Lies and Secrets

“Halt. State your name and business.”

The gruff-looking man in front of the gate to the Imperial Villa stopped me at the entrance. Hardly surprising, since the Villa served as the living quarters for all Imperial Consorts. It would be more worrying if they weren’t on guard. Naturally, I had an invitation, so I was unworried. I glanced at the man’s face. Most of it was obscured by a large helmet, but based off what I could make out, he was not one of the people that had formed the Emperor’s security detail at the concert.

“Glint. I’m here to see Rosalind.”

“Family name?”

A strange question to ask, but it made sense in context – if I happened to belong to the nobility, particularly if I was from one of the more prestigious families, it was likely that I had authorisation to enter. The fact that I was nameless did nothing to help my case.

“None. I’m an orphan.”

“Bah. Another commoner fan? Begone with you. The Imperial Consort Rosalind is not for the likes of you to ogle.”

“She’s expecting me. I have her express invitation.”

“Ha. As if I’ve never heard that one before. Begone, unless you want to be arrested.”

“No, really. She’s an old friend. She asked me to come here.”

The guard sighed and placed his hand on the handle of the sword at his side.

“Look, don’t make this any harder than it has to be. Either you leave, or I’ll-”

“It’s true. I called him here.”

The guard jumped at Rosalind’s voice and turned around, catching sight of her walking through the courtyard in a plain white dress. He hastily knelt on one knee.

“Your Highness! It was unnecessary for you to come out here; I apologise for taking so long to turn this man away.”

Rosalind shook her head serenely and bade the guard rise.

“Nay, Ignatius. The fault lies with me. I should have informed you about him. This young man is my close friend and attendant.”

The guard lowered his head further.

“I am honoured that you would remember the name of one such as me.”

He stood up and nodded his head at me.

“I apologise for my earlier impoliteness. You may proceed.”

I returned his nod.

“No worries. I’m not about to fault a man for doing his job.”

Ignatius stepped aside, allowing me entrance through the gateway. Rosalind turned and walked away, headed toward the large building in the West of the courtyard. As she walked off, she spoke to me in a voice that exuded warmth.

“Come on, then.”

I quietly obeyed and followed behind her to the aformentioned building. It was a large mansion, with a white facade and a marbled porch that formed an idyllic picture with the trees that surrounded it. Glancing above the door, I noted a large assembly of diamonds inlaid into the doorway. I briefly wondered what it meant, but put the thought out of my head and followed Rosalind into the mansion.

Inside the house, a number of maids were hard at work cleaning up the place – no small task, given the size of the mansion. The entrance hall was dominated by a large marble staircase that led up to the second floor. As Rosalind led me up the stairs, she greeted each maid on the way by name, offering a kind phrase. I noted several of them blushing profusely and suppressed a wry grin. And to think she called me a ladykiller.

She led me upstairs and along a corridor with numerous doors, stopping at a room that was third from the back, on the right side. As she made to open the door, I moved in front of her and took the doorknob, graciously opening it and motioning for her to enter. She gave me a small smile, but accepted my gesture and entered the room ahead of me.

The moment I closed the door, Rosalind tackled me in a strong hug.

“Glint! I’m so glad you’re okay!”

I was startled for a moment, but then I reached around and hugged her back.

“It’s good to see you, Rosalind.”

Once Rosalind had calmed down and seperated from me, I was able to take a better look at the room where she had led me. Right across from the entrance was a large mahogany desk, framed on each side by large glass windows. The walls were lined with bookcases, mostly empty, though I spotted a couple of Rosalind’s favorite books neatly arranged in one of them. Across from the mahogany desk, next to us, was an ornately carved wooden table, surrounded by large, comfortable-looking chairs with leather backs and wooden armrests. Seeing nowhere else where a guest could sit, I seated myself on one of the chairs. Rosalind looked at me with an expression of mock disapproval.

“You know, it’s rude to seat yourself without permission.”

“Yes, well, forgive this orphaned thief for not knowing courtly manners.”

“Well, you’d better be prepared to learn if you intend to serve as my attendant, Glint.”

Laughing, Rosalind seated herself in the other chair, across from me.

“I’m guessing this room is a study of sorts?”

Rosalind smiled and answered.

“Yes, I told my Lord Emperor that I enjoyed reading, and he was rather pleased with it – he considers a love of reading a sign of noble character. He acquiesced to my selfish request and allowed me to repurpose this room as a study. I am truly honoured by his favour.”

While she spoke, her fingers casually drummed along the wooden armrest. To an outsider, it would have likely gone unnoticed. But for the two of us – and for Elysium – it was a code, a way to send short messages through patterns of short and long pauses. Elaborate communication with this code was, naturally, impractical, but it was perfect for sending short messages unnoticed.

Elysium. Plan. Progress?

I responded to her spoken conversation while drumming out my response.

“I take it that the Emperor is treating you well, then?”

Smooth. Chancellor. Fooled.

Rosalind broke out into a wide smile, but disguised it by answering my previous question.

“Indeed. I don’t know what I did to earn the favour of such a great man – I can’t think that I deserve it. But I will do all in my power to repay him for his kindness, as one of his wives.”

She turned away bashfully, blushing as she spoke the last line. It was marvellous acting. I didn’t think we were being watched, but one could never be too careful. Just in case there were eyes on us, I decided to show them what they wanted to see.

“Rosalind. About Elysium…”

Elysium. Execution.

Tears welled up in her eyes.

“I can’t believe she did that! To such a great man! How couldshe, Glint?”

I know. Date Uncertain.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to think she just used us this whole time for this opportunity, but…”

Escape Prepared.

Rosalind gave me a weak smile.

“I-I don’t want to believe it, but everything points to it… She confessed, after all…”

I walked over and patted her on the shoulder. At that moment, a knock resounded on the door. Rosalind wiped her tears and called out.

“Come in.”

One of the maids entered the room and bowed toward both of us.

“My Lady, the Emperor has announced his intention to dine here today. He is on his way from the Palace as we speak.”

“Oh my, My Lord Emperor wishes to dine with me? I need to prepare. Thank you for informing me, Celice. Would you mind preparing my blue gown?”

“Certainly, My Lady.”

As Celice left the room, I glanced toward Rosalind.

“Should I…?”

“Yes. Attend our dinner in the capacity of a servant. I’ll need to introduce you to My Lord Emperor eventually, in any case.”

I bowed deeply.

“Understood. Are there any preparations you’d like me to make?”

“Yes; go down to the kitchen – it’s in a room behind the stairs – and memorise the menu for today. Make sure you learn the details. If My Lord Emperor asks you for details about any dish, make sure you can recite them from heart – you need to prove your ability to serve as my attendant. Also, while you’re there, get someone to teach you the layout of the mansion, you’ll need to be intimately familiar with it as well.”

“How long do I have?”

“Considering the distance from the Palace to this villa, I estimate that you have 24 minutes to do all that. Is that enough?”

I grinned. This amount of information was nothing compared to what I had to deal with on a daily basis as manager of the Ezov.

“Leave it to me. I won’t disappoint.”