Call Me Empress
“She had been called many things in her life: thief, vagabond, exile, outcast. Now she would be called Empress.”
After being a thief for so long you would have thought that I was better at not being caught. Now I was stuck in a cell after a slightly-more-sober-than-I-thought nobleman caught me stealing his pouch of coins from his jacket pocket. He had called the guards and as good as I was at fighting, taking on several fully trained guards with weapons wasn’t really in my favour.
What was in my favour was the pins I had in my hair. They hadn’t thought to check under my hat for any weapons.
When new guards came to relieve those stationed around the cells there will be enough ruckus for me to pick the lock, and escape. Not to mention, it was dangerous when my hat was off, and pins were out of my hair, because whoever saw me would know that I was a girl. On the streets that was a dangerous thing for someone to know, so the more chaos the better.
I counted down the time until the guard change was supposed to be, having been in here way too many times. You would have thought they would know to put me in a cell underground this time, no matter how minor the crime.
When the guard changed they were rowdy and somewhat drunk, those who were relieving, and those being relieved looked so tired they were about to fall over. With the guards busy changing shifts and inebriated, I quickly took off my hat and started to work the pins out of my hair, making it fall loosely down to my shoulders. It was easier to keep it short.
I picked two pins out of my palm that I thought would fit, shoving the rest into my pocket along with my hat. I bent one of them to create a crude set of lock picks. From there I reached through the bars as silently as I could, keeping an eye on the guards as I started to awkwardly pick the locks. It was hard to get it to unlock quickly enough, but just as the replaced guards were all setting up at their posts and the conversation was dwindling between the tired guards and the drunk guards, I felt the lock unlock.
The guards were still distracted as I slipped out of the cell as quickly as I could and started climbing the wall that led into the palace courtyard. They noticed me just as I had gotten to the top of the wall.
I smirked down at the guards trying to climb up after me before I started down the other side of the wall, the other guards rushing to organize themselves for a breakout. Once I reached the ground I ran into the palace, hurriedly making my way inside, heading to the closest entrance. I had to get out as soon as possible before people put two and two together about my long hair or saw my face for too long.
As I was nearing the entrance I turned my head distractedly at a loud noise behind me, only to run into someone. I kept my balance, but the person I ran into fell from the momentum. By the time my eyes had caught up with my body, I was staring into wide, bright blue eyes looking up at me.
Before my brain could process who, exactly, this person was, I was running. I ran towards a window at the end of the hall that faced out towards the wall that separated the palace and the city.
The window had already been open so I vaulted through the window, not bothering to look behind me, but registering the sound of feet running after me.
I was already heading towards the wall around the palace before the person had even gotten to their feet. The gate was a few lengths to my left but going through it as an escaped criminal was a sure way to get caught. So my best option was to scale the wall. I had been caught a few other times, and each time I escaped unscathed. Which really reflected on the people running this place.
The guards intercepted me at the top of the wall, swords unsheathed and stances ready. Instead of running towards them to attack, I evaded and hopped over the side of the wall. I caught onto a handhold and slammed myself against the wall. Simultaneous to jumping over the edge, I made the torches on the wall flare brightly enough to distract as I basically slid down the wall. Luckily the gloves I regularly wore protected me from most rough materials. What can I say, I was a climber.
Hitting the ground I took off towards the winding streets of the city. As I was ducking into an alleyway, I glanced behind me to make sure no one had seen where I had disappeared to. I saw a figure barreling into the streets, so I slipped into a hiding spot to watch him run past me. He stopped at one of the intersections to look around before taking a left down the street, which was an odd direction to go since it led straight to the district of wealthier merchants.
He was still running, taking turns at random as I followed him on the roofs. He really didn’t know the streets well for a guard since all guards are supposed to know the streets of the city. Which I coincidentally know because I do have a few friends on the guard. Every now and then they allowed me into the palace to get essentials for my brother. Even with what I stole, not everything, especially medicine, was easy to access. And on the streets with so many illnesses, it was especially dangerous for those weaker and younger.
I watched as the guard ran into a dead-end alley. I climb into the alleyway as he starts to turn. I was feeling particularly malicious tonight. I stepped behind a pile of trash that had been stacked high in the alley, waiting for the ‘guard’ to pass before I stuck my foot out. As he fell I put my foot on his back, between his shoulders, and grabbed his arm, slamming him into the ground, grunting at the impact.
“Why so lost, soldier?” I asked snarkily, flashing a sickly sweet smile.
In response, he kicked my right leg, the leg on the ground, making me fall backward and take my foot off of his back long enough for him to get up. As he was standing up, I kicked his back and shoved him face-first against the alley wall. I pinned him there, pushing him so hard his chin started to scrape against the wall.
“Next time you decide to follow me out, make sure to send someone who actually knows the streets.”
“Please let me go,” the guard said, “I just wanted to ask for your help.”
“Help?” I laughed derisively. “On the streets, you don’t just ask for help and think you’ll get something for nothing. What are you offering for my help?”
He took a breath, the position making it harder to breathe from the strain on his neck. “Anything. I can and will give you anything.”
I laughed derisively again giving an extra shove into the wall as a warning before letting him go. “What do you want? I don’t have time for petty revenge if that’s what you want. I’m a thief, not a murderer.”
The guard turned to face me, taking his helmet off. “Well, first I’d like you to keep my identity a secret. If not, I’ll head back to the palace, and leave you be.” Blue eyes stared back at me, eyes of the royal family, and those of the person, the prince, I had run into during my escape. I gaped for a split second before I scowled. This was definitely not what I was expecting.
“You’re an idiot for trusting me with your identity. If it had been anyone else you would have been dead in a heartbeat. I’m willing to help as long as you give me what I want. What else do you want, Your Highness?” I made sure to add a sarcastic note to the honourific.
“Well, first of all, just call me Cas. If you’re so adamant about being inconspicuous I can’t have you calling me ‘Your Highness’ all the time. Second of all, as cliche as it sounds, I want you to show me what the underground, impoverished side of my kingdom looks like. When I’m Emperor, I want to be able to help those people, my people. Before I’m Emperor, if I can.”
I rolled my eyes at his answer, but I couldn’t turn this down, no matter how ridiculous the reason was. Do-gooder prince. “Oh-so noble. You’ll give me anything if I help you?” I asked. He nodded. “Can I cash it in whenever?” He nodded again. “Then we have a deal. As long as you hold up your end, I’ll hold up mine. If you don’t hold up your end I won’t hesitate to make your life a living hell.”
I stuck my hand out for him to shake, showing that the deal was made and there was no going back on it, no matter the circumstances. He shook my hand with a firm grip, the deal made.
“Well, then we start tonight. First I have a stop to make, then I can show you all that the streets have to offer. But before we do any of that we need to get rid of that armour. Strip.” He looked a bit taken aback but started to strip off the, assumedly, stolen armour. Underneath he was wearing a simple tunic and pants. Although, the shoes might give him away, being higher quality.
I started to strategically tear certain parts of his shirt and pants. At first, Cas seemed affronted that I was tearing his clothes, but realization soon overcame confusion. I also rubbed some dirt into his clothes and skin, but when I reached towards his face he grabbed my wrist, and asked incredulously, “Do you really have to rub dirt on my face?”
I nodded. “Sorry, but it seems that pristine and clean faces like yours don’t exist in the world I live in. Take a look at my clothes and face. Does it look like I have access to clean water to properly wash myself and my clothes? Hell, does it smell like it?”
He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “No, I guess not.”
“I thought so. And I’m not even on the worse side of things. So trust me when I say even a little bit of dirt on your face will make you blend in more.” He let go of my wrist and let me start to rub dirt on his cheeks, jaw, forehead, neck, and, reluctantly, in his hair. I took a step back and observed my work. “This will do. For now, try to keep to the shadows, and obscure vision to your eyes as much as you can. When you can find some sort of coloured contacts. I’m sure you can find some in that big palace of yours.”
I turned to start making my way to the abandoned building I called home after quickly pulling my hair back into my hat and pinning it into place.
Cas followed me as I made my way down the street, and struggled when I started to climb up the side of an old abandoned building once we had made our way to the poorer district of the city. I rolled my eyes at him, and slowly showed him the easiest route up, which he still struggled with. I took a few more twists and turns on my way. If anyone knew about the place we were going, I would be putting my little brother in trouble, even if some stupid, foolish prince knew about it.
“Haven’t we already gone down this street?” the prince asked, pointing at an old stall that looked exactly the same as one we had passed a few streets ago after he had pulled himself onto the next roof. “I swear we passed a stall exactly the same as that one.”
I rolled my eyes, “Almost every street has identical stalls like that.”
As much as I wanted to get him lost enough to not know exactly where we’re going, I wasn’t going to take him down a street more than once that had such a noticeable landmark. We had already been down two or three other streets more than once.
I waved him towards the wall, and he started to jump while I stayed on the edge to make sure he didn’t fall. Once he was up, I made quick work of the jump and started on a straight route to my home. When we got close to where we were going, I paused on a rooftop. The prince had taken an extra step forward, onto the ledge of the building before he noticed I had stopped.
He looked back at me as I pushed him back, grabbed his collar, and let him hang over the edge of the roof. He grabbed my arm with both hands, fingers digging into my forearms.
“I have one thing to say before we go any further. If you ever tell anyone about this place I will not hesitate to end whoever you tell and then you. You can never tell anyone about this place. Is that clear?”
He nodded, obviously scared as he kept glancing below him, to the 4-floor drop. “Of course. Of course. Please don’t drop me.”
I contemplated for a few minutes, seeing the fear grow, but I got the weird sense that he meant it. I jerked him back up and onto the roof. “Good. If I ever find out that you did tell someone I will uphold my promise.”
He nodded numbly, and I made my way over the roofs of the rest of the abandoned buildings in this section of the city. Cas followed behind me, rubbing the back of his neck from where his shirt had dug into his skin. He still had trouble leaping from roof to roof so we took more time than I wanted to reach our destination.
We reached one building that was completely blocked from the bottom, windows boarded up, and doors reinforced. The only entrance was from the top, where you had to shimmy your way through a chimney. The building used to be an old office building but after the last plague went through the city it was too hard to keep it open. The plague went through this whole block of buildings, which resulted in it being completely abandoned.
I led him to the chimney, which was slightly bigger than an average chimney, and started to climb down using the handholds I had created after so many years having to climb down. Cas looked a bit hesitant as he watched me.
“Just follow the handholds down. They’re not that hard to navigate because they’ve been worn down so much.” He still gives me a skeptical look. “If I wanted to kill you I would have done it as soon as I cornered you on the street.”
He nodded, and visibly swallowed at the words but started down the chimney after me. Once I made it to the bottom of the chimney I ducked my head as I climbed out of the old fireplace that led onto the highest floor. I waited for Cas, making sure to keep as quiet as I could. I wanted to approach my brother with Cas, not have my little brother approach me. I had told him to trust no one, and now I was breaking that rule by bringing him here.
He stumbled out of the fireplace, the leftover soot on him making him look dirtier. He looked around curiously at the room that we had emerged into, taking a look at the rotted walls, and old flooring.
I turned towards the door across from the fireplace that led into a large room, and a few side rooms. There were other halls branching off, and an old, broken stairwell that had collapsed. I led him to a room furthest from the stairwell and the room with the fireplace. When we reached the room I was looking for, I gave Cas one more warning glare over my shoulder as I opened the door.
I peeked my head through the door and saw that my little brother was still sleeping. I gestured for Cas to stay at the door but fully opened it, so he could still see. I tip-toed over to the small bundle of blankets that housed my little brother.
“Hey,” I whispered, touching his shoulder and lightly shaking it. “Alec. It’s time to wake up.”
He stirred and started to sit up, emerging from the nest of blankets. He rubbed at his eyes tiredly and blinked a few times to reorient himself. “Nika?”
“Yeah, Alec. It’s me. I’m sorry I wasn’t back any earlier. I got caught again.”
He looked down at the blankets, fidgeting. He had always been shy and timid when he was little before our parents died, but it had gotten worse since. It was hard to believe he was ten from his slight build and timid nature.
“I tried to stay awake. I stayed put like you said though.” He saw Cas behind me and immediately shrunk away from the attention Cas was giving him.
“That’s good, Al. I need to go out again tonight, so I need you to stay here, ok? Go back to sleep and I’ll be back before you wake up. Remember to stay quiet and if you hear anyone hide, ok?”
He nodded. “Ok. Stay safe, Nika.”
He laid back down and I pulled the blanket back over him with an affectionate kiss on the forehead. I turned back to Cas, stepping quietly out of the room and shutting the door. He looked at me, then back at the door, then back at me.
“C’mon. If you want to really see what it’s like for people like me, you need to really experience what it’s like. That’s why I brought you here. This is where my little brother stays for months on end. I can’t risk bringing him anywhere else because all of the dangerous people on the streets know me, and my enemies would take advantage of any weakness I show them. So he stays here, and I do my best to make sure we have enough food and supplies.”
He looked at me, almost pityingly. “What, exactly, do you do to get money?”
I looked back at him, smirking. “Simple. I steal.” I think for a moment before adding. “And I fight.”
He looked taken aback at my honesty, but also seemed concerned. “Why steal? I’m sure there are other things you could do to get money.”
I snorted. “That’s really funny. There aren’t many things people are willing to hire you for when you’re a homeless 19-year-old girl disguised as a young boy, with a completely different skill set from any of the jobs that would maybe hire you.” I looked back at him gesturing for him to climb up first. I can’t believe I was saying these things, but I couldn’t stop myself. I had told him my age and gender. And I didn’t trust him, but he seemed so genuinely curious. “Do you remember the assassins that killed your grandfather? The Flame Lily, and Maxima?”
He looked a bit startled at my words but nodded, “Yeah. Didn’t they disappear a few years ago? And weren’t they rumoured to be among those with abilities?”
I nodded my head. “Yeah. They also lived a normal life, living with their two children in a small apothecary in the business part of town. They also happened to teach their oldest child the secret of their trade. Of both of their professions. Then they died in the plague that swept through the city a few years ago and left their daughter to take care of their only son.” I looked at Cas as we started walking again, realization brightening his eyes. “So, I was never taught anything besides how to steal, and sneak and kill. I was never very good at mixing herbs and medicines. But I was great at fighting and climbing. At being so silent no one can hear me. And once everyone on the streets knew whose child I was it was hard to walk the streets without being attacked by their old enemies. So I steal and I fight.” I jumped to the next roof, going silent, and waiting for Cas to comment.
“So you’re the child of the most renowned assassins?” he asked. I nodded before he continued hesitantly. “Maybe I should’ve stayed in the palace. Is it true that they had abilities?”
I shook my head, even though I had grown up watching my mother start fires on her own, and watching my dad basically levitate things around the house. “No. It was made up because of their names, and because they supposedly never targeted those with abilities. Which was also false. They targeted corrupt leaders, and business owners, ones with abilities or not.”
We continued along the rooftops until we spotted a bigger alleyway filled with people and blood. Street fighting. I participated most nights that I didn’t steal. We were barely surviving with what I did already.
Cas watched the fight, following the movements of the fighters. “What’s going on?” He looked at me. “Are they fighting for money?”
I nodded. “Yeah. You wouldn’t believe how many people love watching people beat the shit out of each other, wealthy or not.”
“How often do you usually fight?”
“Only on nights I don’t steal anything. The only thing people like better than two guys beating the shit of each other is a smaller guy getting into the ring. They also tend to pay more. Now, I suggest you stay here, but I have a fight to win, and money to collect. If you have a death wish, feel free to follow me down into the crowd.”
With that said I disappear into the shadows and start climbing down into the shadows of the alley. I slipped through the crowd making my way over to the booth that held the bets and organized the fights. The guy behind the booth recognized me and waved me over in front of those making bets for the next fight. He showed me who was fighting tonight, and those that still needed an opponent. I picked one of the names I hadn’t seen or fought against before, someone called the Jade Forest. A bit of a weird name.
My fight was soon, so I slipped back into the crowd, looking for my favourite fighter, Thunderstrike. I slipped up right behind him, whispering, “Enjoying the fight?” into his ear.
He turned abruptly, startled at the presence that had shown up right behind him. I smirked at him. “Jesus, Dron. You don’t have to scare the hell out of me to say hello. Like, why the hell do you always have to scare me?” Thunder said exasperatedly. Not many people gave out real names, and he was no exception. People only knew part of mine because of how notorious my parents were.
I shrugged, smirking. “It’s more fun making people jump.”
“Anyway, you have a fight tonight?”
“Yeah. Against some idiot named Jade Forest.”
He looks down at me, amusement on his face. “Him? Really? He’s an aggressive fighter, but no finesse at all. It’ll be easy to beat him, especially with your skill. Just don’t let your guard down.”
I nod. “I know. I always keep my guard up. After the last time I got stabbed, I’m not looking to go through that again. It was not fun.”
The current fight finished, and Thunder went to collect the bets he had made on the previous fight. The next fight started while I waited for him to get back and watch.
The fight was bloody and brutal, and prolonged. The fight should have been shorter, but the one guy kept getting up again and again. It was sort of crazy to see how many times he got up, but he didn’t have enough skill to be able to beat the other guy. Eventually, someone called the fight after the one guy got back up for the millionth time, his face bloody and beaten. Thunder returned back to where he had been standing some time during the fight after collecting his money.
That meant that I was up next. I smirked and Thunder waved me forward as they announced my name.
“Now, our favourite, fiery fighter, son of the most notorious assassins, THE FFIIIRRRREEE FFOOOXXXX!”
I stepped into the ring to cheers, the majority holding their fists in the air, some filled with cups, and pumping them up and down. I lifted my fist into the sky and let out my own battle cry. The announcer started to introduce Jade Forest into the ring. He was an averagely tall guy who was heavily muscled, and also very dirty. Definitely someone who lived on the streets and fought for a living.
He eyed me up and down, smirking at my small size. My smirk turned more dangerous, his cocky attitude ticking me off. Then the announcer was asking if the fighters were ready, taking my hands curling into fists, and being raised in front of me as an answer. Forest did the same thing, mirroring my pose. The announcer called the start of the fight.
The crowd went quiet, waiting for the first draw of blood, the first sign of violence. Forest moved first, aiming a right hook at my face. I blocked, counteracting with a roundhouse kick to his side. He recovered quickly, starting to furiously send a flurry of punches at me. I let a few hit, letting his confidence grow, and the crowd got more riled.
I pushed him away from me, spitting blood on the ground. His punches were surprisingly strong, and my teeth had bit down on my cheek a bit too hard. I wiped my mouth, smirking with blood staining my teeth. He attacked again, and I dodged, sending a strong punch into his stomach. He staggered back, not expecting the force. He recovered fairly fast, but let me make the first move.
The crowd started to cheer my name louder, the call for my signature move that always ended the fight.
“Fire Fox! Fire Fox! Fire Fox!”
So, they didn’t want a long fight today. It wasn’t surprising, given the inexperience and ignorance of the Jade Forest.
I dodged the next punch, trying to dodge so I was behind him. Before I could even try to maneuver myself, Forest went for a tackle. I dodged again, grabbing his shirt to prevent his fall, and pulling him into a headlock. It was close to my signature move, which was a small combination of holds that broke a few bones, and left bruised necks. A lot of people wouldn’t fight me because of it. And I made more enemies than allies with it.
He tried to flip me over him. It almost worked but we both just ended up on the ground, with my headlock still as strong as ever. I made it tighter until he was almost tapping out to quickly change positions so I had his chest trapped under my foot, and had his arm fully extended. I twisted his hand at an odd angle and quickly jerked it, hearing the crunch of his bones, and his shout of pain under the roar of the crowd. They always went crazy for this move.
I transitioned so I had him on his back, his arm at another weird angle where I dislocated his shoulder. I looked up at the crowd before I fisted my hands into his hair, and smashed his head off the ground. His nose broke, and he passed out simultaneously. The crowd roared as I smirked. I shook off the remaining guilt.
I got off of him, trying to wipe off the dust and dirt that covered my already bloody, dirty clothes. The crowd cheered as I got up, and it parted as I made my way back to the stand where I had signed up. My money was handed to me, a good amount of it from what I could see, but I didn’t spend too much time looking at it. Keeping it out in the open was asking for someone to steal from me. I tucked it away, and made a note to count it later. I could go after anyone if they shorted me, which tended not to happen. The one time it did everyone had known not to do it again after seeing the state of the person.
I found Thunder again in the crowd, waving slightly as I left. He waved back as I left the alley, climbing back up the building to find Cas. I found him in the same place, watching the ongoing fights below.
“So, see anything worth fixing here?” I asked, approaching where he was crouched down.
He turned towards me, startled. He relaxed slightly as he realized it was me, although still stayed alert, eyes darting back and forth between me and the fight.
“Do many people have to do stuff like this for money?”
“Most men who can fight. Some try to find labour jobs. Women tend to find brothels to work at, though or any kind of cleaning job. It’s why I make everyone think I’m a boy.”
He blanched at that. I was lucky that I had decided to convince everyone I was a boy or I would have been put in that situation. “It’s almost dawn. You should head back to the palace before people notice you’re gone.” I said once I saw the sun slowly rising.
He nodded, almost in a daze. I helped him across the roofs, heading back towards the palace. Once we were close to the palace, I led him back to the alley that I had hidden his armour in.
He put it back on, securing all of the straps, and preparing himself to go back to the palace. He turned to me. “Will you show me around again? I want to see this again. I’m going to change things.”
I looked at him skeptically. I wasn’t sure. “I’ll give you one more chance. If you tell anyone about what you saw tonight, what I told you not to tell anyone about, I will find you, and I won’t hesitate.” He nodded, his face twisted in fear. “Good. One more chance and I’ll show you. Next week at the same time. We don’t want people to get suspicious about where the crown prince is sneaking off to. Also, make sure no one follows you.”
“Okay. Thank you for showing me. I’ll see you next week. Nika.”
He started back towards the palace, which he seemed to know pretty well. It made sense considering he had probably studied every inch of the palace as he grew up. As I watched him leave I realized he had called me by my nickname. Only Alec used that. But he was already too far away for me to say anything.
I turned, heading back to the old building my brother and I used as a shelter. And I went through the next week as though I had never met the crown prince. I mapped out my next theft and kept up the fights throughout the week, getting a good collection of money to get the essentials.
Soon enough, the time rolled around where I had to meet up with Cas. And I showed him the process I had for plotting out my next theft, making sure to target a house a nobleman had bought so he could meet his mistresses. After the night was done, I told him to meet me again, except this time during the day.
The next time we met I got him to put in the pair of coloured contacts I had told him to get as I showed him the process of how I bought my food and supplies. And we continued on like that, meeting up every few days so I could show him more. Gradually, I started seeing minor changes. More inns, and bars, and anywhere that sold food, would hand out food for those on the street. There were more inns that gave out blankets and such. Soon enough, there was a new building being built where the homeless could go for shelter and food each night, free of charge.
I started seeing Cas differently, too. I could tell that this new building, the donations, were his doing. I could see that he was being absolutely genuine when he said that he wanted to make a real difference in his kingdom.
He got along with my brother, too. He brought him sweets whenever we visited Alec and treated him with kindness. And he treated me with kindness, too, even after knowing who and what I am. He watched me fight and he watched me steal. And in turn, I had watched him give and give and give. Yet he still stayed by me. He said he fell in love with me and told me he would never stop loving me. He still kissed me, and held me, and helped me when I fell down. I never knew what to do, what to say back to him, I only told him that I wanted to stay with him. And he had said that was good enough for him.
Soon he started sneaking me into the palace, taking me to balls and banquets as his plus one. He even got me to take out my contacts once he had found out that brown wasn’t my natural eye colour. Then I was meeting the Emperor, and Empress as his fiance, convincing them that marrying a commoner will help rally the people. For once, I didn’t want to hide away and love only my little brother. I wanted to stay and help my people, and love Crown Prince Casimir.
After the Emperor consented to our marriage, my little brother and I were given rooms of our own, connected to each other. I refused to leave my little brother alone here, especially since the Empress denied vehemently that I marry her son, that I was to leave the palace immediately and never talk to her son again. After she threatened my life.
Living in the palace was so drastically different from living on the streets that soon I had gained the trust and friendship of the guards and other workers in the palace. They had watched my blunders and mistakes and saw them as endearing quirks, more real than the nobles and royals that lived in the palace. When I went into the city with Cas, I was swarmed by people, grabbing my hands, and thanking me, for what, I never knew. But the people seemed to love me, and I would never understand why.
Then the Empress invited me to have a private meeting with her. I was a bit skeptical at first, discussing it with Cas before accepting the invitation. But I also knew I had to go or people would get suspicious. Especially since the Empress was my soon-to-be mother-in-law. I really had no choice but to accept.
Nonetheless, I still had several knives strapped to me, hidden by my dress, when I went to meet her. I entered her private meeting room and she was sitting at a table by a window, already sipping on a drink. She didn’t turn to greet me, waving at a solitary maid to pour another drink and get out. I watched as the maid left, shutting the door firmly behind her.
“Hi, dear,” the Empress greeted me, sickly sweet, finally turning to look at me. “I’m glad you accepted my invitation. I wanted to talk to you about the upcoming wedding.” She gestured for me to sit, so I did, avoiding the drink in front of me. “Obviously, once you are married to Casimir, you will take the title of princess, and our family name. During the ceremony, you will have to sign the documentation and follow all of the traditions befitting the royal family.”
I nodded along to what she was saying, although I had already gone over it several times with Cas. I wanted to know why she had really called me here. “What do you really want, Your Majesty? You know that Cas and I have gone over this already.” I said, emphasizing the name Cas preferred, and repeatedly corrected his mother with.
She nodded her head, face slightly twitching in irritation at the use of Cas’s name. “Yes, but I just want to make sure everything goes smoothly, dear.”
She extended her hand to me, hoping I’ll take it in some sort of motherly gesture. I pointedly stared at it before looking back at her. “Bullshit. Don’t lie to me, Your Majesty. You know I’m smarter than that.”
Her face fell into one of indifference, turning from sickly sweet to neutral, as she pulled her hand away, taking another sip of the drink held loosely in her hand. “I shouldn’t expect any less from you, girl. I have to say when I met you I thought you were another common girl vying for the crown. That was until I got to clearly see your eyes. They look just like your mother’s.” I stiffened, fighting to keep my expression bored. “I remember the night my father died. Your mother spared me that night, a rookie mistake despite being one of the most feared assassins. I was twenty-five at the time, and just as homicidal as I am now. People always questioned their quick deaths a decade later. Now, I really don’t want you to marry my son. I wish you had stayed in whatever hole he found you in. But there’s not much I can do once Casimir is set on something. Unless, of course, I can convince you to call off the wedding. I could give you almost anything, within reason.”
A little while ago, I would have taken the offer, wanting to keep my little brother safe. My only family left. But now Cas was my family, too, and he had shown me the pride and love I still held for my country, hidden for years behind the need for survival. “No bribe will make me leave Cas. I don’t care about material things, I never have.”
She narrowed her eyes at my answer. “What would get you to leave?” she asked rhetorically. “Exposure of your identity? Guaranteed safety for your brother, and yourself? A title? A palace?”
I caught the Empress’s eyes. “Nothing could make me leave Cas unless he sincerely wanted me to leave. And if you want me out of the palace, at least, I’m not about to leave him behind.”
Her hands tightened on the cup. “What if I threatened to hurt your little brother? Or Casimir?”
“I’d like to see you try,” I challenged, losing my cool. “One thing people always underestimate about an assassin is their absolute loyalty to those they love. For their family. So, if you ever try to hurt either one of them I will not hesitate to ruin whatever life you have here or the power you’re seeking to gain.”
Her eyebrows slanted in anger, a snarl at her lips, and her glass cracking in her grip. She reached towards me as I stood to leave. Before she could I grabbed a knife from underneath my dress and stabbed it into the table in between her fingers. She paused, surprised, staring at the knife that was embedded into the table. I pulled the knife out of the table as I left the room, and slid it back into its sheath as I did. I really wished I could wear pants more often. They were so much easier to fight in.
The maid looked startled when I came out of the room but didn’t stop me. My mind started racing, trying to figure out all the ways that I had to prepare for whatever the Empress was going to do to either Alec or Cas. There were so many ways she could attempt to hurt them, and so many precautions I’d have to take.
I went looking for my brother, finding him with Cas, in the training field, training swords in hand. I smiled, happy to see my brother spending time with Cas as well as learning more about defending himself. You never know when being able to wield a sword will come in handy and it was always nice to see how Cas interacted with Alec.
I sneaked down into the training field, staying out of Cas’s sight. It was a bit challenging in a dress, but I managed to be quiet as I snuck through the shadows, pulling a knife from underneath my dress. Alec’s gaze flickered towards me but quickly refocused on Cas as he saw me bring a finger to my lips.
Cas froze as he felt the blade press against his throat, but relaxed when I said, “If you’re going to teach him how to defend himself, you should teach him how to make sure he knows when someone is sneaking up on him.”
Cas turned quickly, throwing me back a few steps. He raised his sword as I grabbed another knife, smirking as I did. We had done this before, and I had won every time. This time was no different, and I had him pinned within a matter of minutes.
“I don’t know why I even try to win anymore,” he said. He looked over at Alec as I helped him up. “I swear every time, I lose. You should get her to teach you, I bet you she could beat anyone that challenged her, even in a dress.”
I smirked, ignoring the blush I knew was on my face. “I’m flattered, but I’d much rather be wearing pants, and you know it. Although, I might take you up on that offer to continue fighting.”
Cas smirked back, pulling me close to whisper, “I can’t wait to marry you.” into my ear and kiss me. Alec made a loud gagging noise as we did. I turned towards him, extending an arm out to invite him into our embrace. He smiled and ran to join our small group hug. I stroked his hair, smiling fondly down at him. I looked back at Cas, to find him looking at me, a small, loving smile on his face. This was family.
We had a smaller wedding, which the Empress had argued against. I didn’t have many family members to invite, and I wasn’t really a crowd person. Cas had Alec be the ringbearer, his head guard, and best friend, the best man, and I had a mish-mash of different girls as my bridesmaid, with a Maid of Honour I had met on the training field. I had appointed her as my Head Guard as soon as she finished her training.
Most of my personal guards had been hand-picked by me and also happened to be female. Not many females in the army or training as guards were given the respect that they deserve because of their gender. So I changed that by choosing some, the few that I trusted, to become the princess’s personal guards. Not that I really needed them to protect me, but it was nice to be able to trust them to have my back and protect my family.
Once the ceremony was over, the reception was quickly put into motion, where the bride and groom were to have the first dance, followed by the Emperor and Empress. I was so happy to finally be able to be with Cas without the Empress scheming for me to leave. We were really married, and nothing would ever keep us apart after this. And when I looked around, I saw that almost everyone was happy, too.
The Emperor was happy, smiling as he talked to a few diplomats from allied countries that were invited as a show of good faith. Alec, playing with the other kids that had been dragged to the wedding. My Head Guard, Rae, dancing with her partner, another one of my bridesmaids.
I smiled, too, watching everyone. When I turned back to Cas, he was beaming at me, watching me watch people. My smile widened, so happy to have him in my life. Otherwise, I’d probably still be stealing from rich men, and fighting just to get by. Who knows what else I would have done with my skills at this point.
People started filtering out of the reception, heading to their homes in the city, or to their rooms in the palace. Cas and I were the last to leave, thanking everyone for coming, and thanking the maids for cleaning up the rest of the hall that the reception was held in. We headed for Cas’s room after I checked on Alec, and made sure that someone I trusted was guarding him. That night was one of the happiest in my life.
After that, the Empress suspiciously left me alone for about a week before she pulled me into a war conference. I was just walking down the hall when she literally came out of nowhere and pulled me with her into the war strategy room. There was obviously no reason for her to drag me along, but here I was standing just behind the Empress, listening to officials talk about the best way to attack the palace of the empire we’re at war with, Rashain. As usual, they were going to try and use brute force to get into the palace. Being the daughter of an assassin meant I knew the best way to bring down a monarchy, and the best way to sneak into a castle. As they continued planning to raid the city the palace was located, I rolled my eyes. The Empress caught me.
“Princess, do you have a better idea?” she asked, smirking slightly. She had greatly underestimated my ability to infiltrate a palace.
“Actually, yes I do,” the General, and other advisers and strategists looked surprised at what I said. The only person who didn’t look surprised was Cas, who looked proud. The Emperor was currently working on something else, or so the Empress said, so he was absent. “Instead of using brute force to try and invade the city, send in a small group of spies, or assassins and kill those with the most power. The monarchs, the generals, whoever holds the most power. If there are children, detain them. They can sneak in one night, kill those in power, and open the gates for the larger force sent right behind them. Brute force isn’t the only way to win a war.”
Everyone around the table nodded along with what I was saying, the Empress’s gaze turning sour, as Cas’s turned triumphant.
One adviser asked, “Who would do this kind of mission? We’ve only really trained our men for brute force, as you call it, and we only have very few spies, all of which are currently undercover, and unable to help us.”
“I could do it,” I said, shrugging. Everyone turned to me, surprised at my remark. “You learn a thing or two living on the streets, and no one ever sees me coming. If you want to test me, you could. But I want to go on this mission if I can. I want to help win this war for my country.”
The advisers nodded, but the General asked, “What about the whole ‘having to kill someone’ part of the mission?”
I turned a look onto the General, a middle-aged, kind-looking man, my eyebrow arched. “You really think an orphan living on the streets with her little brother has never witnessed a murder? Has never, theoretically, killed someone? In self-defence of course, but still.”
At that, the whole room paled at the admission. Of course, I can’t say I’ve outright killed someone for a job or anything, I didn’t want to get arrested, but I had killed a few in self-defence. Living on the streets never gave me the chance to give anyone mercy, especially as an assassin’s child.
Even the Empress looked a little bit surprised at what I said. “Ok, but we can’t very well send the princess into enemy territory. It would put a member of the royal family in danger. We should let someone in a less important role do so.”
“Yes, but what would our people say if they knew I was the most qualified for this and didn’t do it? What kind of leaders would we be if we refuse the dangerous work to put our own people in danger? Not good ones, I can tell you that. So, like I said, test me if you want, but I’m not going to stand by when I have the skill to do something like this.”
The General and other officials nodded their heads looking at each other. Finally, the General spoke, “Since you’re volunteering, Your Highness, we would ask that you train some of our own soldiers and that we administer a test for you and whoever you train.”
The Empress looked outraged at what had happened, protesting with the decision of the general, “I say no, we cannot-”
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but you can’t override a unanimous vote. Only the Emperor can do that, and he’s not here. If he was here, he would most likely agree with us. If she has the skill and is willing, no matter her position, why can’t she help?”
The Empress looked furious for a second before she schooled her face into neutrality. She nodded regally before she said, “I want the princess’s test to be more challenging than those she trains. If she really is the best, and she wants to do this, she has to go through more challenging testing.”
The General nodded, “Alright. Then we can do that. Of course, as long as the princess agrees.” He looked at me for confirmation that I was alright with this, to which I nodded back. There was no way I was going to back away from a challenge like this.
The Empress wanted me to leave, but she knew what would happen if the people saw their princess fighting with them. She knew I was garnering too much support, and she wanted me gone. But she also wanted to keep me close, keep an eye on me, and keep me away from this mission. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Too bad I didn’t see her as much of an enemy.
“Then it’s settled. We’ll test you tomorrow evening to see how far your ability goes in the field, and then we’ll start training if you pass your test.” The General concluded the meeting with that, and the table was cleaned off, maps put away, and most officials filed out of the room following the Empress.
Cas stopped by me, a concerned smile on his face. After everyone had filed out of the room he asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? I know you’re capable, but I don’t want you to put yourself in danger for no reason. Or just to prove my mother wrong.”
I chuckled slightly. “No, I actually want to help. You have shown me how to love this country, this empire. How to fight for it. So I want to help how I can. Not to mention that I have the skills to do so.”
Cas smiled back at me. “Okay. As long as you want to. Although, I’m really proud of you. You showed everyone how capable you are, and offering yourself to defend your country, your empire. It just makes me love you more than I already do.”
I beamed at him, kissing him quickly before I turned, Cas on my arm. Our combined guards converged around us as we left the room, headed toward my room. It was late at night and after hours of watching people bicker about the best way to attack a city and win a war, we were both exhausted.
We made it back to my room where I peeked into my brother’s room to see him curled up in his bed. I sneaked over to give him a kiss on the forehead, running my hand quickly through his hair. He snuggled further into his pillow contentedly as I did.
I closed the door quietly behind me as Cas opened the door to my room, which had a collection of both mine and Cas’s stuff. We changed in silence before Cas suggested getting a few sweets delivered to my room. I agreed, my sweet tooth and Cas’s enthusiasm convincing me. I exited my room, deciding that Cas probably shouldn’t be seen, waving down a maid coming down the hall. I asked her if she could get me a platter of sweets, and she hurried off down the hall. The kitchen was probably ready for an order like this since we both had such big sweet tooths, and this wasn’t the first time we had ordered a platter of sweets.
I went back into my room to see Cas lounging on the bed in loose pants. He smiled as I came back into the room, his eyes lighting up. I smiled back, perfectly content to fall into his arms while we waited for the sweets to be delivered to the door. Soon the maid was knocking at the door, so I untangled myself from Cas to open the door into the common room that connected mine and my brother’s rooms.
The maid wheeled in a small platter of sweets, ranging from pastries to cakes to hard candies. She left the room with a quick bow before I could say anything, a thank you stuck in my throat. I wheeled the platter into the room, where Cas got up off the bed to grab a raspberry filled pastry, taking a bite that made the filling fall out. He made a small noise of pleasure at the taste, that soon turned into one of pain.
I moved closer to him, concerned as to what caused him pain in a treat. My mind went through the different possibilities for the sound of pain after the initial feeling of panic subsided. Allergies, he didn’t have any extreme ones. Bad taste, these were our shared favourite pastry. Biting his tongue or cheek, possible but wouldn’t cause this amount of pain. It took me a minute to realize what it was, the answer clanging around my head after the sudden realization. Poison.
I ran out of the room, startling my guards as I burst out of my room. “Call the medics immediately. The prince was poisoned. The prince was poisoned.”
One guard started immediately down the hall at my request, and another followed soon after. I went back into my room to find Cas coughing up blood, his eyes bloodshot. It took me another second to identify the poison that had been used, but when I did my whole being was filled with absolute dread.
I yelled out to a guard, “Help me carry him. We don’t have much time.”
The guard came into the room where I motioned for her to pick up his feet as I picked him up underneath his arms. He started muttering as we picked him up, “An...nika...”
He was fading fast as we walked as fast as we could out of the room, making our way towards the infirmary, and hopefully meeting the medic on the way there.
I started whispering to him. “Hold on, Cas. Hold on for just a little bit longer. We just need to get you to the medic okay. Hold on.”
But he just kept coughing and coughing, blood coating his chest, running down his chin. I was trying to keep it together, keep a clear head, but it was hard knowing that he was dying. Knowing that he didn’t have much time before he died, before there was nothing we could do to save him.
Soon we met the medic as I was continuing to mutter, “Hold on,” to Cas. They quickly and efficiently examined him, looking for the effects of the poison as I told them which antidote they needed. The medic ignored me. But I watched as his breathing turned shallower and shallower. The medic dug through their bag, looking for the antidote to this poison, nodding and saying that I was right. That she knew.
Cas coughed again, bringing a hand to his mouth weakly. The medic tipped his head back, pouring the antidote down his throat. He almost choked on it, but the medic massaged his throat as I said, “Swallow it, Cas. It’s the antidote. You’ll be okay. You owe me, remember? I’m calling in my favour now. Live, Cas, live.”
When it was swallowed we waited, his breathing getting a little steadier but then he grabbed me, pulling me down to him. He kissed me, the blood on his lips smearing onto mine. “I love you, Andronika. I will always love you, even in the next life.”
His breathing slowed and I knew it was too late. A knot of dread and understanding choked me as I said, “I will always love you, Casimir. No matter what,” His chest stilled. That’s when the tears came, silent but just as painful.
I turned to see Alec there, a pillow hugged to his chest. I gave Cas - Cas’s body - one more kiss, blood on my lips before I let him go to shield him from Alec. I walked over to Alec, falling to my knees to hug him to my chest, trying to lead him away from the minimal blood on my shirt.
“Is Cas okay, Nika?” Alec asked innocently into my chest. It broke me a little to hear his concern over Cas and to have to tell him the truth. I would never lie to my little brother even if it meant it might hurt him.
“No, Alec. He’s gone,” My voice broke as I spoke, pushing Alec a bit away from me, so I could look him in the eye. As soon as my words registered his eyes turned glossy as tears fell.
“H-He’s gone, Nika?”
I nodded my head, a few stray tears running down my face. “I’m sorry, Alec.” I took a deep breath to quell the panic, the anxiety, the pain that was in my chest. “You should go back to bed, Alec. Evrain, please take Alec back to his room, and stay with him.”
The guard, one of the specially picked women on the extension of my personal guards that were assigned to Alec, took him gently into her arms and led him away.
I turned back to the medic, and Cas’s body, which had been moved onto a stretcher and covered in a sheet by two apprentice medics that I hadn’t noticed. As they took away his body, everything started to blur around me. It was like my mind couldn’t comprehend that he was gone.
I stayed on the ground for a minute too long, I vaguely registered that someone, one of my guards, was talking to me. It sounded like she wanted me to go back to my room, which I numbly did. Before we could reach my room the Empress was there, hurrying towards me in a motherly, grieving way. It took a second to register that she was hugging me, whispering something in my ear before going towards the infirmary. I didn’t really know what was going on.
When we got back to my room, my mind was still trying to piece together what the Empress had said. It was as I was stepping into the bath that it fully registered in my mind.
“That poison was for you, girl. You’ll regret what happened tonight.”
She had said it like I meant to kill him. Like I meant to poison him. And that’s when the rage set in. She had hired Raiden, Thunder, my parents one and only apprentice, to make the poison.She had gotten the poison that my parents had made, to poison me, only for Cas to be poisoned first. I would have preferred it to be me. But Cas was good and pure, and he didn’t deserve to die. I laughed brokenly at the irony.
But she had still killed her own son. She had put her son at risk. And I would never forget what she had done.
I pulled on a new set of clean, black shirt and pants. Then I climbed into bed, the place that Cas had been sitting maybe an hour ago. The poison was so fast-acting it was a miracle he had held out for as long as he did.
I buried my face into a pillow that faintly smelled like him. Like us, after so many nights sharing this bed. And I tried to relax. The test was tomorrow and I’d be damned if I didn’t show everyone how skilled of an assassin I was.
So I slowly drifted off to sleep, the pain in my chest crushing me, only to be woken up in what felt like the blink of an eye. It was Rae, telling me it was time to get up for the test. The test that I still had to do even after Cas, the prince, had been poisoned.
I dragged myself off of the bed and started to strap on the uniform that had been left on a chair. The uniform consisted of black leather pants, and a shirt, with a pair of combat boots. There was also a band of knives, small ones, that I strapped across my chest. Once everything was secure, the boots tied snugly, every fastening tightened to my body, and the baldric of knives fixed against my chest, shoulder, and back, I walked out of my room. Rae escorted me out into one of the courtyards as I took note of the excessive amount of guards lining the halls on my way down. The general and a few other officials were waiting when I arrived.
“Princess,” the General greeted while bowing along with the officials that had waited in the courtyard. “We have everything set up for you. The Empress believed we should continue with the test today despite the prince’s recent death. There still is no conclusive evidence of who poisoned the prince and was probably planning to poison you, but we can only assume it was Rashain. Their assassins are some of the deadliest and rely on poison.”
“The poison used was one created and almost exclusively used by the Flame Lily. I’d recognize the symptoms anywhere.”
The General’s brow furrowed. “How do you know the symptoms so well?”
I looked at the others, recognizing them from the several meetings I had been dragged into by the Empress. “Can I talk to you privately, General?” He nodded his head, as I led him to the side out of the earshot of the others. The General had been one of the ones to advocate for my place in the palace, and has been welcoming since. So at the very least I trusted him to help me. “My parents didn’t always have the most conventional job. Many people called them the Flame Lily and Maxima.” I watch the surprise fill his eyes. “I told you because I trust you to help me, and I would know that poison anywhere. There is only one other person who knows how to make the poison and the antidote, other than me. And I would never try to hurt the prince. But I think I know who did.”
The General nodded along to what I said, but I knew he couldn’t arrest me just for simply being the child of assassins, especially now that I’m the princess. And I don’t think he would anyway.
“Who do you think poisoned the prince? Who hired this other person?”
“I think that the Empress was trying to poison me,” I said, trying to keep my voice down. “I think last night she didn’t know that the prince was in my room, and was hoping to kill me. Which she would have succeeded if the prince hadn’t gotten poisoned first.”
The General’s look was more than horrified at my accusation. “You really think the Empress would do that?”
I nodded my head. “I do. She’s been threatening me since I was invited to the palace. You don’t have to worry about trying to get enough evidence against the Empress, but I will need your help once I have enough. Can I trust you?”
The General took a minute to contemplate before nodding. “Yes. I will help you how I can. And I trust you with my life princess. Especially after you have entrusted me with this secret.” He looked back over to the others standing in the courtyard. “We should get started with the test. I know it might be hard for you considering your devastating loss, but it is doable. You will have to sneak into the throne room, and there will be a ring on the throne. You will have to get it and get out into the city where there is a designated site set up to receive the ring. If you get in and out without alerting the guards right away, you will pass. But there will possibly still be evidence of you being there, we just want to make sure it doesn’t happen right away. The guards don’t know that someone is going to try to ‘steal’ something right now, but some might have a clue, and they were told to follow the standard procedure for everything.”
I nodded. It was actually quite easy. The hardest part would be getting the ring in the throne room without being seen because it was a wide-open room, with several guards in the room. But I could make it work. I nodded at the general, smirking. “When do I start?”
“Whenever you’re ready.”
I checked all of my straps one more time before I started to climb the wall up onto the roof, the General and officials watching me as I did. I disappeared over the other side before I made my way into the armoury. There were still guards everywhere but I kept to the shadows, climbing in one of the back windows.
I grabbed what I needed quietly, a rope that I slung over my shoulder, and a few timed bombs which I tucked into my waistband. Then I slipped back out and made my way to the treasury. There weren’t as many guards there, as they had probably been grouped around the throne room and hallways around it.
I quickly set up the bombs, which had a thirty-minute timer attached to them. Once they were set, I made my way to the outside of the throne room. I had about ten minutes before the bombs went off, and I needed to be in the window before they blew. I kept the rope slung across my shoulders as I climbed up to one of the windows on the shaded side of the castle, keeping as close to the window as I could be.
I reached the window, swinging it open as quietly as possible while trying not to fall as I did. I peeked into the throne room noting the position of the guards as I tried to stay as hidden as possible. I tried to find the best way to secure the rope in the window, tying a knot to wedge underneath the window. The hold was weak but I could work with it.
When the bombs went off, most of the guards left the room, leaving two at the entrance to the throne room. It gave me the opening I needed to slide down the rope, burning my hands as I did. As soon as I hit the floor I ran to hide behind the throne. I peeked around the throne seeing the guards with their backs still turned.
I quickly snatched the ring off of the throne, hiding behind it again, only for the realization that the ring I was holding was almost identical to the one on my hand. The pain from last night hit me again, making me take a few deep breaths to steady myself. I couldn’t let this stop me from passing this test. So I took off my ring, setting it on the throne in a way that makes it look identical to the one that I slipped onto my finger.
I ran towards the rope, started to climb up only for the rope to lose its hold on the window. I fell hard on my back as I watched the rope fall. I panicked for a minute; I only had a few more minutes before they came back to the throne room, and there were guards just outside. I looped the rope around me again and started to climb. Halfway up the wall, I heard the guards marching back to the throne room. I climbed faster, almost slipping back down before I pulled myself up into the window just as guards started to flood into the room. I climbed partially down the other side so I could close the window, trying to be as quiet as I could possibly be.
Once the window was closed I climbed the rest of the way down. I jumped off the last few feet, absorbing the impact with a roll before I started towards the city. The pain from the fall grounded me enough to push down the growing despair that choked me long enough to push the overwhelming feelings down. Making me numb.
Escaping into the city was something I could do in my sleep, so I did it without really thinking, finding the rendezvous fairly quickly. I handed in the ring before I could completely dissociate and was told to sit and stay for a few hours until they could verify my test results. The General came to get me by the time the sun was starting to set and I had come back to reality. He escorted me back to the palace, then to my room. I asked for the ring I had used as a decoy before we could even enter my rooms.
“Of course, Your Highness,” the General said, and sent a maid to retrieve it. “Now, I would like to discuss your test. First, blowing up anything would have alerted the kingdom that you had been there.”
I contemplated for a moment. They had said to do it without alerting anyone. “Yes, but I would assume that we would actually launch this attack during the night and that whoever was the target would be in a more private room. I wouldn’t resort to a move like that unless I absolutely needed a distraction to escape. And nobody would see me otherwise.”
The General gave me a considering nod. “That is right, and we had so many guards in the throne room I’m surprised that you were able to retrieve the ring without being seen. At all. I think a few guards said they saw movement out of the corner of their eye, but that could be explained away. But, you weren’t seen. So, you passed. The Empress has been notified but the Emperor has been reported ill.”
I nodded. The Empress knew I had passed. She might retaliate tonight, and who knew what had happened to the Emperor. “Thank you, General. I will get to the bottom of what happened to Prince Casimir and give you updates on a need to know basis.”
There was a knock on the door, and the General went to answer it. He came back into the room with my ring in his hand and handed it back to me. I slipped it onto my ring finger on my left hand and held out both of my hands. Cas’s ring was on the middle finger of my right hand as it was too big for my ring finger.
I looked back up at him. “Thank you, again. But I want to say good night to my little brother and tuck him in. I also need to talk to my guard, and I believe you have matters to attend to.”
He nodded, and made his leave with a “Good night, Your Highness.”
“Good night, General,” I said as he closed the door.
I waited a few minutes to make sure that the General was gone before I opened the door, and told one of the guards outside to gather all of the people in my guard, even those off duty.
About twenty minutes later all of my guard, except the two at my door, were present, either standing against the wall or sitting on the couches. I quickly went into my plan for maximum protection for my little brother.
“I want four or more guards outside my brother’s room at all times, two people outside the door, and two below the windows to my brother’s room. Add more as you see fit, Rae. I want two outside my window. Tell only those you trust implicitly to keep their eyes out for anything suspicious. Change shifts every six hours, and keep everyone alert and awake. Alright?” They all gave a sharp nod of their head. “Ok, get rest if you’re not on duty, and if you are, get back to your post.”
As all of my guards filed out of the room, sending a respectful nod my way, I started unbuckling the knives, and several other straps on my clothes. I walked into my room as I did, finding comfortable pants and a shirt before I went to tuck my brother in.
Once I was fully dressed I walked into my brother’s room to find him already asleep. I left his door open as I walked to his bed with silent steps to give him a kiss on his forehead and brushed his hair back. I wanted to stay here with him. So I did, walking back to my room to find a blanket and a pillow so I could set up beside my brother’s bed. I also grabbed the knife I kept under my pillow. You can never be too careful.
Two guards had already been stationed when I walked into his room with a pillow and blanket. They nodded to me as I walked past them. I set down my pillow beside his bed, and laid down heavily on the floor.
I pulled the blanket over me and settled into sleep for the night. I fell asleep quite quickly considering the threat hanging over me. Over us. But the exhaustion of the day pulled me down into a deep sleep.
My brother crying out in pain is what jolted me into consciousness. The sound jerked me awake so suddenly my vision was still blurry as I kneeled. When my vision cleared a bit I could see that my brother wasn’t in bed and that there was a larger figure in the room on the other side of his bed. Once my vision had focused, I recognized the figure as the guard who was always around the Empress. He followed the Empress like a lost, intimidating puppy.
And he was also holding my little brother with a knife to his throat. I yelled out once I realized what was happening, but that was when I noticed the door was still open with two, from what I could tell, unconscious figures. And before I could do anything else I watched as a knife was dragged across my little brother’s throat.
Pain choked off my cry of surprise as I watched the life bleed out of him. He dropped Alec-
He dropped Alec’s body and started advancing towards me. I didn’t know what he was really going to do, probably kill me, but he never got the chance to. I always slept with a knife under my pillow and tonight was no exception.
I took the knife, and threw it, the knife embedding into his throat. After he fell, the tears started to fall, too. I crawled over the bed to my brother, his blood spreading onto the floor. I picked up his body, cradling his head in my lap. His skin was still somewhat warm but slowly cooling.
Finally, the sobs started to come. I had lost my little brother, the person I loved the most in the world, was gone. Cas, my husband, was gone. My family was gone. And I was never going to get them back. But I could still expose and kill the Empress. Make her people hate her.
At some point, guards started to flood in. I noticed they were all part of my personal guard, with a few from Cas’s former guard. They took the guy’s body out first, which I barely registered from where I was sitting. They tried to take him from me, which I responded to with a snarl and hugged him closer to my chest.
“Show me where to take him,” I said, once I heard the placating words they said to me.
I picked up my brother and followed numbly as a guard led me to the infirmary, where they’re going to run an autopsy and put him in the morgue. Once we get to the infirmary, I’m led to a metal table where I’m instructed to set him down. Before I let them roll him away I ask for a pair of scissors, which I use to cut a large lock of hair, about the length of my wrist. Then I wipe my eyes and nose, straighten my shoulders, and walk away from my little brother’s body.
When I get back to my room I ask for string thin enough to make a bracelet with, that I weave with my brother’s hair. The black thread mixes with his dark hair, making it almost unnoticeable. I make two bracelets, one for each wrist, that are like cuffs. Holding me to end the Empress, and then become one myself.
Once I’m done with the bracelets I set them aside while I bathe, along with my rings, and change of clothes. Then I put them on, and try to get some rest. I get a bit but not much. Enough for me to function the next day. I end up playing with the bracelets and rings while I try to sleep.
When I do rise, I tell one of my guards to let the Empress know that I will not be attending any events today. With that taken care of, I change back into the clothes I wore during my test, strapping everything down, and putting my knives around my shoulder. With everything tightened, and snug I climb out of the window, through the palace grounds and out into the city. Today I was going to get my evidence to expose the Empress. And tomorrow I was going to be Empress.
When I returned to the castle I had found all the evidence I needed, and a plan completely set up to expose the Empress. Once I was safely in my room after climbing back in the window, I changed into one of the many dresses I had been given after pushing a package underneath my bed. I had one more thing that I needed to deal with before I do anything tomorrow.
I walked down to the tailors, four guards surrounding me. When I got down there, I asked for Tayah, the tailor that had made all of my previous clothes. She was one of the higher ranking tailors, which meant I met up with her in her private room where we discussed what I wanted. When she asked when I needed it, I cringed a tiny bit.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but I need it by tomorrow, around the afternoon,” I said. “I can help in any way you need. Getting materials, holding stuff for you, whatever.”
I could see her calculating the time it would take to make it, what materials she needed, the extra people she might need. She started bobbing her head, “Okay, I think it’s doable. I can have it ready by tomorrow at noon. And please go and rest, sweetie. I can tell you have already lost too much, and been up far too long.”
I wanted to argue but didn’t bother after seeing her expression. So I nodded and weakly smiled, heading back to my room, my guards surrounding me. Falling into my bed, I was so exhausted that I slipped into a dreamless sleep.
When I woke back up it was dark out, although I didn’t quite know what time it was. I got up off my bed and went to look out one of the windows in the room. I could see the stars in the sky, one moon full, and the other a crescent. I looked down to see three of my guards outside my window. I smiled slightly.
They had no obligation to send more guards, and yet they did anyway. I had handpicked these girls after seeing what skills they had, after seeing who they were. And now they were here, guarding me. Keeping me safe, even if I could take care of myself.
Right now all I could do was wait, so I did. I meandered around the gardens once the sun rose, visited the training area, and tried to keep busy. At noon a maid was sent to get me and tell me that Tayah needed me.
When I got there I was hurried over to the trio of mirrors and shoved into the jumpsuit that I had asked to be made. Once she had fitted it she started to slightly alter a few things. She was done in a matter of minutes.
“So, I don’t know what swords you’re going to use, but I have everything fit correctly, and you have to worry about shoes.”
I nodded. “Okay. Thank you so much, Tayah. I will pay you back for this one day.” Especially considering the gauntness of her face, and glazed eyes.
I changed out of the outfit, and back into my dress, taking the new jumpsuit with me. Once I got to my room, a guard reminded me that the strategy meeting was in half an hour. I changed into my new jumpsuit once I got back into my room, slipping on the black combat boots I had been given for the test, and braiding my hair tightly.
As the finishing touch, I grabbed the dual swords hidden in one of my parent’s old weapons stache until I had gotten them yesterday and slid them into the two decorated scabbards. The shing that each made as I slid them in was satisfying and made me smirk into the mirror. I looked like a warrior. And I was about to fight the Empress.
I walked confidently through the castle, keeping my strides even and getting looks from those I passed, my guards for once letting me walk on my own. As I walked into the meeting the people inside stopped talking, their eyes widening as they saw what I was wearing.
The jumpsuit was cobalt blue, like Cas’s eyes, and simple. The scabbards were covered in lighter blue jewels and the hilt of the swords were silver. Then there were also the boots that gave me an inch or two of height. I was a striking sight, especially as a princess whose dress code was almost exclusively dresses, with two swords and my striking eyes.
“Princess, I do believe what you’re wearing is against the rules, is it not?” the Empress asked demurely.
“It’s against your rules, Your Majesty,” I said mockingly. “But I believe your rules are irrelevant now.” I gesture for Rae to bring in Thunder, or Raiden as he would be introduced. He had been my parent’s apprentice at the apothecary and the only other person in the world who knew the poison’s recipe. “Especially considering she had her own son poisoned and my little brother killed.”
Everyone in the room gasped at my accusations. “I don’t believe-” the Empress was cut off as one of her advisers said, “Those are some heavy accusations, Princess. Can you back them up with any evidence?”
I nodded my head. “Raiden,” I pointed to him, “has records of all his customers, especially those looking for this specific type of poison. Where was the Empress in between 10:00 and 11:00 at night on the first day of the fifth movement of the sixth month?”
“I went out-” the Empress tried to explain.
“You went out to the apothecary Raiden owns and asked him for one Axima, the poison made by the Flame Lily. And he made it for you, where, somehow, you put it into the dessert we had gotten into our room about a movement later, probably hearing that I get desserts delivered to my room almost every night. I assume you thought it was only me eating them. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, Cas spent almost every night in my room, and it was always his idea to get all of the desserts. So instead of poisoning me, you killed your son. And then when I passed the test with flying colours, you sent your goon after my little brother. As you can see, the Empress’s normal bodyguard that sticks close to her isn’t here today. I killed him last night after I watched him slit my brother’s throat.”
The advisers started at that statement. “Yes, but this is all still speculation. Do you have any undeniable proof?”
I gestured for Raiden to give them his reports. He did so quickly as I spoke. “All of the proof of her whereabouts is there. This man is the only person who can make that poison, as it was made by Flame Lily and Maxima. They both worked at an apothecary where he apprenticed. He’s the only one that can make the poison, so he’s the only one that someone can go to get it.”
Once everyone had looked at the reports, which I know incriminated the Empress, the General finally spoke up. “Guards. Take the Empress into custody. We’re going to go further into this investigation.”
The Empress tried to fight as the guards seized each of her arms as they led her out of the room. Now it was time for all the other incriminating evidence to fall into place and watch as the Empress was executed for treason.
I watched her leave, stepping out of the way of the door as she passed me. Once the doors were closed, and the Empress’s yelling had finally disappeared, I turned back to the table. I took the Empress’s previous seat as a room of people watched me.
“So, are we going to get started?” I asked, perched in the throne-like chair.
The general, advisers and whoever else was there to help started to talk and strategize. For the next few hours, I sat at the head of the war table to strategize for a war that I was going to be fighting.
After the meeting concluded everyone filed out of the room, leaving me by myself as I followed slowly behind. My guards had already escorted Raiden to one of the investigation rooms, so they were able to escort me to my room, so I could change into more functional clothes. Then they escorted me to the training area, which I wanted to go to train a little bit with the dual swords. And also make a bit of a power move to show people that these swords weren’t just for show.
When we arrived at the training area, it was already filled with people. I walked in, the people waiting for space pausing to turn towards me. Their eyes flickered down to the swords on either side of my waist, surprised since I usually used knives. But soon enough someone volunteered to be my partner, and we were sparring.
I hadn’t trained as much with swords as I had knives, just because they were easier to sneak around and climb with, but I was still quite skilled with them. I had my partner at my sword-point in a few swift movements. We sparred for a few more rounds before I switched partners. And I repeated that for a few partners. I never lost.
After a little while of that, I assumed rumours of my skill with a sword, or two, would be cycling through the palace. Which is what I wanted. Hopefully, it would get out to regular civilians. I didn’t want them to fear me, but I wanted them to respect me for the skill I had. And maybe see that I wanted to use it to protect them, even if that was a long shot.
Once I was done sparring, I decided to head down to Tayah’s workroom, where I had asked a maid to deliver the jumpsuit, which I had sent a note for certain alterations to it. When I got there I found Tayah already working. I stood at the entrance until Tayah noticed me. Once she had she waved me over to talk over the logistics and such of the alterations. Once she had picked my brain about what I wanted she sent me off to ‘rest’, which I knew wouldn’t be happening tonight. I was too revved up after today.
When I returned to my rooms, there were books and papers on the table, ones I had asked the General to send over. They were detailing all of the battles we had fought against Rashain, as well as anything else recorded about them. For as long as I could I poured over the details of each paper, trying to find something I could work with as a weakness or advantage before I drifted off to sleep on the couch.
The next morning I was told that the Emperor had passed in his sleep, and many believe it was from the grief of losing his son. I was also told that they had uncovered enough evidence against the Empress that she was to be held in custody until a decision was made. I was informed that I was not allowed at the Empress’s trial when it was conducted unless I was invited as a witness to each person’s death.
As I was walking towards a meeting an adviser also asked me about funeral preparations for Prince Casimir, my little brother Alec, and the Emperor. I told the adviser that I would create a meeting for it and that I would make sure it was dealt with before the end of the day. So I went through the next few days dealing with a war, and funeral preparations.
As I wasn’t actually coronated, but I was going to be, I wasn’t given everything to deal with. But I was still given quite a lot, as dealing with civilians, and such wasn’t my forte so other advisers and officials were given the job. Soon enough the Empress’s execution was ordered, and my coronation was issued. There was no one else that could take the throne, and I was the only one able to do so. I also have proven myself through several meetings detailing what’s happening in my own empire and helping strategize for the war we are fighting.
I watched as the Empress was brought to the execution block in remnants of what used to be hers. She was still wearing a simple crown, and had a golden dress on, with gold covering her cheeks, eyes, and collar bones. She was going to be killed as an Empress. She would go out as nothing else.
Everyone turned to me, inspecting the bright blue dress I had in comparison to the former Empress. Two of our royal colours, worn by opposing Empress’s, one fighting for the people, and one fighting for power. And I had come out victorious, looking like a warrior, more of a protector than she would ever be.
I gestured to the executioner to continue, which was observed by those attending the execution, and they turned to watch as the Empress was placed on the chopping block, and a ceremonial sword was brought out. One reserved for important executions only.
I watched as the sword was brought down, and her head went rolling. Now I was the only one left. Cas was gone. The Emperor was gone. The Empress was gone. And so was anyone else who would have a claim to the throne, except me. I may not be part of the royal family by blood but I was part of this family by marriage. I’m the last person that holds the name.
Andronika Zosnua. Soon-to-be empress of the Zosnuan Empire.
On the day of my coronation, I took a stroll around the palace, reminiscing to the days when I had first arrived here. I watched the recruits train, remembering the time when I had seen my Head Guard, when I had known I needed her on my personal guard. I looked at all the places Cas and I had explored, sneaking around and climbing. Laughing. Being happy, even in the restrictive new life that I lived. I walked past the kitchen, where Alec and I had pretended to sneak sweets, even though I knew that the workers had let us.
I was whisked back to my room to change into my altered jumpsuit on my stroll. Once the jumpsuit had been put on a white cape was attached to one shoulder, and I put a sword on each side of my hips. Then I tied my boots as tight as I could. I watched in the mirror as half my hair was pulled into two braids that framed the place the crown would be put on my head. The half-up, half-down style left my golden hair flowing over my shoulders and back to about my shoulder blades.
Once it was done, a final check of my clothes and I was led out of my room to a hidden area near the entrance of the throne room, where the coronation was being held. After a few minutes, I was led out of the room by a guard, who dropped back behind me as we started into the crowd of people who parted to let me walk through.
The crowd watched me, inspecting everything about what I was wearing. Inspecting the combat boots that were functional instead of the common shoes worn by female nobility. Inspecting the simple jumpsuit with an intricate, blue, embroidered train, and the white cape clasped onto me with the silver fastenings sewn onto one shoulder of the jumpsuit. Inspecting the black cuff-like bracelets I wore, and the matching rings on each hand.
I kept my head held high as I walked, my steps confident and even. As I came to the steps I ascended them to stand with the officiator, and the stand that held the new crown made specifically for me.
The officiator made his speech before he started to ask me questions, whether I would sacrifice myself and those I loved for my empire. Whether I would be loyal to my people no matter what. Whether I would die for my people. I accepted each, willing to give anything and everything for my people. In Cas’s memory, for he loved his people so very much.
Then I was given a ceremonial dagger that I dragged across my palm, and the blood that welled was put into a bowl as the Book of King’s Blood was pulled out. I was given a pen that I dipped in my blood and signed on the page that was opened for me, where a story of my reign over the kingdom would be as I ruled and when I died.
Next, a tattoo artist was brought out, as there was a tradition to tattoo the symbol of our empire onto our chest. I had previously chosen one while Cas was still alive, but as a tribute, I combined the one Cas had chosen and mine. I decided to make the process public because I wanted to show my citizens that I wasn’t going to hide anything from them. Assuming they would get that from seeing me getting tattooed.
I had to take off my cape, pull my arms out of my sleeves, and lay down on the chair that the tattoo artist had brought out. The first piercing of the needle was somewhat painful, but soon I was numb to the feeling.
It was a few hours before the tattoo artist was done. Before the tattoo was covered I was to kneel before the officiator and get the crown put on my head. It was covered in rubies and diamonds, the crown silver instead of gold. It was a mix of the cool Cas, and the fiery Andronika.
Once the crown was put on my head I stood, turning to my people, “I hope you all are happy with the ceremony thus far, and I can’t wait for the reception. As you all know, I used to be a commoner, one living in poverty and disguised as a boy. Then the prince found me and married me. What you don’t know is that the Empress was plotting my death the moment I married him. But when I did not die and Casimir did, she targeted my little brother. Unfortunately, the former Empress succeeded in killing her son, and my brother, but underestimated me. I am a commoner, yes, but that does not make me weak. It does not make any of you weak. Which is why I invited both nobles and commoners to this coronation as equals.”
There were cheers from the commoners I had invited, in all manner of formal clothing, and some from the nobles, although most had expressions of begrudging acceptance. “What most of you don’t know is that we are losing a war against our rival country. They are fighting to take over our lands, and they have a mysterious force helping them. Now, I am no diplomat, but I am not expecting to win this war through peace talks, and appeasements. I am expecting to win this war through strategy, battles, and, quite possibly, magic. I am a strategist, a warrior, and, coincidentally, I am also magical.”
As I said that my hands erupted in flames, keeping them small in my hands as the candles around the room had flames a few feet high, before dimming to nothing, and then going back to normal. The crowd gasped. “I will be taking both men and women into recruitment, as well as magical beings. I am also going to be changing the law that magical beings have limited rights, such as joining the military, joining a trade, whatever. They will be given all of the rights of any citizen. We need more people to aid in this fight, we cannot do this alone. Most of all, we need magic on our side. With that said, I am the Empress. I am ready to make a difference, and I am ready to fight for my people.” I raised my hand in a fist. “For Zosnua!”
My cheer was followed by many in the crowd and lining the halls. “For Zosnua!”
With that said, I let the tattoo artist cover the tattoo, then I put my arms back into my sleeveless jumpsuit, and put my white cape back on, turning back to my citizens the Empress. I marched down the stairs, hands at my sides, the train of my jumpsuit and cape trailing behind me. Guards followed a few feet behind, keeping a barrier between me and the people following me to the ballroom, where the reception had been held.
I pushed the doors open as I got to the ballroom, turning to my citizens. “And now, to celebrate the crowning of a new Empress and the new reign of a warrior and magical. I will finish this war and I will help all those I can. Now, to celebrate.”
As the people flooded into the ballroom someone started a chant of “Long live the Empress! Long live the Empress!“, which carried until everyone was cheering.
I waved my hand for the cheering to stop, and gestured for the maids to hand out the drinks. As soon as I got the hand on one I said, “To Zosnua! To the end of the war! To the liberation of all!”
It was met with quite a lot of cheers, although not everyone did, mostly nobles who didn’t benefit from the liberation of the people. And the party started.
I met with as many people as I could, although it was impossible to meet with everyone. Soon the party dwindled out, and I left, the tattoo aching, thanking those that had helped me with preparations and saying goodbyes.
When I entered my room I had taken off my cape and was about to untie my boots, but a girl around my age stepped out of nowhere and I drew one of my swords.
“Hi. Sorry to disturb you, but I sort of need your help destroying the tyrannical reign of your enemy, and the dark forces he has been using.”
This is the whole of Call Me Empress. If you liked it, check out the ‘support me’ button to buy it. It is only published in ebook format and I think it’s $3.99 Canadian.
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This is going to be a series of short stories following powerful, diverse women from different universes who unite to defeat a big bad. So stay tuned for the next short story!
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