Chapter 68 – Who Will Wear The Red Dress? (1)
Lately I had the feeling that someone was following me. I knew exactly who it was.
It was Rashta. My husband’s concubine.
“Very well. Then the concept of the ball will be a masquerade.”
“It was very well-received in the previous emperor’s reign, so we’re sure everyone will enjoy themselves.”
“But with everyone covering their faces, security has to be—”
“Your Majesty? What is it?”
The culture minister looked at me with a puzzled expression. I turned my head and apologized for my rudeness.
I had seen Rashta down the corridor. She was not looking at me, but I could see her talking to her maids.
This behavior had been going on for days. It was not harmful, but it subtly nagged at me. When I looked over to Rashta again, the director stared at me and spoke carefully.
“Your Majesty, do you want to say something about Miss Rashta?”
“Wasn’t she here yesterday?”
“Yes, she was.”
He looked alternately between me and the other woman. I bit my lip. Yesterday, when I was working on another assignment, she was nearby. It was the same situation with another minister two days ago. In the eyes of the different ministers, it seemed like a brief encounter, but from my point of view it was no coincidence.
As soon as I continued to stare at her, the culture minister gave a laugh.
“I hear she’s been about, but don’t worry too much, Your Majesty. She is only a low-born concubine and doesn’t know royal etiquette yet, but it will get better.”
If I showed concern over someone stalking me, why did that make me the oversensitive one? I took offense at his attempt to soothe me, but I masked it.
The minister walked down the long corridor, still looking between me and Rashta. I waited for a few moments for him to finally disappear, then asked Sir Artina to bring Rashta to me. She continued to pretend to converse with her maids and looked at me in surprise when the knight approached her. After a moment’s hesitation, she walked over to me.
“Wh-why are you calling for Rashta?”
Rashta approached with a frightened face, while her two maids flanked her sides. There was no need to waste time on idle conversation, so I simply went straight to the point.
“Why are you following me?”
“Don’t say that you haven’t been. I’ve been seeing you around for the past several days.”
Rashta blushed and twisted her fingers. I couldn’t see it, but I could guess she was wiggling her toes as well. Her maids looked around with frightened expressions, as if I would yell at the slightest provocation. I ordered the maids to go elsewhere as they were making the atmosphere uncomfortable, and they moved away hesitantly.
Rashta spoke in a careful voice.
“Duke Elgy says you are a typical empress.”
“Rashta is not from the nobility, and there are many things I do not know about. Sometimes things don’t make sense even when Baron Lant explains them to me…”
“So I want to learn from you, Your Majesty.”
Rashta looked up at me with imploring eyes.
“I want to be like Her Majesty the Empress. But…I don’t think you’ll want to teach me etiquette…so I wanted to learn from a distance.”
Whether she realized it or not, she had said something correct. I wouldn’t teach her etiquette.
“If you want to learn, tell the Emperor or ask Viscountess Verdi to teach you.”
Rashta winced as the Viscountess Verdi’s name was brought up. Although the viscountess was her lady-in-waiting, they did not seem on good terms at the moment.
“What I want to be is like you, Her Majesty. Duke Elgy said that you are the perfect empress.”
“And so you want to follow me.”
“I won’t bother you, so why don’t you pretend not to see me? I’ll be at a distance and you won’t notice me. Well?”
“I wouldn’t have called you if I didn’t notice you.”
“I’ll be more careful.”
I suddenly remembered the time when Rashta imitated the way I spoke in front of Grand Duke Kapmen and the other guests at the New Year’s special banquet. The memory of it chilled my spine. It was not morally wrong for her to try to watch and learn from me, and as a runaway slave she likely wanted to rush into the upper echelons. However, I hated the woman who took my husband and imitated my mannerisms.
“I don’t know why you got that idea, Rashta.”
“Sovieshu is in love with you, and you are completely different from me.”
“You also have Duke Elgy’s friendship. Why do you think you need to follow me?”
After forcing myself to be polite to her all this time, I had no more patience for civility.
“If you follow me without me noticing, then I will not be able to stop you. But if you see you with my own eyes, I will tell the knights to remove you. So do not come near me.”
For the next few days, it was as if Rashta really was invisible. Although she cropped up from time to time, the frequency with which she did noticeably decreased. To an outsider, it may look like I was overreacting to her, but she wisely avoided me and there was no need to send a knight to remove her from my presence.
But I didn’t feel any better.
Time wore on, and finally the day of the public ball arrived. It was a dance where all people, regardless of their social status, could attend. Commoners and nobles only met on few occasions. When the public perception of the nobles became low, the Imperial court held a ball to boost approval. While the mood was not bad under Sovieshu, it was still important to maintain goodwill, and what I selected to facilitate this was a masquerade ball.
I wore a dress entirely made of vivid red fabric and placed a plumed white mask on my face. My identity as empress wouldn’t be hidden as I would be among my guards anyway, but I still wanted to dress in the spirit of the occasion.
“Everyone will be so amazed.”
“I wish you wore this color all the time, Your Majesty. Your skin tone matches this shade of red very well.”
“They won’t be surprised. There will be all kinds of beautiful costumes at the masquerade ball.”
“But it’s hard to wear a color as strong as this, Your Majesty.”
“Is that a compliment?”
I entered the ballroom exchanging light jokes with the ladies-in-waiting, but it soon turned out that their jokes were all too literal. Shortly after entering the ballroom, everyone was amazed at my clothes.
It wasn’t just wasn’t the kind of amazement the ladies-in-waiting expected.