The Stage is Set
In the Earlgrey Manor, despite the Empire being at peace, servants were hurrying to and fro as if there was an emergency. The servants of the House of Earlgrey who usually only wait on the former Duke and his wife who are currently handing over the reins of power to the new Duke, as well as the new Duke’s younger brother who sometimes returns home, but right now they are being run off their feet.
“I’ve grown tired of this tea. Brew me a new cup… Only use the highest quality leaves.”
“B-But… Before, Your Imperial Highness said you were tired of those high-quality tea leaves… We offered you the best tea leaves known in the country…”
“What’s this? You dare talk back to me?”
As the Empress was taking her elegant tea time in a room cooled by a magical tool, the maid serving her tea paled at Alice’s venomous words.
“If there aren’t any better tea leaves in the Empire, then order better ones from abroad! What is so difficult to understand about that!?”
The teacup filled to the brim with the hot beverage was hurled angrily at the maid. Alice didn’t care at all for the suffering of the girl ten years younger than her covered in scalding black tea as she yelled.
“Am I not the Empress and a daughter of the Earlgrey family to whom you pledge allegiance!? Where do you find the gall to dare talk back to me!?”
“I-I am very sorry! P-Please forgive me!”
As she did her best to endure the burning hot liquid seeping into her skin, the young girl bowed as low as she could as she begged for a reprieve.
Unlike what Alice had just said, this girl didn’t actually swear loyalty to this noble house. She was merely a commoner who lived alongside her sickly younger brother and in order to help pay for his medicine, she, fortunately, found work here as a maid.
So as to not offend the often temperamental masters of the house, she had learned skills and techniques that would keep her out of trouble, she had even begun to be entrusted with making tea, but during this summer the amount of work she was having to do did not match the pay she received at all.
“Just how poorly educated a servant are you!? This is why I despise low born fools!”
The singular cause of this is the Empress, Alicia Ragdoll. The details of the Duel Ordained by the Goddess were still mostly unknown even in the Empire, but after having their palace slashed by Shirley at the climax of the match, Empress Alicia and Emperor Albert had nowhere to go, so we’re now relying on the hospitality of the Earlgrey family.
Albert was concerned for Alice’s wellbeing and decided that moving back to her family home, where she could feel safe and familiar, was for the best whilst repairs were being made. Listening to that story alone, it seemed like the caring Emperor was doing everything he could to make his wife comfortable during this hard time, but Alice’s ego was not satisfied by the trappings of her old home anymore.
She had used the Imperial treasury like a running faucet to live a life of luxury and she expected to continue living that pampered life, despite the manor having far fewer servants than the Imperial Palace. Alice had always been moody and easily bored, ten years living as the Empress had only worsened that aspect of her. Even the servants that had served her when she was a young girl felt so exhausted by her that they were close to collapse.
She demanded that the flowers in the garden that she deemed dull were torn up and replaced. She demanded that the highest quality tea leaves be fetched for her from all corners of the country. She demanded suddenly one day that she wanted meat from the child of a certain breed of cow-like monster that viciously defended its young. She had also demanded that the servants fetch for her certain beauty enhancing herbs that only grew atop a single treacherous peak, her selfishness was already putting people’s lives in danger.
“I am royalty, I shall not put up with the dimwitted servants of my parents!! You’re fired, fired! Get out right this instant!”
In the end, Alice went completely over the head of the chief maid who managed the personnel of the manner, grinding her heel on the head of the poor maid who was bowing down on the floor.
“Agggghaaa!? …Y-Your Imperial Highness! P-Please forgive me…!”
Even though taxes have risen lately, so too has the price of her brother’s medicine that his life depended on. If she lost her job now, not only would she become homeless, her brother may die.
“You’re too noisy! Shall I call for a knight and have you disposed of instead!?”
Not knowing or not caring about the girl’s circumstances, she jumped in fright at Alice’s threat, running out of the room with tears filling her eyes.
“Goodness gracious… What a good for nothing!”
She leaned back on her sofa in a suddenly very unladylike way. Recently, she had been in a confused and thunderously moody state of mind.
Even though she had been worried about not being able to produce an heir, her sister who she thought must have died eleven years ago had suddenly appeared before her more beautiful than ever, alongside two daughters who could be mistaken for angels or fairies.
Taking advantage of Albert’s desperation to secure an heir to the throne, Edward and that despicable sister in law of hers had conspired to set up a Duel Ordained by the Goddess that resulted in the destruction of that once proud palace after their loss.
Although she couldn’t understand just how it had happened, she still raged about it, exacerbated by the fact that she isn’t satisfied with how she’s currently being treated. Returning to her ducal home after a long period of absence, those fires of anger are only stoked as those servants can’t meet her demands.
“Golden Witch… Demonic White Sword…! Everything is their fault…! Just getting in my way…!”
Alice bit the nail on her thumb, a habit she always had when she was stressed. She had found out after the duel that Shirley was actually one of the most powerful members the Adventurers Guild had in their ranks and seemed to have a close relationship with Canary.
Alice didn’t want to admit that the flame of jealousy she thought was long behind her had reignited in her heart. Her elder sister was blessed with impossible beauty and adorable children, it was hard for Alice to see any way that she was superior to her. She was the one who was supposed to live a blessed life, so why had this happened?
She awoke from her stupor with a knock at the door, followed by the Duke’s head servant entering the room.
“Your Imperial Highness, you have a visitor.”
“…Show them in.”
As Alice said so, the head servant left the room in a hurry. She had called upon this man, one of her followers, today. She intended to air her complaints to this beautiful man and then bask in his compliments. It was a habit Alice had cultivated as a young girl.
“Oh, Alice. I missed you.”
“I wanted to see you as well, Gran.”
That face flushed with anger long gone, Alice wore an innocent and playful mask at the moment Gran, a man she had known since her school days, entered the room. Amongst her followers she had cultivated herself as a ‘gentle and kind-hearted young woman’, so showing any of that narrow-minded and violent attitude from earlier was out of the question.
“I love you… Alice…”
After closing the door, they kissed and embraced each other. It was an unthinkable act for an Empress and a high ranking officer, but right now the two of them weren’t thinking about the consequences of committing adultery against the Emperor, so wrapped up in carnal pleasure.
In Albert’s presence they keep a respectable distance, but in private they keep the same relationship as they had before she had married, with Albert none the wiser. They were groundlessly confident that the truth would never come out.
“You haven’t called on me much lately. So, I’m delighted that you have now.”
“No, I too desperately wished to see you, Gran.”
The Empress played the part of the lovestruck young girl. Considering that she’s almost 29 years old, there is a slight air of desperation about it, but the effect seems to have reached Gran who delights in being relied on, his cheeks turning a shade of red.
“Recently, I’ve heard that His Imperial Majesty hasn’t granted you the pleasure of his visits. So, I’ll love you in his place.”
“I’m glad. Please love me a lot today, okay?”
Although she kept her mask on perfectly, as she sat down on Gran’s knee back on that sofa, those hateful thoughts reared up in her mind once more.
It’s an extraordinarily serious problem that the palace, the symbol of Imperial authority, has been destroyed. Albert, who had always prided himself as being the lord and master of that palace, talks of his plans to build a new, even more luxurious, palace, but it would take a vast amount of time and there’s no guarantee that the royal treasury could even weather the blow.
Then, the Emperor floated the idea of rebuilding the castle on the same site using a mixture of the rubble as well as earth elemental magic, but magic isn’t some almighty thing. A palace isn’t constructed merely out of stone and even if the shape of it could be replicated, the glitz and glamour of the original would be gone and you would be left with an ugly pile of rocks.
…That being said, if they relied on the power of a certain S-Rank adventurer or the magic of Canary herself, something could be done, but it would be impossible for Albert to ask anything of that witch when she had insulted him and his country so heavily at the conference some time ago.
(No matter what it costs to rebuild my palace, I shall not give it up.)
The collapse of the symbol of Imperial power will be sure to have an impact on the minds of the subjects. Even though it had been seen as an issue that he was paying more attention to Alice than the important affairs of state, now that the Empire’s prestige had been damaged by his actions, the lords and vassals under Albert were now more prone to being swayed than ever.
Just from the heavy taxation alone, their subjects’ hearts were beginning to waver. It’s already reaching a point where Albert barely has the time to indulge Alice lately.
“My word, if only I could get my hands on the elder sister of the Empress somehow. With a face as beautiful as that, even with that white hair and differing eyes of hers, I would still take her as my mistress…”
“I saw the images. Her Imperial Highness is good looking for her age, but… That woman’s beauty was in another dimension. It’s hard to believe she’s already thirty, it was as if she were a teenager…”
Another issue is that the images from the duel had begun to filter out to the aristocracy, with praises for Shirley’s beauty becoming common amongst them.
Even among the nobles who had a relationship with Alice, many of them were beginning to compare her looks to her sister’s, with some of them even ignoring Alice’s temptations to think about ways to bring Shirley back to the Empire… They couldn’t keep their animalistic desires in check at all.
So, despite the plans to bring Sophie and Tio back to the Empire in order to wipe out the succession crisis still being active, Alice was still far from satisfied.
The reason is that it was clear that acquiring an heir to the Empire was not the only goal anymore, but also to ensnare that peerless beauty that she couldn’t compare to.
“Now, let us go out. It seems that there are new sweets being sold at that restaurant in the capital.”
“Ahh, I’ll go anywhere with you. Then, afterwards…”
The Empress banished those unpleasant thoughts from her head, deciding on a change of pace for today. But as Gran placed a hand on Alice’s shoulder and pulled her close as they departed, she didn’t notice the veins on his hand wriggling strangely.
Meanwhile, at the manor of the Regnard family, Philia and Lumiliana looked at each other after they both had read a letter from a man who sympathized with their cause from within the Imperial Knights.
“Princess, this is…”
It was a note about the fate of certain petty criminals who were caught in the major crime wave sweeping the Empire at the moment. It recorded the various punishments that the Knightly order would mete out to condemned criminals.
For murder there would be capital punishment or life imprisonments, thieves were jailed, stepping on the skirt of a noblewoman would incur a flogging, etc. The punishments would vary based on the crime. That was par the course when it came to criminal justice in the Empire, but the letter had continued.
“Recently, there are many criminals who, after being arrested by the knights, their fates are unknown. Enclosed are the rough copies of the records that were left behind in the barracks, but they’re almost certainly forged and all that could be found of the arrested criminals were their clothes… The arrested people themselves completely gone. None of these missing persons ever made it to a courtroom. There is something foul afoot, so I beg Your Highness to please be careful.”
If the contents of the letter are true, was someone letting these criminals escape? At the very least, it means that someone is making moves outside of the law.
If this became public, especially due to the weakened influence of the government right now, the rule of law could be damaged tremendously. Although Philia’s aim was truly to disassemble the Empire in a bid to oust the current tyrants, until such a time the law had to be maintained to keep the citizens safe.
“Does His Majesty know…”
“He must already be aware. But, instead of dealing with this issue quietly, right now he’s preoccupied rebuilding his castle so that he can go on living with that woman, he wouldn’t care to hear about criminals.”
As Lumiliana stared in disbelief, Philia glared as she reread the letter.
Even if they may have been criminals, they were people of the Empire who had disappeared. No matter what, it was criminal for people in power to not care for the lives of their citizens.
Crimes should always be judged by the law. However, you can’t simply punish all of them equally.
“If only they would have been treated more leniently, you can give people who committed a minor crime a fresh start…!”
Most of those who disappeared were charged with theft. It all depends on the person in question, just what drove them to these acts of desperation? It should be obvious that someone thrown out onto the streets after having their bar seized because of mounting taxes would have circumstances outside of simply being a malicious criminal.
“Let’s go, Lumiliana. If we don’t resolve this case, people will only continue to suffer.”
“I understand, I’m with you. Then, where shall we go first?”
“To the Ministry of Justice… Then, to the barracks of the Imperial Knights.”
Just who is it… The culprit must be someone who was involved in the legal process, otherwise, they wouldn’t have access to these criminals. With that conviction in mind, Philia made her way to the carriage alongside her attendant.