When I returned to the Palace, I was faced with an angered face, a worrisome one, and multiple inquisitive ones. The Queen kept glowering at me whenever she could. If it weren’t for Kuro’s blatant lie about how I had fallen while trying to learn how to ride a horse from him, the Queen would have banished me again. The King, on the other hand, didn’t even care if we had lied, and was happy that I was befriending a Koseian Prince. The King even had that happy smile, the sort that grandparents wore when they saw their grandchildren, and I knew exactly what he was thinking. He still had the audacity to say, “My dear child, perhaps, Prince Kuro would be a fine choice as your . . .”

          I tuned out whatever the King had said. I would never marry that sort of person, who would use anyone or anything that was to his advantage. I didn’t need someone with my mind and heart. I just needed someone to complement me, and if that someone didn’t exist, then that didn’t matter. I just needed to live well.
          Living well at the castle was not so easy anymore. Everyone at the Palace was extremely intrigued by my sling. There were so many stories created by others to explain this wound. It felt as if the gossipers’ thoughts ricocheted from the castle walls. Corner to corner, I saw people pass by me and then whisper in each other’s ears. Yes, whisper all you like, I said to myself. I was on my way to call upon Cael to attend the breakfast that marked the start of the King’s birthday. Afterwards, there would be a luncheon followed by a banquet at the Gardens.
          I was to walk beside Cael to welcome the guests at the entrance of the breakfast hall. Cael was supposed to meet me at the door to my chamber; it was unlike him to be tardy. Dressed in a layered tulle gown in tea green with a sweetheart neckline, I marched to Cael’s chamber. My silky ribbon, which had a Leogarto stitched in gold at the front, was tied to the back. With this crest, there was nothing to fear in this world. This . . . this was my right of birth. So, I was undaunted by those that gawked at me.
          Standing now in front of the tall mahogany doors stationed by two wooden pillars, I knocked twice on his door. “Are you there, Cael?” I asked after a moment of silence. I pressed my ear beside the door, hoping to hear a muffle or a whisper. I heard coughs, continuous coughs, so I knocked again and again. “Cael, are you there? Are you all right?”
          No one answered. I didn’t know why I felt so desperate to enter the room. I didn’t know why I cared if he was well. I just remembered pounding the door with my two small fists until they were tainted crimson. Then, I pressed down at the door’s handle in the shape of a Leogarto’s jaw with jagged teeth running through the center of the golden piece. With a push and a click, the door miraculously opened. I stepped in, not knowing where I was heading towards, not knowing how I was already changing my future. People have told me that all it took was one choice, one word, or one action to alter one’s life. For me, it must have been that step to his world.
           It only took one step and one glance to recognize that he was suffering from an illness. He was using one of his hands to cover his mouth while the other was pressing on a tall bookcase situated beside the stained glass windows and their velvet red curtains.
          “G-g-get out!” he hollered in between his coughs. I could see the scarlet liquid splattering from his mouth. It was blood. Could it have been tuberculosis?
          “No, I’m not going away,” I retorted. “You are not well. We should seek a physician.”
          At this point, I was merely inches away from him, and so with his frail hand, he tugged at my sleeve. “Do not . . . Do not . . . I will be fine. I-I-I just n-n-need time. Just give me s-s-some more time.”
          This was the first time I had seen him in such distress. His white collar was thoroughly unbuttoned to reveal his pale chest and tiny bite marks on his neck. Those had to have been the doings of leeches. Leeches were thought to release the malicious part of blood from the body. They were part of a tradition that I refused to follow, but many still practiced.
          He looked like he would collapse, yet with his own determination, he held onto the bookcase. When I tried to grasp onto his arm, he pushed me away. This was his own fight, he seemed to tell me. He didn’t need my pity; he didn’t understand though that I never pitied him. Instead, I . . .
          Blindness, it must have been that that caused me to be too concerned with his physicality. I must have been blinded by the idea of time as well; time was passing too slowly for me. Time was relative, however, and there was surely an expiry date to most parts of life. So, I only watched him stagger to his bed before toppling on his emerald linen blanket. 
          I didn’t dare admit my concerns and instead, I exited his room. Knowing Cael, he wouldn’t have wanted me to see him at his weakest. He had a reputation that could not be ruined and I respected that. Everyone had a set of principles and one of his was to lead a life of perfection. Maybe, that was how he needed to survive, so I allowed him to survive.
          “Where is Cael?” the Queen demanded at the entrance of the hall. She instantly frowned once she saw that I was alone. The Prince had to be present with the Princess. These were obligations and more importantly, rules.
          A rustic voice echoed from behind. “I’m here.”
          I turned to find Cael adjusting the ruffled cuffs to his sleeves. He was dressed in similar attire as before, except he was stained black from head to toe. His cutaway tailored coat was layered over a waist-length satin, but such layers were indistinguishable due to their dark dyes. The only exception to his dark dress code was his somewhat unbuttoned silk dress shirt, which lacked the family bow. His bow was still resting side by side on his shoulders.
          These were the signs of a tardy person and the Queen certainly was not thrilled to view them. “I suggest you button your shirt before more guests arrive. I pray that you do not disappoint me or the King, like you always do,” she grumbled.
          “Yes, Your Highness.” He courteously bowed as her long trailing dress passed him, especially grazing the top of his feet. This must have been a habit for him, lowering his head for her. At my height, I could clearly see the antagonism blazing his eyes, but once he met my gaze, I saw his fury dissipate to tenderness. With a familiar smile, he greeted me, “It’s good to see you again.”
          His voice was unwavering and steady, unlike a moment ago. It seemed unfeasible for him to recover so quickly. It seemed surreal for him to be walking towards me with a smile. Noticing his still disoriented shirt, I mumbled, “You should adjust your shirt. The Queen is already in a foul mood.”
          “She is always in a foul mood with me.” He cackled while listening to my suggestion. I watched him swiftly and adeptly form a bow with a piece of fabric along his neck. It suddenly occurred to me how bare his neck seemed. If memory served me right, then there should have been bite marks. There were none. Could it be make-up? Did men even wear make-up here?
          “What happened—“
          “What happened to your arm?” Cael interrogated with concern fastened to his voice. I should have been the one that asked, not him. Why was he always a step ahead of me?
          I shrugged with a lie. “I just fell. That is all.”
          I did not want him to inquire further. There was no need for others to know what had happened between Kuro and me. This was probably the first secret that I had kept from him. No, it had to be the second, but it would be the start of many more to follow.
          Once he furrowed his eyebrows, I was aware that he knew that I was lying. “Tell me who hurt you,” he insisted and at that moment, gripped my uninjured arm. One squeeze told me that he truly cared and that one squeeze almost impelled me to utter Kuro’s name.
          “You’re hurting me,” I winced.
          Immediately, he loosened his steady hand and apologized, “I’m sorry. I do not know why I am behaving like this.”
          “It is fine. It is fine to be worried . . . about me.”
          Was it so challenging for me to express concern or relate myself to compassion? Hesitation, hesitation, I was unsure of what was conflicting my mind and my heart. A pause, it must have been the pause that had stunned me.
          Cael shook his head and stared at me. “You must care for whomever that hurt you.”
          “I have my reasons, just like you have many of yours.”
          “My reasons.” He now glanced at the ceiling. “My reasons only concern myself.”
          “Mine as well.”
          Perhaps, this would mark the beginning of many arguments with Cael. Because there were such annoyances as emotions, we quarrelled. Because there were such emotions as sadness, happiness, and even love, we absolved all problems, but because there were responsibilities, we never forgave each other.
          Still, even among those struggles, we would still follow our obligations. No one was to notice our discordance, and so, we seated ourselves appropriately. I was seated directly across from Saburo, yet diagonally from Kuro and Ichiro. Unfortunately, I was separated from Theo, who could have formed various expressions to entertain me, and Trenton, who could have humoured me with his bickering with Theo in the form of gesticulations. Perhaps, Verrill had predicted how destructive those two could be together, so he placed himself in between the two. It was also logical for him to be seated with his fiancée.
          I had to admit that I had been amused once due to the fact that Trenton still had not recognized me as Ren. At the entrance of the hall, he was especially timid with his cheeks painted cherry-tomato. His anxiety was impossible to conceal for his shoulders were obtrusively tense, which only made his bow-tie seem too flamboyant for his figure. He wasn’t the sort suited for formal attire. Moreover, he even managed to almost trip over his sheep-skin boots as he greeted me formally with a kiss to my hand. A man never stumbled his own feet.
          My amusement, however, diminished all because of this seating arrangement. I was, thus, placed beside Cael, and Raul, who wore a repugnant violet bowtie and equally matching blazer and trousers. Raul kept elbowing or pestering me in some form. He would purposely slip his food to my side, trying to stain my gown. A stained gown signified a disorderedly eater. A disorderedly eater denoted a person sans manners. If this were a fight he wanted, then I would counter him as well. Using the heel of my boots, I remembered from time to time to stomp on his toes. Then, I would smile at him, who held a repulsive look.
          “What is the matter, Raul?” the Queen noted with an infamous frown. “Is something concerning you?”
          Raul could only grit his teeth and lie in a smothering tone, “Nothing is concerning me.”
          I added, “Then that is horrid if nothing is concerning you. Heavens, have you forgotten the reason for our being here?”
          Immediately, his face flustered beet red, highlighting his many freckles splattered all over his face like squashed tomatoes.
          “No, I have not forgotten!” he managed to sputter, spitting out chunks of bread crumbs on Ichiro’s face.
          All of us adolescents couldn’t help giggling, and somewhat pitying Ichiro, who was instantly served with a cotton napkin to wipe his face. It seemed that the only ones that didn’t laugh were Cael and Kuro. I didn’t see a morsel of emotion chiselled on Kuro’s face; there was merely a basic grin, a recipe of formality. As for Cael, I didn’t hear his distinct cackle. He was ever so unspoken, too composed, which made me question if he was irritated with my behaviour. Was he angry at me for not telling him the truth or was he frustrated with my childishness?
          The Emperor of Kosei, Emperor Koyagi Katsuo, sensed the potential dissension, so he gracefully commented, “Ah yes, we certainly have not forgotten why we are gathered here. I propose that these gifts be given in celebration of your anniversary.”
          Once he snapped his fingers, his loyal servants, who were clad in emerald coloured gowns, entered with wooden treasure boxes filled with jewels and fortune. My eyes glistened at the sight of such prizes. This, this emperor was certainly generous. He was unlike his sons; he reminded me of a gentle, old willow tree, especially with his long, wispy beard. He appeared full of wisdom, like Ichiro, and had arching eyes equating tranquility and steadiness, which somehow reminded me of Kuro. However, the Emperor’s gaze was much gentler, much happier compared to Kuro’s. Perhaps, the Emperor’s complexion, which was milky white like Saburo’s, was what made him seem more welcoming.
          “You must not,” the King insisted. “It is already my pleasure to invite you here. Surely, you must know that treasures are too prized to concern me. I am a simple man, who prefers jests, jokes, and puzzles galore.”
          “Ah, how could I forget?” Emperor Koyagi laughed, creating creases along his eyes. “Because I could not forget, I have prepared a game.” Every movement of his was graceful and harmonious like that of a midnight lullaby.
          “Oh? Enlighten me.” The King now smiled.
          Emperor Koyagi shifted his gaze to Ichiro, who was stiff to his bones. “Perhaps, I should let my son, Ichiro, enlighten you for he is the creator of such an idea.”
          “I would gladly be honoured to do so,” Ichiro immediately regained his composure and cleared his throat. “The objective of the game is to find a hidden prize. The prize will be determined by your majesty, but the clue to the prize remains the same.”
          Now, I was intrigued.
          “And that is?” the King asked what we were all wondering.
          Ichiro posed one of the age old questions, “What does your heart truly desire?”
          He stated this with complete confidence, which was in discordance with his beige, dull robes. He should have been clad in a vivid shade, but being Ichiro, he chose to the fundamental parts of life. He chose to dress simply, not lavishly.
          The King continued to verify, “So, are you proposing that I select an object that I treasure the most and that others hunt for such an object?”
          “Yes, they would need to bring the object to you,” Ichiro affirmed.
          “And where would I hide my prized possession?”
          Ichiro astonishingly grinned, “Anywhere your heart desires.”
          And so the game began  . . . 
          We needed to find what the King’s heart desired. Perhaps, it wasn’t the prize that attracted so many people. It was the potential of being recognized by the King. It was a way of flaunting that one understood the King the most. Who wouldn’t love power or reputation?
Chapter 21                                                                            Chapter 23