Patronage – in its simplest form, agreeing to work exclusively for a specific wealthy client.
The solution that Glint offered Aaron was this: using his work for the Ezov as a pretext, Glint would recommend him to Empress Rosalind. She would then agree to the idea, trusting Glint due to their long working relationship, and extend the offer of patronage to Aaron. While the Emperor held supreme power over the actual governance of the land, the Empress was traditionally the person who managed the Imperial household itself, taking care of its finances and the tending of its grounds. These responsibilities including sourcing for the furniture with which to decorate the Imperial residences. In this capacity, Rosalind would hire Aaron to make new furnishings for the annex which had just been built at her request, in effect recognising him as a craftsman under the direct employ of the royal family. To protect any secrets that these craftsmen might become privy to in the course of their work, such individuals were traditionally granted residence within the grounds of the Imperial villa and kept under close guard. This would give us a pretext to position guards around my family, which would make it significantly more difficult for Julio to attempt anything underhanded.
In other words, this plan accomplished two objectives: first, it gave us an excuse to assign a protective detail to my family. Second, it brought him into a very public position of great prominence. Both of these would make it hard for Julio to harm them, physically or otherwise.
Of course, a third benefit was that I would get the opportunity to be close to my family again after so long, but I forced myself to prioritise the previous two factors, though I was more than a little happy about this third fact.
Glint concluded his explanation and looked at Aaron expectantly, awaiting a reply. Aaron seemed to have his brow furrowed in thought, but in all honesty, I could see no cause for hesitation. This plan had nothing but benefits for him. Working for the Crown would increase his prestige beyond measure, the stipend granted by the Imperial family was a significant one, and above all, he would be safe. I was confident that Glint shared in my assessment, and so we both waited for his inevitable agreement, but…
“…Before I agree, I’d like to clarify a few things.”
Glint blinked, clearly surprised, but understanding quickly dawned in his eyes as his lips curled into a warm smile. I did not share in this understanding. Try as I might, I could not think of a reason for hesitation. Even though we had a similar level of intelligence – in fact, I could probably considered smarter in most respects – I didn’t know what Glint had apparently realised. It was, frankly, mildly infuriating. Ignoring my confusion, Glint proceeded.
“Ask away, friend.”
“Will I be causing any trouble for Advent if I do this?”
It took me a full second to process this statement, and another second to ensure that I had not misheard. Why was I suddenly brought up? Rather than troubling me, wasn’t this entire proposal made with the intention of letting me move freely?
Glint’s smile widened as he took note of my reaction, clearly enjoying my confusion. Without addressing it, he responded to Aaron’s question.
“Trouble in what sense?”
“Like, uh, for example, uhhh… right, wouldn’t the sudden offer of patronage to me seem overly suspicious? If people find out about me being Advent’s father, wouldn’t that cause doubt to fall on her character? It would seem like blatant favoritism, right? Wouldn’t that be bad?”
More incomprehensible worries. In the first place, there wasn’t any need to worry about something as trivial as that. I seized the next response window, if only because I was getting excessively irritated at Glint’s smug look of understanding. I was determined to find out the problem myself.
“That’s not a concern. The entire patronage system is an expression of favoritism. Half of the people under it have no talent whatsoever and got the position through connections. Therefore, I don’t see the problem here. What’s wrong, Aaron? What’s causing your hesitation.”
Aaron flinched at my sudden attack, sending a pleading look at Glint. Concurrently, I glared at Glint with a silent warning, and he just shrugged his shoulders with a wry smile, abandoning Aaron. I turned my attention back to Aaron, who had now averted his gaze. I crossed my arms and made it very clear I was waiting for an explanation, taping my feet in a show of impatience. Finally, he sighed and gave in, answering me in a low voice.
“…I’m just worried that maybe people would see you as a bad person. I mean, if it were to be found out that you were my daughter, then wouldn’t that cause people to see you as corrupt, maybe even immoral? I don’t want that. I don’t want people thinking that my daughter is that kind of girl, because you’re not. You never were, and you never will be.”
…I couldn’t respond.
I was stuck between laughing and crying.
Laughing because it was such a silly, inconsequential concern. Crying because my father was able to harbour such concern for me, even after all this time. Laughing because it was an unnecessary worry. Crying because I had made it unnecessary by having my soul dyed black with murder and evil. Crying because of all the lives I had taken. Crying because Father still believed me to be a good person. Crying because he was wrong. Crying because I had become the girl he never wanted me to be. Crying because I had been turned into that against my will.
Crying because I hadn’t been able to understand his concern from the start. Crying because I had needed him to explain such a simple thing as a father’s belief in his daughter. Crying at my emotional degeneration, at my inability to understand such feelings as my Father’s.
Crying because I didn’t know what kind of girl I was anymore. Crying because I didn’t know whether I was a human or a doll. Crying because I didn’t know what the difference was.
As my torso shook with unrestrained sobs, I felt a warm, firm grip on my right shoulder. Glint clasped my shoulder and strongly, but gently, pulled me back, stepping in front of me to take my place in the conversation. He addressed Father, whose figure I could not clearly see through my tear-clouded eyes.
“On that account, Aaron, rest easy. No evidence exists that could link Advent to your family. In fact, according to the records, a girl named Advent never existed. I went to check the records after you told me your story. According to the Imperial census archives, your family has never had a daughter of Advent’s age. There is not a single piece of evidence to be found anywhere that proves Advent’s existence.”
Of course not. I had been ordered to burn those records.
“Also, there is nobody from the Academy that can vouch for her existence. Those who didn’t oppose her expulsion have all issued statements that the student in question was a young boy from a noble family, and the Board insists that the story of the famous question being solved during the entrance examination was nothing but fabricated rumour. Although there were a number of individuals who had released public statements to the contrary, they mysteriously went silent not long after, and have quickly been forgotten. No one knows what happened to them.”
I knew what happened. They had been assassinated by my hand.
“Furthermore, all the papers published in her name were revealed to be written by another scholar under a pseudonym – in fact, the same noble child that had been used as the pretext for her expulsion. There’s even a signed statement from Advent that supports this claim. The signatures were proven to be a near-identical match.”
Of course they matched. It was the same signature.
“So, as you can see, there is literally nothing that could connect Advent here to you, Aaron, because Advent doesn’t exist, and has never existed, at least on paper.”
By this point, my tears had stopped. I had no tears left to cry. My knees gave way, and I crumpled to the ground. I didn’t understand why. None of this was new information. I knew all of this. I had a hand in executing all of it, even if it wasn’t my hand to control. Yet, why…?
Why did my heart ache so much, from this simple recitation of known facts?
As I tried to understand my inner turmoil, I felt my face assume a familiar expression – the blank expression that I had worn for seven years as a doll. Because I didn’t know what expression to make, what emotion to feel, what emotion I was feeling – because I didn’t know the answer to any of these, my face defaulted to the expression of a doll.
Was that who I was, in the end? Advent didn’t exist, only Alpha did. I was Advent. I was also Alpha. However, since Advent didn’t exist, the proposition that “I was Advent” could not, logically, be true. Therefore, I was Alpha. Alpha was me. Alpha was a doll. Ergo, I was a doll. A simple equation. This default expression was proof, was it not? A sense of purpose filled me as I remembered my place in the grand formula of the world. Naturally, my expression did not change. Dolls did not change expressions of their own accord.
“I was a doll.”
The proposition was rational. It was logical. In the end, that’s what I was.