Voices. I heard voices calling my name. Clamorous tones.
          “Ren! Ren! Ren!” a worrisome one kept regurgitating. “Wake up!”
          Be quiet, I begged. I wanted him to stop shouting, but he was persistent.
          “S-S-shush, will you?” I finally managed to mutter in a frail tone.
          Gradually opening my eyes, I saw a hazy view of a boy grabbing my hand. He then screamed, “Verrill! Ren is awake! Hurry!” 

          I heard shuffling and subsequently a deeper voice mumbling, “Be quiet, Trenton. Ren still needs to rest. Trenton, why do you not fetch some more warm water and another clean towel?”
          “Fine,” the other grumbled.
          I could barely move; I could only see Verrill, who now sat in a chair beside what I presumed to be a bed. I had felt a soft fabric beneath my head and a blanket covering most of my body.
          “You are lucky Cael was there,” Verrill mumbled with slight irritation. “Who would have thought you would jump into the water when you did not even know how to swim?”
          I wanted to explain my choice, but I understood that he would never understand. Someone like him would never understand someone like me.
          “I-I am sorry,” I murmured.
          He exhaled a long, deep breath, and advised, “You would have to say that Cael in person. He is resting now after he saved you.”
          “H-he is ill?”
          Unexpectedly, Verrill reassured me by tapping my frail fingers.
          “Cael is strong. He may be sick often, down with the latest disease, but he always makes it through. You, on the other hand, cause grief to everyone, especially to Cael.”
          “I am sorry,” I could only repeat.
          I thought I had everything planned. Assumptions . . .
          “I hope never to hear that phrase from you again because that means you have learned your lesson, young lady,” Verrill lectured in a softer tone and departed as soon as Trenton returned with the needed supplies.
          Young lady? He knew then. He knew who I was too. It was my fault again for this mistake. Why did I always do this? Why was everything out of my control?
          Trenton rushed to my side, squirming, “Do not worry about that rascal Raul! I have already given him a beating, even earned myself a season’s worth of gardening duty!”
          “You did not n-need to do that,” I clumsily whispered.
          He was only adding to unnecessary pressure, and I felt pressured to return his favour. Just like before, there had been too many favours.
          “Renelle!” Adriana had punched her fist against her palm before placing an arm over my shoulder. “You’re too nice that people always take advantage of you, but don’t worry! No one will trample over you again. With Alanna and me by your side, no one will dare bully you again!”
          “Y-y-you don’t have to do this,” I had remarked while adjusting my cracked glasses. “P-p-people will hate you too.”
          “Ha!” She had lifted her leg and targeted a spot on the wall. “So what? I’ll just kick them!”
          Unluckily for her, she had hit an innocent by passer, who groaned in pain by clutching his stomach.
          “Oh my god! I’m so sorry!” Adriana had rushed to his side, patting his back. “Are you all right?”
          “What do you think?” He had eyed her and shrugged his shoulder. In a slightly hushed tone, he had grumbled to the boy beside him, “Crazy bitch.”
          “Hey!” Adriana leapt in front of him, sticking out her fist. “What did you say? What did you just call me?”
          The injured boy scoffed and cocked to his head to the side. “I said—“
          I had to squint to see the other boy’s face, and without a doubt, I knew who it was. “Now, Alec, let’s not be hasty now. She already apologized,” Thayne had instructed in a gentle voice.
          Alec had rolled his eyes and huffed, “Today’s your lucky day . . . woman.” He had purposely emphasized in a way that focused on the latter half of the word.
          “Hey!” Adriana had lifted her fist in the air, and I had quickly restrained her.
          Her legs had kicked and kicked, so I had to pull her further away as the boys walked past us. This scene had caused Thayne to turn his head to the side and chuckle by covering half of his mouth with his hand. Then, he had bent down, retrieved something, and walked back to us. I remembered feeling him soothingly dropping a light object in my palms. I had the pressure of his smooth palm pressing against mine.
          “I think,” Thayne had uttered, “this bracelet is yours, Renelle.”
          That must have been the first time we had conversed to each other in school. Even though our families had been close, we barely knew anything about one another. We were always forced to play or sit beside each other during dinner. The parents had wanted us to be best friends or even lovers. Instead, we were strangers until that moment.
          “Oh my god!” Adriana had shrieked in my ears and kept rocking my body back and forth. “Thayne knows your name! How in the world do you know him?”
          “Our p-parents are close,” I had muttered.
          Adriana had exclaimed, “Oh my god! I think . . . I have a great idea!”
          “What?”
          “We’re going to make you and Thayne become a couple!” Adriana had held onto my hands.
          “Wh-what? Why?”
          “Because you two look made for each other.” She had revealed such a joyous grin. “Well, after we give you your makeover . . . you two would be like the destined couple.”
          Trenton too powerfully smacked my right arm, reawakening me from my thoughts.
          “Ah, it was bound to happen! It is never wrong to hit Raul! I would shut him up for good if the King would let me,” Trenton remarked.
          “Thanks,” I settled on saying, “I owe you one.”
          “Nah, you do not owe me anything,” he snickered while biting the tip of his tongue. “Actually, you owe Theo a favour. She offered her place for you to stay and lied to the Queen that you were visiting for a while.”
           “W-what do I owe her?”
          I grimaced, knowing that I had been right all along.
          “I do not know,” Trenton shrugged with a reply. “She said something like spending time with her, doing some womanly stuff. I do not understand why she would want you to accompany her, of all the lads.”
          Before he could explain further, Verrill returned and threatened, “Trenton, leave Ren alone. Ren needs to rest now!”
          “All right, all right.”
          Trenton rolled his eyes and then bid his farewell. He closed the door to this cozy room, and though dark, I could sleep. Verrill was right. I did need to rest some more. Perhaps, I rested for too long since when I awakened, it was already midnight.
          I sat up with a pillow propped up from behind. I looked out the framed glass window and saw the stars twinkling. I was suddenly reminded of Cael’s sparkling smile and of those days when I used to watch him swim with Cerebus. Those days seemed so distant now that I met him every day at school. He seemed so different in front of others, so different that I had trouble recognizing which was the true Cael.
          “You should not be up so late, Chiyu,” I thought I heard, so I quickly shifted my gaze to the door. He was already there, stooped against the wall.
          “I-I thought you were sick,” I mumbled as he continued to walk towards me.
          He had a small, wool sack in his hand and he dropped it on my lap. “Here, brew some tea with this. It will help you get better soon,” he declared.
          Immediately, he turned to leave, but before he reached the door, I asked, “W-why are you being so nice to me all of a sudden? Why did you not save me earlier then?”
          Once his hand reached the door knob, he looked back at me and despondently answered, “Because circumstances do not permit me to help you.”
          Then, he smiled so familiarly, yet so wretchedly. He was truly apologetic, so I forgave him, knowing that he was being frank. What I didn’t understand was why he had that look. I would probably never understand even if he explained.
          I understood therefore I never asked. 
-------
          I spent days in bed, still frail from the exposure to water. During this resting period, I drank the tea that Cael had given me every morning. A smell and a taste told me that it was ginger, ginger tea. My mother used to force me to drink this sort of tea whenever I had a sore throat. Who knew that in this world they carried on with such a tradition?
          I didn’t think much of it until Theo spotted my drinking. She usually never visited me until the evenings, but today, she raced to the side of the bed and shrieked, “Oh la la! What are you drinking, darling?”
          “Tea,” I answered.
          She wafted the smell of the tea to her nose and cheered, “Heavens! You are drinking . . . ginger tea?”
          I didn’t understand at all how that was surprising, so I inquired, “Is something wrong?”
          Theo gasped and dramatically placed her hands on her cheeks.
          “This is so rare in Urcis! You can only find this sort of tea in Kosei and even in Kosei, only the royals have access to this delicacy! Ugh, where did you find this?”
          “A friend gave it to me,” I replied, hoping to dispel any of her suspicions.
          “I wish my friends were that generous,” she sighed. “I would die to have a sip of this tea!”
          I wondered why Cael would share such a prized item with me. He probably needed it more than me. Seeing her desperation, I suggested, “I suppose we could share the last pot of tea together.”
          Theo plastered a bold smile and tugged my wrist. “No, no, I have a better idea! We will get out of this boring castle today and then at night, we will chow down this tea! It is your last night here anyways.”
          Spontaneous girl, I thought. I didn’t mind her absurd ideas, but I knew I couldn’t trust anyone completely anymore. After all they had done . . .
          “That sounds fun,” I decided to say.
          “Don’t worry, it will be.” She winked to confirm, “I will make Trenton lend me his clothes. You still have your disguise right?”
          “You will not tell a soul about my disguise right?” I confirmed.
          Theo giggled as she stood up, stretching her arms. “I will not tell if you will not tell about mine,” she noted.
          “Deal!” I uttered and extended my hand out to shake, which she thoroughly accepted. This would be my first outing away from the castle and my first illegal move.
          The three of us, Trenton, Theo and I, boldly walked on the streets of town, but this journey was not without bickering. Our escape from the castle made us agitated and grumpy. It all started with Trenton agreeing to lead us since he was often exploring the outside world.
          “Hurry,” he kept beckoning during our route and then we would follow and hide behind a wall or a door.
          There was barely any time for me to memorize our path, meaning that I could only rely on him. Who knew how long we were running and hiding though? I merely recalled seeing giant walls protecting the castle. I couldn’t understand how we were going to overcome such structures, but Trenton had promised that he had a way. This way happened to be the opening of a narrow, underground tunnel.
          “This is where all the women and children would use to escape during times of war,” Trenton first announced before slipping through the entrance.
          “Wow, this is amazing, Trent!” Theo added while tagging behind him. “I have never been out this way!”
          By this point, we were on all fours, crawling our way out of a malodorous, constricted pathway. Bits of soil crumpled above us, dusting us with its natural magic.
          “Then . . . how did you get out before?” I sternly questioned.
          Theo turned to say, almost whipping her long, hair on my face, “I used my charm, bunny. You have got to use your looks some way to get around those guards.”
          “You didn’t . . .” my voice echoed.
          She cackled, “Heavens no! I would never use my body that way! It is not worth the trouble. Just a smidge of a kiss on the cheek would do.”
          From her response, I felt a smile creep from my stern face. She was unafraid of rebelling and of manipulating others. Whoever shared their secrets could be faithful since they were not scared of others using those secrets for other purposes, unlike certain people, who always denied their hearts’ whispers.
          “Adri,” I uttered and then popped some popcorn into my mouth, “do you like anyone?”
          The two of us were having a movie marathon, where we watched the latest romantic comedies and occasional dramas. This was what we sometimes did during our girl’s night out, which we held once a month. This gathering usually comprised Alanna, Adrianna, and me, but this time, Alanna was busy organizing the spring carnival during our senior year.
          Adrianna didn’t answer until the film had played the credits. “No,” she declared, “I’ve never liked anyone.”
          “Really?” I confirmed. “I thought you’ve had—“
          “Flings don’t count as love,” she corrected, “and love . . .”
          “What?”
          “Never mind,” she murmured and popped in another DVD.
          “We’re here!” Trenton at last pushed open the wooden door from atop. We had to climb up a stoned wall that had steps, which were essentially other stones jutting out. In flushed the wind which relieved our now sweaty selves. It was as if I could picture a finish line, waiting for me to cross it.
          When I finally came out from the rabbit hole, I was disappointed to find that we were in a forest. “Trent, are you sure this is the right place?” Theo voiced my thoughts. “I know that Urca doesn’t look like this. These are just rows of trees!”
          Trenton snubbed and continued to walk towards the mountains, “Of course I know that we’re not in Urca. I never said that we’d get there first! Did I forget to mention that this tunnel ends away from Urca?” Theo glared at him, causing him to immediately apologize, “Okay, okay. It’s my bad. I’ve been here too often, so I forgot to tell you two this. Anyhow, we’ll have to follow these mountains and then we’re bound to hit Urca.”
          Theo placed her hands on her hips and scoffed, “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you! I should have asked Verrill instead of you! Argh!”
          “But Verrill would lecture you and probably forbid you from going here.”
          Trenton chased after the enraged Theo. I too followed her, making sure to keep a certain distance away from her. It was wiser to stay away from those that were angry.
          Instantly, she stopped and turned to yell, “That’s why I asked you! I didn’t want him to be scolding me like he’s my father! But now . . . I’d rather have it that way! At least, Verrill would take me where I wanted to go without all this hassle.”
          “Thank goodness it’s my brother who’s marrying you,” Trenton breathed a sigh of relief.
          His words aggravated her fury, so she kicked him in the shin. “You think I’d want to marry you?”
          Their squabbling persisted until we saw the lively town. The road was paved with regular blocks of stone and had gutters running along the sides. There were small boutiques that all had the same architecture with mansard roofs, which looked more like trapezoids with punctured windows from my point of view, and hung sash windows on their red-bricked walls. Cottages, which I presumed to be residences, were located behind those buildings. It was a well-organized, structured town. Although there were not any skyscrapers, the roads were much cleaner than many of the streets that I had visited before.
          As for the people that passed us, I noticed how well they dressed. The men wore the finest cotton shirts and pants that were somehow ironed to perfection. The ribbons that hung on the women’s waists were flamboyant and intricate. This must be the best part of town, I thought.
          “So, what do you think?” Trenton asked with a look full of anticipation.
          I didn’t want to disappoint him and I didn’t need to for I felt the simplistic beauty from this town.
          “I love it!” I exclaimed and even clenched my fists in happiness.
          “Trent, we’re not even at the market yet,” Theo whimpered. “This place is only for the typical, noble men’s shopping. The market is where all the fun’s at! Come on!”
          She roughly pulled my wrist, prompting me to run along with them, so I conformed. The three of us fearlessly sauntered down the streets, ignoring all sense of etiquette. When Theo released me from her grip, I was able to focus my attention on the surroundings. I couldn’t say that the market was unclean, disorderly, or revolting. It was certainly more dynamic and alive than the richer part of town. There was much clamor from the vendors who shouted out prices of their goods, which were either on carts, on rugs, or on wooden tables. Stalls were arranged like aisles in grocery stores or floors on department stores. Stalls that sold similar goods amalgamated, resulting in increased accessibility. 
          “Do we have to go shopping for girl clothes again?” Trenton moped as he noticed the direction we were heading.
          “Of course!” Theo exclaimed. “I didn’t come all the way here for nothing!”
          Trenton continued to argue, “How are we supposed to smuggle all your clothes back?”
           “Who said we’re smuggling them? We’re going back the proper way through the main entrance!”
          “What trick are you using this time?” Trenton eyed her as he demanded.
          Theo jutted her head as high as she could and proclaimed, “I deliver gifts from the guards’ families to those guards. So before we go shopping, we’ll have to stop by at someone’s home to pick up a gift.”
          Even I was truly amazed by the tricks she had. If she were an animal, she would be a fox, a beautiful fox. She was untamable just like this boisterous market.
          Unwilling to be defeated, Trenton pestered, “You know that taking the route to the main entrance is much longer than taking my route!”
          She revealed her renowned eye rolling, which we dubbed as “Theo’s arrogance”.
          “We’ll take a carriage, Trent. Carriages were made for a reason.”
          Completely ignoring Trenton, she quickly waved at me to beckon me to follow her. I would have listened if I had not seen a familiar shadow out of the corner of my eye. Instinctively, I trailed after the memorable figure for it was too impossible for him to be here.
          The more impossible it seemed, however, the more possible it became.
          Thus, I followed my heart, which told me to pursue him.
Chapter 13                                                                            Chapter 15

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