Episode 2- Part 2. The Tyrant
* * *
After riding for a while, Askaar stopped his horse by a lake. It was his last rest before entering the western region.
She slid off her horse, feeling too dizzy to keep her feet on the ground. Ashria staggered and fell to the grass in a heap.
She felt nauseous and her head was pounding. Being on top of a wobbly horse for hours had taken its toll on her body.
I’d never been in the mountains like this before, and I didn’t have the energy to look around.
“Is this really how we’re going to die?”
Askaar did not hide his displeasure at Ashria’s weakness. She was sweating profusely, and she didn’t look well at all.
Ashria didn’t even have the energy to respond to his words, so she threw away her dignity and lay helplessly on the floor.
‘I’m going to die…
A breeze blew past her head, carrying the scent of grass, but she had no time for such things.
Ashria seriously wanted to ask if she could ride in the carriage behind her.
‘Is this a form of harassment….’
As Eton quenched his thirst by the lake, he saw Ashria sprawled out on the grass, and he sidled up to her and l*cked her sweaty face.
Ashria laughed weakly at Eton’s unwarranted display of affection and pushed him away.
“Ugh… I’m sorry, Eton. I don’t have the energy to play with you right now….”
I sidestep Eton’s face, which he’s been hitting me with, and he withdraws with a sullen look on his face. Askaar watched them with an impassive face.
As they rested by the lake, the knights and carriages that had been following them arrived one by one. The arriving knights and servants turned to see Ashria lying on the grass, but none of them made any outward signs of distress.
She rested for a while, and only when the nausea passed did she have time to take in her surroundings.
Green trees and a large lake. And colorful wildflowers wafting along the shore. The water of the lake was so beautiful, it looked like a molten blue gemstone. The sunlight sparkled and broke on it, and Ashria’s eyes widened in wonder.
To everyone else, it was just an ordinary lakeside, but to Ashria, it was the prettiest thing she’d ever seen in her life. No wonder, since all she’d ever seen were palace gardens and dark cellars.
Unable to hide her excitement, Ashria approached the lake and stretched out her hand. A startled Askaar leaped up and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck.
Ashria let out a shriek of surprise as she was caught unawares. Then Askaar says menacingly.
“You’re going to kill yourself again?”
He must have thought I was about to throw myself into the lake.
“I just thought it was interesting…
Ashria blinks like an idiot, then shakes her head slightly.
“It’s not like that.”
“Well, only if the Empress ever told me the truth.”
Ashria glanced at the lake with a slight frown.
“I was just curious and wanted to touch it.”
What’s interesting about a lake when it’s all over the place just outside the capital? Askaar narrowed his eyes, trying to disguise the sincerity in her words, then remembered that he’d been confined to the basement and let out a small gasp.
“Don’t think for a moment that you’re going to succeed in self-determination.”
Askaar said, letting go of the nape of her neck.
“I’ll push every knight in this place into the lake to get her out of there.”
Ashria nodded slightly and reached out toward the lake once more. The emerald waters slapped against her.
The water was colder than she expected, but the color was so beautiful that she couldn’t resist touching it. The lake was like a gem.
Ashria’s eyes sparkled, her face curious as she drank in the water. Eton, who was standing nearby, watched her curiously. Unaware that Eton was watching her, Ashria fiddled with the water, then, curious to taste it, she cupped her hands together carefully scooped it up, and clicked her tongue.
“It just tastes like water.
The color was pretty, I thought it would taste pretty too.
It was while she was happily playing by the lake that someone splashed water on Ashria.
She cringed in surprise and wiped the water off her face. Whoever it was had soaked her clothes.
She dried herself off and opened her eyes to find Eton looking rather amused.
“Eton, you scared me.”
Ashria pouted and splashed Eton with water, who giggled in amusement and happily welcomed her splashes.
Watching the two seemingly get along, Askaar ruffled her hair. He couldn’t understand why she was flirting with Eton, let alone flirting with me physically.
Feeling unnecessarily offended, he called for the Eton, signaling the end of the break.
The knights and servants were disappointed that the break was shorter than expected, but none of them could show it in front of Askaar.
Askaar clicked his tongue at the sight of her, drenched from playing with Eton.
“At this rate, you’ll be marrying Eton sooner or later.”
The words were meant to be mocking. But instead of taking offense, Ashria merely lifted the corner of her mouth.
Even more offended, Askaar said nothing more.
He had a long way to go and no time to be grumpy.
With those last words, Ashria climbed onto Eton once more.
* * *
Eton slowed his pace even more than before as if he could sense Ashria’s discomfort atop him. Ashria, desensitized to such things, didn’t notice, but his master, Askaar, could not help but notice.
This is why it’s almost as if they’ve been hit in the eye.
It’s not even funny. Askaar glared at the back of Eton’s head, his brow furrowed.
She wiped the annoyed expression off her face, realizing that she was the one who had forced them to get together and that it was ridiculous even to think about it.
After a day of traveling, the west was a large metropolis, far more advanced than Ashria had expected.
Of course, it was nowhere near the capital of the empire, but it was amazing how far they had come with the once-barren land.
When the Emperor arrived, the lord of the manor jumped up and down to greet him.
Ashria, out in the open for the first time in her life, was busy looking around.
“Are you looking for a place to die?”
She heard a sarcastic voice ask. Askaar was still looking at her with his fat face.
“…No, I’m just curious.”
“There are many things to be curious about the Empress.”
Seeing Askaar’s reaction, Ashria closed her mouth. She didn’t want to provoke him unnecessarily. She didn’t want to come all the way to the West and be the butt of the Emperor’s jokes.
Looking down at her somewhat arrogantly, Askaar took a big step forward. Ashria stared at the tip of her shoe, half dejected.
“Empresses aren’t supposed to be that cute.”
She almost laughed out loud in disbelief at his next remark. Barely able to contain her laughter, she asked cautiously.
I was speechless. Did she want me to wag my tail at my father, the man who r*ped me, after a lifetime of being locked in a basement and experimented on?
What the hell…
Whether he knows it or not, Askaar still speaks in a girlish tone.
“All you can do is make a fat face like a dying, sickly chicken.”
Because I am a dying, sickly chicken.
But Ashria had no intention of letting him know that.
Ashria replied insincerely, cautiously approaching him in case he was angry with her, and then kissing him on the cheek, her eyes blank and emotionless.
Askaar’s expression didn’t change much in response to the kiss. He just stared at her, still cold, still fierce.
“What are you doing.”
She couldn’t believe what she heard. Her eyes are full of annoyance, her mouth is full of saliva, and he’s lying. I guess I must be Askaar’s daughter after all.
He just stared at her, his eyes still cold. Ashria was the one who felt embarrassed.
Even though she didn’t have many emotional ups and downs, her face became very clear as she stared at him.
Finally, wanting to get away, Ashria quickly wipes her lips and backs away, and Askaar moves closer to her.
“I don’t know if you’re hiding your expression well, or if you have nothing on your mind.”
Ashria stared at him, uncomprehending.
“I don’t usually make that kind of eye contact with someone who has r*ped me, sodomized me, and forced me to have sex on a horse.”
“…What kind of eyes did I give you?”
“The eyes of annoyance.”
Ashria let out a short groan as the truth hit home.
“Annoying, sleepy, hungry, uncomfortable.”
“Not all of those are emotions you’d display in front of a r*pist.”
They certainly weren’t. What kind of crazy person in the world could turn a blind eye to someone who had just treated me like that?
If I had to face the man who had done this to my family, I’d have a hard time not lunging at him.
At least he knows he is a r*pist, Ashria thought, rolling her eyes.
If she was honest, she was tired of having this conversation with him right now.
Resentment. Yes, I might have resented him if I’d had more time on my hands, if I’d had a life to live.
But right now, for Ashria, such feelings were nothing more than self-destructive. She couldn’t spend the little time she had left on a horse or a r*pist.
If she was destined to die, she’d rather experience at least one more new thing than resent him for the rest of her life.
“Empress, you are my only blood.”
So what, you treat your only blood relative so mercilessly? Ashria smirked and said nothing in response.
“So don’t be such a jerk.”
For a moment, a laugh escaped Ashria’s lips.
Fun. Yes, this is all just the Emperor’s way of having fun.
I knew it, but it’s not funny to have it confirmed once more like this. Ashria’s expression hardened slightly, and she answered weakly.
“I’ll try… I’ll try.”
Hollow words, of course.
Thankfully, Askaar didn’t say anything more.
* * *
The day of the public execution has arrived.
From the sounds of it, it would be the first time the Emperor himself would be in attendance, and there would be a lot of attention.
There was a certain amount of fear that came with the idea of a public execution, but Ashria didn’t seem to think much of it just yet, merely trotting along behind Askaar, tired from having to wake up earlier than usual.
The public execution site was a large clearing in the village. A huge crowd sat around the center of the clearing. Their faces were grim as if they had been forced to come together.
Ashria sat in the chair that had been prepared for her and watched the captured criminals and Askaar on the dais.
His black uniform, ornately embroidered with gold thread, suited him well.
The maid holding the liangshan beside her spoke cautiously as she stared at the Emperor in the distance.
“They said they’re only executing condemned criminals today.”
I wonder what she’s trying to say.
Ashria tilted her head, not sure what the big deal was about executing only condemned prisoners.
The handmaiden hesitates, then adds.
“…It might be uncomfortable for you to see.”
Suddenly, the sword at Askaar’s waist came into view. He’s going to gather this many people and execute them straight away?
I looked around and saw that there were quite a few pregnant women, old people, and small children among the people gathered in the clearing. This means that many people are not fit to watch the execution.
“But is it okay for small children and pregnant women to watch? I think those people would be more uncomfortable than me….?”
Ashria asks innocently, and the maid laughs softly as if she’s embarrassed.
“That’s true, but… It’s his Majesty’s orders.”
“My father’s orders?”
“Yes, all people must watch the public executions, every last one of them.”
For a moment, Ashria’s expression hardened slightly.
“I apologize, Empress. I don’t dare to speak of your Majesty’s wishes.”
The maid lowered the liangshan she was holding slightly, looking genuinely embarrassed. Then she blocked Ashria’s view.
“I’m afraid it would be uncomfortable for you to see, Empress, so I’ll lower my liangshan slightly, just for the moment when you carry out your sentence.”
Under the beating sun, the people sat huddled together with nothing to block their view. Ashria felt an indescribable discomfort.
“It’s okay. Aren’t they all bad people anyway?”
“Yes, they are. They’ve all committed sins.”
Ashria stared blankly at the sinners on the dais.
I never thought I’d have to face the death of another human being before I did. It was a thrill.
She had heard that her mother, Lourane Antkal, had been publicly executed in this manner, but Ashria had not seen it, as she had been under scrutiny at the time.
The handmaiden was worried about Ashria’s desire to watch the execution. No matter how many times I told her it was okay, she lowered the sunshade to block her view.
Soon enough, the execution began.
Standing in front of a crowd of people, Askaar listened impassively as the knight at his side recited the sins of the prisoners, then swung his sword at each one. There was no hesitation.
Some in the crowd cried out for the prisoners. May you be honored to die at the hands of the Emperor.
The crimes were many.
R*pe, survival m*rder, repeatedly refusing to obey orders during forced labor.
The razor-sharp blade took life with a single gesture from Askaar. The once pristine dais was now stained with blood.
Fortunately, the prisoners’ mouths were tightly gagged, muffling their screams.
However, the fountains of blood that gushed out of their bodies whenever the sword was withdrawn were certainly a bit hard to watch, as were the bodies that slumped forward helplessly like dolls after their breath had been cut off.
Every time the emperor swung his sword, some people cheered, while others trembled in fear.
The maiden with the parasol also flinched whenever the light of life was extinguished.
The maiden with the parasol also winced as the light of life was extinguished, and the parasol swayed slightly.
By now, the crowded execution hall had become a bone-chillingly noisy place. In the center of it all sat Ashria, her face as impassive as ever.
The dead sinners were wrapped in straw bundles that looked like they’d been woven from straw and carried away.
As she watched, Ashria thought to herself.
“I wonder if I’ll end up wrapped in straw like that.
If I can’t torment him like this now… there’s no way he’s going to give me a funeral.
After a self-deprecating chuckle, Ashria realized that as long as she was buried in a sunny spot after death, she wouldn’t have any wishes, so she thought she should write a will in advance for the day she died.
Of course, there was no guarantee that my wishes would be honored.
“I hope they don’t throw me to the wild beasts.
It would be a shame if I became food for the wild beasts, but I wanted to go out like a human being at least one last time.
I wanted to be buried like everyone else after death because I hadn’t been able to live like a human being during my life.
Maybe even this was a luxury for me.
Ashria imagined herself being buried by Askaar, the only one left after her departure. But the fantasy didn’t last long.
It was too awkward, to say the least. It seemed more realistic to her to have Eton bury her.
As I continued to fantasize about this absurdity, the execution was finally over.
Ashria rose from her seat, her maid’s voice urging her to enter.
* * *
Even during her stay in the West, Ashria had to share a bedroom with Askaar. The lord of the place was puzzled to see them sharing a bedroom, but what could he do, he was the emperor.
Thankfully, the lord was too ambitious to shove his daughter into Askaar’s bedroom. And, to his chagrin, Ashria’s as well.
It’s probably the first and last time in my life I’ll ever be in the West…
Sharing a bedroom with Askaar made it difficult for her to step out of the bedroom, let alone go for a walk.
‘I would have loved to walk down the main street of the city, with all its tall buildings, breathing the dry western air into my lungs….’
Ashria looked wistfully out the window.
It was one thing to not know that a cake was soft and sweet, and another to know that it was fluffy and sweet.
It was one thing to be locked in a basement, waiting to die and another to take a step or two out into the world.
Just a few days ago, I thought I wanted to die, but now that I’m out in the world, I want to blend in with normal people’s lives for once.
It wasn’t until I was locked in my room, staring out the window, that I realized it was the majority of my day.
The day before I was to return to the capital.
Somehow, an opportunity arose for Ashria.
It wasn’t enough that the lord had brought out the expensive liquor he’d been saving for his last night, but he’d also invited dancers from other nations to the manor.
Of course, there was no way Ashria was going to be a part of that.
For the rest of the night, she was left alone in her room. Freedom, in a word.
Ashria gingerly looked out the window. Luckily, it was two stories high, so she wouldn’t have to climb down.
“…There must be knights outside the door.
Looking down at the floor, she paused for a moment.
Wondering if she’d fallen and broken a limb, leaving her a patient rather than a spectator.
It was hard to tell since she wasn’t high enough to be able to breathe cleanly.
But her deliberations were short-lived.
“I might as well try something.
She grabbed a robe from the closet, pulled it on, and scrambled to the window.
Luckily, the manor’s outer walls were lined with tough vines, and she was able to clumsily climb down through them without falling.
The prickly vines stung her pale palms, but she didn’t care, and she gingerly stepped toward the ground.
Her hands were mangled, but her footing was solid, and she glanced toward the ballroom, where the sound of music could be heard in the distance, before scrambling to her short legs and making her way out of the manor.
* * *
For the first time in a while, Askaar watched the dancers in the center of the ballroom, his brow furrowing in annoyance.
He wouldn’t have paid them any attention if it weren’t for the Bordeaux wine, which was no longer available.
Askaar had always been indifferent to women, and the n*ked dancers were like taxidermied prey. As if the dancers weren’t bad enough, the lord’s daughter, smiling softly at him and refilling his glasses, was also adding to his discomfort.
The lord’s daughter, who appeared to be about Ashria’s age at best, was giggling and running her fingers through her hair as if she were thrilled to be sitting next to the emperor. And yet, Askaar wasn’t even responding to her.
The woman gesticulated with a blatant display of her heaving br*asts, and even her private gestures were delicate and flirtatious.
For better or worse, she was like an aristocratic young lady who was open to s*x; for worse, she was like a prodigal daughter who was taught manners.
“It has been my dream since I was a child to dance with Your Majesty once.”
She chatted incessantly, making sure he didn’t get tired, and poured him a drink.
Askaar had only intended to attend the banquet until the Bordeaux was empty.
It was unfortunate that the precious, nearly impossible-to-find wine was disappearing at such a rapid rate, but the scent of the women’s perfume made him want to linger.
He drank as quickly as his glass was full, and when he saw the bottle was empty, he rose from his seat as if there was nothing more to see.
“I am tired.”
The surprised lord stood up as well, gesturing to his daughter.
“Your Majesty, the girl will escort you to your room.”
Shaking off the woman clinging to my arm, he strode out of the ballroom with great strides. At the lord’s command, several of the dancers chased after Askaar but were met with icy coldness.
The intoxication he’d gotten from their persistence was quickly replaced by irritation. Askaar quickened his pace, remembering Ashria waiting patiently in her room.
‘Have my tastes changed for the worse….’
He clicked his tongue slightly, drawing a picture of his daughter’s scrawny figure.
Ashria’s body, with all of her perfect ribs exposed, was more appetizing than any of the women with their voluptuous bodies.
The sight of Ashria’s body, with all of her perfect ribs exposed, was more appetizing than any of the women with their voluptuous bodies, and I realized that my tastes had become strange, even to myself.
‘Why the hell does that bitch not gain weight no matter what I feed her….’
He opened the door, blaming Ashria for not gaining weight, but…
Ashria, who he thought would be sitting quietly and waiting, was nowhere to be found.
* * *
Sneaking out into the center of the city, Ashria marveled at all the people milling about late at night.
She had heard that Askaar had lowered taxes on the commoners since he came to power and that he had begun a program to relieve the poor in earnest.
‘It’s late and everyone is walking around without a care in the world….’
According to the book, just 10 years ago, there were many vagrants on the streets, and women and children should refrain from going out late at night, but it didn’t look like that at all.
They’re lowering taxes and doing programs for the poor. For a moment, Ashria laughed in disbelief.
“…It doesn’t fit.
To her, Askaar was a very unruly, unforgiving man.
Ashria pressed her robes tighter around her and blended into the crowd with the night air.
It was a strange feeling. To be able to go where she wanted to go on her terms was a freedom she’d never felt before.
‘If I run away like this forever….’
But then she remembered her own dark eyes and hair and quickly realized.
“They’ll catch me soon enough.
She knew Askaar would be furious when she got back, but she loved the feeling of freedom for the first time, so she walked and walked and walked, and then she ran as fast as she could.
Her slender legs could only take her so far, and her lungs ached from the ragged br*aths that filled her throat to the brim. Still, she laughed out loud as she collapsed on the hard stone floor, wondering what was so good about it.
She didn’t know how much longer she could keep walking and running.
The scene before her was a night market with all sorts of food on sale, even though it was late. The chatter of voices and the pungent smell of street food assaulted Ashria’s nostrils.
She paused and scanned the stalls.
From golden brown chicken legs to meat skewers and sweetened condensed milk fruits. There was so much delicious food she hadn’t seen in the palace.
Just then, her stomach rumbled. Ashria swallowed dryly and dug through the pockets of her robes with a grimace. But of course, there was no money. She looked at the ring in her hand and briefly wondered if she could sell it.
Gathering her courage, Ashria walked up to a vendor selling meat skewers and softly asked.
“Do you think I can buy a skewer with this ring?”
The owner looked at the shiny gold ring in front of her and rolled his eyes at Ashria’s row, ring, row, ring, row, ring.
“Do you happen to have any change for that?”
Then she realized that she wasn’t a commoner or a lowly noble, so he didn’t take the ring.
Ashria didn’t realize it, but her robes, made of lustrous, fine fabrics unlike the ragged robes worn by commoners, gave away her status as a lady of the house, even though she covered her face. Moreover, her gnarled hands and skinny wrists were those of a woman who had never struggled.
Ashria nodded, her face grim.
“You don’t have to give me my change back, so if you’ll just let me buy a few skewers with my ring, I’ll be happy to….”
The vendor flatly refused and placed a skewer in her hand without a word.
“People like us can’t even go and sell them if we get such a precious ring.”
“I can just give the skewer to the lady out for a drink tonight, so please take it.”
Embarrassed, Ashria carefully took the skewer, hiding her blush.
She clutched the skewer with both hands as if it were a precious jewel and bit into a juicy, tender piece of meat. The spicy, sweet sauce to hide the meaty flavor was quite strong, but the spices were still stimulating and addictive, a change from the palace food.
Ashria smirked and gulped down a few more bites.
Even though the meat skewers were less than silver, she enjoyed them immensely and ate them sparingly.
Suddenly, her expression turned a bit melancholy as she wondered if she would ever get to eat these skewers again.
“Today will be the first and last time.
Ashria glanced around at her surroundings.
The night market was bustling with people.
From families to couples on dates.
Most of them had smiles on their faces.
Ashria watched the people busy chatting, feeling refreshed. Children and adults alike seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Standing among them with her face sunken low, she felt like a foreign object.
I loved the warmth and bustle of people up close and personal. I felt like I could stand here for the rest of my life if I had to, with no thoughts of my painful past, no thoughts of Askaar.
But strangely, the longer I stood here, the more I felt empty as if the center of my chest had been hollowed out.
Ashria idly nuzzled against her chest, but then she dropped her arms helplessly and turned her back on the night market.
I felt like I shouldn’t be here anymore like I didn’t belong here.
* * *
Ashria walked and walked, aimlessly. She looked closely at the faces of each person she passed.
There was a disconnect between them and me.
‘It’s like I’m the only one living in a different world….’
The clock tower chimed midnight. Ashria smiled bitterly, thinking that Askaar would have noticed my absence by now.
‘I don’t want to go back.
I’d rather die as I am.
Ashria began to roll her eyes, wondering if there was a better place to die.
At that moment, a large shadow fell in front of her.
She didn’t have to look up to recognize the shadow’s owner.
“What are you doing?”
His voice was low and deep with anger.
Facing him ended her outing, perhaps for the last time in her life.
Ashria spat out a small apology. There was no reply. Instead, a vicious hand grabbed her wrist.
His grip was strong as if he were dragging an animal, and she staggered and struggled after him.
They didn’t speak for the rest of the ride back to the lord’s castle.
The silence was tense, hanging precariously like a thread on the verge of breaking.