Elfreda turned around, her face filled with disbelief.
“It’s been a while, Elfreda.”
The ‘true princess’ of Makaeri. She was the one who should have worn the wedding dress Elfreda was wearing. Serina Makaeri approached her with a radiant smile.
“It’s nice to see you here. How have you been all this time?”
Despite Elfreda being the older sister, Serina’s informal tone prompted her to dismiss the guards to prevent any mishaps hurriedly. Nevertheless, Serina seemed unconcerned and asked her innocently.
“You’ve lost a lot of weight. Don’t you like the food here?”
“How did you get here? I heard the ship carrying the diplomatic delegation was shipwrecked.”
“How could no one come to the princess’s wedding? As soon as I heard the news, I immediately set sail.”
“You don’t need to thank me too much. You’re going to do something very important, so it’s only right that I do this for you.”
Confused by her cryptic words, Elfreda furrowed her brow. Serina quickly continued speaking.
“I may have missed the wedding, but I’m sure it was beautiful. You’ve inherited your mother’s good looks, right? Use that beauty to charm the King here. Thanks to you, we might take over Machi without shedding a drop of blood.”
“…What do you mean?”
“Oh my, look at you. Are you pretending not to know, or do you really not understand?”
Surprised by Elfreda’s clueless expression, Serina laughed.
“Do you really not know? Did you think Father sent you here just for a spice trade? You’re more naive than I thought.”
Realizing the true nature of her political marriage, Elfreda asked in shock.
“If I bear the King’s child, do you plan to use that child to make Machi a vassal state?”
“My goodness, you’re just realizing this now?
“Once you bear the King’s child, that child will become King here. Since you’re from Makaeri, we can easily manipulate your son to our advantage.”
Was she being coerced into betraying her country, to be cursed by her own people, even in death? Bearing a child, her own son?
Elfreda trembled at Serina’s callous words. With a quivering voice, she muttered.
“So, you came here to remind me of my duty.”
“I thought you would have understood by now. It’s surprising that I have to spoon-feed you everything. Are you really that foolish, Elfreda?”
Serina smiled beautifully.
“Now that you understand, let me warn you, don’t try to be clever with any other ideas. If you cause us even the slightest harm by your stupidity, I’ll reveal your true origins. Then what do you think will happen? A fake princess from an enemy nation, with no use in Machi? They might tie you up naked in the central square and stone you to boost morale. Or maybe you’ll face even worse.”
Elfreda, unsurprised as she had anticipated this, looked calmly at Serina, who continued with a mocking tone and expression.
“So be wise, Elfreda. Oh, and my mother, whom you love, sends her regards. She congratulates you on your marriage and hopes you’ll be an excellent queen in Machi.”
At these words, she flinched.
Seeing her sudden change in expression, Serina asked mockingly.
“Why do you like my mother so much? It’s pathetic, really. After all, you’ve grown up so much.”
“Abandoned yet still acting like a puppy that blindly follows its master.”
Serina couldn’t understand her because she was legitimately born from the Empress and grew up with ample love. Elfreda, having lost her mother at birth and neglected, received overflowing love from the Empress, albeit briefly.
Even if the Empress’s feelings had changed, the affection Elfreda received then was unforgettable. More than anything, without the Empress, she had no one to pour out her natural desire to be loved. Her future husband was not someone from whom she could expect love.
She knew others might find her foolish, but she didn’t expect them to understand. She often found herself ridiculous.
“Anyway, thanks to you, I’ll have my coming-of-age ceremony and marriage in Makaeri. Mother will be so pleased.”
“…I suppose she will be.”
Elfreda murmured, trying to ignore the bitterness in her mouth.
“I hope you find happiness in my place, Your Highness.”
Suddenly, Serina’s expression twisted, and she slapped Elfreda’s cheek.
With a sharp sound, her head jerked violently. Holding her stinging cheek, Elfreda looked at Serina in shock.
Serina glared back, not hiding her displeasure.
“How presumptuous. Someone might think you’ve come here to make a noble sacrifice.”
“Yes, as it should be. As you said, I’ll get a good husband in Makaeri and live happily. And I hope you do, too, receiving plenty of love from the nephew of the man our grandfather killed.”
With these venomous words, Serina left.
Elfreda just stood there, holding her cheek. She regretted coming alone but soon shook her head, thinking it was for the best. Even if others were watching, she doubted Serina would have restrained herself. It was fortunate she had sent her guards away earlier.
‘…It’s nothing new, after all.’
Her only feeling was self-loathing at being in such a position, even after becoming the queen of a nation. Elfreda bit her lip briefly, then moved on as if nothing had happened.
Elfreda was about to leave, but someone suddenly grabbed her hand, stopping her. Startled, she turned around to see Ejnar with a crumpled face, his gaze fixed on one spot. She instinctively covered her red, swollen cheek.
Elfreda hurriedly excused herself.
“I was just sleepy, trying to wake myself up…”
Though she felt foolish making such an excuse, she had no choice. She couldn’t admit that Serina had hit her. If her true origins were revealed, the entire Machi would be slapping her cheek.
Elfreda forced a smile.
“But I might have overdone it. I should go back now.”
“Do you expect me to believe that? Clearly…”
“There’s nothing you can do if you don’t believe me.”
Ejnar’s expression turned bewildered at her brazen response. He pressed his lips together, then spoke in a seemingly angry voice.
“Fine, it’s none of my concern.”
Had she been too presumptuous? Elfreda flinched at his cold voice, immediately regretting her words. She should have responded more kindly. There was no need to act like someone intent on being disliked.
“Go back and get treated. It’s unsightly to look at.”
Was it that bad? With an awkward expression, Elfreda lowered her head and quickly distanced herself from him.
‘I thought he was at the reception. Why did I have to run into him there?’
She recalled Ejnar’s cold gaze.
Was it embarrassment? The cheek that was hit started to ache belatedly. Trying to bear the pain, her eyes began to tear up.
Finally, a hot tear rolled down her cheek. The salty tear made the sore cheek sting more. But tears continued to stream down her face, not stopping until she reached her new residence, the Solar Palace.
The Solar Palace, befitting the Empress’s residence, was more lavish and majestic than the Tems Palace. However, she wasn’t in the mood to be captivated by its beauty.
As she entered weakly, the handmaids looked surprised but said nothing more. They seemed very curious about the situation but only silently treated her wounds without a word of concern. It was a cruel treatment, but Elfreda, not wanting to fabricate a story, preferred it that way.
They applied cold ice to her face to reduce the swelling.
Thanks to an effective ointment, the swelling on her cheek subsided quickly, and by the time Marchioness Magnum returned, it had improved to almost unnoticeable levels. However, the Marchioness observed Elfreda’s cheek with a sharp eye and then casually mentioned it to her.
“His Majesty will not be coming tonight.”
Elfreda recalled Ejnar’s last cold gaze at her. The memory made her cheek throb again. It might be better that he was not coming.
The real reason she was here was not for a marriage of peace but to use a child born to her to usurp Machi. Knowing this truth, she felt unable to face Ejnar as if nothing had happened. Perhaps it would be better to face disdain from the first night and continue to live as a neglected queen.
…At least then, she could face him with some dignity.
As she was lost in these thoughts.
“So, ladies, help the Queen remove her bridal dress…”
Elfreda couldn’t believe her ears at the sound.
“The King has arrived.”