Chapter 83.1

“Why does it matter? It’s not important,” Elise fought to steady her voice, attempting to conceal the turmoil within. The Barnon she had glimpsed upon boarding the ship was an unrecognizable image of the once-resplendent duke of the grand empire. His once beautifully bronzed and healthy skin now bore a pallid, sallow complexion, marred by scattered blemishes.

This transformation left Elise grappling with uncertainty, making it difficult to ascertain if he was indeed the person she once knew. Were it not for the mention of Barnon’s name in her dream, she might not have identified him at all.

As the realization struck her, a wave of emotions surged, and Elise couldn’t help but think, If Barnon is truly here, then Andrei must be somewhere… She bit her lip, desperately suppressing tears. Any remnants of emotion on her face would not escape Rezette’s keen observation.

“How long have you been here?” Elise inquired, her voice trembling with a mix of apprehension and urgency. “When did you cross the Van Yela border? How many people are with you, and…”

Barnon, still with his back turned to Elise, let out a frustrated sigh. “It’s only been a few days since I crossed the border. Explaining the details is a lengthy tale.” He paused, sensing the need for discretion. “First, we need a place to talk away from prying eyes.”

Barnon untied the rope connected to the anchor. Elise observed the movement towards the farmhouse. Rezette’s cold profile was clearly visible from a distance. Feeling his gaze, Elise glanced at him, and instinctively, she waved her hand.

A chill raced down her spine, the sensation intensified by the uncertainty in the glances exchanged in the distance. Swallowing against a dry throat, Elise whispered, “This isn’t the opportune moment. If we’re discovered, there’s no turning back.”

Numerous questions clamored for attention within Elise’s mind, a multitude of inquiries she yearned to pose to Barnon. Yet, time was a fleeting ally. Before she could articulate the words poised on the tip of her tongue, a disturbance erupted from the nearby farm.

“You claim to have had a stronghold here for over 10 years, and yet you don’t remember the annual tribute procession passing through here? Is that a believable statement?” Ruben Diark’s harsh reprimand echoed, directed at two beleaguered peasants. Barnon’s face, scrutinizing the faces of the accused, swiftly transitioned into a frozen mask.

“By the gods, of all moments…” he muttered, the weight of the situation settling on him.

Elise sensed an impending anomaly, a premonition that rippled through her. There are more Argan people here, she thought.

Had the duke been aware of the Grand Duke’s impending visit, he could have preempted this predicament. However, this clandestine inspection, aimed at uncovering leaks in the tribute system, took everyone by surprise. Consequently, reconnaissance soldiers who failed to evade detection found themselves intermingled with the unsuspecting farmers.

“How many are there?” Elise inquired.

“Seven, including me,” Barnon replied reassuringly. “Don’t worry, the numbers aren’t significant. Even if we’re discovered, they won’t involve you.”

“Don’t speak nonsense.”

However, the reality was more daunting than Barnon’s attempt to downplay it. There were not just seven; there were seven individuals, right in front of the Grand Duke himself. Elise swiftly scanned her surroundings as she rose to her feet. Fortunately, she had strategically chosen a spot near the river, just in case. Despite her reluctance to become embroiled in such incidents again, she had no alternative.

Now was the only opportune moment, with Rezette’s attention redirected towards the peasants.

“Listen carefully, Barnon,” Elise began, her tone carrying a sense of urgency.

Elise’s mind raced through the ledgers and financial documents associated with Rotiara, her memory a repository of details. Adjusting her robe with swift determination, she whispered, “Last autumn, the overseer carrying tribute goods to Opel in Rotiara was Regan Beers. He replenished his water supplies here, stayed for a day, and then departed.”

“What?” Barnon responded, clearly taken aback.

“Ten cargo wagons and thirty-five escorts. Also, the crops sent to Norella and the Sevian territories exceeded thirty wagons each last month. I reported that they all traversed this route.”

Silence hung in the air as Barnon absorbed every ounce of information.

“Especially in the tribute bound for the Sevian territories, it included surplus from local farmers—wheat and herbs. If he can’t answer these details convincingly, it will raise suspicion. And…” Elise took a deep breath, delivering the next set of instructions in one continuous flow.

“From now on, no matter what happens, never attempt to rescue me. The Grand Duke will arrive promptly.”

“Elizabeth, what are you saying?”

“Blend in. Don’t attract attention. If caught, he won’t be merciful.”

Elise gauged the distance from her perch on the rock to the water’s surface with a calculating gaze. Memories of the incident on the way to Rotiara resurfaced, but she steeled herself against the fear.

Such fear was inconsequential now.

No matter how reckless it appeared, she would repeat it a hundredfold to safeguard her people.

“It’s an order, Duke. Step back,” she commanded.

Barnon, unable to defy his master, reluctantly took a step back. Oblivious to the impending sequence of events, he watched with bated breath as Elise leaped perilously to the edge of the rock. His face turned ashen when, without a moment’s hesitation, she plunged into the river.



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