Chapter 2 – Early Signs Of An Affair (1)
“Other things to talk about? Your Majesty, I did not suggest anything unusual. As the owner of the Imperial Palace, I am only asking if you brought in an injured woman. It’s never happened before.”
Was I overdoing it? I had my usual tone and gentle smile on my lips. I spoke casually in order not to appear overbearing, as if discussing the New Year’s Day preparations.
Sovieshu looked markedly uneasy, however. He seemed to want to avoid the topic as much as possible, and the atmosphere became increasingly uncomfortable.
“Are you asking because you’re only curious?”
Sovieshu looked at me suspiciously, and I blinked at him.
“I wouldn’t be asking if I wasn’t curious.”
“She was accidentally caught in one of my traps, and I brought her here so she could be treated. She’s not too injured, so I’ve had her put in a room with a maid to look after her.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t call your ladies-in-waiting again.”
Sovieshu resumed cutting his steak, the knife cracking like a woodpecker and echoing in the dining room. He usually had so much to talk about, but this time he remained silent.
“What did His Majesty say?”
When I returned to the west palace after dinner, a group of my ladies-in-waiting who were gathered in my room anxiously approached me.
“He…he didn’t say much.”
Countess Eliza’s eyebrows lifted at my lukewarm answer. She didn’t seem to believe me.
“Then you would not be so sullen.”
“It’s alright. Talk to us, Your Majesty. That way we can be prepared.”
“He said the woman was accidentally caught in one of his traps. There was no mention of her being a runaway slave or anything like that…”
Come to think of it, I didn’t even get a name.
“He said he was taking care of her, and he seemed unhappy to keep talking about it.”
As soon as I finished, Laura stamped her foot with a resounding thud. The other more genteel ladies gave her a look, but Laura was already pouting and not paying attention to them.
“Your Majesty, do you know that’s exactly what my father was doing at the beginning of his affair?”
Laura raised her voice and Countess Eliza said her name in warning. Laura, however, had already gone this far and wouldn’t stop.
“That’s what it looks like. Those are exactly the early signs of an affair. Why wouldn’t he want to talk about it?”
The ladies scolded Laura for talking too bluntly, but they did not deny her words.
Countess Eliza finally took it upon herself to shoo the ladies out when I was looking depressed, then sat me in front of the dressing table and started combing my hair.
“The Emperor is a man who likes to hunt. He is doing this because it must seem like a miracle to him to find a beautiful woman caught in his trap.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Before…my mother told me. Even if the Emperor takes another woman as his lover, I should not let myself be hurt. There are so many cases like that, and I shouldn’t expect it to be any different.”
The middle of Countess Eliza’s forehead creased. Countess Eliza had a rare marriage of love to her husband, and to such a person, my mother’s advice might sound ridiculous.
“I didn’t say this in front of the other ladies, but I am a little prepared. Even if the Emperor welcomes a slave woman as his concubine.”
“But when he doesn’t speak to me…I feel a little down.”
Countess Eliza set the comb down on the dresser. I looked up at her and asked her honestly.
“Whether he has ten or a hundred concubines, they’re still concubines and I’m the empress. He and I never loved each other to the point that we would die for each other…so theoretically, we should still be fine. Yet why do I feel so empty?”
Countess Eliza reached out to embrace my head and shoulders. She held me still for a moment, then withdrew before speaking.
“Even though yours is a political marriage, you’ve been together since you were children up until marriage. It’s no surprise that you’re upset. I would feel the same if my child were to bring someone else in as their foster parent. I would feel upset if my parents took another child and favored them because they were more beautiful. And I would feel upset if my best friend brought someone else in and was more friendly to them. It’s a natural emotion.”
“Then would the Emperor feel that way if I had another man next to me?”
Countess Eliza picked up the comb and started brushing my hair again, and I took her silence as a “no.” After a moment, she finally spoke.
“To be honest, I don’t know, Your Majesty. The more powerful your love is, the harder it is to look around.”
So I had no choice but to deal with my heartbreak by myself. I forced myself to smile.
“I see. I’m sure I’ll feel better soon. She and I won’t have to meet each other…”
“Yes. Even if the slave becomes a concubine, she still cannot enter into high society.”
Being a slave didn’t mean one couldn’t rise in status. It was also the case for the innocent who became slaves due to collective punishment caused by their family members. Every year, the country restored a certain number of slaves to commoner status, but it was never the case for a runaway slave.
Being a slave meant that one had a life sentence for some crime they committed. Because a runaway slave escaped without paying the price, they were considered the same as an escaped prisoner. An extra charge of guilt was added, and a runaway slave was considered the dregs of society to aristocrats. No matter how much Sovieshu lavished the woman, there was no opportunity for her to debut in high society or for me to run into her. I nodded my head and gathered myself.
Yes, Countess Eliza. It was natural that I felt empty when someone who had been my husband for a long time had a sudden interest in another lover.
But I couldn’t get more emotional now. No matter if he had another woman, he couldn’t cut me off. There was only one Empress in this empire after all.
“The Emperor goes to see the slave day after day?”
“I heard he even brings her food himself.”
“He’s acting so calm too. The audacity.”
“He even called a court doctor to treat her leg.”
There were voices whispering between the bushes. Although the Imperial Palace gardens had flowering walls higher than one’s head, I could still hear the gossip that filtered through. I designed this garden myself, and deliberately placed a nest-shaped swing chair in an area not frequented by many. It was like my secret place. I didn’t bring my ladies-in-waiting here, and so people said things aloud without them noticing me.
‘About a week has passed…’
I closed my book and placed it on my lap. As Sovieshu’s interest in the slave woman grew, so did the stories. Everyone’s attention was on the woman who managed to capture the Emperor’s interest. Wasn’t it fortunate that she and I never ran into each other?
The next time I had dinner with Sovieshu, I didn’t ask about her. Instead I acted as if nothing had happened, and brought up the New Year’s preparations.
I decided to compromise at this point in time. Ignorance. Pretend I didn’t know.
But coincidence came out of nowhere and confronted me.