“You were magnificent!” Marie skipped to fetch my cream, silk empire gown along with my olive robe and cheered, “The Sorcerer was right! You were fit to be our Princess! I assure you that you’ll be just as great as Princess Ghislaine the first!” she continued to chant while untying the ribbon along my waist.
          “Who was she?”
          I blinked a few times and at my question, Marie instantly stopped her cajoles and Cerebus, who was now lying on the velvet couch, even whimpered.

          “Ghislaine was a great heroine, who saved her own country by sacrificing herself. Urcis would not be Urcis without her,” Marie enlightened. “She stopped what could have been the largest war between Urcis and Kosei from occurring.”
          “How did she do that?” I pondered.
          Marie unbuttoned me from behind, allowing me to slip away from the gown. “She formed a peace treaty between Urcis and Kosei.”
          “You mean . . . the Treaty of Yuron?” I confirmed, to which Marie nodded.
          I was reminded of one of the lessons the Queen had taught me.
          The Queen fetched a map of the four kingdoms and pointed to a protruding piece of land that was connected to Slianvwi and Kosei. This section was what made Urcis resemble a rhinoceros’ head. This was the horn to the rhinoceros. This was the state of Yuron, if memory served me correctly.
          “The state of Yuron had always been a debatable piece of land because of mainly its location and its resources.” the Queen explained. “Remember that Yuron is surrounded by two neighbouring countries, Kosei and Slianvwi. The Utopian River running north of Yuron also extends northwards to Kosei and drains out at the Sera Sea, which is to the north of Slianvwi.”
          “Yes, I know,” I noted, not wanting another geography lesson.
          “What you don’t know is that over the years, there was much tension between Kosei and Urcis over Yuron,” she continued with now the history lesson. “Both wanted control over that part of the river. Slianvwi had access to the other sections of Utopian River, but Kosei only had control over a short distance. Kosei was in the process of rebuilding homes after several natural disasters and building the Titan Wall. Why were they building that wall?”
          I couldn’t believe that she was testing me. This was supposed to be story time; there was never really a moment to relax or enjoy.
          “Because Kosei had won the war with Slianvwi and had decided that to prevent future invasions from nomadic groups in Slianvwi, Kosei would build the Titan Wall,” I answered.
          “Good,” she uttered. “So how far does this wall stretch?”
          “It surrounds all of Kosei, except for the eastern part that touches the sea.”
          “And why is that?”
          Feeling frustrated with the Queen’s pestering, I quickly retorted, “Who is stupid enough to spend extra money on an area that isn’t bordered by the enemies?”
          I had forgotten my current age and now I was seeking for unwanted suspicion or attention. A reminder to self: speak like at most a ten-year-old. It was time for a diversion.
          “So, so, so,” I whined. “Why am I called Jiyuna?” That was probably my worst attempt at switching topics; she still had that stunned face. Then, I thought, let me stun her some more. Dashing to the Queen’s side, I hugged her, more like her legs due to my stunted height. “Mommy,” I was forced to call out, “tell me . . . please.”
          This would be what I called the Mommy or Daddy trick. I would tackle with affection towards the parent as I dubbed the parent his or her respected name and then I would ask what I wanted. Thinking back, I had simply uttered what was in my mind, what I wanted to know.
          “I had visited the sacred temple in Kosei, the Kami Temple, to seek the wisest monk for advice. He had told me to name you, Jiyuna. I suppose you do not know the story of Jiyuna.”
          “Who was she?”
          “She was the prophet and the scribe for the first emperor of Kosei, Emperor Hikari. You could say that she was also his lover and might have even become the Empress,” the Queen noted, “if she had not been cursed by Shinatobe, the Wind Goddess.”
          “What was the curse and why was she cursed?”
          “She was cursed to be like the wind, never to settle, and that her soul would be joined with another in one of her lives. As for why she was cursed, it was said that Shinatobe wanted a human representative of her. Every god or goddess has a human side, you know that, right?”
          “So, why name me after a cursed being?”
          “Because if I had not, the Sorcerer said you would pass away.”
          “So . . . why am I called Ghislaine?” I rephrased what I had asked before.
          “She was the most beautiful lady of all the kingdoms,” Marie explained. “Because of her beauty and her intelligence, many kings wanted to marry her. Since she was the favourite daughter of King Charles III, he prohibited her from leaving the castle. However, sensing the collapse of her father’s kingdom, she decided to marry the Emperor of Kosei, Emperor Kaze.”
          “She married him, and he agreed to stop the war for her?” I confirmed my suspicions. I had to admit that this story seemed unrealistic, too perfect.
          Marie corrected, “She did marry him and he did stop the war for her. He also allowed her brother to govern Urcis. He had four conditions though. First, the future King of Urcis must marry a Koseian Princess and an Urcise Princess must marry a Koseian Prince. Secondly, the Urcise Princess must rule Yuron with her respected husband. Thirdly, whichever Prince the Urcise Princess marries will not become the Emperor of Kosei. I do not know the last condition though. No one really knows, except for the King, the Emperor, the Sorcerer, and maybe the Queen.”
          Prodding at the bits of facts, I could only ask, “I have to marry a Prince from Kosei?”
          “Of course.” Marie glanced up at me while slipping the beige, silk slippers on my feet. “You’re our only princess.”
          I sighed and shifted my focus towards the window, which was spattered with raindrops again. Had it always been so drizzly or dreary? Had it become so cold that clouds of fog was blurring the windowpane?
          No, this was just a spring shower. It was nothing more than droplets of water plummeting to the soil. Nothing more than Mother Nature fulfilling its work.
          “So Princess,” the King tittered, looking down at me as all of us arrived at the dining hall. “Where would you like to be seated?”
          The dining hall was vast like any royal room, but there was a long, mahogany table positioned in the middle of the room with ornate chairs tucked into each side. A massive, intricate chandelier with beads of crystal chained from its sides was suspended on the high vaulted ceiling. This chandelier was placed at the midpoint of the table, illuminating the extensive room of its glamour. 
          This setting was perfect for the first test of the night. What better place was there for a potential downfall? I already knew what he wanted to examine, the extent of my greed and my pride. I supposed that even bloodline did not excuse me of assessments. What was there to test for a daughter? Parents were presumed to unconditionally love and nurture their children. At least, most animals functioned that way.
          I curtsied before rephrasing his question, “Where would you prefer me to be seated?”
          The nobles grew silent, afraid of expressing the wrong emotion. When the King laughed aloud, they too imitated him. “Surely, you would have a preference,” he prodded.
          “Of course, I would love to be seated beside Your Majesty, but that is the Queen’s position,” I clarified. “I would also love to be seated by the Queen, but she is already beside Your Majesty, and her ladies must be by her side. I would prefer to be seated by the Sorcerer, yet he too has a place beside Your Majesty and perhaps, if he were to have a wife, then she would take the seat beside him. My dear brother, Cael, must be near his parents or perhaps even his love interests. There are simply so many places that I would love to be placed; however, I cannot assume that the people beside me have no attachments with others.”
          I was sure that everyone was rather stunned, even the King. Who knew a ten-year-old could blabber such lengthy sentences? Could I have been thinking too much? Nonsense, I felt.
          Only the Sorcerer clapped his hands and bantered, “Splendid! Say, I do not have a wife or a mistress if I recall correctly, so how about Your Highness taking the spot of my empty lover seeing as how the majority is attached?”
          I had thought that the King would have been enraged to hear such a vulgar remark, yet he too played along, “Hahaha, Nestor, you play the clown too much. Maybe, I should have made you my jester as opposed to my Sorcerer.”
          “Ah, I am not worthy for such a task for my head may have already been in your possession or another King’s hands with words of mine.” Nestor bent his head at a submissive angle, yet his eyes conveyed all sense of sarcasm.
          The King patted Nestor’s back, almost causing him to lose balance. “Very well, very well. Then, if we follow your logic, then surely she should be seated beside her brother, Cael. He has not proposed a hand in marriage.”
          Immediately, the Duke of Minon, the King’s older brother, added, “What a swelling idea, Your Majesty. Sadly then, my son, Verrill, cannot have the honour of acquainting himself with the dear Princess for he has accepted the Duchess of Bellingham’s hand in marriage.”
          Just like what the Queen had notified me, the Duke of Minon was a sycophant, who did anything just to augment his influence over the King. The King, of course, knew, but could do nothing to his own brother. It was ironic how bloodline now came into effect.         
          Thankfully, the Queen chirped, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, there is no need to apologize or fuss over seats. Look at the row of chairs. There is enough for everyone to be seated.”
          The darling Queen had voiced what was exactly in my mind. Like mother, like daughter, I guessed. So, at last, everyone spontaneously took their places and I happened to be situated between my brother, Cael, and the Sorcerer. The Queen eyed me and then nodded her head. Well done, she meant.
          My break was dinner. The servers entered from the lavish wooden doors in single file and then each walked to a specific noble, placing a plate of food in front of the diner. There was much chatter among the adults, yet everyone still focused on the pace of their eating. No one could exceed the King’s speed. The next course followed only after the King had finished his dish. Everyone trailed behind the King, afraid to outwit, outshine him. I gently smirked to which Cael probed, “What amuses you, my sister?”
          His voice had the same pitch, but the way he accentuated certain words had changed. Was this his other side, I wondered.
          “I am just delighted to be able to greet so many guests,” I lied.
          “I see,” he muttered. “Perhaps that is because you have never had the chance to see anyone other than the Queen and her ladies.”
          “Precisely so.” I cheekily grinned and took this opportunity to whine. “I was so lonely. All I could do was read.”
          He suggested, “Maybe I could ask the Queen if she would be so kind to permit you to join our studying.”
          “Our studying?” I was certainly puzzled.
          “Children of royalty study in a classroom,” Cael illuminated, “except . . . only males are allowed.”
          “So why would you even bother to ask the Queen for permission?” I pensively pondered. It seemed preposterous to ask for disobedience. 
          He smirked toothlessly before inquiring, “Why do you read then?”
          I wished I could have sworn, but status prohibited me. This brother of mine . . . was dangerous and sly. Every word of mine could be scrutinized by him. No wonder the Queen never spoke of him. She wanted me to understand that even a sibling was not to be trusted. Disloyalty ought to be tasted to be recognized.     

When the feast was drawing to an end, the King had already informed his most trusted guard, Nathaniel, to gather the musicians for the dance. The dance was held at a separate room, the Paradis. The Queen had only said that it was too inveigling, being the source of temptation for the weaklings who could only indulge in pleasure and amusement. Hedonism was the practice here at the Paradis, and we would be its followers tonight.
          All the guests imitated the King’s footsteps to the Paradis, and upon witnessing the room, I could only agree with its name.
          “Wow,” I gasped to myself and lifted my head to gaze at the skylight, which was in the shape of a dome.
          I could see the millions of stars blinking, all glistening for my attention. Adjusting my view downwards, I recognized that the walls were painted with drawings depicting what men regarded as bliss: beautiful, half-naked women frolicking in the forest, jars of wine being drunken by people, rows of tall, slender trees bearing ripen fruit, and treasures piling onwards. These could have been scattered works; however, they were chronologically arranged to illustrate a looped story, which only told of gratification.  
          Stepping on the floor now, I realized that it was fabricated by gold, unlike the other rooms, which were marble or hardwood.
          “Careful there,” a tall, slim lady with auburn curly locks and a freckled face gently tugged me backwards and whispered. “You do not want to step on the Duchess of Worthingham’s dress. She’d throw a sissy fit, like always.”
          “Thanks,” I mumbled and took another glance in an attempt to put a name to her face. I was sure that I knew who she was. I just couldn’t recall her name. “I’m sorry, but . . . how do I address you?” I asked while walking beside her.
          “Formally or informally?” she inquired with a half grin.
          I replied, “Both.”
          “Duchess of Bellingham. Theodore, but preferably known as Theo.”
          So, she was Verrill’s fiancée. She didn’t seem to match his style, I had to admit. From what I remembered of Verrill’s portrait, he was fairly gangly and had an authoritarian face, clearly not a man who indulged in enjoyment. From the way she dressed, she appeared to be the opposite of him. She wore the deepest V-neck etched with the finest pearls and her ruby red ribbon was of delicate lace. I didn’t judge her though; I had seen more provocative dresses in my lifetime and I had already learned that appearance was merely a deception. The only thing I minded was her name. There was finally, someone who was named just as poorly as me. She had a man’s name, while I . . . What could I say about my own name? Perhaps then, this meeting would be fruitful. At least, there was a starting point to this potential friendship.
          Everyone was now scattered along the border of the ballroom, waiting for the King. He was ascending a set of stairs leading to a balcony that housed three seats cushioned with red velvet. Behind him were the Queen and the Sorcerer. As they stood in front of their seats, each of them were handed a golden goblet by three servants.
          “Today, we will celebrate the dear Princess’ birthday! May the dance begin!” the King announced, raised his cup, and finished the drink in one gulp.
          “Oh how I wish to have a sip of that,” Theo loudly muttered to herself while smacking her lips together.
          “Why?” I asked.
          “That’s the Wisterian wine,” she exclaimed. “The most prized wine to be made from that ancient Wisteria Tree. It’s supposed to give wisdom and fortune to the drinker.”
          I furrowed my eyebrows. She didn’t seem legal to consume alcohol. “I do not think you’re of age to be drinking such things,” I grumbled.
          “Oh, you’re a tiny clown!” she giggled. “I am already 17 years old! You could be drinking some time. You just have to have the first blood. Do not worry, blood isn’t a bad thing!”
          Adulthood. What an unpleasant memory. Blood too was foreign, yet too familiar. I had seen too much of it, felt it creep from my skin and my mouth. I couldn’t hear more about it from her.
          “Excuse me,” I mumbled. “I need a breath of air.”
          Then, I slithered to the nearest exit: glass windowed doors leading to a balcony.
          Although I was never in love with nature, I couldn’t resist admiring the sans smog night sky and the seemingly millions of candlelit homes stretching across the kingdom. I was alone again, yet I didn’t feel lonesome for once. There were others among those lit homes that had their own problems. A breath of fresh air had been used by those that were suffocated by their environment, and so, I was outside too. My mind ached from adapting to suit certain individuals. Do this. Do that. Don’t forget . . 
          Tired of instructions, I truly was. Even in a young body, I felt like an old soul, needing more time to recover.
          “A little one shouldn’t be out so late,” a memorable voice stated from behind. I turned to find Cael with his arms crossed together, leaning on the stone wall of the castle. He smiled just like before. A truly comforting sight.
          “How long have you been here?” I was amazed how I hadn’t noticed his presence.
          He walked towards me and then scooped me up so I could see the scenery clearly. I sat on the ledge of the balcony as opposed to peeking in between the bars of the balcony.
          “As soon as I saw a little one creeping outside, I decided to drop by,” he teased.
          His tender words were soothing like those times at the garden. They were too unlike his tone during the feast, making me incapable of understanding how someone could change so quickly. Then, I recalled that I too had many sides. A side for a different person. We were catering to individuals. Was he pretending to be friendly with me now?
          “Why would you not tell me that you were my brother?” I suddenly asked. “Cael.”
          Unexpectedly, he snapped in such a thunderous voice that I almost lost my balance, “Do not call me by that name!”
          “Then what should I call you?”
          He didn’t answer my question again. Instead, he apologized before returning to the ballroom, “I-I am sorry, Chiyu.”
          I gazed at his back, his forlorn shadow, and I was abruptly reminded of her.
          We were all suffering. I understood my agony, as well as hers. What I didn’t perceive was his. What was the source of his pain?
Chapter 10                                                                            Chapter 12