There were hoards of people scourging, bending their heads up and down, thinking, pushing, and eventually, presenting their findings to the King, who now sat in his regal chair. The desire for awards activated the animalistic, barbaric side of them. Simply put, it was a stampede of overtly hungry buffaloes. Where was I then? I was walking around the palace, pondering. There wasn’t any incentive for me to find the King’s desire. What would a King desire?

          He had everything that everyone dreamed of acquiring. With one look, he could receive a token. With a snap of his fingers, he could murder anyone he despised. That was if he were a tyrant. Because he was not, it seemed unlikely for him to desire more power. It didn’t seem as though anything was missing from his life.
          Surprisingly, I wandered to the doorsteps of my classroom. I had not entered this place for such a long time thanks to the Queen. Nostalgia. Perhaps that was what attracted me back to this location. It seemed inconceivable that the doors would fling open. It seemed incomprehensible that the Sorcerer would be lounging in his chair with his arms crossed, yet there he was.
          “I’ve been expecting you,” he commenced the conversation.
          “How did you know that I would be here?” I asked.
          “I didn’t receive the name, Sorcerer, for no reason.”
          I inched forward with much hesitation. “Y-you can see the future?”
          He grinned and then stood up. When his fingers curled inwards, my body flew forwards, stopping just a foot away from him. “There’s no need to be shy,” he added. “Renelle.”
          I didn’t know what to say. Could it be that I heard the wrong name being called? He steadily repeated, “Renelle, don’t be surprised that I know about your real name. It really shouldn’t come as a revelation now.”
          “If you know about me, then do you know why I’m here?” I immediately linked the thought of my presence with his knowledge of my name. Maybe, he was who Marie had said was her mother in my time; after all, reincarnation didn’t necessarily keep people the same gender.
          He shook his head and took a seat at the edge of his cluttered table. “That I do not know. I can only surmise that your soul was attracted to this world.”
          I let out a disappointed sigh. “How can that be?” I then inquired.
          Stroking his long beard, he remarked, “I’m rather shocked that you do not know this common knowledge. I guess the Queen would rather you not remember.”
          In utter confusion, I asked, “Remember what?”
          “Your past,” he continued to explain while folding his arms in a concerned manner. “The past, the present, and the future are essentially the same for each person. Most people, though, do not recall their past lives. It would be drastic if they did. Anyhow, each person has a soul and at the end of each life, they can be placed into different dimensions, worlds. It depends on what our soul seeks.”
          “So, are you saying that to understand why I am here, I need to understand what my soul seeks?” He simply nodded, prompting me to scoff, “My life is a game then, like this pathetic game?”
          I was never an avid fan of games and riddles. They were for those that had too much time on their hands to do anything substantial, like . . . him. He used to ask me the same question every morning: “I have this great riddle. You have to solve it, okay?”
          “Here’s a good one. If you break me, I do not stop working. If you touch me, I may be snared. If you lose me, nothing will matter,” Thayne said while driving me to university.
          “Just tell me the answer then,” I grumbled, already tired from waking up so early to accompany him to class.
          “But this one is easy,” he argued, “and you’re taking the fun out of riddles by making me tell you the answer before you even think of it yourself.”
          I chose to ignore him, and pretend to sleep. Only when he noticed that I was being too silent, he brushed his fingers through my hair. “My heart,” he whispered. “Don’t make me lose it. Don’t make me question what my heart seeks.”
          “No,” the Sorcerer corrected, “you are not looking for what your heart desires. You are looking for what your soul desires. Those are two different elements.”
          I could have accused him of lying, but instead, I maintained my temperament and asked, “How is the heart different from the soul? They are only metaphorical terms.”
          For the sake of winning an argument, it was important for one to remain composed. No one would be persuaded by an infuriated being for all the words would be twisted by such a heavy emotion. Reason, yes, reason triumphed anger in this case.
          “Let me give you an example.” He pensively stroked his beard. “When you are happy, it is your heart that guides you to happiness. When you somehow do something that you didn’t expect or when you suddenly display some unexpected emotion, that . . . that is your soul guiding you. Your soul is a mélange of all of your past lives’ hearts.”
          His explanation seemed too surreal. Nothing sounded plausible according to the world I used to know. “W-why do I remember myself as Renelle?” I pondered. “Why do I not remember any other ones?”
          Every life was supposed to be a fresh slate, not one already cluttered with figures and drawings as those only inflicted pain. Pain layered on pain, simply from reminders, and I didn’t need to know that there was a reason to explain why some would choose to hurt others.
          The Sorcerer enlightened, “If I am creating a dish, I add seasoning or spies to it. I may even add other ingredients, but there is a predominant taste.”
          Analogies were truly creations of the artists. I would have enjoyed them if they were in novels, not based on my life. “You are implying that there is a predominant soul for every life?” I verified.
          “Yours just happens to be ‘Renelle’,” he added. “It’s probably better this way for you to be Renelle, rather than Ghislaine or some other form. But . . . it would be better for the country if Ghislaine were awakened.”
          Ghislaine this, Ghislaine that. It felt like my life was tied to this Ghislaine. I didn’t choose for this to happen. I didn’t want this association. Why then, I wondered, why couldn’t I choose the life I wanted to lead?
          “Why do you say that?”
          He exhaled a grand breath before remarking, “In time, Renelle, you will understand. In time, you will dream. Then, the choice will be yours to make.”
          “What choice?” I questioned. Nothing really seemed to be my preference and frankly, I was never a supporter of maturity and time. Perhaps, experience could be gained and therefore prompting self-reflection. Maturity was not directly correlated to age for me. Dreams . . . certainly were dreams. Ideals of nothing. Pointless to their origins.
          His smile seemed to welcoming. “Will you choose love, freedom, patriotism, power, family, or friendship?”
          “Even you cannot predict this?” I snubbed.
          “I can foretell many things, but I cannot predict choices,” he explained. “Even if I did tell you, I would only influence your decision. I do not want to be culpable for an undesirable life. I will offer you a warning however.”
          “Which is?”
          “When you start to dream, do not become too involved with your past life. Do not use the past to pave the present, merely use it as a reference,” he stated too calmly. “Now, I suppose it is time for you to return to the game. I do believe you know the answer already. Boring as it may be for him to use that answer.”
          “I do not have the answer.”
          He smiled again with an insightful look. “Then you already have the answer.”
          Now that I thought of it, he probably also meant that I already had the answer to my life. When faced with problems, I already knew what to do. The choices were certainly mine to make; my mind comprised Renelle, not Ghislaine, although . . . dreams could prove otherwise. Nothing meant everything. To not have an answer was the key, but what could possibly relate to nothing? Moreover, what did the Sorcerer mean by choices? Nothing seemed to be sensible.
          Now sitting on the hefty branch of a willow tree, I thought and thought.
          “Is something wrong, Princess Ghislaine?” I looked down to find a precarious-looking Ichiro gawking at me. It probably wouldn’t have been socially acceptable for a girl to be up in a tree, and knowing him, he would think that, yet he would not directly translate that thought into spoken words. He wasn’t like Verrill, who would condemn someone, even a child, for improper behaviour. 
           “N-nothing. I just like . . . thinking.” My voice echoed with the wind as my cheeks flustered. That reason was deplorable, but it was the best I could muster.
          “Would you care to share what you were thinking?” He now walked towards me, taking a spot in front of the tree’s trunk. He even leaned his back against the sturdy trunk, showing that he was here to listen.
          I sighed, knowing that I could not reject his politeness. “I was . . . thinking of the future,” I confessed.
          “You’re still young,” he noted. “There’s still much time for you.”
          “No,” I declared, “there isn’t much time. Every step . . . counts.”
          Unexpectedly, Ichiro glanced upwards and mumbled, “You should enjoy your childhood while you can. Certainly, do not be like Saburo in the future.”
          “I would love to have a childhood if I could,” I strangely admitted. This was probably one of those rare truths I would tell. Perhaps it was because Ichiro had a sense of equality, and integrity, the sort that would guard spoken secrets.-
          “Ah, palace life destroys us all,” he murmured in a dejected tone. “At least your future hasn’t been paved yet.” He glimpsed at me with a weak, yet tender smile.
          “I am expected to marry a Koseian Prince one day. Tell me how my future has not already been chosen.”
          My fists were curled together, and I felt my anger surge through my chest. I shouldn’t have been so agitated, but I couldn’t resist it. Life was too . . . certain. Just like before, everyone had expected that Thayne and I married, that I would lead a serene life as a housewife, but when those expectations never materialized, I was left with nothing. I would have preferred not knowing what would happen because I would have never anticipated anything.
          Ichiro again took a deep breath before answering, “Marriages are always going to be pre-destined. It is what you make of your marriage that is alterable. Besides, you know most of my family already, so if you married one of us, then it should not be that awful.”
          Noticing the slight sadness in his eyes, I stammered, “I-I did not mean to say that your brothers and you were awful. I mean, I am lucky enough that I was born a Princess, that I am not a peasant . . . I am lucky enough to be . . . living, but—“
          “People become greedy,” he interrupted with such smoothness that it was as if we were rehearsing lines from a play. “You have enough, but you want more.”
          Ichiro was a man of ambition and judging by his statement, I could imply what he wanted. He wanted to be the ruler of his country, the emperor. “I think you can achieve your goal,” I announced. “I think you would be a great Emperor.”
          He looked up again, but this time with a joyous smile that was adjoined with a small scoff. “Thank you, but is it that evident what I want?”
          “What else would you want?” I giggled. “I do not think you would be chasing after love, like Saburo, or you would want wealth when you already have much of it. But . . . I do not think you would the sort to crave power as well. You just want to do what is right.”
          He lightly laughed aloud. “For a little girl, you know much about people.”
          “It must be because I am surrounded by diverse people!” I pretended to be innocent.
          For a while, he didn’t reply until he decided to say, “I envy your happiness.”
          “There is happiness and there is sadness,” I explained. “They are interchangeable. Right now, there is no need to be sad. In fact . . . I should thank you.”
          He asked with much confusion, “For?”
          “For reminding me that there is time,” I publicized and looked onwards past the trees, and towards the sky. “There is still time before I am married, before I need to make serious decisions even though mistakes are inevitable. I just need to know how to fix them and for now, I will . . .  do whatever pleases me.”
          “That seems like a formidable plan,” he agreed. “Just be careful, but do not be too careful.”
          I chuckled, teasing, “You are like jumbo shrimp.”
          He blinked a few times. “Jumbo shrimp? What is that?”
          An oxymoron, I wanted to utter, but surely, he wouldn’t understand. Explanations were unnecessary at times; it was better to be the knower than the educator. He didn’t need to know why I found his phrase amusing for it would have spoiled my amusement, and it would have been trivial. So, I lied, “It is a very, very, very small fish-like creature, but it is very, very big for its species.”
          “Interesting.” His hand grazed his chin. “Perhaps, you could show me this ‘jumbo shrimp’ one day.”
          “Gladly, but first I have to finish this game,” I sighed. “Speaking of the game, why are you here?”
          Ichiro shared his sigh, “I was never interested in these types of games, but they need to be created for others.”
          I understood what he meant. He too didn’t care about prizes. Perhaps, it was because he wanted something greater than a prize. “Well, someone has to end this game,” I murmured. “If only . . . I could guess what the King desired.”
          Suddenly, Ichiro asked me, “Why did the mouse hand the cat a piece of cheese?”
          “Because . . . the mouse didn’t want to die,” I saw his eyebrows furrow. “Because it was a . . .”
          I almost fell off the tree, but luckily my hand grabbed onto a branch. Eyeing the ground, I landed on both my feet, with my body rolling off of my knees. “You knew from the start, did you not?” I wondered. “Why did you not say the answer?”
          He steadily answered, “What is the purpose of winning when one does not have the intention of winning?”
          The implications of winning this game would not have been favourable for him. If he won, then that meant that the nation of Urcis did not even understand their King. That would have brought enough embarrassment for the country and specifically, the King.
          “How . . . did you know?” I decided to continue my investigation. Ichiro couldn’t have known so much about the King; I should have been closer to the King than him.
          He tilted his head upwards, and effortlessly remarked, “Because he is a good King.”
          Good kings sought for the well-being of his country, his people, so it was natural for his heart to have such a desire. However, I wondered if it were possible to completely remove oneself from one’s position, or status, to truly understand what it was one’s heart desired. Games were meant for simple pleasures or simply for shows. He wanted to show that he was a good King, but was that truly out of the goodness of his heart to declare this answer?
Chapter 22                                                                            Chapter 24