He probably knew that I was several steps behind him. I had an inkling that he knew. He would always know what I was thinking or doing. Nevertheless, I did what I had to do. I maintained a steady pace behind him, turning whenever he turned and stopping whenever he stopped. The route he took was convoluted to the point where it was unnecessary. Perhaps, he wanted me to relinquish. I, however, was persistent for the more he walked, the more I felt there was to unearth.
      When he stopped in front of a small, two-storey cottage with cracked windows, and a slightly broken wooden door, he turned his head left and right, scanning for potential spies. Instantly, I hid behind a large Oak tree with a wide trunk. I heard his series of knocks, rhythmically created as a code for his entrance. I assumed he passed for a woman who appeared in her late forties opened the door. She had a rose shawl that covered her entire face, except for her chestnut shaded eyes. Without a word, he entered and without a word, she granted him access to the place.
      Upon hearing the shutting of the door, I scurried to the nearest window. If I heard correctly, he had shifted the weight of his foot to turn left. Hence, I raced to the left side of the building and then jumped up once to see through the window. Within a flash, I saw two heads.
      They were there.

      I couldn’t hear much despite the flawed glass windows, but I had to hear. Just as Theo believed, I too believed that there had to be a way for everything. So, I scanned my surroundings, looking up and down, down and up, left and right, right and left. Faraway mountains. Scattered deciduous trees. Occasional crows perched on branches too thin for their weight. Rough, sandy soil. House. One tall tree inches away from the house. An oversized wrecked window on the second floor.
      It was meant to be then, my eavesdropping.
      I could climb up the tree beside this structure and hop into the crack in the window. I might have lacked strength, but that did not matter much. I had a goal to achieve and that served as determination. Planting my feet from a bark hole to the next, I pulled myself upwards in a timely manner. There couldn’t be any clatter or even a whisper. The first few steps needed to be quickened for they could not be glancing out the window and at me. Once I reached the same height as the second floor, I thought it would be easy to leap from a branch to a window ledge. Eyeing where I would place my hands, I hurdled.
      It was meant to be then, my plunging.
      I missed and waspulled down to the ground by gravity. I screamed, hoping that there would be much racket, enough for someone to hear, enough for someone to save me.
There was a thud. I thought I probably hurt myself somewhere, yet to my surprise, there was a thud because I was in his arms. He had somehow appeared and had precisely caught my fall, which resulted in his landing on his back.
      “Cael!” I shouted while lifting my head to meet his gaze. He was cradling me ever so tightly in his arms.
      “Thank God you’re fine,” he coarsely whispered as his hand stroked my head.
      I didn’t understand how he could behave this way, how he could inquire about my safety before his own. It seemed too preposterous and too unselfish. “H-how’d you know I was there?” I stammered. I now rolled over to the side and crouched beside his still inclined body. He was simply lying there like a fallen angel.
      He chuckled.“It is not hard to find you.” I felt my heart shrivel, to the point where tears yearned to be shed. His melancholy was evident. It was always there, completely noticeable to my eyes. “Don’t be sad now.” His hands now patted my icy ones. “I won’t die on you so easily.”
      “I know,” I mumbled.
      His hands were just as frigid as mine, perhaps even frostier. Coldness plus coldness, though, somehow equated to warmness. Absurd, it seemed, but it was true. I could sense his chilliness passing by me. However wintry it was, it felt homely in the end. For a while, we stayed still. I didn’t know why that was so, yet it felt right.
     “I should take you home,” He stood up too suddenly and noted.
      “Why . . . are you here?” I blurted and I too arose from my position.
      As usual, he dodged the question by repeating what I had said, “Why are you here then?”
      “B-b-because . . . I want to know the truth,” I uttered. “I want to know what you are hiding.”
      “What makes you think I am hiding something?” he frowned.
      Forced to explain, I rambled, “You act one way and then the next day, you act another way. It’s like I don’t even know you sometimes. I do not know . . . who you are.”
      “I am no one,” he muttered all too silently. His phrase drifted along with the wind, which now blew right by our faces. It slivered our skin, bringing pain. It was his pain.
      Why did I feel like choking up? Was it because I wanted to cry? Was it because I understood? Was it because I pitied him? Was it because I wanted to be comforted?
      I wanted to close my eyes. However, a promise was a promise. No more crying.
      My locker had been regarded as a trash can, which was smothered with rotting banana peels and oily junk food. Alanna and Adriana had already left home for I still needed to finish my assignment for art. This time, I needed to shape a mug, and when I completed the day’s work, I had hurried to my locker.
      It was no surprise that the other girls had ruined my locker. I had been too used to of their antics, and even the teachers could do nothing. There was no direct proof linking the girls to their crimes, and moreover, all of us had our parents’ powers as defense. So, the girls would attack; their hatred for me had augmented after Adriana and Alanna had befriended me, and had helped me transform my appearance. Jealousy was at its best.
      Wiping the grease from the handle of my locker, I saw another hand cleaning the area above mine. I shifted my gaze upwards to discover Thayne’s caring grin. “Girls can be rather vicious, right?” he asked, and continued to scrub the gum off of the plaque.
      I didn’t understand why he would help me. We hardly even greeted each other in the hallway, yet there he was, working diligently for me. I blinked a few times, unsure if this was just a dream, and like usual, the tears dripped onto my hand.
      “Why is that every time I see you in school, you’re either almost in tears or actually crying?”
      He let out a soft smile, the sort that made me cry even harder.
      “You know, you never used to cry so easily,” he even joked, “You used to be the fiercest kid in the playground, chasing after the other kids and tumbling into mud.”
      I sniffled, “I don’t remember ever being like that. I think I played on the swings.”
      “Ha, I still remember you beating me whenever we raced for sports day,” he scoffed. “I used to be so annoyed that a girl had outrun me. I’m pretty sure you still remember that I’d throw a fit to the point where I’d cry?” 
      I nodded after recalling his scrunched up face.
      “Well, I stopped one day because . . . you gave me that look, that look that said, ‘If you’re a guy, then you should suck it up,’” he explained.
      “I did?”
      “Yup,” he inched closer to me and noted, “now, I’m giving you a look that says, ‘You don’t have to cry for those that don’t deserve your tears.’”
      Those words caused more tears to erupt, but not for long. His warm tongue had chased after them, devouring them dry.
      “My hands were dirty, so I—“
      “Thanks, Thayne,” I mouthed. “I’ll stop crying because . . . of your look.”  
      Now, I simply said, “You are someone. If you are not real, then why am I still alive?”
      He only laughed once. It was a solemn, pungent laughter. It reminded me of ginger, ginger tea. They shared the same spiciness and tanginess. They were too memorable to say the least. I’ve heard that the best remedies were the most awful in taste and if that were so, then he would be like ginger tea.
      He would be my ginger tea. 
      I had enraged not one, but many people when I returned with Cael to Theo’s room.
      “Where in the heavens did you go?” Theo hollered at me. “You just suddenly disappeared! We almost had to tell the King that you were kidnapped so he would send out the hounds for you!”
      Trenton grumbled, “You really shouldn’t do that to us. I almost got skinned by Theo for not looking after you more carefully.”
      Even Verrill sided with them, but didn’t forget to remark, “This is what happens when you sneak away. Chaos.”
      Only Cael seemed to justify, “Don’t be too hard on her. She’s still a kid. She’s not even of age yet.”
      “You’re too soft on people, Cael,” Verrill snubbed.
      He continued to flip through his novel rather impatiently. He appeared as if he carried a book with him everywhere for it was rare to see him without one.  
      Theo interjected, “Verrill, cut the lectures and Cael, she is not a kid here. In court, no one god damn cares whether or not you are of age! There aren’t any excuses at all!” Then, she stormed off, slamming the door to her room. Trenton gave a sympathetic look before trailing behind her.
      Verrill scoffed before calmly pushing the front and rear cover of his book together to successfully cause a scholarly bang. Without a word, he too departed. He still remembered to bow in front of Cael.
      Disappointment, I sensed. There was too much of it. It was my fault too. I had forgotten what it was like for others to care. Consideration had become too distant to grasp. It was too uncanny for me to understand anymore. I had to ask, why did they care?
      Even the Queen minded. She had somehow learned of our adventure. Perhaps, I had forgotten the world in which I habituated. This was a world where secrets were practically inconceivable unless there were layers of lies melded between secrets. What were true and what were false were thus undecipherable to the ear and to the mind.
      To the Queen, we were too naïve. “You didn’t think that I would know of such matters?” she now scowled.
      I didn’t want to argue, so I nodded.
      “You’re so young and already so . . .”
      She had trouble finding the exact word to describe my behaviour. I was sure that she couldn’t. There were too many words, too many inconsolable words for my attitude. So, I lingered for her to continue. It was apparent that she needed time to think.
      I also took the time to think. I thought of what prompted her frustration. Was it because I was disobedient? Was it because I was too curious or was it because I was with the wrong crowd? All I could see was disappointment etched by her rutted eyebrows. More hassle. More worries. More sadness.
      “I’m sorry,” I finally declared. “I shouldn’t have left without asking for your permission.”
      People could forgive mistakes, but not forget about them. The Queen was not exempt from this rule. People could do many things out of love, especially out of familial love. Unconditional love, they said. Conditional love, I reinforced. I followed her because of this. She taught me because of that. This and that were erratic terms; in this case, there was no need to define or specify them.
      Her eyes told me she would never forget this. “Perhaps . . .” 
      She never continued her phrase. If she had, I would have known what was to come and I probably would not have had agreed to the excursion. I would have stayed home, if that were home.
      Imprisonment. I was generally confined to my room and constantly followed by Marie. Anywhere I went, I had to hold hands with her. She held my hand like she would to her lover, if she had one. To exacerbate the situation, I was now receiving private lessons with the Sorcerer. The Queen had somehow pressured him to agree to this, claiming that I was still too young to be in a rowdy environment. “This is only temporary,”  the Queen had instructed. What comforting words. Who didn’t adore a beautiful lie to ease the pain? A beautiful lie that lasted for two years. I was deprived of substantial communication for two years.
      “I’m only visiting the powder room,” I relentlessly muttered when the mole lady had frowned and had squeezed my hand more. Subsequently, she released me from her grasp, permitting me a morsel of independence.
      There were several powder rooms per hallway. This was reasonable due to countless staff that worked and lived in the palace. They were public washrooms; thus, each of them had the same design. There was a small, white marble counter with a ceramic bowl of water, an oval-shaped mirror, a small stained-glass window, a water closet, and a basket for waste. The water closet consisted of a toilet that had an ivory-tinted porcelain bowl and a walnut seat, a box too made of porcelain with a nickel-plated chain and pull. Toilet paper was substituted with a light cloth, which was to be tossed in the basket beside the toilet and washed after using it once. Every hour, maids would retrieve the soiled cloths and wash with boiling water and soap.
      These days, I frequently visited the powder room for a sense of relief. It was my breath of fresh air. I would just stand there, contemplating. It didn’t seem suitable to be thinking while sitting on a toilet seat. Just as I was about to begin my routine, I heard voices from outside. It was rare to hear people speaking. This time, however, the window was half-open. A careless maid had probably forgotten to close it, which was to my advantage.
      “Did you hear about the recent news?” I heard a giggly lady ask.
      “What is it this time?” another lady grumbled.
      “The Koseian Emperor and the Koseian Princes are coming to the palace soon,” the chirpy one continued.
      “For what?”
      A third lady, who had a scratchy and pitchy voice, exclaimed, “What else? The King is celebrating his sixtieth birthday! Guess who else will be here?”
      “Who? Who?” the cheerful one butted.
      The ill-tempered one roared, “Right, I forgot about his festive birthday. I don’t see how he can celebrate when there are so many Scientians being executed!”
      “Hush,” the scratchy voiced one urged. “You shan’t speak of those people! They mean trouble.”
      Scientians were truly a knowledgeable group, who promoted ideas of questioning the world and believing in reason and not in the stars. They could be compared to modern day researchers or scientists. I too didn’t understand why this, I surmised, religion needed to be banned. It was just a different form of thinking. The King argued that the people would be brainwashed by the Scientians’ ludicrous ideas. Perhaps, the truth was that the Scientians’ power was growing. They were seemingly omnipotent with their persuasion.
      “As I was saying, probably all of the other royal families from the other kingdoms will be attending this party,” the happy one clarified. “We’ll finally see all of their faces! I can’t wait to see my beloved Princes! Ahh!”
      Before I could eavesdrop more, Marie knocked on the door, “My lady, ‘tis time for tea with the Queen.”
      That was just what I needed: tea with the Queen.
      I already had a plan in mind. It was a plan for my free will.

Chapter 14                                                                            Chapter 16