Elise fled swiftly, seeking refuge within the towering castle’s protective walls. Her escape had been a blur; the memory of leaping from the carriage and the exact moment she began her flight remained elusive. It might have been triggered by Genovia’s last provocation of Rezette.
“Does Elise realize what kind of person you are?” Genovia’s words still echoed in her mind, and the intensity of the outside world’s scrutiny bore down on her. Overcome by an urgent need to distance herself, Elise quietly left her seat. She moved with deliberate care, suppressing her breath and minimizing the sound of her footsteps as she navigated the castle’s labyrinthine pathways.
Each time her foot met the ground, a delicate, otherworldly magic danced between the hem of her gown and the grassy terrain. Unbeknownst to her, the enchantment emanating from her being began to envelop her, as if instinctively safeguarding her.
Astonishment overtook the gatekeeper upon discovering Elise, breathless and trembling, at the castle’s entrance.
“Your Highness, the princess? Why are you here at this late hour?” he stammered.
“Bring me a horse,” Elise implored, her voice laden with urgency. “I will go to the castle alone.”
The distance from the outermost defensive line to the heart of the central keep stretched considerably. Elise clutched the reins tightly and managed to convey her request to the bewildered gatekeeper.
“Keep it quiet… don’t inform anyone. It’s a direct order.”
After crossing two drawbridges, Elise glided back into the castle as if by some invisible force. Puzzled, she dismounted her horse and paid no heed to the servants calling her, instead allowing her instincts to guide her into the nearest room. Fate had it that this room turned out to be Rezette’s study, a fortunate coincidence in her mission to remain undetected.
Elise cautiously opened the door leading to the top of the tower, slipping inside as if wrestling with invisible obstacles. When she had first descended these stairs, they had been shrouded in darkness, but now a lantern stood at the foot of the staircase. Elise lifted the lantern’s cover and ignited the candle, then ascended the stairs in silence.
The conversation she had overheard not long ago echoed in her mind like an endless refrain.
“We haven’t discovered any traces of Argan’s pillars, Bellator and Conrad… Why did these families, who were expected to meet their end when the Emperor swore allegiance to the Gallian descendants, opt to flee instead?”
Before completing even three turns on the spiral staircase, Elise staggered and sank down onto a step.
Was she succumbing to Genovia’s tempting words? Was her wavering resolve being ensnared by that wicked tongue? Doubt plagued Elise, both for Genovia and her own faltering convictions. Yet…
“The Argan people will undoubtedly strive to reclaim her.”
In response to Genovia’s statement, Rezette remained silent. He had a knack for choosing silence when speaking seemed too troublesome. If Genovia’s words were mere falsehoods, he would have dismissed them with icy indifference.
Then, there’s a possibility, right? Elise’s eyes welled up with tears. There were still those who sought her, even if Andrei was no more. Duke Bellator and Conrad might yet draw breath. Elise dropped the lantern and buried her face in her hands.
Fabian Bellator had long served as the family patriarch, predating Elise and Andrei’s births. He had been the right hand of the former king, and the twins had grown up regarding Duke Bellator as a grandfather figure.
And what of Conrad? Duke Barnon Conrad had been a close friend of Andrei’s, and naturally, he had become Elise’s friend as well. In her youth, Barnon, feeling sympathy for her confinement, had secretly taken her on an excursion. Of course, Andrei had caught wind of their plan before they even stepped foot outside the palace. Elise still vividly recalled the fierce battle between her two friends over that incident, as if it had happened only yesterday.
Barnon continued to pay regular visits to Elise, checking on her well-being, until he assumed the ducal title and relocated to his estate. His kindness, affection, and unwavering loyalty were constants in her life.
Who else was there? During these peaceful times, a flood of cherished, affectionate memories she had never fully appreciated began to surface.
Elise picked up a candle holder, rising unsteadily to her feet. With each step up the staircase, her delicate face twisted in agony. At some point, her cheeks and chin became moist, her cries slipping through parted lips.
I’m not alone.
In the midst of her daily struggles in Argan, Elise found solace in knowing she was not abandoned. Countless people worried about her and offered comfort. Though her health remained a perpetual challenge, Elise was encircled by boundless love, leaving her feeling utterly incapable of repaying it.
She had believed she lost everyone within the engulfing flames of the palace.
Yet, in the darkness before her, a glimmer of hope suddenly appeared. Andrei’s desperate cries in a dream echoed in her mind.
“Where are you? Where are you right now?” He had shouted those words countless times, a fervent search for her. There were those who had sought her with unwavering determination. Elise was not alone.