Because Theo was enraged that Saburo and I left her at the brothel, I could only tag along with the Koseian Princes, Trenton, or Cael. After the trip with Saburo, he didn’t seem to mind if I stayed beside him. At the gardens, I would read a novel, while he played his bamboo flute. From time to time, however, he would reveal that look of dolor. Those moments proved to be more than disconcerting. He seemed to be remembering what pained him, and so, I would leave. I would challenge Trenton to a fight; of course, I had to be Ren during that time. Trenton would usually win due to his strength and when I grew tired of combats, I would follow Cael, who was always with Verrill or Ichiro. Verill tended to glower at me, merely bothered by my presence. Ichiro, on the other hand, treated me like his sister. He would remind me to be wary of this and that and occasionally lecture me for some trifling mistake. As for Kuro, I had no idea where he went as if he had magically vanished from these castle walls. No one seemed to care if he was gone either.
      I was now entering the Bamboo Garden after dueling with Trenton when I suddenly overheard voices, a female one and a male’s. Hiding behind rows of bamboos to the right of the path, I laid my body as low as I could to the ground.
      “What are you doing here?” he grumbled.
      By the sound of his voice, it could only be Saburo, but what . . . was he doing here?
      “Courtly duties,” she responded.
       She sounded too much like someone I knew, but I still couldn’t determine who she was. It irked me that I couldn’t remember, especially when memorization had always been my specialty.
      Saburo scoffed, “Right, playing with other men and making sure those rich nobles have enjoyed your company, or should I say your body?”
      I heard her viciously slap him, and even felt pity for Saburo.
      “Do you think I wanted this?” she screamed.
      “If you didn’t, then why did you ever leave?”
      Remembering what he had once said, I realized who this lady was. It had to be her, the woman who he refused to name. Driven by inquisitiveness, I carefully and slowly lifted my head to peek. I almost gasped. I would have gasped if a scabrous hand had not covered my mouth. I glanced to my right to find a cavernous ridge forming between Kuro’s eyebrows.
      Kuro? What was he doing here?
      He had noticed that I was struggling to break free, so he placed a finger to his mouth. “Shh,” he mouthed while continually muffling my voice with his other hand.
      “It is better this way,” the woman at last announced. “I would have gone with you if I could.”
      She seemed to be departing for her footsteps hastily shuffled. Saburo now screamed, stretching his throat in the process, “It is never good enough for you, am I right? All you ever cared about were money, status, reputation!” There was pause before he persisted his shouting, “I could have given you everything!”
      He had never been so agitated. The carefree Saburo was not present. This . . . was too hard to believe. Love could change someone so drastically. I did not believe in that thought however. Perhaps, it was because that rule could not have applied to me. To Saburo then, love must have been his top priority. What else had made his life purposeful?
      I would have expected the lady to ignore him, yet she clarified, “You could not give me your heart, Sab. All I wanted was for you to be my one and only and for me to be your one and only, but you could not even do that.”
      “I cannot only have a wife,” he remarked.
      Before he could explain any further, she interjected, “See? Who said I cared about status and reputation? Sab . . . you are always . . . you have always been the one to care about such things. So, I granted your wish, Rin. Now please excuse me.”
      She marched off, leaving Saburo be. It was not long before he too departed, leaving Kuro and I to be the only ones in this garden. As soon as the sound of his footsteps dimmed, Kuro released me and uttered, “You should not spy on others. They have their own lives to follow.” He stood up and patted the soil off of his pants, which sprinkled on my face and body.
      I countered, “I just stumbled upon their encounter. Would it not be ruder to ask to pass by them?”
      I attempted to push myself up from the ground, but my legs proved to be too numb to obey my command.
      “Sure, I believe you.” He smirked and offered his hand towards me. “I see you have been here for a while now,” he said.
      I knew he assumed that I had purposely waited here. Legs did not naturally become nimble without the passing of time and as I was about to hold his hand, he retreated and even grinned. Subsequently, I plummeted to the ground, but before I did, he grasped onto my hand. I felt the copious scars and a few blisters scattered along his palm. He was too young to endure such injuries. Before I could even question him, he had already answered, “These were nothing.”
      I should have been unmoved. I should have been insensitive, but I chose to be nosy because his belief clashed with mine. There were some aspects that could not be left alone; they were meant to be probed.
      “How did you receive these scars?” I gawked at him, focusing on the fine wisps of hair covering one of his eyes. There seemed to be a scar hiding behind his long bangs. I pointed at it and asked, “How did that one form?”
      Blatantly disregarding my questions, he loosened his hand and turned away. “These are nothing,” he repeated.
      That had to be a lie. Each scar served a memory. Each scar had a story of its own, a story that he refused to share with me. What he wanted to say was that these were nothing of my concern. Nothing meant everything.
      “I do not believe you,” I declared.
      He retraced his steps towards me until he was only a footstep away from my shoe. Looking down at me in a demeaning manner, he sneered, “Who said you needed to believe me?”
      “If that scar means nothing, then why are you concealing it?”
      Unexpectedly, he had revealed his forehead by sliding his bangs upwards with his hand. There it was: the extensive scar. It was about the width of a twig and stretched diagonally from the peak of his nose bridge to the first corner of his other eye. Viewing his scar was like tasting the first sip of wine, too strong to handle and too bitter to swallow, yet too enticing to reject. My eyes, thus, became fixated by this flaw. This particular scar was beautifully flawed.
      “Do you understand now why I have to hide it?” he screeched.
      “Can I touch it?” I accidentally blurted my fascination.
      He gawked at me before bending to my height and then taking my hand to scuff his scar. “There, you have officially touched my scar.”
      “I don’t understand why you have to hide it,” I informed. “It is not frightening nor is it ugly. I think it is . . . rather . . . beautiful.”
      I thought I saw Kuro blush, but he had too quickly faced the opposite direction. “Forget about everything that happened today,” he requested. “Saburo . . . would want that.”
      I knew I should have listened, but I could not. I could not rest without knowing the truth, especially when I realized who the woman was.
      Do not be a fool. Just stay safe. 
      Like an investigator, I questioned those that were involved in this case regarding Saburo’s life. I first asked the one who was closest to Saburo in terms of blood, Ichiro.
      “So, who is the lady in Saburo’s life?” I pretended to be like an innocent little girl, who knew nothing of love.
      Ichiro, who was in the middle of reading the latest novel, uttered, “I think there is more than a lady in Saburo’s life. Say, why do you ask?”
      “I am just curious about romance within the palace.” I sheepishly grinned.
      “Sure there’s romance, but they never last. Duty calls.”
      “So, what about Saburo’s romance?” I continued to pester.
      He closed his book and chuckled. “You’re too young for such things. I just hope that . . . he would learn to give up.”
      It was obvious that Ichiro knew of Saburo’s situation. What could one do if the witness refused to give his or her testimony? Nothing. Nothing at all. All I could know was that the truth, taunting at me now, existed. No, her face haunted me. I could not look at her the same way anymore.
      Determined, I sought for anyone’s help. I asked maids, who only informed me of pointless trivia, including his weight, his height, his likes and dislikes. Essentially, they were fans with no concrete knowledge of their admirer. I asked Saburo’s bodyguards. They remained silent until my tears started to pour from my eyes, compelling them to sympathize with my desperation and to reveal what I needed to know.
      “I suppose you could visit those brothels he always goes to,” the scruffy bodyguard with many stubbles on his chin mumbled. The other guard with fuzzy eyebrows elbowed him.
      “You are not supposed to tell her!” the guard with furry eyebrows argued.
      I ignored that man and continued in a tender voice, “So, which brothel lady?”
      “W-Well, recently, he keeps visiting that exotic-looking lady in town. I don’t remember her name exactly. Did it start with a W or a C?” the stubbly guard looked to his partner, who kept shaking his head left to right.
      “Thank you for your help,” I bobbed my head, knowing now the direction of where to turn and where to go. 
      When I turned around the corner, I bumped my head right into someone’s stomach before landing on my bottom. I was not sure who it was until I heard the person’s irritating voice, “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
      Now matching his horrendous, inquisitive tone was his cheeky smile. His eyebrows were slightly raised and his lips puckered as if he had tasted a spoonful of lemon juice. He had extended his hand in a polite manner, but I could not force myself to accept his offer.
      “What I do is none of your concern, Kuro,” I announced as I stood up by myself and passed him.
      His voice echoed in the wind, becoming too boisterous for my ears, “I would not go to her if I were you. Some things are better left unsaid. You know that.”
      Was he my conscience? No. Did I have a conscience? Not much of it anymore. Did I care? Only to satiate my curiosity, I reminded myself. I wouldn’t interfere with other people’s lives. It was their past. What could one do with his or her past?
      I walked faster and faster, following the path that Trenton had showed Theo and me. The tunnel though frightening was comforting in some manner. No one could care if I were in a tunnel, away from all the drama of palace life. Just my luck, I grumbled to myself. I didn’t know why everything had to happen this way. Was it my fault that I was displaced in this child’s body? Was it just the gods toying with my life? When there was nothing to do, it was too natural for me to contemplate. In the darkness, only my mind had replenished my body, but in this darkness, I didn’t want to think anymore. It seemed like the more I knew of this world, the more I became wary of my life. The meaning of life . . . my meaning of life . . .
      At the end of the tunnel, I expected to see the sky, night or day, and trees. However, I saw a shadow. Still on my fours, I adjusted my head to identify the stranger. The wind was blowing from the west, causing a mesh of hair to sway eastwards and ultimately revealing a piercing scar just as the moon’s light positioned itself on the shadow’s face.
      “Kuro . . . what are you doing here?” I mumbled.
      I thought I had been sneaky enough, but clearly, I was still inferior to some. Not even responding to my question, he only bothered to present his scar-ridden palm. It was a gesture intended for me to accept so I could arise from the ground. It seemed that whenever we crossed paths, he would be standing at a higher position than me. However, he would remember his manners and lend a hand to me. Was it out of pity? Was it out of friendship? Was it out of courtesy? I should not have been afraid to accept help, yet the more help I received, the more dependent I became. I did not want . . .
      He stooped to my height, hunching his back forwards while placing both of his hands on my shoulders. “You know, I should be asking that question to you,” he stated, pulling me upwards, forcing me to stand.
      “You know, I did not need your assistance. I know how to stand.”
      “Sure you do,” he scoffed.
       Out of nowhere, he struck my knees from behind with his leg. I toppled to the ground and when I looked up, we were in the same position as before. I did not comprehend what sort of pleasure he received from this or what he wanted to prove. I simply knew that he was impeding me and I would not allow him to do that anymore.
      Lifting myself from the sodden grass, I ignored him. I walked past him in the direction of town, but he must have known where I was going for he shouted, “You do recognize that I will not be permitting you to go where you seek.”
      I managed to walk several steps before sensing a strike to my neck, prompting me to lose control of my senses. So, I plunged face down, smothering my face with soil. Before I was unconscious, I heard him say, “I warned you.”
Chapter 18                                                                            Chapter 20