I was awakened by a cold breeze and as I adjusted my body leftwards, I saw Kuro with his eyes closed, arms folded, and his legs bent. He was sitting in the wooden chair, sleeping and looking rather peaceful. Peace, though, was temporary when I remembered about the King’s party and then about the Queen. That degrading look of hers would radiate and ultimately, she would try to find ways to shun me. Was there even a way to combat her?

          Staring at Kuro’s crumpled eyebrows, I remembered what he had told me last night. Although I didn’t want to disturb him, I knew this was my chance to do what I had to accomplish. I needed my defence mechanism, but first, I needed to escape from this house. The problem was that there was only a creaking, wooden door to the left of Kuro. This meant that I could only flee from the window that was to the right of him.
          Now, I placed one of my feet on the smooth, timber floor. I walked close to the walls, making sure that the heel of my feet touched the ground first. I just needed to pass the corner of this room and take at least ten steps and I would reach the window. This process, though, was arduous and slow. I had to glance at Kuro every now and then to make sure that he was still asleep and I had to coordinate my breaths with my steps. When I finally reached the window, I stared out and was relieved that this was only the first floor. All I had to do was lift the lower half of the frame up, and slip through the opening. Using all my might, I pulled the window upwards, causing a scraping sound.
          Then, I dived forward, tumbling to the barren soil. I didn’t care how much it hurt to run on bare feet. I didn’t care where I was going. I just cared if he was chasing after me and when I finally had the courage to look behind, I realized that he wasn’t even there. I realized too that only the townspeople gawked at me. I had somehow come across the marketplace of Urca and I knew because I saw the familiar sign of the brothel swaying in the breeze.
          A plump, pale lady almost greeted me when I pushed the door open, “Wel—“
          “I would like to have a meeting with Chrysanthemum,” I announced, wondering why she was staring at me strangely.
          “Little girls are not allowed here,” she adjusted her tone.
          I glimpsed at my legs and saw that I was in a dress. Of course, I wouldn’t be permitted in this room, but I had to see her. I settled on saying, “What if I told you that I’m her daughter?”
          “What?” the woman immediately shrieked and summoned a few workers upstairs. Within minutes, a man whispered in the woman’s ear, and she smiled arrogantly. “I have just been told that there is no such—“
          “Of course my mother would lie to you,” I explained. “Why would she admit that she had a child? Do I not look like her?”
          “You . . .”
          The woman was staring at me with her beady eyes while I was trying to remain calm, hoping that she would not catch the flaw in my statement. Luckily, Chrysanthemum stood at the top of the staircase, demanding, “Mother, let this girl in.”
          “What? She really is—“
          “No, but she is an important guest of mine,” Chrysanthemum answered and retired to her chamber.
          The woman huffed at me before escorting me to the room, and there was already a boy sitting in a seat decorated with silk cushions. He was facing me with a hefty smirk. “What are you doing here, Kuro?” I demanded.
          He scoffed and stretched his arms, “I believe you have the wrong name for me. I am Jou, and I should be the one asking you that.”
          “That is none of your concern,” I answered while watching Chrysanthemum filling his gold goblet with wine. “I would like to speak to her alone, please.”
          “But,” he savoured the liquid in his lips before saying, “you must know that now . . . is my time. I was generous enough to allow you to share my time with her, so—“
          “I thank you for your generosity, but—“
          “You know, I could ask anyone to take you away.” He held the goblet in the air, examining the intricately carved design on its surface while uttering, “I could . . . in fact . . . drink to your demise.”
          Again, he flashed that conceited grin, the sort where he knew I would succumb to his every request. Clenching my fist, I suggested, “Why do we not drink to our collaboration?” 
          Immediately, he raised his cup forward, and I received it. It was still half full, meaning that I had to devour every last drop. I took one gulp to try at first: sour lime lingered in my throat before being replaced by a sweet, plum sensation. From the corner of my eye, I saw his imminent stare.
          “Too strong for your liking?” he asked.
          “No,” I answered, “it is . .  .”
          “Wow, I never knew alcohol could taste so good!” I cheered and jolted my glass against Alanna’s. We had decided to test her family’s wine collection in celebration of our high school graduation.
          “I know right?” She giggled with flustered cheeks. “This is special though. It’s an old family recipe.”
          “Family recipe?”
          “Yup, and legend has it that there was a mighty emperor, who loved many concubines but never loved his empress. Whatever she did, he would always find fault. One day, she disguised herself as a merchant presenting the emperor with a special gift. Surprisingly, he loved the drink, begging to know what she put inside. She said that she could always serve him this if he wished. Once he agreed, she revealed herself as the empress. He was so enraged that he had been tricked by her that he almost killed her on the spot, but she told him that that drink was what she hoped he would feel towards her: sour at first, then sweet and savoury.”
          “Forget about the myths,” Adrianna rambled, “just tell us how you make this.”
          “I’m not very sure . . . only my brothers know how this works,” Alanna clarified. “Only the males in our family know how to make this. It’s a way for the males to redeem their ancestor’s guilt.”
          “It is?” Kuro’s voice almost caused me to drop the cup.
          “Who made this?” I ordered
          “Does that matter?” he argued.
          Did it really matter if there were so many incidences that triggered my memories? What was the past would never be in the present, so no, knowing who created the wine made no difference. However, I couldn’t stop myself from agreeing, “Yes.”
          “My brother taught me how to concoct this wine,” he uttered. “He called this drink, ‘Life’.”
          Finishing the liquid, I understood why he deemed it as such. Life could be acerbic, yet there could be loveliness in the end. Yes, for my future, I needed to continue my task; thus, I told Chrysanthemum, who had been quietly playing the flute, “The King is holding a banquet soon, and I would like to showcase your beautiful dance for him.”
          I could hear Kuro’s snub even when she inquired, “And you are?”
          “You need not know who I am,” I responded. “If you wish to know more, then seek a lady called Marie. She works for the royal family, and will make arrangements for us to meet.”
          “And why should I even listen to you?”
          “Do you not want to know why Rin selected you or who . . . he is?”
          “Call me Renelle,” I accidentally insisted.
          “Renelle,” he corrected, “did you perhaps forget what we had spoken of before?”
          He sported his typical, disdainful glower. Ignoring him, I asked, “Does it really matter?”
          Instantly, he tossed a bag of coins towards Chrysanthenum. Then, he dragged me by the wrist, down the stairs and out the door to the bustling streets of the market.
          “Let go! You are hurting my shoulder again!” I yelled. “I will scream that you are violating me if you—“
          His grip loosened, and he turned to say, “Your behaviour will cause a tragedy to occur.”
          I had never seen him with eyes full of sincerity. This wasn’t the Kuro I knew. He must have been joking or toying with me again. “Wh-what are you suggesting?” I stammered.
          “You do not plan thoroughly before you act,” he lectured before pointing at my feet, which were smothered in cuts and bruises. “One of your mistakes.”
          We didn’t speak on the way home and we didn’t need to for he had planned everything exactly. There was a carriage waiting for us at the entrance of the marketplace. In this carriage, there were my boots that I had left at his place. He had also prepared a towel and a dish of water for me to wash my feet. As I soaked the cloth into the water, I almost gasped. Frigid and cutting, just like his disappointed stare. I thought he would croak a demeaning comment, except he chose to remain silent. His silence only meant that he knew what I had in mind all along, and that he was frustrated that I still chose to follow this arrangement.  
          I didn’t care anymore, and when we arrived at the palace, I told him, “You may think what you like about me, but I assure you that you know nothing about me . . . Kuro Jou.”   
          “Sure, Renelle,” his voice lingered in my ears, making me shudder. Indeed, that was one of my mistakes, slipping an old name out from my mouth. 
          Just like I had anticipated, Chrysanthemum had sought for Marie and was now sitting across from me in my chamber. Without any delay, she ordered, “What do you want from me?”
          I crossed my legs and noted, “I thought you would have more questions about Rin, like why he visits you.”
          “Why then?” she scoffed.
          “Then, follow me,” I urged before exiting to the corridor. This hallway showcased several portraits of noble women, including that of the Queen. We walked and walked until I stopped in front of a freshly painted portrait. “She is the reason that he seeks you.” I pointed to the painting of the Queen that I had done. As expected, Chrysanthemum was speechless and she should have been for the artwork was like a mirror illustrating her features. Turning to face her, I saw her teary eyes and wrinkled face. I knew this was my chance to sway her to my side, so I uttered, “I felt that you deserved to know the truth, so you can find a man that truly loves you.”
          “Wh-why are you showing me this?” she sniffled. “I would have been happier not knowing why he loved me.”
          “Perhaps, there still is hope.” I glanced at the portrait again, hoping that she would be hooked onto this bait.            
          “Hope? What hope do I have to be with him?” She gripped onto my shoulders, almost cutting me with her nails. “What do you even know?”
          I placed my hand over hers, reassuring her, “I may not know your entire romance with Rin, but I do know that . . . there still is an opportunity for you to confirm his love for you.”
          She slapped my cheek while hollering, “An opportunity? You mock—“
          “I mock no one.” I passed her an envelope from my dress’ pocket and answered, “To further answer your question as to why I am telling you this, I can only say that the woman in the portrait . . . ordered me to give you this.” Seeing her clutch the paper, I continued to say, “This invitation to the King’s banquet is your key to understanding everything. Consider this a present from My Lady, and of course, if you wish to know My Lady’s identity, then attend the banquet.”
          I turned my heel and marched back to my chamber. As I entered my room, I sent Marie to escort Chrysanthemum out the palace doors. Then, I took a seat in front of my dresser, looking at my reflection. My cheek was slightly red from her one hit and when the back of my hand grazed my injury, Marie had returned, uttering, “Your Highness! What happened? Did that lady lay a hand on you?” Upon nodding my head, Marie proclaimed, “I knew that woman meant no good! I shall report to the Queen—“
          I grinned and patted her hand. “You shall remain silent about everything. This woman was only upset over the truth.”
          “But, the truth is not yours to blame,” Marie argued. “I will hurry now to fetch you a cold cloth.”
          Yes, the truth was not my fault, yet that red gash still made me seem at fault. Soon, it would heal and return to my normal skin colour. This was unlike a scar, forever reminding us of the past and the pain. This, I would forget. This, I had already used to my advantage.
Chapter 20                                                                            Chapter 22