Who said to fear embarrassment or shame? There was nothing to fear when one was wronged. Surely, the Queen had wrongfully treated me. The evidence from my injured cheek, was too apparent. Not to mention, my sling still attracted various glances from the audience.
          I didn’t dare smile on the exterior though. Instead, I kept my head low and purposely covered my cheek with my hand. More attention, I needed, so I dragged every step I made to the Wisteria Gardens for the banquet, unhesitant of what I was to do. What I hadn’t expected, however, was for him to encounter me first.
          “What is happening with you?” I recognized his voice within seconds as he dragged my other arm, pulling me to a more elusive area by a tall Oak tree that grew alongside the castle wall.
          “What do you mean?” I now looked upwards at Cael, whose eyebrows formed a deep V to show his concern. His hand was trembling while stretching forward to touch my injury. I noticed behind him the person I needed, and so I loudly winced, “Do not touch me!”
          Without delay, my target dashed in my direction and placed his hand on Cael’s shoulder from behind. “What are you doing to your sister?” Saburo barked.
          Saburo, who was a few inches taller than Cael, sported one of the most intimidating frowns I had ever witnessed. The most beautiful man ever lived was now the most frightening one. Cael must have known what I had done for he stared at me once with disappointment before departing. I hadn’t meant to hurt him in that sense, and it was possible that I might have apologized, but I couldn’t, at least not now. I couldn’t explain everything to him; I couldn’t endanger myself further. 
          “Are you all right?” Saburo, curving his back, gently patted my back.
          Instantly, I erupted in tears, sobbing, “R-Rin, Rin.”
          “There, there.”
          He now enveloped his arms around my small body. I never knew he could be so gentle. I never knew I could feel so safe in his arms, almost forgetting my purpose. I was only reminded of what I had to do when I opened my eyes to see the Queen grimacing at me.
          It was then did I let out a tiny whimper, “Oww.”
          “What is the matter?” He backed away to examine me and then he saw my cheek. I knew because his pupils enlarged. “Tell me what happened,” he now demanded.
          Avoiding his eyes, I muttered, “I-I can’t. She will, she will get even madder.”
          “Who is she?”
          At that time, the Queen was still glaring at me with her unwavering eyes. If my eyes followed hers, then his eyes would follow mine. Indeed, he shifted his head for my answer and when he found my answer, he almost leapt to her direction. I couldn’t let him accuse her, not now, so I tugged at his sleeve, begging, “I-I-I’ll tell you what happened, but please do not be enraged at her. It was not her fault. It was mine.”
          Then, he unquestioningly followed me to an area that was not too secluded, yet not too animated for the Queen had to witness everything. Saburo probably had not noticed that there was another pair of legs trailing behind us from a distance. Feeling that the distance away from the crowd was enough, I turned around and instantly sobbed, “She became angry after I enraged the King. I must be a wicked girl! That is why—“
          “No, you are not,” Saburo noted. “You can just apologize—“
          I cut him off and pounded at his stomach region with my fists. “I tried! I tried! But, but she just kept . . . hitting me.”
          I was on my knees with my head down, practically announcing everyone to watch me. Being the gentleman that he was, he kindly stooped one knee to the ground and lifted his hand to stroke my cheek. Although he only placed his palm on my wound, I could sense his earnestness from the sturdiness of his hand. His eyes too were focused and determined for once, almost too determined that I felt a bit guilty for orchestrating this plan. I blinked, letting another tear ripple down my cheek with its cold sensation reminding myself what I had to do.
          “I will speak to her about this,” he uttered. “In fact, we will see to it now.”
          “There is no need. I am already here,” the Queen scoffed with her arms crossed.
          “Your Majesty.” He bowed first, causing her face to become even sterner.
          “You may rise,” she murmured.
          Saburo arose while stating, “It is not suitable for Your Majesty to be treating her own as such.”
          He pointed to my cheek, the evidence. The Queen giggled, covering her mouth elegantly with her fingers. “Evidence? How is this evidence? How can you say that this was my doing?”
          “A child does not lie,” he argued. “A child of your own would not lie.”
          She snickered, “This child . . . of mine, I know too well. A liar, she is and that, you would know nothing about.”
          Saburo shook his head and grunted, “That is what you always say. I know nothing. I do not understand how you feel. I can tolerate those, but I cannot bear what you have done to your own daughter and to Chrysanthemum.”
          “Saburo,” I called out as he forced me to return to the hall, “what happened to Chrysanthemum?”
          He muttered in a disheartening tone, “The Queen summoned her to dance even when her leg was in pain. The Queen knows very well that Chrysanthemum should not be dancing.”
          “Poor Chrysanthemum.” I displayed a notable frown. “But . . . why does the Queen know about Chrysanthemum’s condition? I thought only you knew about it.”
          He explained, “Chrysanthemum was one of the Palace’s servants. The two grew up together, and were rather close until . . .”
          Knowing that he was unwilling to say more, I winced again. “Ouch,” I groaned.
          I wasn’t expecting Saburo to be this aggressive and straightforward. He seemed to be the meek, lackadaisical sort, who only lived to play. I jeered at myself, thinking that sometimes it was possible for the unexpected to occur. It was possible too to have a delightful surprise from time to time.  So, when he held my hand, guiding me towards the King, truth be told, I felt composed again. I could understand why she loved him. It was easy to rely on a frank person, no matter how notorious he was becoming.
          “Your Majesty.” Saburo bowed in a civil manner, in front of the King, who was conversing with the Sorcerer and his other royal subjects. “I apologize for interrupting with such haste, but I must profess something that is of urgency.” I too had showed my obedience by lowering my head, yet hiding behind Saburo.
          There was an immediate silence until the King spoke, “And what would be so important to relieve me of festivities?”
          “It concerns that of the Princess, your daughter, in fact,” Saburo confessed with his head still down. Realizing how drastic this situation could become, I i stepped forward and revealed my face. I hoped that that sight could blind everyone, and could convince all that I was right.
          The King took one step forward before dashing to my side to inspect my cheek. His knees had practically sunken to the ground. It was unlike what a King would do; he lacked grace and sophistication. However, what he lacked, he filled with care, a genuine sort of concern.
          “W-Who did this to you?” he shouted, causing all eyes to be on us. “Who?”
          Even I was afraid of what I was to do, and so I gulped and took a deep breath before pointing my finger at the Queen. “H-h-her,” my voice cracked in a whisper upon witnessing her glare. I could understand why she would become astounded. Her own daughter from her skin and her bones was betraying her.
          “The servant?” The King had wished not to confirm my accusation, however, Saburo murmured in the King’s ears, prompting the King to almost thrash.
          The Sorcerer, however, gently reminded, “Your Majesty, perhaps, it would be better to remove ourselves from this banquet momentarily.” The King nodded, and then left the Sorcerer in charge for the time being. “You know what needs to be done,” the King added before signalling Saburo and me to follow him. He subsequently added to his royal guard, Sir Nathaniel, who was also the King’s childhood friend, “Call for the Queen.”
          This was the start of the revolting truth of my life, which was escalating downwards from here. The Queen had never appeared more serene. She walked forth with no signs of hesitation or apprehension. She walked like an innocent victim, as if this were a witch hunt. They have said that a person would be the most at ease when facing immense danger, and that had to have been true.
          “You called for me, Your Majesty?” She too curtsied.
          “There is no need for formalities now,” he scowled. He was situated in his high throne, virtually untouchable. “I don’t want to prolong this for rumours would spread, but I do want to know the truth. So, my Queen, say if you have done this to our daughter.”
          His index finger directed at me, causing her to drop to her knees while sobbing, “No! How could you accuse me of such a crime?”
           “Then, tell me what happened.”
          “I do not know, Your Majesty.” She cried even harder and louder. “Ghislaine has been out of my grasp ever since conversing with Cael and these princes.” She had glared at me once while continuing her act, prompting me to shiver.
          “If that were so, then I shall release her from your grasp, and place her under Nestor’s guard,” the King remarked.
          The Queen now shrieked and thrashed her hands out. “You cannot do this to me! You cannot take away my children!” She then leapt towards me and proceeded to strangle me. “It is all your fault! You killed my daughters! You!”
          Daughters.
          I hadn’t understood then that my birth was preceded by the death of many others and if I had known, then perhaps, I would not have tormented her in that manner. I might have even learned to love her as I should have to a mother. I might have even obeyed her every command to compensate what had happened, but I didn’t for I was ignorant. I had forgotten that for each, there was a story.
          If Saburo hadn’t been behind me, and hadn’t pulled me away, the Queen’s arms would have seized my neck. I would have been killed within an instant. She was powerful, mentally and physically. Just as he dragged me away from danger, the King’s royal guard had clutched the Queen’s wrist and pinned her to the ground.
          “I’m sorry, Your Highness,” he muttered. “I cannot permit you to harm the Princess. Those were the King’s orders.”
          She shrilled in laughter with tears gushing out from her eyes. “So . . . even in the end, he will do whatever it takes to protect himself from his fated death. Hahahaha, Desiderium was right! Sooner or later my lord, you will receive what you’ve owed! Hahahaha, I rejoice! I rejoice!”
          She kept laughing despite being carried away by other guards.
          The King’s face had grown pallid with his eyes gaping in fear before bellowing to another guard. “Call for Nestor. Hurry!”
          Then, he beckoned Sir Nathaniel to come forth and then whispered, presumably, some instructions.
          “Yes, Your Majesty.” Sir Nathaniel nodded. “I will do all that is necessary to obtain what you seek.”
          As soon as he proceeded to exit the room, Nestor had arrived in a majestic manner for he was accompanied with a few other guards. Sir Nathaniel showed his respect to the great Sorcerer by bowing before leaving.
          Then, Nestor inquired, “What stirs you, Your Majesty?”
          Before the King answered, Saburo and I were commanded to leave the room. The King had signalled the guards to lull us away from the scene. I could feel curiosity surging in my mind, probing me to investigate. I sighed, knowing that there was no way I would know what was happening behind those doors for there were always guards. The King’s heart was too well-guarded, reminding me of what Ichiro had said. There was no purpose in winning that game for even when there was an answer, the answer might not have been the truth.  
          Now that I thought of it, this whole occasion seemed too absurd. It was absurd for the Queen to threaten me. It was absurd for her to behave in this fanatical manner. Had she been seeking for revenge? If I were to blame, then why hadn’t she murdered me? Why had she agreed to educate me? Was I still the reason for her insanity? Perhaps, what shoved her to irrepressibility was a series of small thoughts that gradually peeled away all of her reason, and her morals. Even after I had learned of everything, I sometimes wondered if she had truly become insane as everyone now believed. Could it be that she had only followed what her heart desired?
          I would only know of the danger of solely selecting one extremity over the other after encountering that forbidden name. Forbidden or not, she still had taught me one lesson. Whether it was governing by one’s heart or by one’s mind, there needed to be a balance.
          Had I lacked that balance?
          How many years had it been now, I wondered as I looked out the window of my chamber. After the King had sentenced the Queen to be confined in her part of the palace, and had deemed her too ill to attend matters of the state, I lived under the care of Nestor and Marie. Nestor was responsible for my studies, while Marie looked after my day-to-day activities. The King had purposely assigned me to Ghislaine’s room. Marie had told me that ever since Ghislaine had passed away, this room had remained untouched and no one else was allowed to live here without the King’s and the Sorcerer’s permission.
          The first time I entered the room, I saw that it was dustless, too flawless. Ghislaine did not seem like a flamboyant girl for there were barely any decorations or even paintings that typically graced the walls. She lived as a minimalist, sporting only the necessities, such as a cedar wooden-framed bed lined with beige linens, a velvet red lounge chair placed beside a wooden coffee table at the centre of the room, a wooden closet to the left of the bed, and a golden crested make-up parlour paired with a large, oval-shaped mirror. What attracted me to this room was not its simplicity. Instead, I was drawn to the cushioned seating area constructed like a sofa merging with the colossal glass windows that seemed to reach the high ceilings. Somehow though, I felt I had seen everything before.
          I didn’t think much when I pushed the velvet, burgundy curtains to examine the view. “This is a great addition to the chamber! You can see everything from here.”
          Without a doubt, this chamber was situated in the corner of the palace and was located at the highest floor, eighth. A corner view meant that I could even see the city’s view, along with the gardens. For once, I felt liberated, and plopped my bottom onto the soft, bouncy seat. Stretching my arms, I murmured, “It would nice if I could do some reading here.”
           “The Sorcerer specifically instructed me to construct a book shelf beneath this seating.” Her fingers pointed to the area around my legs and so I bent down to find a row of books.
          “How did he know?”
          “Apparently, the most Beloved Princess had always read her favourite novels here, but never had the place to store them. The Sorcerer said he needed to fulfill a promise he had made with her.”
          The most Beloved Princess was name that the former King had given Ghislaine for her achievements; she too was supposedly the most popular royal member among court and among commoners.
        I lightly scoffed, “She has passed away for so long. How could he have possibly made arrangements with her?”
          “Princess! You mustn’t say such matters!” Marie sputtered. “The Sorcerer is one of the few that still remembers his prior agreements from the past! If only we could . . . remember, then . . .”
          “Then?”
          “Then, we could cultivate the future. It has been said that only have you made amends with the past, can you shape your own future,” Marie explained. “The problem is that none of us remember.”
          Her words resonated in my mind from time to time, especially when I stared out the window. I had acquired a habit of looking from that lofty window whenever I was to leave the room. I didn’t understand why at that time.
          Old habits were hard to forget. The past too for me was hard to forget. I always smiled to myself when wondering about what she had. It seemed silly to connect with a past that did not even exist, yet this belief of reincarnation was instilled throughout the kingdom. Even Nestor, who could be recognized as a sage, had faith in this idea. He was making amends with his past, and with Ghislaine. This made me speculate his relationship with her. What had he done to that lady? Was this why he had accepted to be my caretaker? To atone for his potential crimes?
          “Your Highness,” Marie interrupted my thoughts, “it is time for class. You would not want to keep Prince Cael waiting.”
          I hopped off the seat and brought along my leather bag filled with a few books. Nestor had instructed us to read of the history of the Kingdom; he had specifically warned me to focus on Ghislaine’s role. There was not much to learn about her, aside from her basic relationships. She was the only heir of King Raul II. She was close friends with Duke Gourdon’s son, Raphael. It was also rumoured that they had a secret love affair, but there was no evidence to support this. Then, there was nothing written until Ghislaine had agreed to marry the Emperor of Kosei. After that portion, I had stopped reading. It seemed too banal to read about someone’s autobiography, particularly hers.
          Ghislaine this. Ghislaine that. No more, I had thought once I slammed the novel’s cover. Sometimes, I wondered if Nestor wanted me to recall the past so I could be her again. In the future, when he had a mouthful of wrinkles and I was beginning to age, I would remember asking him once, “Did you know then?”
          He had then given me a cheery chuckle while pouring some tea into my cup. “No, no one knows for sure.” Then he had looked straight into my eyes, greeting me with a smile. “I would never have guessed that you would have chosen this route. If it were Ghislaine, then she probably would have . . . Ah, who knows what she would have done this time?”
          I had grinned, “I know what she would have done.”
          “What?”
          “She would have done the same as me,” I had answered with assertion.
          “And what makes you think that?” He had slurp loudly as always with tea.
         What made me think of such things . . . I did not know yet, but I was certain that I had made the right choices. I was making my own choices, not hers. The start of my choice, frankly, began with severing my times with the Queen. With her supremacy diminishing and her presence disdained throughout court due to the vast rumours circulating about her abusing me, she was futile.  She had become a simple lady, waiting for her death and wilting along with time. Even Saburo did not visit her for he knew that she had gone mad, had become too obsessed with power. Then, love . . . was not so strong after all.
          No one dared to approach that courtyard. No one, except for Cael and me. It wasn’t intentional for us to walk past the iron-fenced area. It was along the way to Nestor’s home, which resembled a barn, a barn of books and potions. For several years now, Cael and I were given private lessons for the King worried for Cael’s declining health. It was more that he didn’t want others to know about Cael’s illness as rumours could spread.
          “Perhaps, you shouldn’t have done that,” Cael suddenly muttered.
          What had been an exquisite rose garden had now become a mesh of stinging needles, barring anyone from entering. There used to be a scent of life with the flowers blossoming and the butterflies flying, but now, there was only the smell of rotting death.
          “I did not do anything,” I murmured. He looked down at me and then increased his pace. He was still disappointed in me. I could tell fairly easily for he rarely spoke to me unless forced or needed. I hardly crossed paths with him at the pool; it seemed as though he never swam again. I blurted too quickly, “I did not mean it. I thought she would be mocked, not . . . treated this way. Plus, she was always being mean to you.”
          He stopped to turn around and state, “She has every right to hate me for we have little in common, but that does not mean that I have every right to hate her for she is still whom I consider my mother.”
          I knew I should have accepted his explanation, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t admit that she was my mother. She was not who had raised me, who had cared for me. She was only someone had given birth to me. I knew my own mother well enough. “No,” I stammered too hastily, “you are wrong. I would never consider her my mother.”
          Then, he walked a few steps towards me and subsequently slapped my face. I could still hear the sound ringing in my ears with my palm covering my cheek. “You have no shame,” he sighed. I couldn’t believe what was happening; I was too stunned to even consider believing. He was the one that I had least expected to hurt me, yet he dared to do so. In utter disbelief, I ran away even though I heard him call frantically, “Ghislaine! You cannot go there!”
          No matter how many shouts, yells, screams I heard from him, I ignored them all. The more he beckoned me to return, the faster I ran. I didn’t want to obey anymore. I didn’t need him to tell me what was right or wrong. I was old enough to know and by the time I returned to my senses, I glanced around my surroundings and then realized what he had meant. This was the Hallow Woods, the King’s hunting grounds. It was known to have the most magnificent creatures, yet also to host the eeriest situations. It was a place where men tested their bravery to win the King’s favour. It was certainly not a place for a young lady.
          The last thing I heard was a woman’s slithery voice.“My, my, what brings you here, my little girl?”
Chapter 24                                                                            Chapter 26


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