“I hope this banquet becomes a pleasant memory for all of you.”
Iellie’s resounding voice was accompanied by a bright smile.
The Duke and Duchess bowed to the guests and then went to greet them individually. It was customary for the mistress to welcome female guests and the master to receive male guests. However, the Emperor remained firmly stuck in place.
His expression hardened subtly as his gaze was fixed on Iellie, specifically on her wrist. There was nothing hanging on her pure white wrist.
The Emperor unknowingly furrowed his brow.
‘… She’s doing something cute.’
It was a gift bestowed by none other than the Emperor himself. Furthermore, since the Emperor had come to the North, it would have been appropriate for her to wear it at least once, yet she hadn’t done so.
The meaning was clear… it was a request for him not to come any closer.
‘Though if I were willing to let it slide, I wouldn’t have come to the North.’
The Emperor smiled sharply.
Just as Iellie happened to be alone, he approached her.
“Duchess. You haven’t worn the bracelet I sent as a wedding gift.”
“I’m already a married woman. It would be inappropriate for me to wear a gift from another man.”
She smiled softly.
Nonetheless, the Emperor didn’t budge as he opened his mouth again.
“Before returning to the capital, I would like to see you wearing that bracelet, at least once.”
“I apologize, but I want to be a faithful wife to my husband.”
Despite the fact that Iellie replied without batting an eye, the Emperor still persisted.
“The jewels in that bracelet were deliberately chosen to match the color of the Duchess’ eyes.”
“Thank you for your consideration, though I don’t require such kindness.”
She cut off his words abruptly, creating an awkward atmosphere between them. Still, the one who wanted to be favored had to yield.
The Emperor opened his lips with a coaxing tone.
“Duchess, why are you being like this? There’s no need to be so stiff, right?”
“It’s not about being stiff. It’s about respecting each other’s spouses.”
“Though this is a banquet. A little deviation is allowed.”
Iellie was taken aback by his words.
Was this the Emperor who claimed to uphold law and order?
“Although there was an unpleasant incident between the Duchess and me at the previous New Year’s ball…”
She frowned upon hearing those words. While she didn’t appreciate the Emperor subtly pushing the two towards a mutual fault from the New Year’s incident, the Emperor remained earnest. He smiled at her as he continued.
“… That’s why I deliberately came all the way to the North, hoping we can end on good terms. How about it?”
He was arrogant, as if he had come down to the North upon her request.
At this point, Iellie thought it was time to draw the line with him. So, while courtesy must be maintained, she had to speak her mind.
“I’m sorry, but there’s something I must say.”
She then turned to the Emperor and looked straight into his eyes. With a composed expression, she went on.
“What happened at the New Year’s ball isn’t a matter to be brushed off so lightly, in my opinion.”
“It’s a past incident, so what’s the point of dwelling on right or wrong? However…”
Her voice was calm. Her tone and demeanor were courteous, yet the content was piercing at the heart of the issue.
“I hope Your Majesty will not erase the fact that you forced your feelings on me.”
Iellie’s face remained composed as she spoke.
The Emperor frowned slightly but didn’t particularly refute her statement. The attitude toward a lowly Lady and the sole Duchess of the Empire naturally changed.
“Well… I apologize if the Duchess was offended with what happened back then.”
He took a step back, feigning generosity. Yet, he couldn’t help but feel proud of his demeanor toward her.
On the other hand, Iellie looked slightly surprised.
…Why was the Emperor suddenly admitting his fault?
“Anyway, Duchess, you have become much more beautiful than before.”
That much was sincere. During the time they hadn’t met, her beauty had blossomed like a flower branch with water.
As the Emperor licked his dry lips, Iellie replied in a composed tone.
“Duchess, I came to the North just to see you.”
“Thank you, but please don’t forget the fact that I have never invited Your Majesty.”
Seeing her expression remained firm as if she had erected an impenetrable wall, the Emperor fell silent, contemplating.
“You’re quite firm. Southern women have a certain gentle charm.”
A certain gentle charm… The condescending tone that naturally placed women below men grated on her.
Iellie responded coldly.
“Now that I am a woman of the North, that’s a given.”
“Still, it’s a shame. It would be nice if you had some of the virtues of Southern women.”
The Emperor jokingly blurted out the impolite remark. Even though she narrowed her eyes, he was quicker to extend his hand.
With a polite bow, he whispered softly to her.
“I did ask the Duchess for a dance before.”
“As a celebration of my long-awaited visit to the North, I would like to have the honor of your first dance tonight.”
However, getting involved with the Emperor was still out of the question for her. Iellie gazed at the Emperor with an expressionless face.
“Both Your Majesty and I are married.”
“Besides, don’t married people have someone they should dance their first dance with?”
Although the Emperor felt a slight drop in his spirits at her cold attitude, Iellie still continued her words calmly.
“I plan to dance my first dance with my husband, Duke Hessenweitz.”
“Even after I’ve come all the way to the North, are you going to be this cold to me?”
As he said that, he reached out to touch her cheek, but Iellie was quicker to react.
“And please refrain from carelessly touching me like this.”
The Emperor unknowingly displayed a frustrated expression.
Stepping back, she firmly replied.
“Your first dance should rightfully be shared with the Empress.”
“We shouldn’t get entangled in inappropriate speculations… Don’t we each have our own place to stay now?”
When she responded to him with a voice and demeanor as sharp as a blade, the Emperor clenched his fists tightly.
“Then, I hope you have a pleasant time, Your Majesty.”
Iellie bowed politely yet firmly.
The Emperor, without a chance to hold her back, watched her disappearing figure steadfastly, like a solid fortress.
“My my, she’s still as feisty as a cat.”
A faint smile appeared on the Emperor’s face a moment later as he tilted his head and muttered softly.
“It’s alright. After all, tonight’s banquet is long…”
His voice carried a simmering possessiveness towards someone he deeply desired.
* * *
For the first dance of the banquet, it was only natural for Iellie to dance with Zachary. She took her husband’s hand.
“Don’t dance with any other woman tonight, understood?”
She squinted her eyes at Zachary, who responded with a wide smile. As they drew closer, he leaned in and softly replied in his wife’s ear.
“Of course, there’s no one but you.”
Having said that, the two of them stepped back together. Zachary looked puzzled and asked a question.
“But why are you saying that?”
“Lady Laurent is attending.”
Iellie no longer tried to hide her vigilance towards other women.
Seeing her like that, Zachary felt his heart tighten at her adorable pouting lips, and he blinked slowly.