My mother used to tell me that once a baby had a taste of real food, that baby would no longer drink powdered milk or snack on baby food. After a dose of freedom, I, too, refused to be confined in my room. Midnight escapades were common and I always seemed to return to one place: Cerebus’ Swamp. Actually, I frequented the garden within the Swamp, the one that housed a pool of water. This garden was named after a loyal knight, Sir Garold. In commemoration of his honourable death during an assassination attempt on King Fitzgerald II, this garden was constructed. The lake or pond was supposed to contain the freshest, iciest water to remind people of Sir Garold’s commendable act of bravery.
          The reason for my return wasn’t to relive Sir Garold’s gallantry though; I just wanted to see that boy and Cerebus again. Every time I met them, he would greet me with a genuine smile, where his eyes would almost shutter, his cheeks would rise and faintly puff up, and his somewhat disarranged teeth would be completely revealed. As for Cerebus, he would demand that I scratch his cheek with a bark. This was imperfection at its best; it was authentic at the most. For the first time living as the Princess, I felt comfort and truth be told, comfort was addicting.
          Almost every night, I sat at the edge of the pool while watching him swim. I asked him why he swam. He told me that it was soothing for his soul and that it was his way of releasing stress. I asked why he came here every night. He asked why I was here every night. I asked how he knew who I was. He chuckled and said that everyone knew who I was and that it wasn’t hard to guess. I asked why it wasn’t hard to guess. He informed me that I was the youngest and the shortest girl in the whole castle. When I asked who he was, he never properly answered my question. He would just stare and then move on to another topic.
          “It’s not fair,” I grumbled one day. “You know who I am, but I do not know who you are. It’s not fair!”
           “Life has never been fair, but you have to follow the rules.”
          “What rules?” I argued. “There is not a rule that stops you from telling me your name!”
          “If there were not any rules,” he responded in a desolate tone. “I would not even be here. If there were not any rules, I would gladly tell you everything.”
          This would probably be one of the rare moments where he would expose his melancholy. Even in a sorrowful state, he still wore a smile. I could, however, discern his forced smiles from his usual blissful ones. I have heard of the happiest people being the most depressed ones. Perhaps, that was true now that I thought of it. His numerous smiles only accentuated the core of his misery.  
          Laughter could be ignorance. Temporary ignorance could be bliss, and so I jeered, “So I bet your name has some curse related to it, like those actors who are not allowed to say ‘good luck’ before a screening of their play.”
          Of course, he didn’t fully understand my joke. Thus, he smiled, yet this time with his normal approach. “You’re an odd one, Chiyu.”
          At first, I didn’t understand what he meant by Chiyu. It didn’t seem like any word that I had learned . . . in Urcisian. It was a Koseian word, the Queen explained after I asked for its definition.
          “It means little one,” she mumbled. “But where did you hear this?”
          “Oh, I overheard some maids chattering,” I hastily lied.
          She still had an apprehensive look with her eyes furrowing alongside her eyebrows. She didn’t say anything further. I knew, however, that she was becoming suspicious and that this word was not as simple as it appeared. Without a reason, the next day, the Queen placed two guards in front of my chamber, preventing me from ever venturing out. She claimed that it was for my safety and that recently, there were burglars, who vandalized another part of the castle.
          Lies. They were all lies.
          If there were thieves, then why weren’t there more guards overseeing the castle at night?
          A woman’s intuition was too precise. She sensed that a change in me and it all originated from a single word.
          I never had the opportunity to bid farewell. Perhaps, it was rude of me to leave so suddenly. Friendships were easy to acquire, but hard to maintain. I could only tell with the passing of time for what would happen and what was to come. If I remembered correctly, he had explained that there was a time for every moment, but not every moment had its time. For now, preparation filled my every moment, but who would have thought that even rehearsals were not enough to overcome surprises?
          “Everyone!” A man clad in soiled clothes screamed. “Run! Cerebus has run wild and has escaped from the Swamp!”
          Ten was for the ceremony of innocence, Lemiscus. The Ribbon was its colloquial name. Apparently, the celebration for my tenth birthday was by holding this ceremony, where I would make my formal appearance in front of all of the nobles, the members of the royal family, and most importantly, the King. I would officially be under the House de Vinceremos.
          This would be my moment to create a first impression, and as expected, I could not disappoint anyone. First impressions were typically irreversible thanks to those that loved to judge. To prevent them from criticizing me, the Queen crammed my mind with names, manners, and other tips. She had used a whole season, from spring to summer, to train me for that day. Every day, she would show me miniature portraits of nobles to which I had to voice their appropriate names, their relationships to the King, their roles, and their personalities.
          When the day came, the eleventh of Wisteria, I was practically immune to what was around me. I didn’t need to think and already my body would react to the situation. I was on my way to the Altar of Wisdom, which was located in the heart of the King’s Haven. The King’s Haven was the most exclusive and famous garden of the entire kingdom. This sanctuary could only be accessed by the King, his Sorcerer, and his loyal gardener; only grand ceremonies or celebrations such as the Lemiscus allowed for others to come.
          Stepping on the cut stones of the path to the Altar of Wisdom, I realized that there were miniscule sweet peas in raspberry and amethyst to my left and right. I straightened my back and stared ahead. At the centre of the Altar was the oldest-living wisteria tree, which now blossomed and acted as the roof of the Altar with their lilac flowers. The tree was so enormous that its trunk was about the width of an elephant. This tree also soared into the sky as if the heavens had given birth to wisteria flowers. To support the heavy branches of the tree, five stoned pillars were arranged in a half circle with a long, limestone band connecting the top of these pillars. Engraved on the band were historic achievements from notable kings as it was believed that all Kings of Urcis contemplated at the Altar of Wisdom. Where else would be a better place to bask in glory?
          Prior to this walk, I had been fitted in the proper garments. Today, I would begin wearing a lace-coloured silk ribbon tied to my waist. This ribbon had to be knotted into a bow-tie, which faced the rear for the world to admire from behind, and only the girl’s father could tie such a ribbon. During one of my fittings, I remembered asking the Queen why the father had to be complete this deed. She muttered that the father was the one who planted to seed of a child. He would also be the one who gave rights to the child and the one who would later send away the child, in this case daughter, for marriage. She went on to explain that once a girl had her first blood, the girl, now a woman, would have to wear a red-coloured ribbon. The shade of red, the ribbon’s fabric, and the decorations on the ribbon reflected the woman’s family. Most importantly, the family’s crest had to be shown in the front and found right in the centre of a lady’s ribs. This crest clearly defined to which family a woman belonged.
          “Remember that the royal family’s crest is of a Leogartos sporting a golden ribbon collar,” the Queen had repeated.
          “Is there even such a thing as a Leogartos?” I had grumbled as she slipped the cream-coloured empire waist dress on me.
          Her hands had roughly buttoned row of buttons running down my spine. “Of course there is! They’re the fastest and most vicious creatures at Urcis, the perfect pet and the perfect warrior.”
          “Will I have a Leogartos?” the child in me had pondered. I was reminded of that time when I asked my mother if I could have a dog. She at first politely refused with a joyous smile. With my persistent begging, she even hugged me then, saying that perhaps if Dad let me, then I could have a dog. That wish was never fulfilled and as I grew older, I had forgotten about such a desire. I was fixated on other obsessions, such as fashion, makeup, and fine dining. I had failed to remember what it was to be like a child. Idealistic dreams. Wacky stories. Everlasting energy. Naïve responses. Wishful thinking. Those were what composed a typical child’s behaviour. Typical, I could be if I hadn’t already been a child.
          After the Queen had finished adjusting the hem of my puffy dress, she directly faced me and civilly remarked, “That would depend on the King and on your performance.”
          Typical, I thought. It was typical how people pushed the responsibility to others. They were afraid of losing their lives. In the end, all of us merely wanted to survive. This was only a reiteration of a flash of my past. For what was I hoping?
          Anticipation impelled disappointment. I should have known that the best method of self-protection was never to care. If I were to care, I would learn to expect. To expect was to be wounded.      
          Insouciance would be my savior.
          First was to greet the honourable guests at the Altar. One by one, they marched to me, handing their sacred gifts to the Queen’s ladies, who were by my side. Then, I mentioned their titles and thanked their blessings. I smiled when appropriate, remembering to cater my joy to each individual. An open one was for those that needed more love, according to the Queen. A gentle grin was for those that believed in humility. A chuckle was for the young nobles that adored entertainment. Grateful for the practice that I had received, I felt ease facing such strangers. How could they be strangers when I knew practically every secret, every interest, and every detail of theirs?
          Familiarity, however, could still be astonishing. Whoever could read microexpressions would know what I felt when I saw him: dumbfounded. The boy . . . dressed in formal attire with his dress shirt fully buttoned, his navy blazer somehow tamed, and tanned trousers tucked in his shiny, black leather boots. His hair was vaguely curled with bangs that hovered over his eyebrows, almost touching his lashes. Handsome and refined, he was.
          He, however, was like the others, full of expression, yet truthfully expressionless. There was even a hint of grey melded with the blueness of his eyes. His smile too was unlike before; it was too courteous, too distant.
          “Heavens, Cael, your baby sister must be too excited for this ceremony that she has forgotten her manners,” the Queen joked.
          Then, I realized that she had never told me that I had a brother. She never even mentioned this boy nor had she ever showed me his portrait, but I knew that he must have known all along that I was his sister. What I didn’t understand was why he had refused to tell me his name.
          If there were not any rules, I would not even be here. If there were not any rules, I would gladly tell you everything.
          If there weren’t any rules, I would have asked if he remembered me. Instead, I grinned politely. “Forgive me, I was too elated to finally meet you. Will you allow me to call you brother?”
          “Of course.” He nodded. “I too would always be willing to call you sister.”
          Chiyu, I thought I heard from a distance, yet that was too far, and too distant.
          Second was to hear the Sorcerer’s sermon. He happened to be that man, who had visited me at my chamber. He was like his portrait: tall and lanky, wrinkled pale skin, long grey beard with equally long frizzy arsenic shaded hair, a hawk nose, and droopy, hooded eyes. This time, he wore a lengthy gown dyed in glaucous and wore a golden pendant shaped like a lion’s paw. His presence though daunting was just as important as the King’s; in fact, his seat was to the right of the King. He was addressing me with life lessons: beware, be careful, take note of, do this, listen . . .
          Third was to have the ribbon tied by the King, my biological father. In the beginning, the Queen and I exchanged portraits symbolizing that I had acknowledged her as my mother and she had declared me as her daughter. Then, the Sorcerer handed an expensive piece of silk to the King, who lifted it high in the air for the crowd to witness.
          “This is the sign of a legitimate birth,” the King announced. “This is for my dear princess and daughter, Jiyuna de Vinceremos.”
          As I now stood in front of the King, only separated by a set of steps, I took a deep breath before promenading to his throne. I stopped once I was three steps away from his feet, and then I knelt on the ground with my back faced to him. He carefully stooped to my level, shaped the ribbon to a bow tie and fastened it onto my waist.
          “Thank you, Your Majesty.” I curtsied to the audience before thanking the King.
          “Now, I must grant you your proper name,” the King declared. “Bring the presents!” In strolled several ladies, each holding a different gift. They lined up in a horizontal line as the King instructed, “Princess, you may choose one, and only one.”
          I gulped, scanning at my options. There was a quill, a painting, a map, a piece of silk, a sword, a shield, a helmet, a pillow, and more to list. I even glanced at the Queen, who was seated beside the King. She, however, remained still, not offering any advice.
          I didn’t dare move without poise while examining my options. Any signs of hesitations would hinder my future. I knew that my fate depended on this, but there were just too many choices. If I were to question now, I would be penalized. If I were to stall, I would be deemed unworthy. What to do? What to do?
          “Princess? Have you made your decision yet?” The King muttered in a monotonous tone.
          “Yes, I—“
          “Everyone!” A man clad in soiled clothes screamed. “Run! Cerebus has run wild and has escaped from the Swamp!”
          And then, there was chaos. All of the nobles were pushing past one another, scrambling to evade the raging Cerebus. I remembered Cael telling me once that though tame, Cerebus was not wholly domesticated. In fact, there could only be one, who could fully control him. I asked him why, and he had explained that Cerebus had always been her pet, and a Leogarto would only listen to its rightful owner. I remembered muttering that Cerebus had to have been old, and Cael had chuckled, saying that Cerebus was perhaps as old as the world.
          “Watch out, Princess!” I heard a woman shrieking at me, but it was too late by the time I had turned to see what was heading my way. Cerebus had already pounced on me. His eyes were bloodshot red, and his teeth were exposed, jutting out to savour a kill.
          “Cerebus,” I quietly muttered, “I am not going to hurt you. No one will hurt you if you be good.” Still, I felt his breath against my neck and even his overhanging tongue dripping with saliva. Brushing my hand along his cheek, I stated, “Cerebus, be a good boy, okay? If you kill me, then who will help you when you need a scratch?”
          I didn’t dare close my eyes. For some reason, I knew that if I had pretended to be dead, then Cerebus would bite my neck and tear me apart. No matter how nervous I was, I persisted to pet him, feeling that this was the only way to calm him. Cerebus’ nozzle was touching my neck and with a sniff, he decided to lick me.
          At first, the clamour had switched to silence. I could barely see anything with Cerebus’ tongue attacking my face. Then, I heard applause and cheering. “Long live the Princess!” they all chanted. “Long live the Princess!”
          The guards seized this opportunity to chain Cerebus, but I immediately cried, “Do not trap him! He does not like to be caged.”
          Again, the public’s cheers diminished to murmurs until the King clapped his hands. “Brilliant, Princess! I have precisely the name for you. You will be known as Princess Ghislaine II de Vinceremos.”
          “Your Majesty!” The Queen tumbled to her knees, almost tripping over her gown, and I too followed her. “That name is . . . too honourable to be bestowed to the Princess. She is only a mere—“
          “Nonsense!” The King turned at his heel, whipping his cape at his feet to face the audience. “I hereby proclaim the Princess as Princess Ghislaine II, and as for you,” he stared down at me before uttering, “your prize has been determined. Cerebus will be in your care.”
          The ceremony was dismissed and there wasn’t supposed to be a fourth. To the Queen’s dismay and joy, there was a majestic dinner. According to the King, I had been very well-behaved and had to be commended for my behaviour. This reward resembled more so of an examination. Was I fit to be long lived? Was I fit to be loved? I could see the anxiety plastered on the Queen’s face. She always had a tendency of shriveling her lips together whenever she became nervous.
          “Marie,” the Queen demanded, “escort the Princess to her room. She needs to be fitted for the dinner.”
          “Yes, Your Highness,” Marie answered, and gently tapped my shoulder. “Princess, we must prepare. Please follow me.”
          Unsure of what had just occurred, I was perpetually dragged by Marie, heading in the direction of my room. Cerebus had slapped his tail on my bottom to remind me to march ahead. What was happening? Why had the Queen behaved that way? What was so special about that name?
Chapter 9                                                                             Chapter 11