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Only Time Will Tell

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Renato

A field outside Stockholm, Sweden

12:19 AM, March 16

Renato believed that he had just walked into the most awkward situation of his entire life.

After all, he thought, what could possibly be more awkward than running in on your best friend, boss, and king enjoying himself just after midnight with an unknown veiled woman out in the middle of nowhere?

But never mind that, he thought, cutting himself off. He had a grave duty to carry out.

“Madame?” he addressed the veiled woman. No response.

“Follow me,” he continued, forceful yet trying to be as gentle as possible.

“My God!” the woman faintly cried. She was terrified-trembling from head to toe, and Renato’s heart went out to her. He had surprised her and Gustavo, found them in a compromising position, and he knew that the woman was afraid of discovery. Of course, that was the reason she was veiled, he was sure. She must have veiled herself when she saw him.

“Look,” he tried to reassure her. “You can trust me. I am the king’s best friend. I promised him that I would take you back to the city gates so you would be safe. I also promised him I would not take off your veil or do or say anything that could lead me to discover your identity.”

The woman seemed unconvinced.

“You will be fine,” he insisted. “Just trust me. We can go back together.”

At that moment, the voices of the conspirators could be heard loud and clear, and coming ever closer.

That was why Renato had come here in the first place- he had overheard some nobles talking and had pieced together enough to get the time, place, and purpose of their meeting: Midnight. The field by the gallows a ways outside Stockholm. We shall assassinate the king there. He could not, would not let that happen. He had sworn loyalty to Gustavo, as every other noble had. To Renato, an oath was a sacred thing, to be upheld and fulfilled with the utmost sincerity and importance.

As such, he had left home shortly before midnight, bringing nothing but his sword and the cloak on his back. The cloak helped him slip through the conspirators, who in the darkness, had assumed he was one of them, as they could not see his face. And then he rushed in to save the king, only to find him with the woman. The circumstances strongly suggested that the two had had an amorous relationship and had consummated it that night.

Gustavo was more concerned for the safety of his lover than for himself. He had refused multiple times to leave her side and only agreed to do so after Renato swore another oath: he would escort the veiled lady safely back to the city gates, would not remove her veil under any circumstances, and would not engage in any behavior that could lead to him discovering her identity. Then, just to be safe, Renato had given Gustavo his cloak, and taken the king’s. He could not risk the conspirators being able to identify his friend by his clothing. Gustavo rushed off at that point down a winding, desolate road that led back to the city.

And now here he was: the conspirators were closing in and he had to transport this woman back to town safely. The problem: if the conspirators saw the veiled woman, they would either attack her and take her veil off or attack him first and then her, because that was just the kind of people they were-unable to resist any woman, even if her face was covered by a veil and by darkness.

He had to act. And he had to act fast.

He adjusted the cloak, and then had an idea, like lightning: This cloak is certainly very large. Maybe…could it cover two people?

To test it out, he spread the cloak out as far as it could go. It was extremely wide-by far the widest cloak Renato had ever worn. He had seen Gustavo wear it many times, but until then had never realized how wide it could go. It most certainly could, he thought, smiling.

The conspirators’ cries were getting louder by the second as they came ever closer to the gallows.

“They’re coming!” the woman half-shouted, her voice still full of fear.

“Quickly, come over here!” Renato half-shouted back. He saw her hesitate for a split second, then lightly and fleetly step across the field towards him. He knew she knew she had no choice but to do so.

“I’m dying!” he heard her whisper to herself.

“Don’t worry,” he told her, being careful not to look at her, lest he catch even a glance of her face under the veil. “Lean against me. Grab the edge of the cloak closest to you and wrap it around yourself. I’ll put the hood on over both of us. Still, though, keep your head down, and don’t make a sound. And be quick; we don’t have much time.”

The woman did as she was told, and they made their way under the stars, up the slope, together, trying to avoid discovery.

Ahead, they both saw the conspirators. Renato knew he had to form a plan to guarantee they avoided being noticed. He scanned the group, trying to figure out the best way to get through the crowd. Once he had, he whispered:

“Move right. The moon is shining on the left side of the group, and there’s also fewer people on the left. They won’t notice two more people on the right, especially when it’s so dark. Be absolutely silent, and don’t draw any attention.”

“But what if they notice?” the woman asked, in the longest sentence she had said to him this entire time.

“I will figure something out. You don’t worry about that now, because you are in good hands, and I won’t let anything happen to you. Trust me.”

At last, they were by the conspirators. Much to Renato’s relief, everything worked out according to plan: the conspirators did not see or notice them, the woman was quiet, and they both easily slipped around the crowd and on back down the path to the city.

He briefly stopped to let the woman take the cloak off herself, but after that, the duo rushed back to the city gates, her behind him- Renato could not risk either the conspirators returning to the city quickly enough that they would confront each other or him inadvertently catching a glimpse of her and violating his oath.

In almost no time at all, therefore, they were back at the city gates. She stood with her back toward him as he said to her,

“I leave you here. You can go back home now, safe and rest assured, no one will know who you are or what you have done.”

Even though she was safe now, Renato noticed that she quivered when he said that.

Hastily, he added, “Farewell. May God guard you.”

And then the woman bolted.

Why is she in such a hurry? And why is she so afraid still?, he thought.

But he didn’t think about it anymore after that. Today was a new day. It would be another day of endless responsibilities as the king’s chief adviser. And in order to do the job to the best of his ability-he took his job very seriously- he would need sleep.

So he walked home in the opposite direction as the woman, not in a hurry but not strolling either, so he could get some sleep, and start all over the next morning.

There was still a conspiracy to handle, after all.

 

Amelia

Amelia sighed with relief as the city gates came into view.

The night had been a whirlwind for her: she had left home and crept out of the city, to that dark, desolate field where the fortuneteller had told her the magic herb grew, the one which could be crushed up and made into a potion that erased forbidden love from the drinker’s heart.

Amelia had sought out Madame Arvidsson in desperation: she felt an overwhelming passion for Gustavo, and no matter what she tried, nothing made her stop loving him. In fact, as weeks had passed upon weeks, months upon months, her love for him had only grown inside, to the point where now, she felt hopeless to either erase it or conceal it. So, at the end of her rope, she went to the fortuneteller in search of something, anything to make it go away.

And that is what she’d been told. She was terrified, but she resolved to go anyway. She wasn’t the type to back down easily-she was persistent.

When she got there, however, and saw how frightening the shadowy field truly was, any resolution went out the window, and she’d fought with herself, crying bitter tears, struggling to reconcile the two parts of her heart at war: the one that wanted nothing more than to preserve her honor and do what she knew was right and good, and the part that just wanted to love. She’d never wanted to marry Renato anyway; she’d never truly loved him and was certain that nothing could make her love Renato the way she loved Gustavo and the way she knew her husband loved her. She did care about Renato very deeply, as his wife, as the mother of their child, but caring and loving were not the same thing to her.

She had fought, but lost to herself: she’d had a hallucination, a horrifying vision-she could see it now still- of a large head rising from the earth. It’d had eyes that stared at her terribly, and the eyes were made of fire. She had not known what it was- was it real? Was it a hallucination, a vision, a ghost, a prophecy? All she knew was what it looked like and that it had seemed to condemn her somehow, just by the way it had looked at her. And it had shaken her to the darkest depths of her soul.

And then Gustavo came.

She had not expected him, and the moment he had come towards her, she’d tried to run. She knew that he loved her the same way she loved him, and she was afraid that if they were together alone, their mutual passion would overwhelm them, and…She couldn’t finish that sentence.

But something inside her made her stay. That same something led her to confess her love to Gustavo, to embrace him under the starry sky, murmuring half-finished phrases singing of their undying love, to let him kiss her…

And then she had noticed a shadowy figure coming straight for them. Gustavo had run to get a closer look, and when he turned back, shouting the only word she had to hear, “Renato!”, she grabbed her veil, put it on, and thanked God that she had brought the veil with her.

Amelia overheard the reason why Renato had come: there were assassins coming there to murder him, and Renato was coming to warn Gustavo and to help him escape. But Gustavo didn’t want to escape. He’d wanted to stay by her side and protect her, although she would have none of it: Gustavo’s life was too dear to her. She’d offered him a choice of either leaving or seeing her remove her veil right then and there. Gustavo had reluctantly chosen the former, but didn’t go until he had made sure Renato swore to take her back to the city gates unknown and unharmed. And that was exactly what he’d done. They were at the city gates, safe and sound.

But Amelia still felt she was not out of danger of being discovered. After all, there was still one last part to the oath Renato had yet to fulfill: they had not gone their separate ways yet. Gustavo had made Renato swear to go in the opposite direction from the woman once they reached Stockholm. And they were both heading to the same place- home.

She trembled even as Renato tried to reassure her, saying, “I leave you here. You can go back home now, safe and rest assured, no one will know who you are or what you have done.” But that only served to remind her of what she had done that night: she hadn’t actually committed adultery, but she knew well enough that he thought that this veiled woman had been sleeping with the king and also that what she had done was still wrong, a violation of every principle of society.

Renato must have seen her distress, because he quickly added a few seconds later, “Farewell. May God guard you.” She almost didn’t hear him: she was trying to figure out how she could get home faster than he could so he wouldn’t suspect anything.

But she did, and as she grabbed the skirt of the dress and lifted it up, she’d whispered back simply, “Thank you- goodbye- God guard you too.”

And then she started running. She knew how to run quickly: as a young girl, she and her sisters would run up and down the hills of their family’s land in the country, racing each other, trying to beat each other. She had won more than her fair share of races- she was naturally fast.

But she knew that now, she needed to run faster than ever. She summoned every last ounce of strength into her legs and her feet, which pounded the streets as she dashed through alleys and around street corners, trying to navigate through the semi-obscuring lens of her white veil.

She tried to focus her whole mind on the task at hand, recalling landmarks to turn at, figuring out how much longer it would take for her to finally arrive home. But doubts crept in as the journey went on. Could she really make it home, and not only that, but be in bed by the time her husband arrived? Could she?

She certainly couldn’t run any faster- her legs and feet were working as hard as they could, and she would not hear of risking falling or her legs somehow giving out from exhaustion. But there was still that question of whether she could make it home. Everything was riding on her making it home before Renato did.

And so, she did the only thing she felt she could do in that moment. As she came ever closer to home and her fate, she frantically whispered:

“Dear God, please, help me get home before he does! I’m doing everything I can, but I’m still afraid he’ll get home before I do. I’ve tried so hard to forget him, to forget Gustavo, I have done everything I could to forget him, but I cannot get him out of my head! And if Renato arrives home before I do, all I have tried-it will be for nothing! He’ll think I had an affair, and he will- O Lord, I can’t even say it! Please, God, help me!”

Before too long, finally, mercifully, she was at the door to the house. She slipped inside and rushed to her and Renato’s bedroom, glancing all around on the way, still desperately praying Renato hadn’t come home yet. And when she opened the door to the bedroom, she felt an enormous feeling of relief surge through her as she saw Renato was not there.

She knew she had to make him think she had been home this entire time, so she pulled the veil off her face and hid it where she knew he’d never find it, and then undressed and put on a nightgown.

And then she listened. No sounds of footsteps inside or outside, and she couldn’t hear Renato’s voice. He must not even be that close, she realized.

She got into bed anyway, but before she closed her eyes, as she did every night, she prayed. Tonight, however, her prayer was different, much shorter:

Thank You for saving me tonight. Amen.

And with that, she closed her eyes and drifted off.

When Renato eventually came home and went into the bedroom he shared with Amelia, he saw her fast asleep.

He suspected nothing.

Gustavo

Gustavo’s bedroom in the royal palace

Gustavo rushed into his bedroom and practically collapsed onto the bed, shaking with terror and his mind racing with “what ifs”.

What if the conspirators attacked her? What if her veil just happened to fall off? What if Renato still managed to see her through the veil? And then, what if he thought that she had been unfaithful to him?

And then a new “what if” struck him, the most terrifying of all:

What if he hadn’t come at all?

He was not terrified of the possibility of the conspirators actually managing to assassinate him; he’d lost his fear of death a long time ago, if he’d ever feared death at all.

But if Renato hadn’t come, brought him and Amelia back to earth, if the two of them had been left alone for much longer with their passion for each other…

He knew exactly what would have come next, and he hated himself for it. It would have been the disastrous consummation of a dream Gustavo had had since the first moment he’d met her.

The first time he’d met Amelia, he’d fallen a little in love with her- her bright smile, her clear blue eyes that were the exact color of the sea, her aura of kindness, of a truly good soul. He hadn’t realized it, though, not then. He thought it was merely friendship, a mutual appreciation, almost, of the spirit of a good woman.

But as time went on, he’d started to realize it. He was falling in love with his best friend’s wife.

His heart had split into two, two dreams invading his every moment: the first dream was to get rid of it all, to keep a truly honest and open friendship with Renato, to not have to deal with this affection anymore. He and Amelia could still be friends in this dream, no problem. But just friends.

The other dream had haunted him, though: his other dream was to love her and be loved right back. But it did not, Gustavo regretted, stop there. He wanted her for himself, he was ashamed to say. If he could marry her, he’d do it in a heartbeat. But since he could not, he wanted…

And then, though he thought it was impossible, an even more horrifying thought took hold:

And what if Amelia and I ended up together alone again? Could I hold myself back without another person coming and stopping us? Or would I- he trembled at the thought- ruin her, dishonor her name, possibly condemn her soul, all for the sake of my passion?

He knew he could not take that chance. He’d already come to the brink once, and he would not do that again. But if he was alone with her again, he admitted, it was very likely that he could lose all control and indeed ruin her.

So, although he did not know how he would accomplish it, he made a solemn, silent vow to himself:

Somehow, as soon as possible, I will find a way to make sure that we never end up alone again without anyone knowing that this ever happened.

Renato

Early morning, March 16

A room in Renato’s house

Renato was many things, but gullible was not one of them. He knew that just because he’d ruined the conspirators’ plans to assassinate Gustavo did not mean that the conspirators would give up- they’d simply try again at some point.

And probably soon, he thought. They want him dead, so why would they wait long before trying to kill him again?

The only question now was exactly where and when they’d try to murder him.

Renato knew that the conspirators were ineffective- they’d been plotting for almost a year now, and he’d tried, without success, to warn Gustavo many times of their plot- but not dumb enough to carry it out in plain sight, where they’d be easily recognizable.

So what would they do? He’d have to think.

For a while, he simply sat in a chair, thinking.

Of course! They prefer to meet in secret, discuss their plans in secret, use symbols only they can recognize. They hide in plain sight. It’s impossible to keep track of them if you’re not observant enough.

Renato had been secretly observing the conspirators long enough that he knew all their usual meeting places, the codes in which they communicated plans, the symbols they used to recognize each other.

He got up, almost chuckling to himself. He would not meet with Gustavo today, as he usually did. Instead, he’d do something that for him, was completely unusual.

Gustavo, if you can be a common fisherman for a few hours, then I most certainly can play the part of a conspirator for a morning.

And with that, he put on his cape, attached a small red ribbon to it (it was the conspirators’ favorite symbol), placed a hat on his head in such a way that the brim obscured his face, told an advisor who had come to the house that he had some business to take care of and would not be able to meet with Gustavo, and set out for Baron Pechlin’s.

Gustavo

A study in Gustavo’s palace

Mid-morning, March 16

“Your Majesty, today’s papers.”

Gustavo looked up and saw an advisor holding a stack of documents.

“Thank you,” he replied, taking the large stack from the old man and setting it down on the desk.

The advisor bowed, then turned to leave.

A sudden thought struck Gustavo. Usually, Renato was the one who would bring Gustavo all the business of the day. They’d sit and go over the papers for a little while, discussing and occasionally, as yesterday, arguing over business.

But he’s not here today. And that past night…had Renato found out? Is that why he’s not there today?

Trembling, Gustavo asked, right as the old advisor was about to go through the door,

“Where is Renato? Will he be coming today?”

The advisor turned back, frowned, and replied,

“I forgot to tell you. Count Anckarström has asked me to inform you that he has some urgent, confidential business to take care of, and begs permission to be excused from coming to meet with you.” He bowed again, then finally left.

Urgent, confidential business? That was strange, Gustavo thought, coming from Renato. Usually, he was very forthcoming, almost too forthcoming. So why would this have to be confidential? Was it about…

He sighed and shook his head. He couldn’t think about that, not now, when he had to deal with all these documents, all these decisions to be made for the good of Sweden.

Therefore, with some reluctance (he’d never really liked going through papers anyhow), he rifled through the pile, setting aside what could be done later with no problem so that he only had to do what was absolutely necessary.

Even as he was trying to distract himself, the thoughts of Amelia, of Renato, of the possibility of Amelia’s life having been ruined, her fate, his honor, all of it, kept coming back, over and over. He tried to put it away and focus, but he could not do it. By now, his work was mindless; he just glanced at papers and set them aside without a single thought, his head still searching for a way to save the two people he cared about most.

A paper eventually caught his eye.

It was a resume for a position that had recently opened- Governor of Finland. The governorship had recently become open due to the death of the previous Governor, and as soon as the news was announced, Gustavo started receiving a steady stream of resumes from people vying for the position.

However, all of the candidates thus far had been woefully inadequate: the vast majority were part of what Gustavo liked to call in private “the idle class” of nobles who never did anything except rest upon their laurels and only occasionally do anything of use, and then it was only because they wanted a promotion or a pay raise. The very few others were, simply put, people who had been put in important positions before, but had been mediocre- or worse. He knew they were just trying to recapture their delusions of their self-glory.

And this one was no exception to the trend- woefully inadequate to the task of running such a big province as Finland.

Gustavo sighed and shook his head as he wrote “Rejected” at the top of the paper and set it aside. He thought involuntarily:

If only someone as good at politics, at diplomacy, at leadership, and with as much discipline and work ethic and integrity as Renato would apply-

He stopped. Wait. I am the King. I can simply decree who will do it. It’s not as if any better candidate could ever apply anyhow.

It all came together, like lightning, in his mind.

If Renato was named Governor of Finland, he’d have to stay there either for the rest of his life or until I call him back. And he couldn’t go alone; he’d be lonely, and that would just be cruel. So Amelia and their son could go with him to Finland and stay there for however long he governs…and I will never see her again. No chance for last night to happen again, or worse.

He grabbed a paper and a pen and started feverishly writing a first draft.

Renato:

Baron Pechlin’s house

Late morning

Renato slipped inside and took his place at the back of the front hall, unnoticed by anyone.

It was a bit chaotic, with the conspiring nobles all trying to talk about a million different things amongst themselves at once and the last of the conspirators arriving, but eventually, a deep voice hushed the crowd and froze them into place.

“Silence!”

An old man was standing on a table placed in the center of the hall. Renato recognized him as Baron Pechlin himself, one of the leaders of the conspiracy, an old politician who had achieved notoriety over the years for being devious.

 “Last night,” he began, “our plot was foiled. By fate or by an unknown party, I do not know, and neither do I care, but we were unsuccessful.”

Sure right you were. Thanks to me. And now, I’ll do it again.

“However, that same fate which took this chance from us has now let another fall into our very laps,” he continued. “And in fact, this opportunity will come tonight.”

Renato began to listen even closer, because he knew that the Baron was about to reveal everything he needed to know.

“Tonight, starting at eleven o’clock precisely, there will be a masked ball in the foyer of the Royal Opera House held by Gustavo himself.” He paused before asking the crowd, “Do you know what that means?”

Almost immediately, a man whom Renato recognized as Count Ribbing exclaimed, “There’ll be disguises! Gustavo will be there, and if we figure out his disguise, we can assassinate him in plain sight, and no one will know who we are!”

Exactly,” Pechlin responded with a smile. “This is the perfect opportunity. In fact, I believe this is an even better plan than surprising him at the gallows. We can show all of Stockholm, in plain sight, how weak he is!”

It took everything Renato had for him to not scream, “How dare you?!” at the conspirators. He did manage to stay quiet, however, and he heard everything else he needed to know:

“So here is the plan: meet at the top of the staircase at the opera house at ten fifty-five in the evening on the dot. Blue dominos, red ribbons, tied at the left, please. Someone- whether before the ball or during, it doesn’t matter much, but before would be nice- needs to figure out what he will wear. Then, once you find that out, spread out in small groups, and when someone finds him, all but one person in that group distracts him from the front, while the last person goes and shoots him in the back. Does everyone understand that?”

“Yes,” the conspirators chorused.

“Good. Remember: ten fifty-five, top of the staircase, blue dominos with red ribbons tied at the left, distract him while one person comes and shoots from behind. I am unable to join you tonight, but I know you are all very capable. You can do this, I just know it. You are dismissed.”

Instantly, the chaos rose once again as the conspirators scrambled to leave, causing a crowd at the door. Renato slipped through with his head down and ran all the way home.

When he got back, he practically collapsed into the nearest chair, put his head in his hands, and began to wonder:

How to warn him? How to warn him…How do you convince a man as brave and as reckless as Gustavo that his life is in danger? He never listens to me whenever I try to tell him about things like this…

For a little while, he just sat like that, puzzling over it all.

A voice snapped him out of it, though:

“But you have to go,” he could hear Oscar, one of the King’s pages, whining.

“Oscar, I really don’t know. I don’t know if either of us want to go. If my husband wants to go, I’ll go with him, but if he doesn’t, I’m staying here. I don’t want to go anyway.” That voice was Amelia’s.

Amelia! He realized it, sitting up with a start. Of course! Maybe if I had her go talk to him, he’d listen to her! Like me, in fact because of me, she is certainly a good friend of his, and he just might listen to her! She has much more of a chance of getting through to him than I do.

At that moment, Oscar came into the room, bowed to Renato, winked, and said,

“I’m having a little trouble convincing your wife to go to the masked ball. If you’d like to attend, I think you could convince her, however.”

Renato nodded, and then Oscar bowed again and left.

Slowly, he approached the bedroom and cracked open the door. Even through the small opening, he could see Amelia sitting by the window, gazing out at the snow, her loose blonde curls framing a sad expression on her face.

He slipped inside and wrapped her in his arms.

“Amelia, are you alright?”

She nodded, but her expression still stayed the same.

“Amelia,” he continued, looking her in the eyes, “I know you don’t want to go, but I need to take care of some business at the masked ball tonight, and I don’t want to leave you here alone. Could you come with me?”

She nodded again, both her silence and her expression remaining unchanged.

“One more thing.” He took a deep breath, exhaled, and then told her,

“I’ve learned that there are people who are going to try to assassinate Gustavo at the ball.”

Her expression finally changed, to one of alarm, but Renato kept going:

“I don’t want him to get murdered, and I don’t think you want that either. I need you to do me a favor.”

“What is it?” she asked quietly.

“I have to warn Gustavo about this, but he never listens to me whenever I try to tell him his life is in danger, even though we are best friends. So could you go to the royal palace sometime before tonight and talk to him, face-to-face, alone so no one else can overhear, and warn him that people will try to assassinate him at the masked ball at the opera house?”

She trembled slightly, but still nodded anyway.

Renato smiled and hugged Amelia one last time. “Thank you. I have to go now and work, but thank you for doing this. I love you.”

She smiled ever so slightly in response, and Renato turned around and left. There was still his normal business waiting to be done before the ball.

And he had to be at the ball- Gustavo’s life could depend on it.

Amelia:

The second Renato left the room, a wave of panic washed over Amelia.

Go talk to Gustavo? Face-to-face? Talk to him, now, alone? But what if…?

She shuddered at the thought of last night happening again. She knew how close she’d come last night, and she was not willing to risk that again. For her sake, for Renato’s sake, for Gustavo’s sake, for all of them, she could not put herself in that kind of position.

And unknowingly (she knew that he had no idea about her and Gustavo’s romance), that was exactly what he had told her to do.

I know that he is my husband, and as a wife, I must obey him, but I cannot do this. I cannot go talk to Gustavo, because it could all boil over and overwhelm us again…and it would destroy Renato. But how could I warn him secretly so no one else could know, like he said?

She started gazing out the window again, almost as if searching the snowy streets and the clouds for answers written inside them.

Wait! She started. I could write him a letter, and have a servant or someone take it to Gustavo…And he’ll get the warning just the same, but we won’t be alone together. This will work, I can feel it.

Newly sure of herself, she sat down at her writing table, took out a sheet of paper, dipped a quill into ink, and quickly wrote, words flying onto the paper:

16 March 1792

To His Majesty King Gustavo III of Sweden

I have heard there is a plot against your life to be carried out tonight. Tonight, you are holding a masked ball at the Royal Opera House, and knowing you and your love of parties and the arts, I am sure it will be a splendid one. However, this splendid masked ball could very well become a tragic one: there are conspirators who plan to carry out an assassination attempt at the ball. I hear that you have been informed of this conspiracy before, but have not listened. Please listen to me, though; I am very concerned for your safety and I do not want you to die. Let my love for you be my sign of confidence and trust. I remain affectionately yours,

Countess Amelia Anckarström

Amelia read the draft over and almost immediately shook her head.

What am I thinking? I cannot send this! It’s too personal, and I basically told him that I love him again! And why’d I sign this, anyhow? Someone could suspect me of something with the King… I’ll have to rewrite this, but this time, much less personal, and no signature.

With that, she took out another piece of paper and started again:

16 March 1792

To His Majesty King Gustavo III of Sweden

Please, allow me, someone whose conscience feels it is necessary, to inform you that there is a plot against your life. Tonight, during the masked ball that you are to hold at the opera house, a group of conspirators plan to assassinate you there, in the midst of all the darkness and the disguises a masked ball provides. I humbly beg you, be very careful, and if you can, do not attend the ball. This is for the urgently needed safety and security of our country.

She set the pen down and read the second draft over.

Much better. It still gets the message across, but it feels impersonal now. And no one will know it was me.

So she folded the single sheet up, slipped it inside an envelope, sealed it, and then left the room.

She was so focused on trying to find someone who could take the letter to Gustavo that she bumped into someone.

“I’m sorry-“ she began, before seeing the impish grin on the face in front of her. “Oscar! You’re back? Why?”

Oscar bowed. “Comtesse, I need to know whether you and your husband attending the ball or not.”

“Oh, we are,” she said quickly.

“Excellent! It will be-“

“Oscar, can I ask you a favor?”

“Anything, Madame.”

Amelia held out the letter and asked, “Could you take this letter to Gustavo? And please, do not tell him that I wrote or sent it, but make sure he gets the letter and reads it, too. It is crucial that he reads this letter. His life could depend on this.”

Oscar thought hard, but only for a moment, before taking the letter.

“Of course! Anything for the King.” He smiled and added, “And anything for the most beautiful woman in all of Sweden.”

Amelia cocked her head, confused.

Oscar laughed. “It’s you! You really are the most beautiful woman in Sweden!”

Amelia couldn’t help but smile. “Why, thank you! But please, go, and take this letter to him-“

“-And make sure he reads it,” Oscar finished. He bowed, smiled again, and then ran down the hall and out of sight.

Amelia’s mind started racing again, worrying about what would happen:

Will he get it? Will he read it and listen? Dear God, don’t abandon us now…please make sure he gets it, and keep him safe…

She sighed and shook her head. She had done all she could, but it was out of her hands now. She’d have to wait until the ball to see what would happen.

Gustavo:

A study in Gustavo’s palace

Evening

Gustavo reread the most recent draft, making sure that it was as good as he could make it:

16 March 1792

I hereby name Count Renato Anckarström to the position of Governor of Finland, on account of the recent passing of the previous Governor. Tomorrow morning, ten o’clock on 17 March, he, his wife (Countess Amelia Anckarström), and their son shall depart from the port and sail to Helsinki. Count Anckarström shall hold this honored position for the rest of his lifetime. This order is to be effective immediately on the order of His Majesty,

 

Satisfactory, he thought. I do not think I could write it any better.

All he needed to do now was sign it, make it official. But he was hesitating. If he signed, he’d lose the two people he cared about most in the world: his best friend and the love of his life. He’d never see either one of them again. He did not want to do this.

But I have to, he remembered, for their sake. Struck by the thought, he quickly picked up his pen and signed it:

Gustavo III, King of Sweden

 

He put the pen down and sighed. That’s it, he thought. It is done. I have signed my sacrifice.

His head swirled once again, this time with things he wanted to say to Amelia, but knew he could not: Even though I am losing you forever, I will always love you…I will always remember you…I want to see you one more time, before you go away forever…But I have a strange feeling inside…like somehow, it will be the end of something…Amelia, will it be the last hour of our love?...Even though everything is tearing us apart, I still will dream of you…

He shook his head. He knew it: it was useless to dream of her now.

Before he could start dreaming again, he heard a clear, high voice:

“Your Majesty?”

Gustavo turned and saw his faithful page Oscar, holding an envelope in one hand.

“This is for you. I’m not supposed to say who wrote it.”

Oscar bounced over and handed the envelope to Gustavo, who opened it and took a single folded sheet out. On it was a message, written in very neat handwriting:

16 March 1792

To His Majesty King Gustavo III of Sweden

Please, allow me, someone whose conscience feels it is necessary, to inform you that there is a plot against your life. Tonight, during the masked ball that you are to hold at the opera house, a group of conspirators plan to assassinate you there, in the midst of all the darkness and the disguises a masked ball provides. I humbly beg you, be very careful, and if you can, do not attend the ball. This is for the urgently needed safety and security of our country.

Gustavo looked up when he was done and met Oscar’s eyes.

“What is it?” he asked, a confused look on his face.

“Someone wrote a letter saying that people are going to try to kill me at the masked ball tonight. But I cannot be a coward. No, not me! And also,” he added softly, “masked balls are too much fun to miss. You are dismissed, Oscar.”

Oscar quickly turned and left, and then a new thought came to Gustavo.

Amelia, yes, I will get to see you one more time tonight at the ball! My love, I will see you one last time!

He beamed victoriously as he went out the door and through the halls to board the carriage to take him to the ball.

Renato:

Grand Foyer of the Royal Opera House, Stockholm

Shortly before midnight

It is practically impossible to find Gustavo in the midst of all this, Renato thought wearily to himself.

The ball was among the grandest and largest that Gustavo had ever thrown, with hundreds if not thousands of people all dressed in elaborate outfits and donning masks of all sorts dancing to the music and crowding the room with their bodies and the loudness of their voices.

That was all good and fine, but not helpful for Renato. He’d been searching for the King for almost an hour now and had still not managed to find him.

Suddenly, he felt a jolt, so he turned around and found himself staring at a rather short fellow dressed entirely in pale yellow and cream, except for his mask, which was black.

“Your disguise doesn’t fool me,” the boy whispered, his eyes lit up. “You are Count Anckarström!”

“And you,” Renato replied as he took the boy’s mask off, “are Oscar!”

“Give it back,” Oscar whined.

“First, tell me where the King is.”

“Why do you need to know? Just give me back my mask so I can go have fun.”

Renato ignored Oscar and his whining, annoying as it was, and replied,

“It is very important.”

Oscar furrowed his brows.

“Do you want to play the same trick on him?”

“No. Please, at least tell me what he’s wearing.”

Oscar laughed.

“I won’t tell, no matter what you do!” He tried to run, but Renato grabbed him by the arm and whispered,

“If you at least tell me what he’s wearing, you will not be doing a service to me, but to him, and to the whole country.”

Oscar paused, thought that over, and then whispered back,

“He is wearing a great black cape with a scarlet ribbon pinned onto the right side.”

Renato nodded and then held out the mask.

“You told me, so here you go.”

Oscar grabbed it and then rapidly disappeared into the crowd.

Renato turned and dashed up the grand staircase, where he knew he could get a better view of the whole ballroom, muttering all the way, “Black cape with a scarlet ribbon on the right…black cape with a scarlet ribbon on the right…black cape…”

Once he reached the top, he leaned over the railing, squinting to get a better view of the masqueraders. As he did, he heard a soft clang to his right. He immediately turned, and was relieved to see that the sound had merely been caused by a small metal object hitting the floor. On closer examination, he found it was a pair of opera glasses.

Yes, good find! I can see that much more with these, he thought.

So he resumed leaning over the railing, this time scanning all the partygoers for that single costume using the glasses.

It took a while, but eventually, he saw it: a man wearing a large black cape with a scarlet ribbon pinned onto the right standing alone on the left side of the ballroom. Even far off, just looking through the opera glasses, he could tell that it was most definitely Gustavo.

He rushed back down the staircase, never taking his eyes off the spot where he had seen Gustavo, and slipped through the crowd as quickly as humanly possible, nudging people apart and occasionally bumping into someone as he went.

As he went along, he noticed several men who, like he just had been, were peering around the ballroom. And they were dressed in blue dominos with red ribbons tied at the left.

Good, they haven’t found him yet. But it’s only a matter of time before they will…I have to find him and get him out of here before they come…and what if they come? I couldn’t very well take on more than one of them…

He had no time to worry or plan, though. He knew that he just had to find Gustavo. And before long, he did.

Gustavo was not dancing or partying or enjoying himself in any way. He was merely standing by a wall, and he seemed lost in thought as he watched the dancers whirl by.

“Gustavo?”

Gustavo almost jumped, he was so startled, but turned to Renato and asked, “Who are you?”

“Never mind that,” Renato whispered back. “Look, there are people here who are trying to kill you.”

“I am not afraid of them-“

“I know,” Renato continued, now exasperated, “but, please, your life is in danger! You have to leave!

“Can you at least tell me who you are?”

Renato knew that he if he told Gustavo who he was, then Gustavo would never leave.

“No. But please leave!” He was about to cry now, and didn’t realize that he had raised his voice.

“Renato, it’s you!” Gustavo cried, taking off both of their masks and tucking them away inside his cape.

Shoot, Renato sighed. “Gustavo, as both your closest advisor and your best friend-“

He noticed that now Gustavo had an odd look on his face, troubled, almost guilty. He ignored it, though, and went on,

“I am telling you that you must go and save yourself. If you stay here, then tomorrow you will be dead. Do you understand? You’ll die if you stay here!”

“Renato, please, don’t worry about me.”

“I have to, though! I want to! You’re my best friend, and I will not allow you to die- not here, not now!”

“Renato, I am not leaving. I am not afraid of death. No matter what, I am staying here.”

Renato paused, and then replied,

“Fine. If you stay here, I will defend you and your life any way I can.”

Gustavo now looked even more troubled and guilty as he started to process that.

Eventually, he shook his head and slowly whispered,

“No, Renato, please don’t. I am not worthy of you or your trying to save me.”

Renato looked confused, but at that moment, he heard a voice nearby.

“There he is.”

Even without looking, he knew it was Count Ribbing’s. He then heard another voice say,

“But he’s talking to someone.”

He also recognized that voice; it was the voice of Count Horn, another conspirator and Ribbing’s best friend. He turned to where the voices were coming from- Gustavo’s left, not too far off.

“Well,” Ribbing replied, “that means that the distraction part is already taken care of, and we just have to close in on him and shoot. You stay here, and I’ll go.”

“But I want to do it,” whined Horn.

“Shut up. We don’t have much time, and my gun is already ready,” Ribbing whispered back.

Renato glanced back at Gustavo, who was watching the dancers again, completely oblivious, before turning back to the voices.

Fine,” Horn groaned.

With that, Renato saw Ribbing turn around and start walking away from Horn towards Gustavo.

Renato turned so he could seem inconspicuous while still keeping one eye on Ribbing and the other on Gustavo. Ribbing zigzagged a little, trying to blend in with the crowd (as if he knew someone was watching), but he still came ever closer, just not quite from the same direction as he had been.

Renato moved slightly with him, causing Gustavo to ask, worried,

“What are you doing?”

“Don’t worry about me,” he whispered back. “I promise you, you will be alright. Just don’t move.”

By that point, Ribbing had grabbed his gun, with a “now-or-never” expression on his face, and Renato was standing directly in the line between him and the king.

At that moment, knowing exactly what was about to happen, he thought with resolve,

I will not let him die. It doesn’t matter if I die now…Amelia will grieve, but she is a resilient woman. She’ll find happiness again. And Gustavo will live…even though I may not. He cannot die, though.

Gustavo, with a look that was a cross between confusion and concern, started to ask again,

“Renato, tell me, what are you-“

And at that moment, Ribbing fired a single shot.

Renato collapsed in front of Gustavo, bleeding, with a bullet lodged into his heart.

Gustavo:

Just before Renato is shot

Gustavo didn’t know what Renato was doing- he was acting strange, and he had also said he’d defend him any way he could, which worried him.

So Gustavo asked once more,

“Renato, tell me, what are you-“

He never finished that question.

Right then, he heard a gunshot and then saw Renato sink down to the ground.

It took a second for him to process just what had happened, but when he did, he screamed.

Whether attracted by the sound of the gunshot or Gustavo’s long, loud scream, people swarmed around him and he saw a few disarm a man dressed in a blue domino with a red ribbon pinned onto the left.

There were more gunshots, and Gustavo realized that Renato was still gripping onto him and trying to shield him from them.

“Renato,” Gustavo whispered, crying, “you don’t need to…you’re bleeding a lot…”

“Well,” Renato replied in all seriousness, “I’m still alive and there are still gunshots being fired, so I can and will still protect you.”

The guards were racing around the foyer, rounding up and disarming everyone who was wearing the same costume that the man who had shot Renato was wearing. Eventually, the shots stopped and everyone was crowded around Gustavo and Renato, murmuring amongst themselves, a few gasping in shock.

For a few moments, Gustavo sat in silence on the floor, his arms wrapped around his dying best friend.

Renato broke the silence.

“Don’t sit there crying. Your life is more important than mine, more valuable than mine…and it is an honor to save you by giving my own life.”

Gustavo replied,

“But Renato, you’re wrong…my life is not worth saving, and your life is not worth giving up.” He just managed to get what he wanted to say next out:

“I don’t want you to die…I want…to see you live…and be happy…”

Renato laughed just a little.

“It makes me happy knowing you’re alive and safe.”

Gustavo had nothing to say to that, so he remained there, silent except for the sound of his own tears, holding his friend in his arms.

And then, a voice, calling out,

“Renato? … Renato!”

Gustavo looked up and saw Amelia, her face covered in tears, making her way through the crowd as fast as she could, which was surprisingly fast. When she reached them, she collapsed on the other side of Renato, clutching his arm.

She peered at Gustavo, barely whispering,

“How bad is it?”

Gustavo looked back at her and simply shook his head “no”.

“No…” she whispered as she saw Renato’s wound. “Dear Lord, please, no…”

“Amelia…” Renato tried to comfort her. “Please, my love, don’t worry-“

Amelia grabbed tighter onto him, letting out a single loud sob.

Seeing them together like that, him trying to comfort her, overwhelmed Gustavo with shame. I almost destroyed their marriage. If he knew what had almost happened between us, it would have destroyed him.

He sat there, unable to find any words to say, weeping.

Renato turned to look Gustavo in the eyes and whispered,

“The end is coming…I can just feel it…Gustavo…to sacrifice something for someone you love is a beautiful thing…we will all die sometime, but now is not your time to die…I couldn’t let you die now…my very best friend…”

Gustavo saw him look over at Amelia.

“And you, Amelia…please…I know you are a strong, resilient woman…I see that in you every day…so I know it, but I still beg you…please don’t waste your days weeping for me…live and be happy, my love.”

Renato took a short breath. Gustavo could feel him weakening.

“Both of you…live and be happy…that is all I want for you…”

He paused, and Gustavo saw it- the look of a man just moments from death.

Renato took another short breath and whispered,

“There are no two people I care about in this world…as much as you two…I…” Another pause.

“What?” Gustavo murmured, clinging onto his best friend for dear life.

He felt Renato heave against him as he struggled to take one more breath.

“Farewell…I love you both.”

And then Gustavo felt part of Renato’s weight sink into him, and even without doing anything to make sure of it, he knew.

Renato was dead.

Gustavo couldn’t take it anymore. He broke down crying, burying his head in Renato’s shoulder.

He didn’t notice as slowly, many of them crying, all the guests, conspirators, palace workers, and innocent partygoers, all of them, left the ballroom until it was only him, Renato’s body, and Amelia in the room.

Amelia:

Amelia knew that there was no way she could have saved Renato, but still, she somehow felt guilty.

Eventually, she looked up, still holding onto Renato, realizing that Gustavo was also still there, but no one else was.

“Gustavo?” she asked shyly.

Gustavo looked up quizzically at Amelia.

“I feel like this is my fault somehow,” she confessed, weeping.

“Amelia…it really isn’t; don’t think that. If this was anyone’s fault, it’s mine, because he died trying to save me. If I had just listened to him and left the ball, none of this would have happened.” He continued sobbing.

“No, no, Gustavo…” She reached out to him, trying to wipe away his tears. “Please, don’t do that to yourself. He told you to live and be happy…”

“He also said that to you. You need to stop blaming yourself.”

For a while, they sat in silence, both gazing at Renato, his eyes closed, his clothes soaked with blood, and thinking about what he’d told them.

Eventually, Gustavo broke the silence, talking to himself:

“So I guess that means the order is invalid now…”

Amelia turned to him, confused.

“What order?”

Gustavo sighed and took out the decree he had signed just hours earlier, handing it to Amelia.

“I felt so guilty about what happened at the gallows and I knew that I never wanted to put you or him in that position again. So I wrote this order naming your husband Governor of Finland. You were going to go with him to Finland and stay there while he was Governor, which would have been the rest of his life…”

Amelia studied the paper, reading phrases to herself, and eventually asked,

“So you would never see either one of us again?”

“Exactly.”

They both fell silent until Gustavo asked,

“You made it home safely, right?”

Amelia nodded.

“I feel so guilty about that night, though…”

“Me too.”

“I may not have loved him, but I always cared for him. He was such a good, good man, God rest his soul…” She started sobbing once more. “And even though he never found out, I still hurt him so badly…”

She felt Gustavo wrap her into a hug.

“I know. I understand. I feel that way too.”

“What happens now?” Amelia asked suddenly. “What will happen to me now?”

Gustavo shrugged.

“I do not know what life has in store for me or for you.”

Amelia looked him in the eyes and through her tears, said the only thing she felt she could say:

“For now, we’ll both mourn, but like Renato said, we cannot waste all our days mourning. To do so, I think, would be a disservice to his memory.”

Gustavo nodded in reply but did not say anything.

“We must honor his memory somehow, but I do not know how yet,” she continued. She took a deep breath and then said the only thing she felt she could say:

“Only time will tell.”