News of Olivia’s pregnancy spread beyond the imperial court, resonating throughout the empire.
The people, aware of the Empress’s benevolence, rejoiced in Olivia’s pregnancy as if it were their own.
But the Emperor, the father-to-be, maintained a distance from Olivia, refraining even from offering her congratulations.
There were no words of congratulations given, no gifts for the expecting Empress.
Yet, truthfully, Olivia was glad of his silence.
Ever since the banquet, Gusto hadn’t spoken to her.
Her days were now centered on caressing her gently rounding belly and talking to the life growing within her womb, the sole meaningful pursuit in her existence.
The pregnancy had proven more harder than Olivia had anticipated.
Despite the severe morning sickness that hindered her from eating properly and left her looking scrawny, Olivia was happy.
Her sharp jawline and slender waist made her look more like a sickly woman rather than a woman bearing a child.
Nonetheless, even with her pale countenance, Olivia didn’t let her work slip from her hands.
She knew it was the only thing keeping together.
Suppressing the urge to stretch, Olivia stifled a yawn before delving into her stack of papers.
The latest, from the Treasury, was a meticulously organized list of the Emperor’s expenditures on the flower show last week.
With an audible sigh, Olivia’s gaze met the treasurer’s stern expression.
This was a task that should have fallen under the Emperor’s purview.
Barring matters related to swordsmanship and military, Gusto, the Emperor, had never shown any interest in the affairs of the Empire.
Had the previous emperor sired another heir, Gusto might never have become emperor.
“I think we should reconsider reallocating the budget for the Rose Palace.”
The treasurer scratched his head before turning his attention to Olivia.
Since his coronation, Gusto had disregarded the empire’s laws and introduced concubines to the court.
Gusto’s disposition was characterized by volatility and cruelty, traits that led to short tenures for his subjects.
Gusto disdained complicated affairs and inclined toward frivolity, so it’s not surprising that Olivia often found herself discussing matters concerning the Rhone Empire at the council table.
Even the ministers preferred to hold meetings with the rational and astute Olivia, publicly of course, with Gusto’s seal of approval.
“You mean to tell me that the budget allocated to the Rose Palace at the beginning of this year has already been depleted?”
The budget for the Rose Palace that Olivia had checked was equivalent to the budget for her palace.
However, in contrast to the budget for Olivia’s palace, which catered to the Empress’s needs, the funds designated for the Rose Palace were exclusively for the indulgences of Eve, a concubine.
The Rose palace is the residence of Eve, concubine of Emperor Gusto.
During the months between spring and fall, thousands of roses bloomed with a rich fragrance, making it one of the most beautiful palaces in the Empire.
Sweat trickled down the treasurer’s forehead as he answered.
He vividly recalled the Rose palace’s butler expressing his discontent about the constrained budget.
Within the imperial court, the Emperor’s favor was intertwined to power.
As Gusto’s affection grew deeper for Eve, so did her sense of entitlement.
To make matters worse, the servants at the Rose palace were getting more and more exasperated with each passing day.
“This year’s budget has already been set, isn’t there nothing left to discuss?”
Olivia furrowed her brow and flipped through the densely packed papers again.
Since the news of Olivia’s pregnancy, Eve’s extravagant lifestyle has gotten worse.
Why, for instance, would she purchase furs in bulk in the summer when it was getting hotter?
Exasperated, Olivia sighed loudly as she inspected Eve’s lavish expenditures.
She had already exceeded her palace’s budget.
“We’ll have to reallocate the other palace’s budget.”
Olivia snapped at the treasurer.
Olivia, never one to be a hoarder, had always been unable to spend the budget allocated to her.
In fact, she never had the time. Time was a luxury she simply didn’t possess.
Unlike Gusto, she remained engaged with the affairs of the empire, convening with her ministers until the break of dawn.
Even amidst the empire’s ongoing war, Olivia shouldered the responsibility of budget allocation and provisioning supplies for the military.
“It has to be done.”
The treasurer trailed off.
There was only one abode in the Imperial Family that retained unspent funds.
And both the Treasurer and Olivia were acutely aware of this more than anyone.
So, as usual, they would consequently divert resources from Olivia’s palace.
It was routine, an expected practice was even expected of them.
But Olivia had something dear to protect, and she wasn’t about to relinquish to Eve.
“I’m not giving you what’s mine this time.”
Olivia’s blunt reply left the treasurer flabbergasted.
Seeing the treasurer’s astonished look as he processed Olivia’s directness, Olivia sighed.
“You must have something in mind; please tell us,” said the treasurer.
“Isn’t it obvious? I won’t entertain the thought of relinquishing what’s mine.”
Olivia’s assertive tone sent a shiver down the spine of everyone in the room.
The Emperor exhibited little interest in administering the empire.
The only things Gusto cared for were military and combat concerns.
And that proved to be a good thing.
Although Olivia had undergone rigorous education before her appointment as empress, the multitude of military intricacies were something that eluded her comprehension.
If it were ever entrusted to Olivia, she would be too preoccupied to even make a proper cup of tea.
“If you’re thinking about appropriating funds from my palace, you’d better forget about it. As you know, I’m expecting a baby this year, and the allocated budget is to serve my baby’s needs.”
The ministers bowed their heads at Olivia’s stance.
Olivia sighed as if she could hear them, stiffened by her assertion, holding their mouths shut.
This concerned the birth of a baby who might be next in line.
But neither the nobles nor the Emperor, the baby’s own father, exhibited any interested in her pregnancy.
Their attitude was laced with bitterness.
It was difficult to keep the meeting going.
At Olivia issuing their dismissal, the ministers bowed before vacating the room.
Out of the corner of her eye, she detected Emperor Gusto’s former nanny watching her.
The Emperor always kept an eye on Olivia, seizing opportunities to learn about all her shortcomings.
The irony was Gusto, who criticized her abilities, needed them most.
“I want to be alone.”
“The Emperor’s messenger informed me that the Emperor is uncomfortable leaving the expectant Empress unaccompanied.”
“And that no one ever comes to visit?”
Gusto’s nanny added seamlessly, her words slick as oil.
Gusto didn’t care about her.
It was March when she found out she was pregnant.
The time of year when the first bright green shoots shyly sprout.
Presently, summer was half-way over, and the sweltering heat of August was on the horizon.
It was more than five months since Gusto had last visited Olivia.
Nonetheless, the lack of visits didn’t perturb her.
If anything, the look on his face reminded her of that night, causing her discomfort and those unsettling memories weren’t good for her unborn child.
Seeking reprieve, Olivia pressed her head into her hands as if to relieve her throbbing headache.
When did it all began?
The splitting headaches?
Did they appear around the time of her ascension to Empress or when she became engaged to Gusto?
Refusing to yield to the headaches, Olivia tenderly stroked her now slightly swelling belly as she sifted through the vague memories of her past.
It wasn’t showing much, but she could feel it. A nice little bump beneath her touch.
“What is it?”
Olivia smiled and lowered her hand from her abdomen.
The nanny stepped in front of her, bearing a golden tray.
Upon the tray, was a letter bearing the emperor’s seal.
Olivia stared at the letter for a moment.
If it weren’t for the nanny’s piercing gaze, she might have tucked it away in a corner.
“Go ahead and open it.”
But the nanny, a loyal servant of Gusto, wouldn’t allow Olivia the chance to conceal the letter.
She slowly picked up the letter on the tray at the nanny’s urging.
“His Majesty is coming for tea, and he’ll be stopping by after supper, so kindly arrange some refreshments.”
It resembled a day like any other.
As dusk gave way to darkness, rain began to fall, making it impossible to see an inch through the thick darkness.
Despite it being the middle of summer, the evening felt more suited for a hot cup of tea than a cold one.
“Welcome. Your Majesty.”
Olivia greeted Gusto in the parlor.
Adorned with sunflowers, a symbol of summer, the parlor was where Olivia received her personal guests.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Winter Palace.”
Olivia smiled at Gusto’s remark.
It was Gusto who had given the Empress the Winter Palace in lieu of the Rose Palace.
It was the farthest and most remote from the Moon Palace, where the Emperor usually resided.
“Yes. What brings you all the way here? I would have gone to the Moon Palace if you had called me.”
Olivia’s posture dipped as she gave Gusto a discerning look.
Earlier today, her encounter with the treasurer concluded with her raising her voice at the treasurer over the Rose Palace’s budget.
Historically, whenever Gusto graced the Winter Palace with his presence, bad things occurred to Olivia.
So at the prospects of Gusto’s visit, she was uneasy.
“Having my wife at my palace when she’s pregnant is unnecessary. Moreover, it’s a better impression for those watching if I move around.”
Olivia glanced at her nanny, standing like a statue in the corner.
Perhaps it was she said earlier that instigated the Emperor’s decision to visit Olivia’s abode.
Or perhaps the denial to reallocate the budget for the Rose palace.
Gusto instructed the nanny who was too afraid to sit down.
There was no time to be stunned at the unexpectedness of this situation.
“What is this?”
“Shouldn’t the Empress open it herself, if she’s so curious?”
Olivia braced herself for something strange and reached for the pink ribbon.
Upon opening the box given by Gusto, Olivia was greeted by a pair of adorable pair of baby slippers.
The dimensions of the two shoes were subtly different.
“Isn’t it customary for a father to prepare a baby’s first pair of shoes?”
Gusto quipped, while Olivia stared at the shoes in the box.
Olivia’s head snapped up at the bluntness of his words.
It was customary in the Empire for a father to provide his child’s first pair of shoes.
It was an age-old tradition, a father’s way of ensuring that the baby the goddess sent was free from the dirt of the world.
She didn’t expect it to come from Gusto himself.
It was definitely an unexpected gift.
“Did you make these yourself?”
Olivia inquired, her voice shaking as she held the unrefined leather shoes in her hands.
“Considering smaller than the palm of my hand, I thought I could make them quickly, but it took quite a bit of work.”
Gusto laughed, holding up a hand covered in scars.
Suddenly I realized how out of place Gusto’s scars were.
His smile made my throat tighten.
Like a knight preparing for battle in war, Olivia prepared for Gusto’s visit as much as she could.
Although Gusto had not been a good husband to Olivia, he might be different for the baby.
Maybe, as the maids had said, he needed time to become a father.
“Thank you. Your Majesty.”
“You should thank the baby, not the Empress.”
Gusto gestured at Olivia’s bulging belly.
For the first time since facing Gusto, Olivia laughed out loud.
She cursed the baggy dress she wore to hide her belly.
“You look good.”
Gusto grinned back at her.
Unnecessarily embarrassed, Olivia lowered her head.
“‥‥‥I’m sure the baby will be pleased to receive a gift from His Majesty.”
“How will the baby in the womb know these shoes are from me?”
“It’s said that babies in the womb can hear.”
Olivia’s words made Gusto turn his attention to the nanny.
The nanny, who was presiding over the scene in silence, nodded gently.
“The baby’s about five months old, at this stage, the baby in the womb can hear His Majesty’s voice.”
Gusto looked a little dazed, struggling to believe what he was hearing.
Olivia couldn’t suppress her laughter at the sight.
If days went on like this, she’d be able to forget the recurring nightmares that haunted her.
“I can’t fathom that the baby can hear my voice.”
“Yes. That’s why when babies are born and when their fathers call them by name, they recognize his voice.”
“There’s nothing the Empress doesn’t know.”
“I’m new to parenthood too, so I’ve been studying things.”
Olivia unconsciously stroked her stomach, the gesture had become second-nature.
It was a rainy summer night.
It had been a steady drizzle until Gusto arrived.
The sky flashed, followed by thunder.
“I’ll have to come back more often to see the baby.”
Gusto’s words brought tears to my eyes.
And so it was.
Unbeknownst to her, rather than the hot tea she prepared earlier, a chilled concoction of pineapple-infused tea, complete with ice cubes had been set on the table.
Another wave of tears followed as she took a sip of the cold tea.
Olivia believed that the fact that her heart was beating faster, stemmed from the unexpected gift which had caught her by surprise.
It was a strange night when she first saw Gusto stroking her belly and felt that maybe, just maybe, their child could grow up with the full love of its parents.