I would not be able to say what day it was, but I never lost track of how many days had passed since my arrival. My method of counting was a system of precision that revolved around a meal for I was only given a meal a day. Starvation was supposed to keep my figure for the auction. According to the old woman who was responsible for my body, I needed to lose a few pounds to maintain the look of a youthful doll.
          “That is your target audience,” she had always reminded me before taking measurements of every part of my body each morning, “men who are attracted to childlike women.”
          “So, they will do whatever they please with me?” I had asked her once.

          “Of course,” she had scoffed. “If they pay, then they can do anything they want, Lady Ren. Don’t forget that. Paying customers are always right.”
          “Lady?”
          “All of the girls here are called Ladies.”
          “Why are we called Ladies?” I questioned.
          She placed her hand on my shoulder, almost scratching my skin. Then, she glared ever so sternly. “Don’t ask so many questions. The more you ask the more trouble you’ll get. Just obey orders and perhaps, you’ll live.”
          “Is there any way out?” I had uttered after hearing her footsteps trail away. I knew I had posed a similar question before, but I needed reassurance. Hope was the essence of living. No, it was chance.
          “No,” she had halted to announce, “of course not.”
          So, I waited, waited for the dreaded moment, the auction, until the 54th day. My eyes were just about to shut when I heard the sound of jangling keys and the footsteps of a heavy person. “Wake up!” The man rattled the bars of my prison. “Get up and follow me!” He shined a piercingly bright lantern, almost blinding me and causing me to trip over the chains bounding my ankles. I had luckily0 regained my balance in time. “Don’t you dare hurt yourself! Today’s the big day!” he hollered like a wolf.
          “The . . . auction?” I confirmed while struggling to follow his fast steps.
          “What else?” He threw his head backwards to laugh at my folly.
          The lady was right. It was better to be silent, to cease to question. Learning my lesson, I simply tagged behind him. I felt like a toddler chasing after the hectic parent for food or amusement. Perhaps, I was always a child, sheltered and blessed with too much love.
          I was told never to take things for granted, but how did one know what was taken for granted before it was too late? In the end, there was only regret, which had to have been a sign of reflection. What good was reflection when there was nothing to change?
          That was when optimism played a role in determining quality of life. I could brainwash myself by chanting that there was hope to escape, yet that had to have been a silly thought. Even if I did manage to escape, where would I go?
          There’s . . . nowhere for me to go anyways.
          “We’re here.”
          He opened the door to a grandiose bedroom. Inside, there was already a young, small girl waiting for me. Her brown hair was neatly tucked in a bun, which mimicked the manner in which she sat. Her hands rested on top of each other on her lap and her legs were crossed. Judging from her outfit, I concluded that she was a maid, a very young maid.
          “Adelaide will help you prepare,” he uttered before pushing me into the room.
          When Adelaide approached me, I immediately noticed her eyes. How could she have such contented eyes and even wear a smile?
          She merely instructed, “I have to bathe you now, so follow me.”
          Her pale hands beckoned me to come and so I obeyed her. She led me to a lavish bathroom with a bath tub resembling a Roman public bath: enormous and comfortable.
          Freedom.
          “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” She turned to look at me with such tranquility. “My mother used to love this place too.” Then, she looked away after that sentence, staring into the swaying rhythm of the water. I could only see her back, the loneliest one I had ever encountered.
          “I’m sorry,” I blurted, causing a great echo.
          Adelaide then shifted her direction towards me. She walked forth and seized my hands. Was she really a child, I wondered. “It’s better this way.” Her gentle smile returned. “She’s probably happier in heaven. She told me that that’s where all good people go.”
          Heaven? Was there even a place called heaven? I used to believe in a wondrous afterlife, which separated the good from the bad, but now, I was only certain of death. The cause of death mattered more than the place to rest the dead.
          “How . . . did she die?” I couldn’t help but wonder.
          Adelaide pointed to the bath. “She drowned herself there.”
          “How is it possible to drown yourself if she knew how to swim? The body would . . .” I was perplexed by this enigma. The body was geared for survival; that was the reason for homeostasis.
          Again, that grin surfaced as she explained, “Mother said that that was the right thing to do.”
          “But, what about you?” I uttered in confusion. I didn’t understand how a mother could abandon a young child. Then I remembered my mother. Although alive, she too had left me. I wanted to say how much I understood how Adelaide felt, but I couldn’t. How did I understand how she felt, to be living here, perhaps from the start of her life? I wanted to hug her to tell her that everything was going to be okay, but I couldn’t. What did I know of the future? How did I even know that she needed my comfort?
          Her smile, sweetie. Smiles tell you everything. 
          “Now, we must hurry. I’ll be outside waiting while you bathe,” she finally declared before walking away from the room. A walk could tell you part of one’s story: one’s feelings, one’s insecurities and one’s character. Hers was an amalgamation of loneliness and melancholy. What was mine then?
          I dragged my feet across the floor, almost scraping the bottom of my soles. Every step drew me closer to her. I could picture the image of her mother’s corpse floating in the centre of the pool and I was to be disturbing that scene or rather visiting a sliver of the past. My feet were now touching the rounded edge of the bath. One more step and I would plummet. So in I fell.
          Down, down, down.
          I floated upwards. Looking up to the ceiling, I could see the sunlight peeping through the small cracks of the ceiling, beaming downwards onto my face. This was heaven then. No wonder she claimed her own life, just to enjoy this sight forever.
          I shouldn’t have thought that though. Really.
          I felt the water pulling me downwards, almost suffocating me. I tried to crawl upwards, but suddenly, down I went. One moment I was happy, and now, I could only say that my father was right.
          “Dad, why can’t I swim alone?”
          “You just can’t. It’s not safe by yourself.”
          “But, I know how to swim! I’ve been swimming for—“
          “Just be a good girl. Never swim by yourself.”
          “Is this what you truly want?” I could hear a raspy, firm voice interrogating me.
          I could feel a set of hands seizing my shoulders, and shaking my body back and forth. I was speechless, yet I could feel my eyes blur. I couldn’t see him anymore. No, I didn’t deserve to see him.
          I had to be heartless. I had to be strong. This was the right thing to do.
          “Yes,” I stated.
          The wind was too ruthless, raging past my hair, shielding him from him. The rain too was merciless, pounding its sorrow onto us, drowning my feelings for him.   
          “Suit yourself.” His tone had changed to utter calmness. Releasing me from his grip, he turned his back towards me. He was walking away from me, and all I could remember were his balanced, yet stiff footsteps. Contemptuous.  
          “Lady Ren.” I opened my eyes to find Adelaide ogling at me. “You’re finally awake. You almost drowned like . . .”
          “I’m sorry.” I tried my best to forge a smile. “I shouldn’t have been alone there.”
          “What do you mean?” she pondered.
          “Can you please stay when I’m bathing?”
          “Lady, pardon me for asking you this, but . . . were you forbidden from being close to wa—“
          I stood up, utterly stunned. My hands had already settled on her shoulders, gripping them too toughly. “How’d you know?”
          Avoiding my glance, she continued to ask, “Do you hear voices? Do you dream of certain people? Do you have a scar on your neck?”
          “How do you—“
          She had fallen on her knees, announcing, “Your Highness, we have waited for you for so long.”
          “What?” I frowned.
          “My mother had been right.” Still glued to the ground, she glanced at me. “You are our Princess. You must return. There is almost no more time.”
          “What do you mean? I don’t understand what you’re saying.” I pulled her hand to bring her up from the floor and then it was there that I noticed a large, brown birthmark to the side of her forearm.
          “Do you remember me?” she questioned.
          I shook my head, muttering, “I-I-I’ve only met you a while ago.”
          She giggled. “We have met a long time ago. Now, you must go back.”
          “Go where?”
          “Go—“
          “Is Lady Ren ready? The auction will start soon.” A man’s voice chimed from outside.
          “She will be soon,” Adelaide hollered. Then, she stared at me so intently and whispered, “Your Highness, be strong, okay? In time, you will be in the proper place and this time, you will do what’s right.”
          “I don’t—“
          “I know you don’t understand what I’m saying, but . . . just focus on surviving for now,” Adelaide instructed. She had the eyes of an experienced woman. She couldn’t have been a child. She couldn’t have been lying. That look told me the truth.
          “I believe you.” I placed my hand over her small palm.
          I witnessed a sea of masks, men with masquerade masks. Examining my surroundings, I realized that I was on a stage and in a golden cage, an over-sized bird’s cage. The audience was ready to devour me at any time, and I was trapped, yet again.    
          “Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer, standing to my right, declared. “Welcome to the monthly grand auction. Today, we will be starting with a beautiful, young lady . Please welcome Lady Ren.”
          The light struck me, growing brighter than ever. The claps were thunderous, and their eyes became more carnivorous. I felt my breaths becoming shorter and my body shuddering. Closing my eyes, I prayed that I would live. Everything would be all right. I would return to wherever Adelaide said.
          I won’t allow you to die on me.
          “500 dollars.” I heard a man yell.
          Then, a deep voice interrupted, “1,000 dollars.”
          “1,500 dollars.”
          “6,000 dollars.”
          “9,700 dollars.”
          “14, 500 dollars.”
          I stopped listening to the ceaseless cries of numbers; there was no point in listening. This time, only silence mattered.
          “Lady Ren has been sold to Gentleman number 63,” the announcer decreed. “Please come forward to retrieve your prize.”
          I finally looked ahead. An old, stout man marched onto the stage. When he forcefully took my hand, I saw his ravenous eyes, beady and fierce. Then, he smiled too pompously and croaked, “Don’t worry, princess. We’ll have loads of fun.”
          I swallowed my fear and breathed a little deeper.
          I just had to forget, to become numb once again.
          He threw me on the bed and climbed on top of me. He tore my dress into pieces with his arms and with his teeth.
          Why did I need to feel afraid? He was only taking my body away.
          He carelessly kissed my lips, my hands, and my chest. He even bit my neck, causing me to whimper. “You like that, don’t you?” he grunted beside my ear.
          This must be a nightmare. I will wake up feeling fine the next day. 
          He quickly undid his belt and tossed it to the ground. He revealed his wily smirk of greasy, yellow teeth. He must have seen the fear in my eyes for he chuckled, “I’ll treat you with love, princess.”
          When it gets too much, I will be there for you. I promise.
          Then, I felt the pain and I cried my heart out.
          In time, everything will be fine, so stop crying your heart out.
          When it all stopped, all the moving, all the crying, all the thinking, I just curled my body into a ball, hugging my own body. Then, I felt a hand on my shoulder and it was Adelaide.
          “You were waiting for me?” I managed to croak.
          She nodded and subsequently consoled me, “You did well. You can rest now.”
          Hence, I closed my eyes and dreamt about a place called home. Instead, I dreamt about you.
          “You’re too gentle.” This was the voice of a gentle woman. “That is why you lose every time.”
          “Maybe I am, but . . .” I recognized this voice to be his. How could I ever forget him?
          I knew his eyes were fixated on me, but I didn’t dare move. I didn’t dare dart my head towards him, and so the silk curtain concealed his and her faces.
          “But?”
          “But, I would do the same. This is my fate.”
          “And hers?”
Chapter 3                                                                             Chapter 5

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