The Imperial Palace was buzzing over the news of Laura’s confinement.
The gossip was that the Emperor’s punishment for the Empress’ lady-in-waiting was an outright expression of his love for Rashta. It was her first unofficial competition with me, and she had won. I didn’t hear this with my own ears, but my ladies-in-waiting were furious and told me about it.
“I should have been there!”
A lady-in-waiting who had bathed Rashta exclaimed that were she present, she would have kept me away from the slave.
“But I think the Emperor really likes her.”
“I used to have admiration for him, but this time he didn’t even listen to the Empress’ words.”
Despite their anger, the ladies-in-waiting were worried about the future.
“It’s only been a few days since the Emperor met her. I’m worried.”
There was nothing I could do in this situation.
Sovieshu and I acted like nothing had happened when we ran into each other at the central palace. I focused on my work and tried to forget what had happened that day. When I was alone in my room, I remembered Sovieshu’s cold gaze and felt the bruise in my heart, but it ached less when I kept myself busy.
When Laura’s imprisonment finally ended after five days, I went up to the tower to retrieve her myself. I asked the other ladies-in-waiting to bathe Laura in my bathroom and bring her some soup. I also ordered Laura’s favorite cake.
A secretary sent by Sovieshu came to me to deliver a message.
“His Majesty the Emperor wants to see you.”
What could it be? I nodded and turned to Countess Eliza.
“When the cake is finished, tell Laura to come here and eat. Then let her know she can rest for a few days before she comes back.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
I turned and nodded at the secretary, and he quickly led the way. The atmosphere changed as we went east, even though it was surrounded by the same wall. Perhaps it was because the palace was styled in completely different ways.
I was concerned that I might encounter Rashta again, but she was nowhere to be seen in Sovieshu’s bedroom.
The Emperor was sitting by a small round table.
“You called me.”
Sovieshu stared at me silently as I approached him. His eyes seemed full of things to say.
“What can I do for you?”
I spoke first, and Sovieshu seemed to hesitate for a moment and pressed his lips.
“Your lady-in-waiting, the one who was imprisoned–”
“Laura. The daughter of Marquis Tarital.”
“I heard you took her back her from her prison.”
“She’s my lady-in-waiting. She suffered for five days.”
Sovieshu looked even more displeased.
“Did you have to?”
“Are you asking me if I had to take care of a woman that was punished?”
Sovieshu could clearly hear the mockery in my voice.
“You know what I’m trying to say. In other words, you retrieved the lady-in-waiting yourself, even though you knew I would be offended. No?”
Partially. I suspected that Sovieshu might be offended…but I also thought he might have already cooled down after five days. Perhaps after everything had settled, I could let him know that his punishment was far too much.
“I suspected you might be displeased.”
“But now you’re taking care of her? If you had any thought for me, you would have sent her away. What is the emperor if the empress cares for the people he punishes?”
“It is not right to send someone away after they already received their punishment. Besides, what she did was not out of line.”
“Calling people filthy?”
“She was trying to stop someone from pulling on my clothes. A scolding would be enough.”
The more I spoke, the stonier his expression became.
“So, you will keep the lady-in-waiting?”
“It is entirely up to me to decide who is my lady-in-waiting.”
Although Laura may want to quit working in the Imperial Palace, I was going to keep her for a while. Being punished because of a runaway slave was enough to make her an outcast of high society. If I let her go, she would have no protection, let alone against Sovieshu. As empress, I would use my name to safeguard her.
Sovieshu sighed and turned away.
“I am tired of arguing with you. Can’t you just be obedient to me for once?”
“The empress does not have to bend to the emperor’s will.”
“Continue on like this, and you won’t even be able to compare.”
Compare? …With whom?
He stared right at me, then he put on a wry face.
“I see that you’re tired. Please retire for the day. Go back to and take care of that misbehaving filly.”
After Empress Navier left, Sovieshu sighed and rang a small bell on the table. The door opened, but it was not a servant who walked in the room.
“Since when do you work?”
At Sovieshu’s puzzled expression, Rashta smiled sheepishly.
“I feel like I’m a burden when I’m not doing anything.”
“So you’re going to be working now?”
Rashta spread out her arms joyfully, and Sovieshu grinned.
“You can’t even go around by yourself.”
Serving the Emperor was regarded as a great honor among nobles, and was a position that even those without titles coveted. But Rashta wanted to work for the Emperor because she felt like a burden… She had no idea that the nobles would strangle each other over this position.
“What an unusual person.”
Sovieshu chuckled at her oddity. For Sovieshu, there had only been two significant women in his life so far. One was his mother, a great empress, and the other was Navier, the current empress. He was familiar with the empress’ imperial education and even studied together with Navier, but he thought the clumsy Rashta was incredible no matter what she did.
“Come here and have a snack.”
Sovieshu rang the bell again, and the servant who had been waiting impatiently at the door came in.
“Pumpkin pie. Very sweet. And bring wine. A light one.”
The servant left to fulfill the orders, and Rashta clapped her hands and exclaimed “Pumpkin pie!”
“Do you like food that much?”
“Not just any food. How many people have never eaten a bite of a pumpkin pie in their life?”
She smiled innocently like a child, and Sovieshu found he couldn’t pull his eyes away from her.
“The Empress doesn’t even respond to jewelry, no matter how expensive it is. But you’re still happy even with the little things.”
“Doesn’t she like jewelry?”
“She does. But she doesn’t have a lot of emotional ups and downs. She only expresses herself in small portions.”
Rasta frowned and gave a sigh.
“She grew up beautifully and doesn’t know the harsh world. Anyone would take jewelry for granted.”
“It’s not that the Empress is wrong, it’s just that she has a lot of wealth. Even if you got her a big gem, it’s not a surprise…”
“That’s true. Oh my god. My prey is smarter than I thought.”
Rashta didn’t know whether he was making fun of her or not, and she blushed and puffed out her lips.
“Tch, you always call me prey.”
“Because you’re the prey I caught in my trap.”
Rasta laughed at his light joke, then settled to speak to him again. She twisted her fingers together and ventured forward carefully.
“You said you’d make me your concubine…”
“The Empress doesn’t seem to know that yet…”
Sovieshu nodded and gave her a reassuring smile.
“We’re in no hurry, so let’s take our time. Your legs haven’t completely healed yet.”
“I’m not rushing, but…I had a hard time when I met the Empress before. I didn’t know how to introduce myself. And what if it happens again…”