Today was the day where I would learn the meaning of a name, Saburo Rin. Saburo Rin could be regarded as the most heartless man in the four kingdoms due to his countless love affairs. He would have said they were games, not love affairs. Somehow, I was part of his game. I had forgotten how he managed to convince Theo and me to join him on his trip to town, Urca, until Theo mentioned, “Ah! I cannot believe we’re going to the Ecstasy.” 

      The Ecstasy was a euphemism for a brothel. Surely, Theo had no idea what it meant. She only said that every time some nobles were to mention that word, a smile would creep from their faces.
      “This must be a fun sport,” she had stated before dragging me along to Saburo’s escapade.
      Saburo had overheard Theo mention such a name, so he suggested, “I could take you there. I am positive that it is just like those Chudogus in Kosei.”
      It was from that one Koseian word did I realize what Ecstasy actually symbolized. The Queen had mentioned that Chudogus, brothels, were one of the temptations for men and that men could never resist temptation.
      “No, there is n-no need,” I had stammered while struggling to break free from Theo’s grasp.
      Theo though had interrupted, “Of course there is a need to visit the Ecstasy! What other chance would we have, Gigi?” 

     No matter how much I hated this nickname, it had grown on Theo. She thought it sounded romantic and usually, I would have ordered her to stop calling me that, but before I could even refute to anything, it was already too late. I was in a set of boy’s attire and Theo too was dressed as the opposite gender. She, however, looked too charming to be a man with her fiery, red hair. I, on the other hand, looked too wimpy to be a boy. My height was already below average for a girl and significantly below par for a boy. Even Saburo snickered when he saw my outfit.
      “Do not fret, Gigi,” he accentuated on that hateful nickname. “It is fashionable for a boy to look like a girl.”
      “I suppose you are complimenting yourself,” I derided.
      This was particularly true due to Saburo’s exquisite features coupled with the way he dressed. For the past few days, he wore the most elaborately decorated robes dyed in the season’s popular colours with shiny beads sewn on top of floral patterns. Every outfit of his depicted a specific type of flower. Today, however, he wore a standard nobleman’s clothing in Urcis. He chose a cream long-sleeved ruffled shirt, beige vest and a matching pair of riding pants, and chocolate-coloured boots. His hair still remained its Koseian way, simply tied in a ponytail.  
      With his hands placed by his hips and his head cocked straight up, Saburo guffawed. “Ahaha! You . . . are quite the . . . lad.” 
      His soft fingers pinched my cheek and then he winked. After spending these days with the Princes, I had learned that Saburo had a habit of winking after a joke. That was his way of informing his companions that it was all a joke. Perhaps, his life too was a joke.
      “You are too lucky to be pinched by him,” Theo whispered. “Do you know how many girls would die or murder for this to happen? Saburo . . . Saburo Rin never lays the first hand on ladies.”
      “W-what?” I intently stared at her, confused by her statement.
      Seeing my expression, she giggled. “You are too young to understand, but I shall still tell you! It is always the ladies who make their moves on Saburo, as in they touch his hand or what not. Saburo will then respond to the ladies’ proposals.”
      “And what? What more do you want?” 
      This was the first time I had seen her glare so impetuously at me. I should have known that no woman was unsusceptible to jealousy. Perhaps, that was why Theo could not deny Saburo’s offer; it was one that brought her close to him. What made was curious was how she came to be unable to refute his suggestion. I didn’t dare ask her. She let out a sigh and gracefully tapped my shoulder, “I suppose you are still too young to understand. I should not have yelled at you.”
      I wasn’t too young. I was too forgetful at times of what it was like to love.

      There was no love at the Ecstasy. The women bore the same expression as I did before: hopelessness intertwined with indifference. I understood, yet I could not profess my sentiments. No one would believe me. No one would perceive how I felt.
      The cozy house had two levels, one that housed all the individual rooms for entertainment needs and the other served as a lounge for customers to wait for their turn. There was a wall that hung all of the portraits of ladies. It was there did I notice their similar feelings. I was too absorbed by their pitiful eyes that I could not focus on their beauty.
      Surprisingly, Saburo lifted my body up from behind, stating, “You are quite a curious one, are you not?” I could finally see the pictures of the ladies closest to the ceiling. They too shared the same look of despair. “They are all the same, are they not?” he snubbed. 

    “They are all whores after all.” I disagreed, turning my head to glower at him. 
    “You are still bloody innocent,” he scoffed. “In the end, they are all . . . whores.”
      “Do you think all of them chose to be ‘whores’?” I challenged.
      His eyes looked at me condescendingly. “I don’t care whether or not they were forced to be whores. All I care about is the result.”
      “Then you are a whore as well,” I bitterly uttered. “You are a whore for whoring them.”
      Still holding onto me from the rear, he used one of his hands to pinch my cheek. “Children must not have foul mouths.”
      Theo then placed her hand on his shoulder as if signaling him to stop. “It is our turn, Rin.”
      She had purposely used his other name to conceal his identity, but he gently remarked, “Theodore, I’d prefer to be called Sab here.” Subsequently, he placed me back to the ground, allowing my feet to steady themselves.
      “Suit yourself, Sab.” Theo first strolled away.
      “That is why I say they are all the same,” Saburo  sighed.
      I prodded, “Then why do you still spend your time with them?”
      “Why do you not tag along if you want to know the answer to your question?” 
      Then, he laughed and followed Theo. To satisfy my curiosity, I too followed them. I needed to know the meaning of Saburo Rin.
      Saburo selected the most popular lady, Chrysanthemum, in the Ecstasy. We didn’t ask why he did that, but I felt it was out of lust. As we walked upstairs, there were a few men teasing their ladies by playfully slapping the women’s butts. The ladies could only laugh with their bodies politely backing away. What they showed and at they felt differed. I could comprehend that. Always.
      We entered the room farthest to the left to find Chrysanthemum already provocatively lounging on the bed. She lay sideways on the bed, showing off her curvy body. She only wore a strapless, laced bra, a matching pair of panties and translucent tights.
      “Welcome gentlemen,” she greeted in a raspy voice. “It is nice to see you here again, Sab.” 
      Again? They’ve known each other for a while then, I guessed. Judging from the way she ogled at Saburo, I could perceive that she admired him. Perhaps, she was even in love with him.
      Saburo was the first to approach her and even knelt down to kiss her hand. “I suppose you should entertain my friends.”
      “With a song or with a dance? Which do you prefer Sab?”
      She twinkled her auburn, almond-shaped eyes that suited her equally brown wavy, long hair. She was the epitome of exotic beauty. Her milk chocolate skin accented her sharp features, which included her petite, slim nose, thin lips, and small face. It was no wonder that she was dubbed as the Queen of the Ecstasy. She could have even been passed off as a queen of a foreign kingdom and in fact, her eyes reminded me of a certain lady. I didn’t dare stare at those pair of eyes again for I would treat her unpleasantly as I would for someone else.
      Saburo led us to a seating area that also had a round, cedar table for us to rest our hands or place our drinks. Once he sat down, he responded in a desolate tone, “You know what I prefer.”
      She responded with a courteous, yet elusive smile. “A dance it is then, but with a dance, I would surely need a musician to accompany me.”
      Saburo grumbled, “Is there not a musician here?”
      “Not today.” 
      She smirked again. I didn’t understand why she smiled, but the longer we were here, the more it seemed like the two of them shared a past together. It also seemed like Chrysanthemum still sought for a connection to their past. However, the tone of his voice indicated that he wanted to sever that connection.
      As Chrysanthemum walked to a nightstand beside the king-sized bed, I noticed that she was limping. I was sure that he too noticed for he quickly demanded, “No more dances. I thought I was clear with you.”
      She glimpsed at us before asking, “Then, shall I sing?”
      “Yes, sing please,” Theo proposed.
      She was probably bored by now with this waiting. Theo would always pay a merchant first in order to be served first. I was slightly elated that she had not exploded yet. As for Saburo, after hearing the first note of Chrysanthemum’s song, he stood up and proceeded to leave.
      “What is the matter with him?” Theo chirped. “I am sorry for his rude behaviour. Do continue.”
      I knew I should have remained still, yet my legs disobeyed me. “I am so sorry,” I apologized with flustered cheeks and followed Saburo’s exit. Luckily, he wasn’t far. He was halfway down the stairs, but still gaining speed.
      “Sab!” I called out while dashing from behind. He still continued with his pace, so I called again once we had exited the brothel, “Rin!”
      This time, he halted among the traffic of people. His eyes at first exhibited lament, but quickly transformed to effusiveness. “So it is you,”  he simpered and then bent down to my level to tug at my cheek. At this rate, my cheek was going to be stretched to a hideous shape.
      Trying my utmost to act like a child, I whined, “Stop pinching me for no reason!”
      He now guffawed, revealing his perfectly straight teeth. “You are too much like her . . . before.”
      Pulling at my cheek again, he scowled, “Nosy child.” 
      The emollient stare he gave was prickling my chest. It had been a long time since I last experienced wounding feelings. I had almost forgotten what heart break was like. It was like a pinch to the cheek and perhaps that was why he had a habit of tugging at my cheek. It was to tell someone that he was hurting. No, his heart was hurting . . . for her.

     Because I couldn't face such emotions again, I decided to take him on a tour of Urca. He played along with me even though he probably knew the city better than me. He, though, was intrigued by white-floured bread or bread in general. It was amusing to see his eyes ogle at the sight of bread being freshly baked from the town’s communal oven. Every village in Urcis had a building that housed a gigantic masonry oven, which was owned by the village’s feudal lord. Only employed bakers were allowed to use the ovens, so the villagers had to pay a fee for what they wanted to be baked. Surely, the inhabitants had ovens at home, but those ovens could only fit at most a cake. This measure was to limit their use of firewood and also to prevent fires from occurring.
      We were at the oven at Urca, the capital city of Urcis. This building was known as Titanico and was owned by the royal family. Thus, the baked delicacies were renowned and certainly more expensive. To Saburo, money was not an issue. Upon entering Titanico, he accidentally cheered in Koseian, which caused all of the awaiting customers to gawk at him again. His visage had already made him the crowd’s focus. Who wouldn’t have been captivated by a potential Hollywood star?
      Saburo, though, wasn’t concerned with what other people thought for he marched over to the counter, which displayed all of the baked goods. He didn’t even care if there was a line already forming. He just wanted to see the delights and even carefully angled himself in various positions from sticking his head out to swerving his upper body to the right.
      I couldn’t resist snickering, “You’ve never seen bread and cake?”
      “Of course I have seen them,” he muttered in a scholarly voice. “I have never seen such a wide selection! It is not as if we have bread at Kosei. In fact, we do not even use these . . . devices.”
      His finger pointed to the immense oven.
      “You mean oven,” I corrected.
      He rolled his eyes and explained, “We use kamodo or iori.”
      Kamado were closed stoves with pots set on top, while iori were open fireplaces with a pot placed over it. This pot was attached to a hook which was suspended by the ceiling. The kamado was more suitable for the wealthy as it held more pots and was also more efficient in terms of fuel usage. The only setback was that it couldn’t heat the family.
      I couldn’t help, but wonder, “I’m surprised that you are intrigued by cooking.”
      He blurted, “She made me interested in cooking.”
      “So old habits don’t fade away,” I mumbled too loudly.
      Ignoring my statement, he waited for his turn and then ordered, “I would like a loaf of white bread.”
      The bashful, young man, who was most likely an apprentice, shyly bobbed his head. I deviously smirked, knowing that he thought Saburo was a woman.
      He now glared at me, reminding, “You are smiling too evilly. I wager that you are plotting some scheme.”
      “Heavens no,” I clarified and remembered to compliment. “You are simply too beautiful to be a man.”
      My statement caused the young apprentice’s jaw to fling open. Shocked, he was. Saburo noticed the source of my amusement and therefore taunted, “Why, thank you, darling.”
      Subsequently, he knelt to my height and smoothly grazed my cheek with his soft lips. His action proved to be too overwhelming that the crowd gasped in unison now that they were certain of Saburo’s gender. I had glanced at my shoes, remembered my disguise and realized why the peasants were so shocked. Men were not supposed to have such relations with boys or vice versa.
      I snubbed, “You build quite the reputation for yourself. It is no wonder that  . . .” 
      I realized I was becoming too engulfed in the act of revenge. I didn’t mean to say everything.
      “That I’m not with her?” he scoffed. “That she left me?” I wasn’t sure how to respond to him, so I remained silent. Once he was handed his bread, he stated, “You are too much like her . . . before.”
      I wouldn’t identify with him until I too faced a familiar figure. For the moment, I could only feel sympathetic towards him. Memories were indelible. A connection could mean remembrance. Remembrance could elicit throes, the throes of a pulverized heart. I knew too well how that felt; my life was intertwined with too many connections and too many memories that should have been forgotten.

Chapter 17                                                                            Chapter 19