“Renelle,” Alanna quietly asked when we were studying together in the library, “I don’t want you to worry or anything, but . . . lately, I think Adri might be getting too close with Thayne.”
          “Nonsense!” I giggled. “Adri and Thayne are just close friends. She’s just really energetic and friendly.”
          “Too friendly,” Alanna murmured, “I even asked Eury and Zander. Both of them agree that—“
          I dropped my pen on the table, and cleared my throat. “Don’t worry about it. I trust them, and seriously,” I tried to cover my chuckle as I said, “you’ve got to stop your brother complex. It’s getting rather severe. Eury this. Zander that.”
          “Hey!” Alanna shrieked too loudly.

          Déjà-vu, I hated you. I was asleep without my permission, but wasn’t it always like this? Unexpected events. No, a series of them shackled by misfortune. I always seemed to underestimate my opponents. It was too easy and too hard to trust others. Contradictions impaired my thinking. No, feelings were the instigators of such contradictions. Why could I not be numb once again? Why was I trapped once again?
          “I know you are awake.”
          I instantly recognized Kuro’s degrading tone. Turning my head, I opened my eyes to discover him in a chair, holding a clay tea cup glazed in black with his left hand. During his sip, his pupils slanted to the right corners of his eyes, exhibiting a cunning glare, while his lips arched in the same direction as his eyes. It was a majestic, yet demeaning move.     
          “I would have been awake if you had not caused me to be unconscious,” I argued.
          I rolled out of a foreign bed and examined my surroundings. In this room, there were merely the bare necessities: a bed, a mahogany round table with matching chairs, a barred door, and a small glass window.
          He chuckled in between a sip and said, “Duty calls. Now, I suppose you could sit if you wanted.”
           I abhorred how he crafted his sentences. Words were suffused with alternate meanings. In essence, whatever he said needed to be countered. That was if I even wanted to win.
          “I will want to sit if you are willing to tell me what I want to know,” I rebutted and marched to the seat that was across from him.
          Kuro snickered as he flipped over a white tea bowl on the table and poured some yellow liquid into it. “But I do not mind that you are standing.”
          Anger overruled all sensation and arrogance was intolerable at that moment. I walked to his side while wearing a kind grin. Then, I received the cup and widened my smile before taking the first sip. It was plum wine, bitter with a dash of spicy sweetness. As my hand moved away from my mouth, I let the cup to slip from my grasp. It smashed onto the ground to several shards, causing the wine to spread across the stone floor.
          “Sorry.” I apologized and knelt down to retrieve the pieces.
          “You are forgiven,” he noted and displaced himself from his seat to assist me. By this time, his bent back was towards me for he was reaching for a piece that was the furthest away. Armed with a large, sharp shard, I immediately targeted his neck from behind.
          I pressed the weapon over the lump on his throat and demanded, “Do not move. If you move, I will sever your throat.” Noticing his shoulders relaxing, I continued to instruct, “Now, tell me what I want to know about Saburo.”
          “Sure, I can tell you.”
          He grabbed my arm and then tossed my body over his shoulder. My back hit the cold ground while my arm was angled in an unnatural position. As I struggled to free myself from his clutch, he towered over me and threatened, “I would not move if I were you. This arm of yours . . . may not be an arm after all.”
          The smile that now plastered his face was deplorable; it was evident that he was enjoying this torture. This was his genuine smile. His eyes seemed to form nearly flawless straight lines and only a quarter of his front teeth showed from his upturned lips.
          “Are you not worried that I would tell the King about this?”
          “Are you not worried now that I would tell them about your adventure?” he counteracted and strengthened his grip, forcing me to whimper. “I will release you if you say you want to be released.”
          “N-N-No,” I stammered through excruciating pain.
          “Well I did not know that you were so fond of me. I suppose I should give you what you seek.”
          There was a reverberation, one of my shoulder dislocating. I never felt so much pain in my life. My eyes widened, suddenly recalling that moment where I was wounded by him. My body was responding faster than my mind could follow. Fear. I must have felt fearful for my own life and out poured tears that flooded from my eyes. This . . . wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t supposed to make me wince in between my sobs, yet this was the risk I took, one for which I had to pay. Then another popping sound came, which caused me to scream.
          “I did not break your arm.” He lifted my body upwards and explained, “I dislocated it and then returned it to its original position.”
          My shoulder was aching so much that I did not even have the strength to argue. In my world, this would have been abuse. In this world . . . I did not know anymore. I could only feel twinges and I was sure that Kuro could perceive the pain I experienced for his eyes never left mine. Even when he placed me on the bed, he was fixated on me. I would have looked away if I could. Instead, I wondered if he was remorseful or indifferent simply because he just stared.
          “W-why . . . can you not tell me?” I slowly diverted the topic back to what I had wished to know. “I-I . . . t-think I deserve to know. A-as her daughter . . . I—“
          Kuro interrupted, “I used to ask the same question as you. I was like you. I searched for the answers to my question, and when I knew of the answer, what could I do? He is already dead. They are already dead. What could I do? Then . . . I realized that my brother was right. He used to say that it was better for me not to know. ”
          “I . . . need to know,” I insisted, “or else . . . I will always be thinking. I-I cannot see her the same way anymore. Please . . .”
          He didn’t dare to gaze at me anymore. He even backed away to his seat and poured more wine into his cup. I didn’t understand what he feared. The truth would be exposed regardless of its implications.
          “Coward,” I sputtered with all my might.
          With that glare of his, I thought he would have killed me there. I thought he would have torn my insides apart. He did not, however. He glimpsed at me once and continued to drink until he at last blabbered, “Maybe you are right . . . maybe I cannot face the truth, but even now that I know . . . there . . . is only duty, duty that I must accept for now.”
          “But, at least you . . . know,” I argued. “I . . . I cannot even know the truth, the truth about my own mother!”
          I must have used too much force to speak for I jolted in pain, causing more tears to surface. He didn’t even seem to care. He was seemingly only concerned with emptying the last droplets of wine. “Do you really want to know?” he verified.
           “I did not have my shoulder dislocated without a reason.”
          Hastily taking gulps from his cup, he allowed bits of liquid to graze the corners of his mouth. “Fine, I will tell you . . . but you will have to agree to a proposal.”
          “Which is?”
           “You shall see.”
          “And how do you know that I will help you?”
          “Because . . .” He rushed to my side and pressed a cold blade to my throat with enough pressure that blood was trickling down the edge of his sword. “I am not afraid to kill you.”
          Then, he withdrew his weapon, sheathing it in a leather scabbard. He showed no remorse; he was the sort who only strived for results. Conscience, he had none. Integrity, he felt none. Love . . . now that was questionable. He had his set of questions to which he had answers, ones that he fought to learn.
          “Kill me then,” I suddenly suggested. “I dare you to kill me. I do not mind dying. There is nothing I can lose here.”
          Kuro repeated what I had said in a patronizing tone paired with a tantalizing stare, “Coward.”
          It was as if his eyes could detect what I lacked and what I feared. It wasn’t fair.
          “There might not be much for you to lose when you die, but for others, your death could mean much. And I . . . am not concerned with bringing meaning to life,” he proceeded to explain.
          I believed what he meant was that he only lived for himself. He was tired of living for others, but he couldn’t stop thinking about others. There was love after all in this boy’s deplorable self, and so, it must have been incongruity, the inner mechanics of humans, for him to let me live.
          She was around eighteen and he was six when they first met. She was at last of age and he was at last free to roam around the palace grounds. She was learning the ways of tea when he accidentally shot his arrow at her room. Like his unexpected arrow, the two fell in love with each other with one look. Love at first sight. This love was unknown to them for they only saw each other as acquaintances at first. Thus, she married at the age of twenty and he continued to enjoy his childhood. It wasn’t until he met her again at the age of fourteen did he realize what she meant to him. He was on a trip to Urcis and she had snuck out of the palace. Somehow, they had seen each other. Of all people, their eyes had unpredictably met and then, they only had eyes for each other. Like all lovers, they loved each other the most when they were faced with dissension from the world. When the world pried them apart, their love only grew stronger.
           Those were Kuro’s words.
          I questioned if that were the case, then why they, the Queen and Saburo, didn’t commit suicide. “Because . . . in the end, worldly matters override relationships,” he reminded me. “We are not living in plays.”
          “So her worldly matter was to continue to act as the Queen?” I let out a long sigh. “She still had an affair with him and it is not as if she does not see male suitors from time to time.”
          From a distance, Kuro shot me a glare. I was still in bed this time, healing from the injury that he had inflicted on me. Then he said, “She would have forgone her status for him. In fact, she almost did, yet Saburo . . . he could not . . . be irresponsible. As unlikely as that sounds, Saburo . . .”
          Kuro now walked to the window and leaned his shoulder on the stone wall. He was peering the night sky, contemplating. He had never been this serious, yet so compassionate. He seemed too harmless, standing there.   
          “Saburo chose duty over personal matters?” I helped him finish his sentence. He didn’t verify my suggestion, so I pondered, “How do you know about these things . . . these personal things?”
          His hands now folded together, adding, “My brother used to tell this story to remind me that duty comes before everything.”
          “I believe . . . you are following his advice?”
          Kuro let out a rare laugh, along with a wide grin. “Are we not all? We are merely trying to survive.”
          If people thought members of the royal family were without troubles, then they were wrong. If they thought that all of us lived well, then they were half right. We lived well in terms of housing, food and clothing. We suffered mentally and emotionally. I couldn’t act like myself, but then again, who was I now?  A lack of identity was what we underwent to survive.
          “So what now?” I couldn’t help asking.
          A few days had passed and I was still in pain. I could barely move my head. How was I supposed to be ready for the banquet? How was I going to explain why I was found at Kuro’s palce? The King would have questions. The Queen would certainly be bothered by my mistakes. Kuro now meandered to the bed, seating himself at its edge. Without asking for my permission, he touched my wound, causing me to yelp.
          “I suppose I should not have trusted you to immobilize your own shoulder,” he murmured while ripping the fabric off of one of his sleeves to secure my arm in place. There was no gentleness in the way he bandaged my arm; there was only speed and accuracy with his moves. Indeed, this was a duty for him. I shouldn’t have expected anymore from him, yet . . .
          “Why are you looking at me like that?” he interrogated.
          It must have been human desire to be greedy. I wanted to be treated with respect. I was taught to respect my neighbours. The past, it seemed, still lingered with me, blinding me of this life.
          “You are hurting my arm again,” I declared. “You know you should apologize for mistreating a lady.”
          “I do not believe in apologies. They are never meant when they are said.”
           “You do not feel anything for hurting my shoulder? You do not think you went beyond the norm?”
          I didn’t know why I asked such questions. They were silly. We weren’t supposed to feel anything anymore. Nothing was supposed to harm ourselves, our inner selves.
          “I did what I had to do.” Kuro now knotted the silk fabric together to form a sling for my arm.
        Just as he backed away, I howled, “Do you always abide by the rules? Do you never do what you want to do?”
          He scowled at me as if I were brainless, “I did what I had to do so I can do what I want to do.”
          I only saw his back now. I could sense the hefty burden he wore on his shoulders; he reminded me of myself. From his words, I suddenly recognized how different we were, yet how similar we were. I did what I wanted to do so I could do what I had to do. He . . .
          “So what do you want from me?” I asked, now knowing his purpose. He never answered any question until the time was right for him. If I had remembered what was to happen, then I wouldn’t have agreed to his terms. 
          I had moved too much, causing the cut across my neck to ooze blood. This, this was to be a scar. Perhaps, this was proof that I had signed a contract with Kuro. Years later, I would realize that often people would ask about this short horizontal line trailing across my neck and when they asked how I received this scar, I would answer that it was nothing really.
          It was nothing really, I had told myself too many times. If it mattered then, he mattered. I didn’t want him to matter. I didn’t want anyone to matter anymore and unwillingly, I dozed to sleep in pain again. 
          Thayne had left me to dine alone again. He had excused himself for work even when he promised that he would stay this time and that he wouldn’t answer his cell phone even if it were an emergency. He had lied though.
          “You look uneasy,” I had uttered after we ignored his vibrating cell phone. “Why don’t you call back?”
          Once I saw how brightly his eyes shined, I nodded with a gentle grin. “Really, you’re not going to be able to focus anyways.”
          “Thanks!” He had given a sweet peck on my cheek. “See? That’s why I love you! I’ll be back, honey! Just wait for me.”
          “Okay, okay,” I had sheepishly noted at that time.
          I knew I shouldn’t have lied that I was okay because right after he departed, I felt troubled and lonesome. Cutting my steak into equal pieces, I poured myself some more wine. Tonight was our anniversary, yet he hadn’t even remembered. His secretary had to book this restaurant last minute after I had complained to him. We had almost fought over what was more important, work or me. He couldn’t even answer this question, and in the end, I had to answer for him. I allowed him to choose work.
          As I raised my head and waved my hand to call for a waiter for dessert, I saw him again. A few years had now passed since I had last seen him. He had certainly matured, wearing a fitted, grey suit paired with black, leather shoes. His hair was shorter and his bangs were spiked upwards. He was so different, so unapproachable that I didn’t have the courage to greet him. Instead, he was the one who excused himself from his female companion to sit in the chair across from me.
          “Long time no see,” his soothing voice noted. “How are you doing?”
          Regardless of how scared I was, I looked at him. I was met with his warm, yet weary eyes, and I knew I didn’t need to ask how he was. So, I simply answered, “O-okay.”
          “Just okay?” He rested his cheek on his palm and stated, “I thought you’d be married by now.”
          I noticed how his eyes were on my barren fingers and in a heap of embarrassment, I placed them on my lap. I was sure that my cheeks had grown red for I stammered, “H-h-he’s busy working, so w-w-we thought we’d take things slowly.”
          He scoffed with a chuckle, “Excuses. If he really wanted to marry you, then he would have already proposed.”
          “And I thought you had changed,” I murmured.
          “Did you want me to change?” he asked too suddenly.
          “You don’t have to answer me. I already know your answer.”
          As he stood up and showed his back towards me, I shouted, “Wait! Eury!”
          He turned to face me, waiting for my response. I didn’t know why I had called out to him. I didn’t even know why my hand was now tugging on his sleeve. I just remembered my cheeks and ears smouldering.
          “I painted you because you reminded me of the girl in my dreams, but I don’t like dreams anymore. I’d rather live in reality, so let’s be serious now. Let’s forget about that time,” he announced too suddenly.
           “What time?”
          “You forgot already?” he snickered before chafing my cheeks with his hands.
          Then, his lips squashed onto mine, just like that time when I was washing my hands and he had sneaked behind me. I had just turned my body in his direction and our lips had met. He had the strong scent of fresh soap after washing his paint tempered fingers, which were now secured on my cheeks. I had felt his lips tenderly opening my mouth and had almost felt his tongue melt with mine. The running water was cooling my body and I had only pushed him away when the paintbrush I was cleaning had sunken into the sink.
          This time, he was the one who ended the kiss by whispering in my ear, “Goodbye . . . Renelle. I wish you the best with Thayne.” 
          That too was nothing. Nothing happened, and so I forgot about it. There was nothing to remember anyways.
Chapter 19                                                                            Chapter 21