“The advantage of virtue is so obvious that even rotten people act virtuously for the sake of profit.”
Marquis de Vauvenargues
The Emperor rushed home to give out a new order: comb through all the neighborhoods and outskirts and stop all the residents—be they well-to-do, poor or destitute. Show them a portrait of Elizabeth in regular clothing and question them to find out if anyone has seen her or knows where she is.
All castles, homes, shacks, infirmaries and shelters for the poor had to be searched. Everything had to be checked and rummaged, and the missing Empress would even have to be dug up from the ground if all else failed!
Overtaken by unbearable loneliness, Antonio rushed to Lara, who had devoted herself to spiritual work over recent weeks. Burdened with a sense of guilt towards her children and husband, she repented her sins in church and then busied herself with volunteer work at shelters for sick and homeless children.
Antonio did not shrink away from coming straight to the orphanage where his kind-hearted lover was volunteering that day. Leaving the carriage on the side of the muddy road, he walked up to the inconspicuous old building. Barely able to make out Lara in the midst of a throng of wretched-looking kids through the foggy windows, his heart cringed in pain, but a moment later it became filled with a sense of pride for Ju. “My God, what a horror! I need to build new shelters and infirmaries right away! I had been so blind!”
Transfixed, the Emperor stood by the window, watching his lover. Lara looked sickly and sullen surrounded by the commonplace interior.
“What a powerful and selfless woman! What kindness and selflessness! I will build as many shelters as necessary and will provide amenities to all those in need. And to her—I will give anything she wishes. She can remain with her family and work since that is her heart’s desire, and she can come see me whenever she is able. She incites me to acts of kindness. If things keep going this way, I’ll turn into an angel!”
“I’ll stop victimizing Elizabeth, will come clean before her and set her free of the agony, lies and pain that have filled her life all these years. I won’t abandon Elizabeth in times of trouble! I will find her—the woman who has walked together with me through the trials of life. I will fulfill her dreams and give her the castle she had always wanted!”
The Emperor jerked back from the window so Lara wouldn’t notice him. The sensation of intense anguish, despair and guilt nailed him like spears to the jagged wall, which was wet from rain.
“Yes, yes, yes! I am cynical, cruel and abominable, but I will fall on my knees in front of Elizabeth if that’s what I need to do!” Antonio tore himself away from the wall as if this place signified his shame. “Fall to my knees? No! Never in my life! How did this outlandish idea come into my head? My wife will forgive me in any case. She is magnanimous as well. She has always understood me and closed her eyes even to my most bestial deeds. I will explain my feelings for Lara to her. Elizabeth will understand—she’s wise. Maybe even wiser than Lara and myself taken together…”
Antonio knocked on the window, startling Lara. She did not expect to see the Emperor in such a woebegone and godforsaken place. She ran outside and was awe-struck to see Antonio’s face twisted in pain from what he has seen.
They fell into each other’s arms, forgetting about the many forlorn eyes that watched them through the dirty, foggy windows.
The Emperor exuded the smell of luxury and expensive cologne, while Lara smelled of children’s tears and the old building. Antonio inhaled this “aroma”.
Lara’s hair exuded the barely perceptible freshness of perfume from the morning, but her skin and clothing smelled unpleasantly of dampness and sweat. This was the first time that Antonio saw his lover in such a tintless guise—without mascara, lipstick or rouge. She did not put on make-up when going to church or shelters.
Lara noticed the Emperor’s surprise. “Darling, you have caught me off guard. I look quite disheveled toady,” she said, trying to hide her indignation beneath a charming smile.
“Your worries are in vain, my dear. You are lovelier and more natural without make-up,” Antonio said, consoling her. “I love you no matter how you look,” he said, hugging her closer. “And I want to take you away from this hell. I am going to order three nurses to be sent here right away, along with the construction of a new shelter. In a month’s time, these children will have a new building. I promise.”
“You are so kind! I adore you, my angel!”
The Emperor’s face fell when she said the word “angel.” “If you only knew, my dear, what I am capable of at times, and what a devil I can be!” Antonio chased the horrible thoughts away, thinking, “From now on, I will be a different man. And SHE, Lara, will make me that man.”
In the evening he waited for Lara at their secret castle, not far from the new one overlooking Crystal Lake. Antonio drank red wine in anticipation of their meeting, and at the same time, relished in the thought of how delighted Elizabeth will be with the garden and the view of her favorite lake in all the Empire. But his second inner voice whispered for him to go there with Lara. Maybe she would change her mind and agree to live in this dreamlike place with Antonio?
“And what if something has happened to Elizabeth? What if she is ill? I am such an idiot! While I am sitting here, dreaming of happiness, my wife may not even be alive anymore!” Suddenly, the Emperor’s mood became foul and he began imagining that Elizabeth will never appear in his life again. “I’m so stupid! What am I doing?” Antonio thought, cursing himself. “There hasn’t been as much as a message from her, and the couriers will only return in the morning.”
The Emperor emptied his glass of wine in one gulp and went to the door. Lara was already stepping out of the carriage, harnessed by three white stallions and a coachman sitting on the dickey box. This lavish coach was provided to Lara Ju for every meeting.
She was in a marvelous mood, but for the first time, the Emperor greeted his lover with a tense smile and horror-filled eyes.
“Honey, are you still tormented by the thought of the disheveled, pale Ju?” the enchanting dame joked. “I’m all better now,” she said, spinning around to show off her satin turquoise dress.
The outfit really was stunning, and even seemed somewhat over-the-top to the Emperor, compared to the lovely unpretentious attire that Lara usually preferred. For a moment, Antonio’s mind returned to the image of Eliz, who adored the color turquoise, exuberant garments and the bright colors of life. This was exactly how she had twirled around in front of her husband when he just began his reign, and when she had taught him to look tiptop. “The Emperor should never be in a bad mood or look frail,” he thought, recalling the commandment that Eliz used to often repeat to him.
“Where is she? How is she doing? Is she alive!? What will be of the children if they lose their mother? What will be of me? Could I be happy with Lara if Elizabeth isn’t there?” Antonio was overcome by the somber thoughts, and looking at Lara absent-mindedly, he mechanically nodded in response to her beaming smile.
Today Lara had styled her hair in an unusual way and wore brighter make-up. Her cleavage, adorned with sequins, peeked out of the plunging neckline. The beauty exuded the smell of expensive perfume. She was magnificent and seductive, but today Antonio felt annoyed by this pizzazz. There was a time when he experienced the same feeling after returning home from a demure Lara to be greeted by a dolled up, perfumed Elizabeth.
“God! Why has everything flipped upside down today? Why can’t I stop thinking about Elizabeth and why do I find Lara annoying? Unbearably annoying! If she starts lecturing me now about the benefits of a healthy diet or telling me how many little noses she wiped today, I’ll explode,” Antonio thought to himself indignantly. He tried to avoid any inquiries and serious conversation. His only wish was to lie down and drink wine.
Lara did not drink alcohol out of concerns for her health, which was failing as it was. She only took a sip from Antonio’s glass, kissed her lover’s eyes, nose and lips, and lay down next to him, taking care to spread out the sumptuous dress across the sofa.
“I wonder what your innermost thoughts are,” she said, as if not noticing her lover’s mood, although his sorrow had not escaped her attentive eyes.
“And what thoughts are those?” Antonio replied, trying not to let his anxiety show.
“Darling, you are so vulgar! But I adore you,” Lara said, kissing him and gently stroking his neck. She was always reserved and courteous. Today, however, she was in an infantile, agitated mood, as if something was spurring her to act coquettishly and emit two-edged gestures. Ju rolled with laughter, shrugged her shoulders, and “just happened to” lift the hem of her dress to reveal her slender, well-shaped legs for the Emperor to see. She couldn’t wait to lure him into the bedroom. She missed his caresses and longed to cuddle with her lover and savor his love.
“It’s the best way to forget about it all,” thought Antonio, and pulled the beauty into the bedroom. While undressing her, he consoled himself with the thought that Elizabeth must be all right—after all, she is strong and level-headed. Let her be alone and miss her husband for a while. He was ready to bet anything that his wife would be the first to regret their estrangement.
“Come to me already, Antonio…” said Lara, winding her bare hands around his neck.