The empress of the Azentelle Empire. With a slender and elegant figure like a swan, hair as brilliant red as flames, sharp eyes the color of gold, and skin as pale and smooth as porcelain, she was the very epitome of beauty. Yet, however beautiful she may have been on the outside, darkness and cruelty was all that existed within. Corruption overran the royal court. Wars were wagered against any kingdom or empire weaker than Azentelle. Anything the empress desired, she acquired. Nothing was unobtainable to her.
And right now? She desired nothing more than Ilina‘s father, Baron Florian Albrecht.
“I shall take this man on to be my concubine.”
Ilina‘s head snapped up at the empress’s declaration, and she broke the curtsy she had been doing when she was met with the sight of the empress pointing her closed fan at the Baron, her lips curled into a fiendish smile.
Only a mere few seconds ago, the Albrecht family – consisting of the Baron, his wife Lady Nadine, and daughter Ilina – as well as the entirety of their servants had been bowing in front of their estate to welcome the newly arrived empress. But as a murmur filled the air, Ilina could tell without even looking back that the servants had broken out of their bows and were now looking at their lord and the empress.
Surely this was just some cruel joke, right? The Baron was a married man, and with a child no less! Even if she was the empress regent, she couldn’t just take him away like this.
However, as much as Ilina tried to convince herself, she knew, this was no joke. It didn’t matter how wrong this was, for things like this were very much legal in the empire. Even emperors a couple of reigns ago had done the exact same thing; taking on already married women as their own concubines and mistresses.
She cast a glance at her parents next to her. Nadine appeared dazed, seemingly still trying to process the situation. Florian on the other hand, despite looking aghast, was clearly scrambling to think of something to say. Just when he had opened his mouth to finally answer the empress, a woman dashed out from among the group of servants.
“Your Majesty, please reconsider!” She fell to her knees in front of the royal, much to everybody’s shock. Ilina tensed when she recognized her to be none other than her beloved nanny, Miss Lange.
“Please forgive this lowly person for being so impudent as kneel before you like this, but I beg of you! Please do not take his Lordship away!” The empress coolly stared down at the figure before her, seemingly annoyed but allowing her to continue. Miss Lange swallowed and though trembling like a leaf, she continued speaking in an impressively leveled of voice. “The barony contains more territory than most Barons would own. Without his Lordship here, her Ladyship will surely struggle to keep the barony in its current condition by herself. And…”
She hesitated, unsure if she should continue with what she was going to say. But as if realizing that she had already come too far to stop, she carried on. “A-And my lord loves her Ladyship and Mistress Ilina dearly! I believe that Your Imperial Majesty is deserving of much more! Deserving of a man who will only hold you in his heart! I beg you, please reconsider, Your Majesty!”
Miss Lange pressed her forehead against the ground and everybody held their breath, waiting to see how the empress would react. A long silence hung in the air before it was suddenly broken by her laughter.
“Goodness. You are right indeed.” The empress opened her fan in one smooth motion, holding it in front of her face so that only her eyes, which were narrowed in amusement, were visible.
“Your…Majesty…?” Miss Lange slowly raised her head in a mixture of confusion, relief, and hope. If she was laughing, that was a good sign, right?
However, when the empress spoke again, all traces of amusement were gone. Her tone was now frosty and sent most of the people flinching and dreading the worst for the poor lady in front of her. “You certainly are an impudent little vermin. As you were brave enough to speak out against me, I assumed you had something meaningful to say. Clearly, I was wrong.”
The moment she finished speaking, a metallic sound rang through the air and something warm splattered across Ilina‘s face. It all happened so fast that it took Ilina a moment to comprehend what she was seeing.
A soldier of apparent high rank stood next to the empress, his sword drawn and dripping with blood. Miss Lange was still kneeling, but her head was now gone, leaving nothing but a gushing stump of a neck behind.
Ah, there it was. Her head dropped to the ground, her wide and vacant eyes staring lifelessly at the young lady she once raised. And slowly, her body began to tilt to the side before it collapsed, blood rapidly pooling beneath it. Many began shrieking and screaming, though the empress’ soldiers and attendants barely flinched, clearly used to this occurrence.
With a shaking hand, Ilina reached up and lightly touched her cheek. It felt sticky – disgustingly sticky. Bringing her hand away from her face, she blanched when she saw red smeared across her fingers.
Oh god. Miss Lange was dead. She was dead and Illina just watched her die.
She didn’t know whether she was going to hurl the contents of her afternoon snack out or simply faint. Maybe she’d do both. Surely no one would blame her for doing so after what she had just witnessed.
“Now then,” The empress suddenly said in a cheery voice, as if her guard hadn’t just killed a person in front of her. “I assume there will be no more interruptions, yes? As I was saying, I will be taking Baron Florian on as my concubine.” She then turned to address her soldiers, “Seize all other members of the Albrecht family. They will not be needing their titles anymore, therefore they are to be stripped of them and become servants in the palace. Kill the workers that resist and take the rest. Prepare to return to the castle afterwards, as my inspection ends here.”
“Yes, Your Majesty!” The soldiers answered in unison before moving to carry out their orders.
Very few people resisted being taken by them and those that did were instantly slain as commanded. Ilina felt herself being roughly seized from behind, but she did nothing, still in a state of shock from her nanny’s cruel and meaningless death.
“No! Unhand me immediately! You will not be taking me anywhere!”
She could hear her mother attempting to fight off a soldier. Slowly, she turned her head and saw Nadine, whom was now full of fighting spirit despite appearing so meek earlier, being wrestled to the ground. Several soldiers were holding the baron back as he strained to get to his wife and daughter, though they were being much less rough with him as he was now the empress’s possession.
The empress smiled at the chaos unfolding in front of her, snapping her fan closed as she turned to her guard. “Didn’t Duke Richter recently gift me an entire set of jewelry crafted from the diamonds from his family’s mine? I was extremely pleased with them; such wonderful quality diamonds! Now that this barony has no owner, perhaps I should give it to the duke. I believe he mentioned that he was seeking a new estate for his wife’s holiday residence. The scenery around here should be good enough for that. We did see some beautiful lakes and forests on our way here, did we not?”
The guard gave a slight bow in response. “Indeed, Your Majesty. I am sure Duke Richter will be greatly honored by your generos-“
He was cut off a pained shout sounding from a soldier nearby. Somehow, even with her wrists bound behind her, Nadine had managed to slam the back of her head into the face of the soldier that was holding her. One of the many accessories adorning her hair must have pierced his eye, for he had let her go and was clutching at it in pain.
Without a moment’s time to waste, she dashed forward and rammed herself against the soldier that had been restraining her daughter.
Stumbling from the sudden commotion and knocked out of her shocked stupor, Ilina gasped in disbelief. “Mother! What are you doing?! You’ll be killed!” She cast a fearful glance at the empress.
“It doesn’t matter if I die, if it means you’ll live.” Nadine forcefully said, brimming with determination to get her daughter to safety. As multiple soldiers began heading towards them, she used her shoulder to harshly nudge Ilina in the direction of a riderless imperial steed. “Your father will be fine as long as he remains a concubine, but the same can’t be said for us. I am unable to flee, but you are. Take this chance and go!”
It was then that Ilina realized her hands had not been bound – perhaps the soldier had seen no need to when she hadn’t resisted. She wanted to protest against escaping by herself, but the look in her mother’s eyes left no room for argument. Gritting her teeth, she accepted the only choice left to her.
“…I love you, Mother.”
Ilina mustered up the brightest smile she could. If this was going to be the last time they saw each other, she wanted her mother to remember her smiling. And then, before she could change her mind, she turned on her heel and made a mad dash towards the horse.
It was only a short distance away, but after dodging a couple of soldiers and nearly tripping several times due to her heels, it felt like she had to run miles before she reached it. Grabbing the reins in one hand and bunching up her dress in the other, she lifted herself into the saddle. She nearly slid off to the other side but regained balance after firmly clamping her legs down both sides of the horse.
“Get down here at once!” A soldier yelled as he neared her, reaching a hand out to grab her dress.
As if Ilina would let herself be caught when her mother risked her life for her. She snapped the reins and the horse jolted forward into a gallop.
“Go! Don’t let them catch you!”
Nadine’s shout followed Ilina as she steered her mount out of the estate. Soon, as if inspired by their lady, the servants began voicing their support as well.
“Run, Little Miss!”
“Don’t worry about us and live well!”
“You better escape and not get caught!”
Tears welled up in Ilina’s eyes as she passed through the gates. What a horrible feeling it was, like she had abandoned everybody to their cruel fates with the empress. Stifling a sob, she turned back to look at her family one last time.
Her father was no longer in sight, presumably now in one of the empress’s carriage. Servants were either being led away by soldiers or laid dead on the ground. Nadine was being dragged away by her hair and although she looked extremely battered, she was still struggling with the remaining strength she had left.
And finally, there was the empress. She simply stood there, watching Ilina go. Her features were hard to see due to the setting sun that shone behind her. Yet, her golden eyes almost seemed to glow in an eerie manner. With the sun’s rays caught in her luscious tresses and a breeze that carried the heavy stench of blood, her hair gave the impression of a dancing flame. And in that moment, the empress reminded Ilina of none other than the devil itself.
“Captain, sir!” A soldier stood to attention at the addressal from the empress’s guard.
“Assemble a group of four men to chase after that girl. Do not let her escape.”
After he saluted and hurried off, the guard turned to the empress. “I will make sure my men capture her as soon as possible, Your Majesty.”
She let out a laugh, languidly waving a hand as if to shoo away his worries. “Oh, do not fret yourself over this, Valentin. It matters not to me if she is caught or not; she is of little value to me. Although…” A sinister smirk of amusement touched upon her lips when a thought occurred to her. “I do wonder which of her options she shall choose. Will the young lady surrender herself? Will she seek aid from other nobles? Or will she choose to flee into that forest crawling with horrors and meet her end there? Ahhh, I do love seeing how desperate people can be when on the run!”
Still looking towards the direction Ilina had fled, the distant sounds of Nadine’s continuous struggles reached her ears. It was then that something dark and unreadable settled within the depths of her gaze and she turned to head back to her carriage, no longer in the exhilarated mood she had just been in.
“…Let us depart. We’ve wasted far too much time here and I wish to get acquainted with my new concubine.”
As the empress passed Valentin, the murky darkness not once faded from her eyes.