The bronze canopy fell from Yanok’s grip, plunging Elise back into the darkness. She scrambled to her knees, gripping the bars of the cart as she listened to the voices outside.
“What are you doing?” Yanok Sihat demanded, his voice laced with annoyance.
“Did the prince forget the oath of the Grandel Northern Alliance?” a gruff voice replied.
“What nonsense are you talking about?” Yanok shot back.
“According to the treaty, when war is declared in the name of the alliance, the prisoners of the defeated country become the property of the conqueror,” the voice explained.
The countries of the Northern Alliance were notorious for their plundering ways, their economies built on pillaging and looting. It seemed that their unethical practices extended to treating prisoners as nothing more than spoils of war.
“To hand over prisoners captured in battle to the Ugels, the permission of the Emperor of Van Yela is required,” said a dry voice that Elise assumed belonged to the archduke. “Until His Majesty approves, the prisoners are considered the property of Van Yela, specifically, my property.”
“So you won’t give them to us?” Yanok asked, his disappointment clear in his tone.
“There is no law to give away my possessions to the North without reason,” the archduke replied, his voice strained. Elise couldn’t shake the feeling that the archduke was struggling to maintain his composure.
“It is regrettable, then,” Yanok sneered.
As the sound of creaking armor and footsteps faded into the distance, Elise breathed a sigh of relief. The knights had obeyed the duke’s orders and successfully pushed Yanok Sihat away. As the wheels of her cage began to roll, signaling their departure, Elise’s grip on the bars relaxed.
Death had retreated for now.
However, the stench of blood lingered, a haunting reminder of the horrors that had taken place in the last day of Argan, when the flames had engulfed the city, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. Elise squeezed her eyes shut, trying to push the memories to the back of her mind.
Grandel, the sprawling continent, was divided into two distinct regions: the southern lands and the northern territories.
The southern lands, home to the mighty Argan Empire, were lush with fertile plains and warm weather. The northern territories, on the other hand, were comprised mostly of rugged mountains and barren wilderness, and were home to several small kingdoms including Ugel and Van Yela.
In an effort to strengthen their bonds, these northern kingdoms formed the Northern Federation of Grandel, with Van Yela serving as their leader for over two centuries. Ugel, the last kingdom to join the alliance, was founded by nomads who had roamed the central desert for generations.
Despite their late arrival, Ugel quickly became a formidable force, locked in a power struggle with the southern Argan Empire. The Ugelians, a fierce and savage people, coveted the rich lands of the south, with their abundant resources and magical abilities.
But what the Ugelians desired most of all was not land or wealth, but magic itself. And at the center of this desire was Elizabeth Aseica, the twin sister of Aseica III, the last emperor of Argan, and the sole remaining member of Argan’s royal family. Her fate, as well as that of her kingdom, had been sealed a month and a half ago.
As Rezette entered the palace, the emperor greeted him warmly. “Welcome back, Rezette,” he said. “It must have been a long journey to come all the way from the distant province.”
“Yes,” Rezette nodded in response, receiving the emperor’s greeting with a single word. The emperor, accustomed to such behavior, passed over it without a fuss. “How has the Princess been?” he asked. “Has she been rebellious?”
“She has been behaving normally,” Rezette replied.
The Emperor raised an eyebrow. “I thought the daughter of a noble Arganian family would have killed herself already,” he said. “Seeing that she has come this far, it seems that she has a different motive…”
Is that so? Rezette listened to the Emperor’s words, nodding absently as he lost himself in thought. There was no denying that something was amiss. For nearly two months, she had stuck to his side and watched him closely, but the princess had not shown any other suspicious behavior aside from relying on him excessively.
“The Ugel Kingdom has demanded that we hand the princess over to them,” said the emperor. “They’ve even threatened to cut off her head if we don’t comply. We usually just ignore their demands, but this time it seems like it might be difficult.”
“Her head?” Rezette asked, looking startled.
“Yes. They want to keep it as a trophy,” the emperor replied.
Regent’s eyebrows furrowed at the mention of the princess’s head. He had expected the worst—poison, or at least a form of punishment that left minimal visible scars on the body. But the prince saying he would personally cut off her head, and keep it as a trophy… it was a repulsive behavior that seemed to only mock Argan.
“Who are those savages…,” he muttered.
“What was that?” the emperor asked.
“Nothing,” Rezette said, shaking his head. The emperor narrowed his eyes, Rezette was not the type to avoid a question like this.