In his first life, he had no name.
His duty was to protect and obey the crown prince of the kingdom, and his entire life was dedicated to that singular cause. His mind and body were trained to the point where the crown prince did not even need to speak for his will to be obeyed.
He did not know who he was, or where he came from. Nor was he allowed to ask such questions.
Countless people who offended the crown prince died by his hands. Many for absurdly mundane reasons, such as not bowing to the overbearing prince 'properly'.
The 'shadow' sometimes wondered if their life was truly so worthless. So worthless that it was decided entirely on someone's whim—someone who probably won't even remember their existence a few moments later.
In the end, though, even his own ending wasn't any different.
The shadow wondered if this was his 'retribution'.
He died not because he could no longer obey the will of the prince, nor because he was incompetent.
No, he died because the princess of a superior kingdom stared at his masked face for a little longer than the insecure crown prince liked.
As his head rolled off, away from the guillotine, the shadow idly wondered if he would be meeting those people he had killed for the prince. Will they hate him? How does it feel... to be hated? How does it feel... to receive someone's emotions?
Curiously enough, though, he did not meet those dead souls. Instead, he lived once more.
Not in the same body, nor in the same world, even. 'He' was now a baby girl in a world that was completely different, yet quite similar to his own.
The roads, the carriages, the swords and the shields, the nobles and the commoners... everything worked just like he remembered. Their names may be different, but their goals remained the same.
Except 'he' was no longer a nameless shadow, but a genuine princess of the Osmanthian Kingdom.
The shadow still did not know the love of a father or mother, but he was happy. No longer was he forbidden from 'feeling', be it a positive or negative emotion. Nor was there anyone to stop him from being anything but a puppet.
Freedom... tasted good. It had a flavor that he never could have imagined, both intoxicating and addictive.
Not only did he learn how to talk and feel, he even dared to dream. Not for anyone else, but himself.
His dreams were small, perhaps many would even call them insignificant. Learning how to dance, paint, or simply gazing at the stars for an entire night, lost in his own thoughts. All 'useless' things that he never would have even dared dream of doing before... now seemed so 'easy'.
And so, he slowly adapted to his new identity, and accepted himself to no longer be some nameless nobody, but 'Princess Emilia' of the 'Osmanthian Kingdom'.
Perhaps it was due to her aloof nature from the first life, or her status that separated the princess from the rest, or even a combination of both, but she remained alone and without any companions, even in this life.
Princess Emilia did not receive much love from her queen mother, nor did she receive any favor from her father, the king. But she became well known throughout the land for her multitude of skills and stunning beauty.
All mere byproducts of her dreams, but the people didn't care about that.
Of course, Emilia didn't care for their attention to her ever-growing talents, nor did she desire to attract the gaze of the king and the queen. She simply wished to live a fulfilling life, a life full of happiness and joy. A life... without regrets.
Her endless pursuit of knowledge and skills was simply her way of pursuing this 'happiness'.
As for the fame brought by her beauty, she did not care for that either. Instead, she feared that one day her father the king might send her away as a bride to another kingdom, and her life of freedom will end as either the pet of some prince once more, or as a runaway princess in hiding. The latter being far more likely, as she was no longer willing to resign herself to fate.
So, not only did she not care if her body was beautiful, but sometimes even wished she had been born ugly, just so she would be unfit to be married to a prince.
That all changed when she met 'her'.
The baker's daughter, Maeve.
Maeve... was certainly a pretty girl, even by Emilia's standards. Her commoner clothes and boyish haircut did little to hide her charm.
But what hooked Emilia's heart was not her face, but her smile that was as bright as the sun, and her cute laugh that tinkled like little bells in her ears.
To Emilia, she personified happiness. And from that moment on, Maeve... became the center of her world.
Emilia revolved around her, like an insignificant planet would revolve around the shining sun, simply hoping to bask in as much of her brilliant light as she could.
Even the stubborn heart of the baker's daughter could not resist the sincere pursuit of the beautiful princess.
Maeve later revealed that she too fell in love with the princess at first sight, though she did not dare express it at that time. And from that moment on, Emilia became proud of her beauty. If not for her beauty, perhaps she would not have been able to attract Maeve at all.
At least, it would not have been so easy, and she would have missed so many happy moments together with the love of her life.
After meeting Maeve, she could no longer continue living in her own isolated world, uncaring of others. Instead, Emilia began to dream once more, this time not just for herself, but for the two of them together.
But no longer were her dreams small and insignificant as before, no, they were as grand and regal as her love.
With the support from her lover, Emilia dared to dream of one day succeeding her father as the queen, and marrying Maeve to lead the kingdom to a new era. An era of prosperity, equality... and happiness for all. Only this way would she be able to make her lover truly happy, after all.
To that end, the two of them worked hand in hand. Raising her reputation, training her in diplomacy and court matters, and getting her involved with various decision-making cogs of the kingdom.
And against all odds, the day finally came. It came too quickly, in fact, and Emilia almost could not believe it when she heard that the king had passed away in his sleep. They said that it was due to a sudden outbreak of his old illness, which took his life before anyone had the time to react.
And the one to inherit the throne would be... his only remaining daughter — Emilia!
And so, ten years after she met the love of her life… the day came that Emilia would finally be coronated as the 'Queen of the Osmanthian Kingdom'.
Emilia believed that she—who was loved by most of her subjects, and was now going to become the queen—had truly obtained all the luck in the world. She thanked every star in the universe for the favor she had been bestowed with, perhaps a little too soon.
Her lover's dream was finally about to be fulfilled. Once Emilia became the queen, no one could stop her from marrying Maeve. And in the future, they would lead the kingdom into an age of boundless prosperity... together.
That day, the happiness in Emilia's chest was boundless. So boundless, in fact, that it really couldn't be contained anymore. It escaped along with her bright red blood, leaving her with only emptiness and despair in her now pierced heart.
Her anguish came not from the impending death, but from the treachery of the one she trusted the most in her life.
She loved Maeve so much… so much!
She loved her so much, that when Maeve asked her to wait until her coronation to consummate their love, she really waited an entire decade! And whenever Maeve asked her to let her handle all sorts of matters, not once did Emilia wonder if something could go wrong.
Today, however, she realized how stupid she was. If her first life's tragedy was at the hands of fate, then this life's tragedy was truly her own doing!
Because when their future queen was stabbed through the heart on a balcony facing thousands of citizens, what rang in her ears were not cries of outrage and terror, but condemnations… of herself!
"Death to the villainess!"
"Kill the murderer!"
"Kill her! Kill her!"
Maeve didn't even bother to answer her lover's dying plea, and let Emilia collapse helplessly on the marbled floor in a pool of her own blood. The pure white coronation gown of the princess slowly turned the same shade of red as her once vibrant hair as she stared at the cold and indifferent expression on her lover's face in grief and disbelief.
And as her vision faded away, Emilia's despair slowly turned to rage. A burning fury that she had never felt before in her two lifetimes seemed to tear through her soul, and the ringing of a thousand bells seemed to echo along her thoughts.
"Why am I always the one to dedicate my entire life to someone, only to be thrown away like trash in the end?!"
"Why is it always me? What did I do wrong?!"
Her soul seemed to float through the void as these now pointless questions continuously rang through her otherwise empty mind.
It reminded her of the first time she died. Then, too, she went through the same process. But at that time, she had felt a strong pull, and her soul was eventually encased in a fetus that later became Emilia.
The pull this time was weak, too weak. Emilia wondered if she would just become a wandering soul. Perhaps she would be as hopeless after her death as she was in her life.
"No! No! If there is a next life, I shall never be the one to fully dedicate myself to anyone ever again! And if I like something, it must be grasped tightly in my palm, never to escape! NEVER!"
Her soul seemed to be in agony as she burned in resentment. "Even if I become a ghost, I must go back to haunt Maeve!"
And as if her resentment had manifested into a form, a dark shadow embraced her soul gently, and the agony vanished. Emilia felt relieved for only a moment, before doubt filled her mind at the strange phenomena. This hadn't happened the first time she died, right?
After quenching the fires of vengeance that had been burning her soul, the shadow allowed her to float out of its embrace.
It slowly took the form of a human girl, a petite one with fair skin, long raven black hair, and emerald green eyes.
She smiled cheerfully, as if to her Emilia's disembodied soul was no different from a passerby on the street. "Hello!"
And with a wave of her hand, the formless soul slowly changed shape to look like 'Emilia' before she had been killed.
Even the white gown she had been wearing for her coronation was back. Although it looked like it was all immaterial, but it still felt shockingly detailed, no different from the real thing.
The raven-haired girl smiled. "I'm sure you're wondering who I am, right? Well... I'm the one who found your wandering soul after your first life and allowed you to reincarnate. Happy to see me?"
Emilia was stunned for a good few minutes, having never expected such a thing. She didn't even know if it was true or not, but it's not like she had any way of knowing.
"Why…?" The redhead felt an exhaustion deep inside her soul. This was a thought that had been plaguing her far too often on this day.
The emerald eyed girl tilted her head with a smile. "Oh, my reason for saving you, is it? Nothing special. You can think of it as me being curious, I suppose." She chuckled. "Even though your life was so unjust, you did not hold any resentment at all. Strange! So I thought I shall give you another chance and see how you do."
The strange girl flicked her dark hair, giving Emilia a somewhat taunting look. "I just wanted to see what will happen. But I never expected you to change so much! Your life wasn't even so bad this time around, right?"
Seeing how Emilia remained silent, she clicked her tongue. "Tsk tsk, a princess, huh? Of course, I'll admit that the ending was in poor taste, but still, compared to your first life… it was nothing much, right? Hey, say something. I'm talking to you!"
Emilia stared blankly at the mysterious girl before giving her a helpless smile. "Were you disappointed to know that I'm not some pure soul without negative emotions? I just... had nothing to be happy about in my first life. When I died, there was no reason to be resentful. It's really not like I'm so great that I can't feel it… But this time, this time I—"
She took a deep breath to calm herself, feeling the pain deep in her soul rise once more. "This time, I have lost so much! I lost… everything. And I don't even know why!"
The dark-haired beauty blinked innocently. "Ah, is that so... Hm~ Well, what can we do about it now, though? Would you like... revenge? Ahaha..."
Emilia did not hesitate at all before nodding, a throbbing pain coursing through her soul as she recalled what happened. "Yes! If I can, I want to go back and ask her why she did it! Why! And... no matter the reason, I shall punish her myself for what she did to me! And those people too, how can they call me a villainess?! I have done so much for the kingdom! So much!"
The strange girl answered her with a smile full of mirth. "Ohhhh… that sounds pretty villainous to me, you know~ How could you accuse those poor people? They probably just don't know any better, right? And if you truly loved that girl, isn't it natural to forgive her? Heh... Well, what do you think? Anyway, as for sending you back or anything… why should I?"
Her every word stabbed directly at Emilia's deepest wounds, and the redhead felt a sense of despair envelop her as she shook her head, barely managing to keep herself together. "I-I don't care if I'm a villain or a hero! P-Please… you…"
But looking at the indifferent face of the seemingly younger girl, Emilia's resolve deflated all at once. In the end, a helpless sigh escaped her lips as she looked away. "I thank you for helping me earlier, but please... don't toy with me anymore."
Emilia tucked a strand of red behind her ear, and the mysterious girl wondered if she was trying to make herself look pitiful to get her favor, but the redhead's next words went quite contrary to her expectations.
There was a bitter smile on her lips, with both regret and resignation dripping from her usually chilly blue eyes. "I'm… tired… If there's no hope for me, then let me go. And if there is any use for this useless soul of mine... do as you please. You already gave me another chance to live, which was more than I deserved, right? It's... entirely my fault that I wasted it."
The raven-haired narrowed her eyes suspiciously. How could this girl give up, just like this? Did she... make the wrong choice? No way.
She grinned brightly, her expression turning incredibly pleased. "Eh? You sure?! You know, I wanted to eat your soul earlier, but it won't digest well if I don't have the permission. That's why I was wondering how to trick you, but are you really going to let me have it just like this?!"
There was a self-deprecating smile on Emilia's beautiful face as she shook her head. It was as if all she ever existed for was to be used and discarded.
In her first life, it was the prince who used her as a disposable bodyguard and then had her beheaded for little reason. And in her second life, it was her own 'beloved' who stabbed her through the heart, though she probably never loved her at all.
And now, finally, it was this girl who came to her in the loneliness of the void. Presumably also the one who gave her the second chance, all she wanted was to devour her soul?
Emilia smiled. "Do as you wish. Go ahead…"
The raven-haired girl could feel a throbbing in her heart as she looked at her expression. Even she couldn't tell exactly how she felt at the moment, but all she knew was that her choice... definitely couldn't be wrong.
And so, the two of them stared at each other blankly for what seemed like hours, neither making a move, each with their own thoughts.
Emilia truly did wish to know why Maeve betrayed her, and she also wished to have her vengeance.
She truly yearned to have another chance at life, too. Another chance to be happy, perhaps.
But she did not have any right to ask this girl for another favor now, and she had nothing to bargain with, after all.
The black-haired girl finally moved towards her, and Emilia closed her eyes as she saw the girl open her mouth and move towards her head.
She wondered what it would feel like when her soul was consumed. Would it hurt more than it did when she died? Would it hurt deep inside her soul, even more than when she was forsaken by the one she loved so much?
Emilia... looked forward to it.
But in the end, nothing happened for too long, and when Emilia opened her eyes in confusion, she saw that the mysterious girl was already looking at her with a bored expression.
The raven-haired girl scoffed. "Took you long enough to notice, huh? Are you in such a hurry to vanish?"
Emilia shook her head in denial. No, how could she be willing? It was simply that she had no choice.
The mysertious girl grinned. "Anyway, since you're such a revenge seeking selfish villainess now, how about you work for me? You should be happy to know that I'm also known as 'The Villainess System'! Aren't we a match made in heaven?!"
Emilia opened and closed her mouth repeatedly as she tried to comprehend the strange girl's words. In her two lifetimes, she had never once heard something so absurd. "You're the... what…?"