observed her with a slightly softened expression until Elise’s breathing steadied. Then, her voice carried a gentler tone as she said, “Very well. It’s fortunate that you understand your place. So, when the Grand Duke returns, don’t rush to submit like an obedient puppy. Use that clever mind of yours to consider who can offer you more.”
Elise couldn’t help but question the sudden change in Genovia’s attitude. “Why the sudden shift? Just a few days ago, you were urging me to silently play the role of a concubine.”
“Well, I, too, need to find a way to survive in this place,” Genovia chuckled, a wry smile on her face. She had learned only yesterday that Rebecca Pettison, that cunning old woman with a serpent’s heart, had taken measures to trap her in Rotiara once she had arrived. If Rezette Kyrstan returned in this state, even Lady Irrien would struggle to escape.
“So, please, be kind in your words to your husband, alright?” Genovia winked and placed her index finger to her lips, signaling for silence. The hushed conversation was about to conclude when someone suddenly burst into the dining room. It was Lady Pettison, who had briefly left the room.
“His Highness has arrived,” she announced.
As if those words were a signal, Elise sprang up from her seat.
“He’s here already,” she muttered, and swiftly left the dining room, passing by Genovia, who was lost in her own thoughts. Elise overheard what Ivetsa was saying, but couldn’t quite make out the details.
If he’s just arrived, he should be in the stables…
Elise couldn’t explain what drove her to descend the stairs in such haste. She hurried down the stone steps, about to step onto the grass when she caught sight of the person she had been anxiously waiting for all along.
At that very moment, he also noticed her. He was a man whose emotions were not easily discernible from a distance, thanks to his stoic expression.
But his gaze…
As he handed the reins to the stablemaster and issued orders to the knights by his side, his eyes never left her. It was as clear as day.
Just as the black horse that had let out a loud neigh when it spotted Elise, it abandoned its master and rushed towards her. It was an event that unfolded without anyone being able to intervene.
The thundering of hooves approaching Elise reached her shoulders with a resounding thud. As she staggered backward, a warm smile graced her lips despite the chill in the air.
“Welcome back… It seems you’re unharmed,” she greeted the horse.
“You should be saying that to me,” a familiar voice replied from behind the massive black horse. Elise peered around the horse to spot a man swiftly approaching.
“Go ahead, say it kindly,” he teased playfully, prompting the horse to reluctantly step back. Soon, the man’s figure came into full view.