Four months ago, in the Makaeri Palace.
“Elfreda, you should go to Machi and become the queen.”
Elfreda was dumbfounded by the words that came out of nowhere. The first thing that was said to the visitor, who had come with an excited heart to the sudden summons, was not the usual greeting.
The Empress asked gently to Elfreda, who still looked dazed.
“Do you know where Machi is?”
She had heard of it. It was an island that took over a week to reach by ship, even from the capital’s newest port, and unusually for a neighboring country to Makaeri, it was not their vassal.
In other words, it meant that Makaeri had already attempted to invade and failed.
The fact that an irreparable deep chasm had formed between the two countries was something that no one in this world was unaware of. However, above all, as an illegitimate daughter, she was not eligible to be the princess that should enter this peace marriage.
“That place, I heard it’s where Princess Serena is supposed to go…”
Seeing the Empress’s expression quickly turned harsh when her own daughter was mentioned, Elfreda quickly lowered her head. It was rash of her to mutter without thinking.
As she blamed herself inside, she could hear the Empress’s stern voice.
“As you know, Serena’s coming-of-age ceremony is next spring. I want her to have it under my wing, but the Emperor is rushing this marriage.”
Then, the Empress, with a rather affectionate look, smiled at her and gently stroked her head.
“You are a rightful princess of the empire, too. There shouldn’t be any problem. No one will find it strange with you going in place of my daughter.”
Despite the affectionate attitude, the words reflected her true feelings. Elfreda’s expression was saddened at the words that distinctly distinguished Serena from herself.
At one time, until eighteen years ago, she was also the Empress’s daughter.
Born as an illegitimate child, she was left abandoned after her mother died shortly after giving birth. The Empress, who had been unable to conceive, adopted Elfreda. However, not even a year later, as if it were a lie, the Empress became pregnant, and she was naturally abandoned after the birth of the Empress’s biological daughter.
Not only by the Empress, but everyone in the Makaeri Palace despised her and treated her with contempt.
For the next seventeen years, Elfreda constantly sought some affection and attention from the Empress. Nonetheless, the Empress treated her coldly, as if the time spent treating her like a daughter for only a year was a mere illusion.
After her biological daughter was born, Elfreda seemed to be nothing more than a flaw in her husband’s past.
As time went by, the Empress only grew to despise her more and more.
“Moreover, considering the age difference between you and the King of Machi, it’s right for you to go.”
“…They probably won’t like me there.”
Elfreda cautiously spoke with a wary look.
“Machi probably wouldn’t want the Queen to be an illegitimate child.”
“The Emperor will take care of that. You don’t need to worry. Just keep your mouth shut, and there won’t be any problems.”
The voice seemed to lower slightly as if irritated by the retort. Elfreda instinctively lowered her head.
“…I apologize. I overstepped.”
“Good that you know.”
The Empress smiled at Elfreda with a dignified expression.
“When you go to Machi, you must behave properly. After all, you’ll be representing Makaeri. How dare the Makaeri name be dragged down by those pitiful creatures when they only know how to be pitiful?”
“I will do my best to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
“Yes, it must be so.”
Only then did the Empress’s expression finally change to satisfaction.
“Well then, you may leave. I have an important engagement.”
Elfreda was about to silently lower her head and leave the parlor when someone burst into the room and forcefully pushed her aside. Even though her delicate body staggered as she was shoved, the person who pushed her didn’t even look back and ran straight to the Empress.
The Empress, upon seeing the sudden guest, rose from her seat with a bright face, seemingly unconcerned about Elfreda.
Soon, a cheerful voice came.
“Our Serena, what if you fall running like that?”
“Hey, it’s okay. I won’t fall. I was a little late, right?”
“No, no. You’re not late at all. You’ve come at the perfect time.”
“I brought some delicious snacks to have with Mother during teatime. They’re freshly baked by the head chef.”
“As expected, only our Serena thinks of this mother.”
Amidst the cheerful conversation, the ladies-in-waiting busily prepared for teatime.
Elfreda, sitting on the floor, looked at them with a blank face. Although they were in the same space, she felt alienated, as if in a different world. Of course, it wasn’t jealousy or any empty emotion like that. How could she dare harbor such feelings toward a mother’s own biological daughter?
It was just that…
“Aren’t you leaving?”
The sharp voice pierced Elfreda.
As the Empress and Serena glared at her with displeasure, Elfreda quickly got up, lowered her head, and left. From the distant parlor, the harmonious laughter of Serena’s giggles and the Empress’s gentle laughter played together like an ensemble.
More than when the Empress had told her to marry the faraway Machi instead of Serena, Elfreda felt a deeper pain in this moment.
The wish to be a mother’s daughter was even more absurd than her wish not to marry into Machi…
Elfreda realized this once again.
A few days after hearing about the marriage, Elfreda received notice that all preparations for her departure to Machi had been completed.
She boarded a ship, accompanied by numerous attendants and an enormous amount of gifts.
However, despite the lavish arrangements, she felt nothing but unease throughout the journey to Machi. It wasn’t just the sorrow of leaving her homeland for a distant country, nor was it the awkwardness of receiving the extravagant treatment she had never experienced from the ladies-in-waiting.
It was the uncertainty of her future in Machi, even if she managed to cross this perilous sea route safely.
The purpose of this peace marriage was said to be the alliance between Makaeri and Machi.
While spices unique to Machi were popular worldwide, Makaeri, despite being a powerful empire in the East, was unable to obtain them. It wasn’t because they were far apart.
One of the countries that the first Emperor Gunnar of Makaeri, her grandfather, failed to conquer was Machi. This was because Machi was among the countries notorious for the strait on the sea route from Makaeri to Machi.
The strait was notorious for its rough and dangerous waters, and despite several attempts, the first Emperor had not achieved any significant success in conquering it.
That alone was enough to make Makaeri and Machi bitter enemies.
Regardless, it might have been fine to an extent.
The problem was that a few years ago, the previous King of Machi, in an attempt to aid a neighboring country that had been invaded by Makaeri, set out on an expedition with his prince and perished in battle.
Already, Machi had scorned Makaeri as barbarians for invading their land, but with the loss of both the king and the prince, the national hatred pierced the sky.
Following this, the nephew of the late king, who ascended to the throne, severed all ties with Makaeri, eventually leading to Makaeri offering the first gesture of reconciliation and proposing a peace marriage.
‘…What a desperate situation.’
As an illegitimate princess, it didn’t matter how she was treated or discarded in Machi.
Despite being known as the Empress’s eldest daughter in public, everyone knew her true origins. Would Machi truly remain ignorant of this fact until the end? And when the truth came out, how much more suffering would the despised barbarian queen have to endure?
The superficial position of being the queen brought her nothing but anxiety and worry, not joy or excitement.
In any case, Elfreda Makaeri safely arrived in Machi after about nineteen days.
“Welcome. I am Marchioness Magnum, who will be serving the Princess from now on.”
When she arrived at the palace, the expression of Marchioness Magnum, who came to greet her, was anything but friendly despite the empty words.
Sensing that her future life would be extremely challenging, Elfreda smiled without revealing it.
“Pleased to meet you, Marchioness Magnum.”
“I will escort you to your quarters. Please come this way.”
As Elfreda followed Marchioness Magnum, she made an effort to take in everything in the palace.
It was a country with a vibrant culture and a strong military, a nation that had rarely fallen under the hooves of the world-devastating Makaeri.
Consequently, the dignity of Machi, which possessed national power comparable to that of an empire, was evident throughout the palace. It was a clear contrast to the somewhat lacking grandeur of the Makaeri Palace, which was vast but lacked a certain aesthetic appeal.
She was almost mesmerized as she looked at the palace.
“Is it because she’s a barbarian? She’s gawking around, not knowing where to put her eyes.”
“The Makaeri Palace is nothing but grand in size, lacking any elegance.”
“Well, one wouldn’t expect any artistic sense from a barbarian.”
The murmuring of the ladies-in-waitings’ voices resonated sharply in Elfreda’s ears.