The chill of early winter stirred the fine hairs on the back of her neck. Though Isabella couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t just the apprehension. Her resplendent white wedding train whispered sadly against the marble floor as she made the inexorable slow march towards Sigmar’s High Altar. A sense of impending doom settled over her. Try as she might to squash it down into her stomach, the undeniable feeling of dread surged up over and again.
Dmitri had once been an attractive match. In her girlhood Isabella had stared longingly past the other young nobles assembled at Father’s court, hoping to catch Dmitri’s eye. He was tall and darkly handsome, with easy smiles and a sonorous yet gentile voice. She had dreamed that one day Father would accept the overtures to a marriage. The Drazkharovs were, after all, a powerful house and worthy in-laws to the Alptraum dynasty.
Such were the idle dreams of youth, she reflected ruefully. Since the War everything had changed. The Drazkharov Rebellion had turned her beloved Dmitri and his family into bitter enemies. Until today the last time Isabella had seen him was at court, the very day before the Rebellion had ignited and war had consumed the realm.
And now Isabella found herself the symbol of the rebel victory. The cavernous Cathedral of Sigmarheim seemed impossibly full, packed to the buttresses with the great and noteworthy of the Empire. They were a panoply of ruffs, lace, capes, collars, crests and vivid grandeur. All had come from across the realm (no small number grudgingly or against their will) to see Princess Isabella married to the young Dmitri Drazkharov. This union, it had been declared, would heal the wounds of civil war and usher in a return of peace, fealty and trust between the great families. Isabella found herself the final transaction in a peace treaty. Though the terms had been meticulously dictated by the victors.
Isabella glanced to her father as they walked arm in arm towards the high altar. His frozen expression masked the abject humiliation that she knew he must feel inside. The Drazkharovs had used every aspect of this wedding to parade their victory over the House of Alptraum. The toppled Emperor now leading his daughter to the arms of the triumphant conquerors, with all the world here to bear witness. Father’s abdication, and Isabella’s betrothal to Dmitri, had been the culmination of decades of politicking and schemes. She would sit the Imperial throne of her forebears, and through their puppet monarchs the Drazkharovs would hold the realm in their despotic grasp. Yet her sorrow was not for her own fate; her pity was for the aged and weary old man who walked beside her. Trying to hide a sideways glance, she saw a brow that now looked bare without the Imperial crown resting upon it. Had Father always been so small, so wan? Isabella thought that she could see tears glistening in his eyes. She looked away and stifled her sorrow. She strained to recall the giant of her childhood whose mighty hand had once ruled an empire.
Near the front of the congregation was her brother. It was almost impossible to believe - he looks even worse Father! The savagery he had witnessed and hardships he had endured through years of war now weighed leaden against Karl’s soul. The defeat had aged him by twenty years. His hair was shot with grey and his skin lined with grief. Surrendering his armies and the capital to the rebel generals had crushed his spirit.
Isabella tried to catch his gaze, fervently wishing to see a glimpse of the lost Karl of her youth – the one who would have leapt up, who would have fought like hell itself, who would have sprung some chivalrous plan that would thwart all the Drazkahrov ambitions in a single bold stroke. But the dejected Karl she saw before her had no fight left in him. He had not even spoken out when his claim to the imperial throne was quietly set aside. Nor had he done ought but murmur his acknowledgement at the news that his younger sister would marry the enemy against whom he had once fought so fiercely. The new government had bestowed upon Karl the dubious honour of “Protector of Kustenland and Ebenland” - an office that was in truth a poisoned chalice. It made him responsible for maintaining the peace in these recently annexed and still fractious territories.
As she reached the altar steps to stand beside her betrothed, Isabella’s new family were there to greet her. Isabella the girl had been dazzled, as many had, by their dark majesty and exotic charm. Now, the events of the civil war had unveiled the villainous Drazkharovs. Isabella the young woman and soon-to-be-Empress saw, too late, the old façade stripped away. Their courtesies, etiquette and sycophancy of the old days were now abandoned for the gloating and crowing of their triumph.
Up close, they were a menagerie of mismatched characters; tall, rigid Viktor – he nodded courteously and feigned a smile to her, though it barely managed a flicker across the eyebrows and a flash across the lips – austere as stone. Beside him, hunched and hideously battle scarred, grim-faced Ivan leered with a hungry atavistic gleam from his one good eye. Waiting at the altar to meet her was oily Boris, a grasping rodent of a man, looking faintly absurd in the ostentatious confection of a gold and crystalline crown that had been commissioned to mark his appointment to the holy office of Grand Theogonist. In the background a score of others, the prodigious offspring of House Drazkharov- lackeys all - jostling behind their seniors. They were a nest of insidious vipers trussed up to masquerade as regal peacocks.
But in their midst, cold and statuesque, was the architect of the Drazkharovs’ ascension to power. The grand matriarch herself, Anastasia Drazkharov. She was a majestic vision in flowing crimson silk, bodice studded with garnets and rare black opals, all trimmed with finest ermine and topped with a spiked lace collar that framed her face. She, at least, seemed the very image of nobility. Though it was less the gown she wore and more the bearing she carried with it. She held the kind of expression that was at once haughty yet somehow oddly maternal - in a stern sort of way - a look that only a true queen could carry off with such natural grace and ease. A most befitting countenance for she who had been dubbed The Mother of the Realm by her conniving brood.
The ceremony passed as some half-remembered dream. Looking into Dmitri’s eyes, Isabella saw only emptiness. A blank gaze, vacant of expression. There wasn’t a thought in his head or a word on his lips that hadn’t been planted there by the Drazkharov elders. He was a splendid marionette, mouthing honeyed words and oozing allure. It that had wooed her younger self, along with so many others. Yet now the memory of it alone turned her stomach. But the Drazkharovs had played a long and patient game in their bid to charm the realm and garner the crown’s trust in their ruthless quest for power. How had she - how had everyone?! - been so blind to the charade?
As Grand Theogonist Boris lowered the Imperial crown to rest heavily upon her head, Isabella’s thoughts raced as she considered the future. She wouldn’t become the puppet monarch that they intended! She would resist the Drazkharovs wherever she could, slow and stymie them when she could not openly defy them. They may be powerful, but she was still Empress! And there were those who were quietly loyal to the House of Alptraum, and more still who loathed the Drazkharovs. Across the seas her eldest brother, Johann, had taken refuge in the colonies along with other nobles who had managed to escape the fall of Sigmarheim. In the Durom Mountains the stalwart warriors of King Morgrim still held out against a Drazkharov siege. Morgrim had long been an ally of the Empire and a friend to the Alptraums. There were still glimmers of hope. She forced herself to believe it.
Newly- wed and newly-crowned, Empress Isabella and the wedding procession passed out of the cathedral doors with great fanfare. Outside, bitter night had lowered its cloak upon the city. There were hints of the odd snowflake skittering across the frosty sky. In the flickering torchlight she saw streets lined with soldiers wearing Drazkharov livery. Isabella shivered to see their ghastly shadows dance and coil, tormented in the light of the wavering flames. The cobbles echoed back the crunching of hobnails and of armoured plates as the Knights of the Grimholt assembled an honour guard for the new Empress. Faceless, encased in lobstered steel, swords glinting in the firelight- these dread knights were the iron fist that had crushed the Imperial army mere months before. They were a bleak reminder to those who dared to forget the might of House Drazkharov.
High above Sigmarheim, from every tower and spire, every rampart and bastion, flew the re-designed Imperial standard. It proudly displayed the ancient Imperial symbols coupled to the grim arms of the House of Drazkharov. It blazoned a new world order, forged in blood and battle, now cemented with Isabella’s marriage and coronation. As she stepped into the enveloping darkness of the Imperial carriage, gazing out through the glass panes upon a Drazkharov city, Isabella could not help but feel doubt creep back into her heart.